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ZB Commodore: Holden’s Aussie influence

Work it: After 100,000km of testing, there is still more work to be done to finetune the Commodore before its February 2018 launch.

Australian engineering team put their stamp on new-generation Holden Commodore

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Holden logo25 Aug 2017

By TIM NICHOLSON

HOLDEN’S engineering team is continuing to work on the first-ever imported Commodore – after already logging some 100,000km of testing – to ensure the vehicle exceeds the expectations of Australian buyers upon its arrival in showrooms early next year.

The ZB Commodore replaces the VF that will be the final Australian-built Holden model when the car-maker shuts its local manufacturing operation in Elizabeth, South Australia, on October 20.

Holden says it has been involved with the development of the new car – based on the Opel/Vauxhall Insignia from Europe and the UK respectively – since the project began about five years ago, feeding information back to Opel’s German headquarters to ensure it has the ride and handling characteristics that Commodore customers expect.

Speaking with GoAuto at a pre-production Commodore drive event at the company’s Lang Lang proving ground (and surrounding public roads) south-east of Melbourne this week, Holden engineering group manager of vehicle development Jeremy Tassone said the engineering and development team had input into a number of key areas to ensure the vehicle would cope well with Australian conditions.

“We started well before there were any physical properties,” Mr Tassone said.

“We were working with data five years ago, looking at what performance we can get, what fuel consumption we can get, whether we have got the content in the suspension to get the ride and the handling that we want, all of those sorts of things.”

Holden lead development engineer for Commodore David Johnson said the original Opel tune of the cars was well received but still required changes.

“We decided after we got our first four-cylinder cars out of Europe, they drove really well but they didn’t quite suit our roads the way we’d like. We took the opportunity and Rob (Holden’s lead dynamics engineer Rob Trubiani) has retuned those.

“Steering has also been locally developed for all variants. There has been some chassis control verification.”

The Commodore has just chalked up 100,000km of testing in Australia, but Mr Tassone said Holden engineers, as well as employees from Holden headquarters in Port Melbourne, still have some finetuning to do before it rolls into dealerships next year.

“All of the electronics and all of the navigation systems, active safety, all of those systems we are doing a lot of local verification on,” he said. “So we are covering lots of miles all throughout Australia, making sure that the navigation is working right, that we have got great radio reception.

“Then we have got this ‘Captured Test Fleet’ program. We have got a fleet of manufacturing validation build vehicles that come over here and get distributed through people in headquarters and other people that work there drive the cars and give feedback about various things, like little quirks and things that they don’t like. And we see what we can tune out.”

Mr Trubiani detailed a number of the key changes over the Opel Insignia on which the Commodore is based.

“We’ve worked on a more direct and responsiveness steering feel to give drivers greater confidence and a more engaging experience behind the wheel,” he said.

“That’s in addition to changing the dampers and suspension tune on both 3.6-litre V6 and 2.0-litre turbo variants so the car feels planted and well balanced.

“The 3.6-litre V6 is a great engine but the surprise package in the range is undoubtedly the 2.0-litre petrol with a nine-speed automatic transmission. Not only is it quicker than our current base model V6, it’s also more frugal.”

GoAuto sampled the new Commodore in October last year in its early stages of development, but this time – 10 months later – the cars we drove were much closer to what we can expect when the finished product hits showrooms floors, although they were still pre-production models.

To highlight the changes made to the Australian-spec Commodore, Holden had some of the Opel-spec versions on hand to test back-to-back with the locally tuned cars, as well as a pair of VFII Commodore V6s to showcase the evolution of the nameplate.

Our first blast was in a hand-built development mule that had bits from a number of other GM cars on it, but the V6 liftback was fitted with the latest suspension tune and, as is the case with all V6 variants, drove all four wheels through the all-wheel-drive system that has been specifically calibrated for the engine.

What is immediately noticeable when hitting the accelerator in the Commodore is the engine note of the V6.

When we drove the new V6-powered Commodore back in October last year, the engine was not one of its strongpoints. It can be difficult to tune a V6 to make a sweet sound, but Holden’s engineers have clearly worked on improving the aural experience.

Those pining for the deeper burble of a V8 will be sorely disappointed, but ZB’s V6 sounds much nicer than the outgoing Commodore V6 and the 2.8-litre V6 Insignia VXR.

Tackling some of Lang Lang’s ride and handling test roads highlighted the capabilities of the new Commodore.

The 230kW/370Nm V6 pulls away eagerly when pushed and has loads of mid-range grunt, which was made evident when the road transformed into a sweeping uphill bend.

Mr Trubiani said the Commodore was tuned for more precise steering as the Opel tune felt a bit loose for the Australian market, and our back-to-back drive of an Opel, a VF and a ZB Commodore revealed the difference.

The ZB Commodore’s steering is crisp and direct and lacks any vagueness, and is perfectly weighted, particularly when compared with the heavy helm of the VF.

Combined with the all-wheel-drive traction, the Commodore goes in the direction it is pointed without hesitation and, when pushed hard through particularly tight bends, it doesn’t skip over loose surfaces nor does it lose its nerve at any point.

There is a surefootedness to the way the Commodore drives and the new chassis is well balanced, ensuring flatness through corners and very little bodyroll.

The V6 engineering mule was fitted with 20-inch Continental tyres, which had a negative impact on ride quality and comfort.

Swapping into a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol front-wheel-drive Sportwagon with 18-inch wheels proved that the local tune for springs and dampers is, for the most part, successful, but the ride feels slightly firmer than the outgoing VFII.

A section of the test route with consecutive deep dips showed that the Holden has more control, whereas the Opel feels too floaty and like it might bottom out over the same section.

A big surprise was just how quick and sprightly the 191kW/350Nm four-cylinder engine is. It feels just as quick as the V6 in a straight line – there is about a one second difference from 0-100km/h – and is a hoot to drive.

Each four-cylinder Commodore is 138kg lighter than the equivalent V6 variant and you can notice the difference. It feels lighter when diving out of a fast corner, but there is definitely some torque steer when you pick up the pace.

It is not as noticeable as some other powerful FWD cars – we are looking at you, Ford Focus ST – and never feels like you are losing control, it just adds a little bit of drama, and not in a bad way.

The turbo-petrol four-cylinder engine and the V6 are matched with a GM-developed nine-speed automatic transmission the turbo-diesel, which we are yet to drive, gets an eight-speed unit.

The nine-speeder is a slick, smooth shifting unit that puts some rival dual-clutch and continuously variable transmissions to shame. It’s a perfect match for both engines and does not hold gears or engage in any annoying quick shifting. It found the right gear every time.

Let’s hope this unit finds its way into other Holden products.

We can’t properly judge the noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) measures of the Commodore just yet as the engineering team are still working on this area.

Some punters will never get over the fact that Holden is no longer offering a V8-powered rear-wheel-drive sedan. But others who keep a more open mind will no doubt be surprised by just how good the new Commodore is.

If you can divorce yourself from the history of the nameplate, the ZB Commodore – at least from our time behind the wheel of the pre-production cars – is an impressive package and should scare the hell out of the strong competition in the segment, such as Ford’s Mondeo, Volkswagen’s Passat and Subaru’s Liberty/Outback.

Kudos must also be given to the local Holden engineering team, led by Mr Tassone. Taking a European-built car and adapting it to suit Australian conditions is no mean feat, and they have done an outstanding job.

We will hold off on a final verdict on the Commodore until the official launch early next year, but this taster has certainly whet our appetite.

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