What we liked
>> Sharp, responsive steering
>> Powerful V8 engine
>> Roomy, contemporary cabin
Not so much
>> Stiff ride over bumps
>> Abrupt, harsh auto 'box
>> Update mostly smoke & mirrors
It's Australia's favourite car, and soon will be Australia's most versatile when Holden's outgoing boss, Peter Hanenberger's plans reach fruition. Executive sedan, sporty coupe, versatile wagon, workman's utility, cab-chassis, dual-cab ute, AWD wagon and long wheelbase luxury sedans. Add the choice of two V6 and one V8 engine to the mix, along with six-speed manual and four-speed automatic gearbox, and it's easy to see how Holden's model count can exceed thirty.
Commodore is built at the Elizabeth plant in Adelaide and 2003 marks its 25th anniversary. In August Holden launched the mid-life Series II upgrade to the VY Commodore, subtly improving the breed without any major changes. The most notable change is more sporting appeal for Calais and an extra 10kW of power for all sports V8s. In 2004 Holden's all-new HF V6 engine joins the fray, along with a new automatic gearbox.
Don't for a minute think that the Series II upgrade is a major one; it's not. Changes are aimed at enhancing the breed subtly, and are mostly cosmetic ahead of a major revision with VZ in 2004 and an all-new car in 2006. Those last two projects are where the bulk of Holden's development budgets are concentrated.
Pricing has increased over VY levels by between $400 and $600 on Executive, Acclaim, Berlina, SS and SV8 models. Calais jumps by around $1300, Executive leaps almost $3000 on the price lists but air-conditioning -- previously a $2250 option -- is included in the quoted price.
Monaro V8 costs an extra $600 and the supercharged V6 version, which barely managed five percent of the sales, has been dropped. One Tonner gains around $320 and the Ute increases between $280 and $400, depending on engine.
Major styling changes from VY to VYII are aimed at creating greater differentiation between the various models. Calais scores the biggest changes, following a similarly sporting route to that revealed earlier on WK Caprice. Holden says this gives Berlina the opportunity to step up in terms of luxury and refinement. In practise this means subtle changes to the front end, including blacked facia and fog lights at the front and similar mods at the rear. New alloy wheels finish the makeover externally.
Calais by far gets the Lion's share of VY Series II upgrades. Add to the more powerful engine and sporty handling a more aggressive appearance. The deeper grille mirrors SS styling and gains mesh inserts first seen on the SSX concept hatch. The lowered appearance continues on the sides and back with a full body skirt. Unique taillamps are fitted to VY Calais Series II.
S and SV8 models get new-look alloy wheels, and body colour grille and numberplate surrounds. A factory sunroof is now optional on all sedan models thanks to changes at the Elizabeth manufacturing plant.
All wagons gain aircraft-style cargo rails in the load compartment to provide more tie-down options. The taillights have been changed to bring the wagons more in line with the sedan models. Same deal with the utes and One Tonners.
For Monaro, the big story is a new 'hero colour', Impulse. Oh, and the deletion of a radio antenna -- it's now incorporated in the rear glass.
The interior of all Commodore sedans, wagons and Monaro coupes get fresh interior trim treatments, with cruise control, power front windows and adjustable front seat lumbar support standard. Electrically adjustable wing mirrors are also standard, along with remote central locking and engine immobiliser.
Calais is again the most changed with unique interior trim on seats and doors and changes to cabin lining. Leather is optional. Berlina scores an increased chroming count on touchpoints inside the cabin and new velour seat and door trim. By comparison the SS's changes are minor, with most attention centered on the front end and interior.
All Commodore models have a drivers' airbag; a passenger airbag is fitted standard or optional across the range. Holden fits side airbags to Calais, Berlina and Acclaim models; it's optional on Executive, S and SV8.
Calais, Acclaim and Monaro models step up in safety with the addition of active head restraints -- effectively the headrest moves forward in a crash to cushion the whiplash effect. To facilitate this, seatback height has increase 34mm in these models.
Modifications to the way the steering column collapses in a frontal collision are said to improve driver safety. Antilock brakes and traction control are fitted to some Commodore models.
Holden Commodore continues with V6, supercharged V6 and Gen III V8 engines in a range of tunes. The V6 and supercharged V6 engine continues largely unchanged ahead of its dumping late in 2004, though a new exhaust system and engine calibration mods bring cleaner emissions.
Holden has upped the Gen III V8 engine's power and torque outputs across the range. Berlina, Calais and One Tonner S gain the 235kW / 460Nm state of tune. SS sedan and ute, SV8 sedan and Monaro benefit from an extra 10kW of power and 5Nm more torque. In addition to this whopping 10kW increase, 245kW V8s gain additional frontal rigidity from a strut brace mounted to the strut towers and spanning the engine bay
Five-speed manual, six-speed manual and four-speed automatic gearboxes are carried over from the previous model.
Suspension and brake combinations remain largely unchanged, except on Calais, which gets stiffer springs, firmer damping and a more overtly-sporty demeanour. Holden says the suspension mods are equivalent to FE 1.5 (as fitted to police vehicles). It also rides on bigger 17inch wheels and tyres
For such a diverse range of products there are masses of alternatives; the most obvious -- and one that almost mirrors the range -- is the Ford Falcon. The only car Ford currently doesn't compete with is the Monaro. On performance, value for money, refinement and practicality these two old enemies are lineball.
Toyota and Mitsubishi take a tilt at the sedan models with their Camry/Avalon and Magna/Verada respectively.
The Commodore and Falcon sports sedans are really in a class of their own, nothing comes close to that kind of rear-drive performance for the money, and in a four-door.
Commodore Utes, both the styleside and cab-chassis, compete against a number of models, including 2WD Triton, Hilux, Navara and Courier et al. Few offer the performance of Commodore's V6 or V8 engines, apart from Falcon Ute.
ON THE ROAD
After spending a day hopping between core Commodore models two things are clear: not a lot has changed; not a lot needed changing. The Holden's Commodore sedan and wagon range is a very capable, very solid performer both on practicality and dynamic ability.
The Commodore's live-ability is high; it's got bucketloads of room in both seating rows and the dashboard is smartly laid out except for the button-overload around the stereo. Adjustable seats and steering columns take care of all driver shapes and sizes, and even with a leggy type in front there's still adequate room in the rear.
Unfortunately for Holden the two areas that most needed addressing -- the V6 engine and automatic transmission -- remain unchanged ahead of their replacement in 2004, and they do hold the rest of the package back in performance and overall refinement. The auto gearbox smoothly deals with upchanges on less than full throttle and bangs on downchanges. The V6 engine packs better than adequate performance, but its greatest rival has upped the ante, leaving the ageing Buick-sourced six behind.
At launch, CarPoint tested a V6 Acclaim wagon, supercharged S-pack sedan and V8 Calais automatic across Tasmanian backroads -- bitumen and dirt. The second-rate, broken blacktop highlighted the Commodore's overly firm ride, the chassis is tuned more for sporty handling than supple ride.
Holden's more powerful V8 engine -- boosted by 10kW to 235kW on Calais and Berlina, and 245kW on SV8 and SS -- is hard to critique without back-to-back testing. Is it a good engine that delivers on the V8 promise? Definitely, it's easy to drive, effortless in acceleration and plenty ready to deliver the herbs when needed. But without putting it down the drag strip or through a seven day test it's hard to quantify the improvement in performance or the detriment -- if any -- to fuel economy.
Holden's upgrade from VX to VY in October 2002 was mostly about styling, delivering a sharp new look for buyers to desire. The step up to VY II is about refinement, polishing an already very polished product. The changes are not ground breaking, they're incremental, and the improvement is also incremental. What this mid-life update is really all about is Holden trying to hold station until it can pull out the big guns in 2004, and when the next all-new Commodore arrives in 2006.