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First drive: VE sets a new Aussie benchmark

Feat: Bigger, heavier and more powerful, but Omega still uses less fuel.

At last, we get behind the wheel of Holden's VE Commodore Omega sedan

4 Aug 2006

HOLDEN’S new VE Commodore is, without doubt, the best car Australia has ever produced. That’s the unequivocal assessment of the GoAuto team following our first taste of The General’s billion-dollar baby at this week’s first official drive, which over 930km revealed the fourth-generation Commodore – the first model developed completely by Holden since the 1971 HQ – has taken a quantum leap forward in both design and performance.

This week’s drive is the latest component of a two-week, slow-release launch program that began with the unprecedented simultaneous reveal of both the short-wheelbase VE Commodore and the long-wheelbase WM Statesman/Caprice on July 16 and will culminate in the VE sedan’s official release the week after next.

The WM will be released in September, while Holden’s VE ute and wagon workhorses will follow both high-profile (and export-lucrative) sedans on sale in late 2007 and 2008 respectively.

GoAuto plans to roll out detailed first drives of each VE sedan variant over the coming week, beginning today with the volume-selling Commodore Omega.

Unlike other websites that have already published drive impressions of the seven-variant VE Commodore sedan range based on Tuesday’s road drive alone, these will take in yesterday afternoon’s extensive gravel road drive and Lang Lang proving ground testing – in which the VE revealed its greatest strengths.

As previously reported, Omega replaces Executive as the entry-level Commodore variant in the new VE line-up, which opens with a $500-higher pricetag ($34,490) that still doesn’t include air-conditioning. With optional air (add $2000), the Omega price is $36,490 - a $250 increase over Executive – which is far below what many experts predicted.

Also wide of the mark were forecasts of higher fuel consumption, which at base level drops one point to 10.9L/100km and, crucially, now matches Ford’s most basic Falcon.

Given VE is bigger, heavier, more powerful and no more slippery, the Omega’s (slightly) better fuel economy is a significant engineering feat.

Extensive work to reduce frictional losses resulted in a more efficient ZF-sourced, double-isolated and aluminium-cased differential with larger (up from 7.5 to 8.3-inch) crown wheel, bigger new brakes, regulated voltage control to reduce alternator power consumption, increased tyre pressures (from 220kPa to 250kPa) to reduce rolling resistance and a smarter Bosch E77 ECU.

As previously reported, on Omega (and Berlina) that transmission continues to be GM’s US-built 4L60E four-speed, which benefits from a direct input speed sensor to improve shift feel and smoothness, improved launch feel and extensive recalibration.

Also carried over but significantly improved is Holden’s Port Melbourne-built 3.6-litre Alloytec V6, which first appeared in the 2004 VZ Commodore and lost 3kW of peak power for 2006 due to stricter emissions laws. In base (Omega and Berlina) "LE0" guise it now delivers 180kW at 6000rpm (up 8kW) and 330Nm of torque at 2600rpm (up 10Nm).

More importantly, substantial noise, refinement and driveability improvements include a more aggressive pedal map for a livelier and more responsive launch feel, the adoption of the premium Alloytec V6’s variable intake manifold, a new 7.7mm inverted tooth camchain, a newly-tuned harmonic balancer, a new diecast oil pan, the new ECU’s additional digital crank and camshaft position sensors, improved oxygen sensors, new acoustically insulated engine covers and a revised (single exhaust) resonators and muffler design.

Brakes, suspension, steering and wheels are all new, beefier and cutting-edge. Stopping power for V6 is now provided by larger 298mm front and 302mm rear ventilated rotors, grabbed by stiffer twin-piston front and single-piston rear callipers.

13 center imageGone are the last remnants of Commodore’s Opel-designed suspension systems, with the VZ’s semi-trailing arm rear-end replaced by a sophisticated four-link independent suspension at rear, and the MacPherson strut front unit replaced by a new strut design that employs a double-balljointed lower A-arm, which forms a virtual pivot point in a similar way to Ford’s Falcon/Territory front suspension.

Larger wheels (now 16-inch at base Omega level) compliment VE’s all-new rack-and-pinion steering system, which is now mounted ahead of the front axle to deliver better feel and response.

VE rides on a 125mm-longer (now 2915mm) wheelbase that’s almost as long as the current Statesman’s, and also features 33mm-wider (now 1602mm) front and 41mm-wider (now 1618mm) rear wheel tracks.

The vastly bigger tyre "footprint" is housed within an all-new bodyshell that’s more than 50 per cent stiffer than the outgoing VZ’s (with a body frequency of 31 Hertz, compared with 19-20 for the VZ), which improves suspension performance, reduces noise, vibration and harshness levels and gives VE drivers the impression of BMW-style solidity.

The price of Commodore’s torsional strength – and the inherent safety advances that brings – is a kerb weight increase that sees Omega hit the scales at 1690kg – a whole 122kg heavier than the 1568kg VZ Executive.

Front wheels have been moved forward roughly three inches and the rear wheels have shifted rearwards about two inches. The result is vastly shorter body overhangs at both ends - particularly at the front, where former design boss Mike Simcoe’s stylistic demands and crashworthiness targets combined to require the engine to be positioned much further back than it currently is.

Technically, the engine’s position behind the front axle makes the VE a mid-mounted engine design which, along with the boot-mounted battery and a (slightly smaller 73-litre) fuel tank that’s now ahead of the rear axle, contributes to an ideal 50/50 weight distribution for the first time.

Crafted by chief exterior designer Richard Ferlazzo under the director of Holden design boss Tony Stolfo, the VE’s final shape closely resembles the design first sketched (and then built as a full-size clay model) by talented young Holden designer Peter Hughes in 1999.

Far more edgy and angular than the last all-new (VT) Commodore’s curvaceous, organic shape of 1997, the VE exterior succeeds in the double-act of stamping itself as both a logical evolution of the Commodore family shape and as part of General Motors’ current global design language.

For want of a more illustrative design comparison, VE’s overall shape comprises a number of styling cues currently offered by Audi (its coupe-like roofline, taut rear-end and prominent, almost constant-radius wheelarch flares), Mitsubishi’s 380 (tail-lights) and, dare we say it, Ford’s Falcon (headlights).

Quality is a key area of VE’s development, and received renewed focus under the direction of current Holden boss Denny Mooney when he arrived at Fishermens Bend. Mr Mooney demanded tighter panel gaps, from over 3.5mm to a benchmark 3.0mm. New manufacturing processes like a single-piece bodyside panel (similar to that of Mitsubishi’s 380) and a one-piece front-end module further improve quality control.

For the record, VE’s sleek new body is 4894mm long (up just 18mm), 1899mm wide (up a big 57mm) and 1476mm high (up 20mm), while boot space now almost matches Falcon at 496 litres (up 31 litres).

While the latter’s cargo carrying ability is vastly improved by a Falcon-style four-link hinge system that’s doesn’t rob luggage space, Commodore continues to lack the extra cargo-carrying flexibility of a split/folding rear seat.

Controversially, for the first time a space-saver spare wheel is now standard across the Commodore sedan range, replacing the 15-inch steel spare currently offered. A full-size spare is now a $100 option on Omega ($250 for all other variants), with wheel sizes up to the SS V’s 19-inch alloy housed in a new plastic wheel well below the boot floor.

Inside, VE’s completely redesigned interior continues to comprise four-way power driver’s seat adjustment, cruise control, a single-CD Blaupunkt sound system with MP3 compatibility, a trip computer, a five-inch central LCD information screen, four power windows and twin dual-stage front airbags.

Most significantly, ESP stability control is standard across the entire Commodore sedan range for the first time, setting a new Australian standard. The Bosch ESP 8.0 system combines with standard ABS, electronic brake-force distribution and electronic brake assist.

Side and curtain remain optional (as part of a $2000 safety pack that also includes active front head restraints), as is a six-CD stacker ($595), Bluetooth connectivity ($390), higher-riding Country Pack suspension ($330), a power tilt/slide sunroof ($1690), an overhead DVD player ($1290) and metallic paint ($375).

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