Holden Commodore VE MY10

words - Ken Gratton
It looks the same, but the upgrade for the VE Commodore is all about what lies beneath

Holden Commodore VE MY10

Local Launch
Great Dividing Range, Victoria

What we liked
>> Enhanced driveability
>> Much better NVH
>> New colour: Poison Ivy

Not so much
>> They replaced the engine, but not the park brake handle!
>> Manual transmission shift quality
>> Cup holder placement

Overall rating: 3.0/5.0
Engine and Drivetrain: 3.0/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 3.0/5.0
Safety: 4.0/5.0
Behind the wheel: 2.5/5.0
X-factor: 3.0/5.0

About our ratings

-- Commodore takes the cake
The VE Commodore has been an egregious case of a pig's ear derived from a silk purse base. Promising so much at its inception in 2006, the base model V6 Commodore frankly under-delivered. Its lacklustre Alloytec V6 -- especially driving through its clunky and ancient four-speed automatic transmission -- was the single element that held the Holden back, even when compared with the contemporaneous BF Falcon.

Not wanting to harp on too much about this, but Holden's lack of a V6 to match the rest of the car left the way open for Ford to score a few hits with that company's FG Falcon range. So it's pleasing to say that the introduction of SIDI (Spark Ignition Direct Injection) V6 engines has lifted the Commodore well above its previous standard of driveability, refinement and fuel efficiency.

On that last point, fuel efficiency is significantly improved over that of the Alloytec Commodore's and the new 3.6-litre engine in particular offers impressive torque without the older engine's labouring and vibration at lower engine speeds. But -- and this sounds like a qualification from a cake-eater who wants to invest in cake as well -- Holden's worthy changes to the Commodore are yet to address the car's unfortunate handbrake and thickset A pillars.

-- Running costs drop, but poverty pack purchase price rises
Holden has made no effective changes to the Commodore's model range hierarchy, although lower-grade vehicles previously fitted with the 3.6-litre V6 are now running the 3.0-litre SIDI engine. But far from prices falling for the variants with the 'smaller' engine, the Omega variants have risen by $700, reflecting the cost of adding the six-speed transmission to the specification of those variants, according to Holden.

Our extensive news coverage of the MY10 Commodore range and the introduction of the SIDI engines provide more information on the model line up, pricing and minor detailed changes including the ability to specify a full size spare at no extra cost.

-- More firepower in Commodore's magazine
Broadly, the MY10 Commodore is distinguished from the pre-upgrade model by the new direct-injected V6 engines, the adoption of six-speed automatic transmissions in lieu of the previous four and five-speed boxes and a minor change to the rear suspension -- replacing rubber bushes joining one transverse link to the hub carrier with a cross-axis ball joint.

Though we have detailed the engines at length elsewhere (see the above links) briefly, two direct-injected V6 engines are now offered -- a 3.0-litre 190kW/290Nm standard on the Omega and Berlina models and the range-topping 210kW/350Nm 3.6-litre variant featured in the SV6, Calais and Calais V (plus long-wheelbase models). Only the SV6 sees the new generation direct-injected V6 matched to a manual gearbox.

For MY10 all V8 variants are unchanged mechanically save for the rear suspension tweak. Holden continues to offer the AFM (Active Fuel Management) 6.0-litre fuel-injected L98 V8 on six-speed auto versions of the SS, SS V, Berlina, Calais and Calais V. Manual SS and SSV models retain a non-AFM version of the V8.

The direct-injected V6 models' engine and transmission changes have reduced fuel consumption by a minimum of seven per cent (SV6 manual) in combined-cycle testing. At the other end of the scale, Omega and Berlina sedans use 12 per cent less fuel -- a reduction from 10.6L/100km to 9.3L/100km.

-- Parking brake designed by Snidely Whiplash
Holden earns kudos for the Commodore's driving position, seat comfort and clear view of the instruments -- all known quantities from the Alloytec models. The company deserves brickbats, however, for the park brake which is no better executed than in any previous VE model.

Another of this writer's bugbears are that water bottles in the cup holders of the centre console foul the driver's access to the centrally located window switches, mirror controls... And more crucially, the shift lever in manual models like the SV6.

In its latest iteration, the Commodore remains a spacious means of transport for four adults, but the Omega is a little boring in its trim and presentation.

-- Commodore first among equals?
Holden has earned its stripes. The new Commodore is five-star ANCAP-rated across the range. You may quibble over the merits of a front passenger seatbelt reminder, but the basics are there. Dual-stage front airbags, side curtains, side-impact airbags for front-seat occupants, front seatbelt pre-tensioners and load-limiters are fitted as standard to all models.

On the active safety front, all MY10 variants offer stability control, ABS/EBD, Brake Assist and Traction Control. If there were one thing we'd find to fault, it's something that also applies to the Commodore's principal competitor, the Ford Falcon. That is, a lack of thorax protection for rear-seat occupants.

It might be a minor point to some, but MY10 Commodore is officially the first locally-produced passenger-car range (sedan, long-wheelbase and wagon) in which all variants including LPG-engined versions score five stars. Holden anticipates it will be able to add the Commodore Ute range to its five-star list later this year.

-- Any car you care to name, as long as it's named Falcon
When it comes to a large, rear-wheel drive budget-priced car, there are only two options in Australia. Commodore is one... and Falcon is the other. Ford's rival to the Commodore offers a variant that level-pegs the Holden every step of the way, and there's a couple in the mix -- such as the XR6 Turbo -- for which the Commodore has no answer.

That said, most people will probably prefer the Sportwagon to Ford's elderly BF Series III Falcon wagon. And contrary to Ford's assertions, it's unlikely that buyers of the Sportwagon would lose sleep over the Mondeo wagon, in our view. Sure, the Mondeo is a large car posing as a mid-sizer and offers respectable luggage capacity, but the Holden is quicker in a straight line and can match the Mondeo for fuel consumption (unless the Mondeo is the diesel -- and there's no diesel wagon available yet).

Toyota's Aurion (and the four-cylinder Camry) might be cross-shopped against the Commodore by fleets, people who don't care which end drives the car and haven't heard the cultural-cringe sentiments from curmudgeonly old fogies who "bought a Holden once" or the braggadocio of one-eyed supporters for 'Australia's own'.

If fuel efficiency is everything, there are some other large and medium-sized cars that might give the Holden a run for its money. One of our current favourites is the Skoda Superb, a left-of-centre car, but one that impresses nonetheless, and can be specified with a 2.0-litre 350Nm diesel engine. Then there are cars such as Honda Accord V6 or the Nissan Maxima to consider. In the case of the Honda, fuel economy is comparable with the Commodore's -- thanks to the Accord's VCM-equipped V6 -- but we believe that on the open road, the Commodore may well have the edge.

-- Thirst for victory left unsated
Holden laid on a drive program that doubled as an economy run to introduce the upgraded MY10 VE Commodore to the local scribes. Such a drive program is always a worry, because if you play by the rules, you're not going to find out much about the car in respect of 'normal' straightline performance and driving. It's all 'easy does it' on the throttle.

That said, the Commodore mounted a compelling case for itself, even leaving aside the whole question of fuel efficiency and economy.

Ride, steering and handling were all laudable, whichever variant was driven. There were differences in the balance between the Omega, SV6, Berlina and Calais V6 driven, but it was all a matter of degree.

The higher-profile 16-inch tyres (Omega) were noticeably softer in the sidewalls than the tyres fitted to the Calais V. The former were the low-friction Bridgestones that aid the entry-level variant in achieving four-cylinder-like fuel consumption levels.

Conversely, although the ride was quite fair in both cars tested initially, it was significantly better still in the Calais, despite that car's dynamically superior tyres. On the third leg of the drive program, the SV6 exhibited great steering and handling traits. Cornering was excellent in all the variants tested, but particularly noticeable in the sporty model -- as was that car's handling and roadholding. The ride comfort in the SV6 was praiseworthy too.

NVH was lower in the Calais, but wind noise (it was windy on the day) was on a par with the wind noise in the Omega.

But it's the V6 engines and the six-speed transmissions in the upgraded Commodore range that are the key changes. Both engines were free of the sort of sub-1500rpm vibration that has been an issue in the port-injected Alloytec engine. Drivetrain refinement is so far ahead of the old Alloytec engine as to be chalk to the older engine's cheese.

Admittedly, in something like 400km of running under the 'rules' of the economy drive this driver only revved the V6 engine as high as 2000rpm on one occasion, so there's no telling how refined it is in the upper reaches of the rev range -- or even the mid range.

Holden provided different variants of the Commodore for different legs. The SV6 manual was the car the Carsales Network drove on the most difficult leg -- for an economy run -- through a mountainous section between Mansfield and Oxley in Victoria's north east. Beautiful countryside and a fabulous drive, but anathema for fuel economy -- and the manual-transmission car was worst equipped to deal with that. Where automatics can change gear faster than the engine management system can even think about injecting more fuel to maintain 'idle' revs, there is no such chance with a manual.

Yet despite some seriously 'stupid' driving (such as an uphill attack in sixth gear at 1000rpm and a subsequent out-of-late-running-time dash for the finish), the SV6 managed to record 7.8L/100km for that leg.

Holden emphasises the new engines' fuel efficiency, because that's what the punter in the street wants to hear, but for us it was the effortless ease of driving wherein lay the real story.

Although on paper the torque doesn't seem to compare with that of the 4.0-litre six that powers Ford's Falcon, the 3.6-litre engine in the SIDI-equipped Commodore SV6 was willing and capable of pulling as low as 1000rpm in sixth gear up relatively steep mountain grades. Never mind the low fuel consumption at that speed, just the very fact the car could do that was gob-smacking. The Commodore will prove an easy car to drive around town, just on the strength of that impressive torque at lower engine speeds.

According to Holden's fuel consumption expert and vehicle performance manager for Holden's engineering team, Andrew Howell, the SV6 manual can actually be more economical on a grade if you stay in a higher gear than if you change down -- even if you have to press the accelerator pedal "deep" to maintain speed.

The very fact that the SIDI Commodores are effectively more efficient with automatic transmissions than with manuals brings us to the question of the value in buying a car with a manual transmission these days, especially in this range of cars. Apart from the fact that the autos are more efficient, they're quicker to change gear (with a sequential-shift facility), you've got engine braking when you want it, they're easier to drive around town and cars equipped with automatic transmissions are easier to offload when it comes time to sell.

Finally, where's the actual enjoyment in shifting gear manually when the shift quality is mediocre at best? We would suggest that the otherwise excellent Commodore range is let down by the shift quality in the manual variants.

Overall, the economy run wasn't exactly a triumph of man and machine against adversity for the Carsales Network. We made a good start with a third place on the first leg, driving a Calais V6 automatic. To achieve that, it was necessary to drive from Aitken Hill on the northern outskirts of Melbourne to the pretty township of Yea, using no more than 8.3L/100km. Stuck in a convoy of journos all determined to win the unique trophy Holden was offering, it was all we could manage to reach 80km/h on the open road. It was hardly a surprise then that the target was easily beaten -- the car's trip computer registering an average of 8.0L/100km for that leg.

The second leg ran from Yea to Mansfield, at the base of the Victorian snowfields. Without travelling in economy run convoy mode, we were able to run the Omega auto sedan up to a real-world speed of 100km/h on the open road and just hold it there. This vehicle, powered by the smaller 3.0-litre V6, also beat the target set for it on this stage. The target was 7.8L/100km and the end result was 7.7L/100km.

For the third leg, we were in an SV6 manual sedan -- the least suitable car with which to tackle the mountain range between Mansfield and our destination of Oxley, as already mentioned.

Even despite the ridiculously slow ascent, keeping the car in sixth almost the entire way -- and the diesel-like engine chugging away valiantly as the revs dropped to 1000rpm -- the fuel consumption was as 'high' as 10.1L/100km at the summit. Coasting down hill in gear reduced that to 9.6L/100km and, once on the flat, the consumption was further reduced to 7.6L/100km, before we became aware that we were likely to be penalised for finishing that leg late. A hard decision had to be made; time to put the hammer down. This leg pretty much put us out of the running for Holden's trophy, with a final result of 7.8L/100km and four minutes late finishing, but it did also tell us a lot about the 3.6-litre engine.

The final leg was a straight and level run from Oxley to Albury. Our target was 7.4L/100km in the Berlina Sportwagen with 3.0-litre V6, but the best we could manage was 7.8L/100km.

Will average buyers miss the extra capacity of the 3.6-litre engine by opting for the base level engine?

In a word, no. While the 3.6-litre engine feels punchier from around 4000rpm up, the smaller engine is the equal of the 3.6 for NVH and surpasses the latter for fuel consumption.

Indeed, most consumers won't readily pick the difference in performance. But any suggestion that buyers could make do with the 3.0-litre is academic anyway. You can't get it in the Calais, and SV6 buyers are the sort of drivers for whom bigger is better anyway. Holden claims that the 3.0-litre variants are faster than the old Alloytec 3.6 port-injected V6. Seat-of-the-pants measurement supports that claim.

Encouragement from the Holden support team aside, it was clear that nothing was going to make up for our poor showing on the third leg. Still, lowly result or not, it turned out to be an interesting exercise.

If you want to talk about 'real world' fuel economy on the open road -- as opposed to around town -- the Commodore's new engines truly impressed.

There is one qualification in all this. We do recall instantaneous fuel consumption read-out for the FG Falcon equipped with the ZF six-speed auto falling as low as 7.5L/100km on an open-road stretch during the Ford's media launch. So, in our view, the Ford is still in there as a serious choice for six-cylinder sedan buyers.

But... Where the Falcon was clearly our choice of the two cars since its introduction in May last year, the gap has narrowed a very long way between these two cars. It's a much tougher decision now. Where the VE could be dismissed before for its NVH issues, an ancient four-speed automatic and for being underpowered, that excuse is no longer available.

We couldn't even say at this point that the Commodore is definitely better than the Falcon or vice versa. Each has its weaknesses still. Commodore's ergonomics are lacking, for example. The Falcon is not five-star ANCAP-rated across the range, to use another example.

One thing is for sure though, whichever car you buy, you'll be well rewarded.

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Published : Wednesday, 9 September 2009
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