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Sportwagon saved by exports

It's a wagon, sport: VE Sportwagon breaks official cover in Sydney.

Holden’s VE Commodore wagon was no certainty - until its export potential emerged

16 Oct 2007

GM HOLDEN has confirmed that its export potential is the major reason for the VE Sportwagon’s being – and that it will have a smaller cargo area than the model it replaces.

As a result, Holden concedes the next-generation Commodore wagon, which officially broke cover at last Thursday’s Sydney motor show opening in the shape of the VE Sportwagon concept, is likely to attract fewer business buyers than the VZ Commodore wagon it replaces – a model it says was one of the world’s biggest wagons.

Ford president Tom Gorman has already stated his delight that Holden has “handed that market to us”, but Holden says that more lucrative sales to private customers, who are expected to be drawn to the lifestyle-oriented VE wagon in greater numbers than before, will more than compensate for the downturn in (less profitable per-unit) fleet sales.

If approved for US exports, the Sportwagon would follow in the footsteps of the VE Commodore SS sedan (to be badged as the Pontiac G8) and, despite reservations about slimmer profits due to the strong Aussie dollar (see separate story), the VE Ute.

“Sportwagon is next cab off the export rank,” a GMH executive told GoAuto. “The Ute is now under study and the wagon will follow it.

“The success in the US of wagons like the Dodge Magnum shows Americans have rediscovered the wagon.

“It’s smaller inside but it will gain with private sales more than what it loses in fleets sales – maybe not in terms of (sales) volume, but definitely in terms of (profit) margins. There was no money in fleet sales anyway.” New GM Holden chairman and managing director Chris Gubbey said that while overall cargo space may be reduced, the practicality of Holden’s wagon will increase.

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“To get the style it’s a matter of balance, but it still has an impressive load space.

“Obviously you’re getting something that I really do believe redefines the wagon segment. If you look at the design, with the rear opening window, the tailgate that opens to almost vertical and the higher platform for the load space – it all makes it exceedingly practical,” he said.

Speaking at the Sydney show last week, design boss Tony Stolfo said Holden is investigating all export opportunities for the vehicle. If given the green light, North America would be the wagon’s first port of call outside Australia and New Zealand.

“We’d love to see it exported,” he told GoAuto. “It has big export appeal. If you look at the (Pontiac) G8… it’s a natural.” While he would not divulge any more details about wagon exports, Mr Stolfo did mention how many he would like to see crossing the Pacific.

“10,000 (units per annum) would be good,” he said.

Mr Stolfo indicated that there are still some legislative and governmental hurdles to overcome before final confirmation can be made of any pending export deal.

Despite it ‘being a natural’, he did reveal that a wagon version of the $1 billion-plus VE program was not an automatic certainty.

“(Initially) there was not a lot of support for it. We had to choose which (of the many VE bodystyle proposals) to run with.” However, Holden’s big brass began to change its corporate mind once it saw early three-dimensional renderings.

“When they saw the full-sized clay model they were convinced,” he said.

Mr Stolfo said that expanding the wagon’s appeal beyond fleet buyers is central to the VE wagon using the sedan’s shorter wheelbase, rather than the long-wheelbase Statesman/Caprice structure that has been the basis of all large Holden wagons since the 1971 HQ, including the outgoing VZ Commodore wagon.

“The market is shifting,” believes Mr Stolfo. “Things like novated leasing are pushing for choice, for more aspirational vehicles. And premium wagons are big. So we need to produce a wagon with loads of functionality but with increased appeal.” While not abandoning the traditional wagon market altogether with a shorter vehicle offering less cargo space, Holden is after the sort of lifestyle-orientated person who might consider a Mazda 6, Subaru Outback or even a BMW 5 Series wagon.

“We needed a sportier design,” he admitted.

A greater female focus was also deemed important, necessitating a more compact design that is easier to park than the last Commodore wagon.

Holden is hoping that the wagon it calls the Sportwagon will score sales from people wary of the growing global backlash against larger SUVs.

“There is a stigma associated with SUVs,” Mr Stolfo said.

“So to launch a new wagon in this timeframe is the right thing to do.

“It will attract sedan and traditional wagon buyers, and it may even pull people out of SUVs,” he added.

Don’t expect VE-AWD

GM HOLDEN has always said the VE Commodore sedan and its utility and wagon bodystyle derivatives are “package-protected” for all-wheel drive, but don’t expect to see an AWD version of the Sportwagon from Holden any time soon.

Asked if an AWD Sportwagon was possible, Holden design chief Tony Stolfo said part of the VE architecture’s flexibility includes the provision for it.

“It’s been designed to take 4WD, with a transfer case moulded into the floor. When you start exporting to cold-climate markets (then) it has international appeal,” he said.

However, Mr Stolfo dismissed speculation that AWD VE sedans and wagons are on their way into dealer showrooms.

“I can’t say that it will be produced,” he said.

Another GMH executive said the limited US demand for AWD, except in the colder northern states, made the technology difficult to justify for production.

“We wouldn’t get our money back on it,” he said.

AFM: Not yet and not for V6

GM HOLDEN chose the VE Sportwagon concept in which to give Active Fuel Management its local debut, but the company says it is not compatible with V6 engines and won’t divulge when Australians will have access to the fuel-saving technology.

Asked when AFM would be seen in Holden models, chairman and managing director Chris Gubbey said: “Like every other product, it’s a matter of making sure it’s the right time to introduce it. So there’s no definitive timing for it.” The AFM cylinder deactivation system will be fitted to the Holden-built, VE Commodore sedan-based Pontiac G8, which will soon be exported to the US – possibly as a precursor to introducing it in V8-engined Commodores in Australia, as a key component within the rumoured VE Series II upgrade next year.

Asked why the introduction of the significant new fuel consumption reduction system had been delayed for Australia, Mr Gubbey said: “It’s not a matter of being delayed – this program’s extremely complex.

“In terms of getting the packaging right and everything else – we’ve done that on the back of the G8 program, which then obviously makes it much easier to transfer over to our models,” he said.

Mr Gubbey said the fitment of AFM to V6 engines was unlikely. “Usually with AFM you do need that large capacity engine. With smaller capacity engines it actually becomes a technique that becomes counter-productive,” he said.

Read more:

Sydney show: VE wagon tarts up family transport

The Road to Recovery podcast series

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