Holden VZ Commodore (2004-)

In 2002 Ford's BA Falcon threw down the gauntlet to Australia's favourite car. Now Holden's powerful new VZ Commodore throws it back, with interest

What we liked
>> Added refinement and performance
>> Upgraded features
>> Worthwhile styling tweaks

Not so much
>> Lack of ESP on V8s
>> Tall gearing harms performance
>> Little different inside

The VZ Commodore doesn't just write the next chapter for Holden, it catapults the company into the 21st century. With a pair of better breathing and more efficient Alloytec engines, the availability of six-speed manual and five-speed automatic transmissions, the Commodore finally shrugs off the Jurassic engineering tag lumped on it by the ancient and outgoing 3.8-litre V6.

That's right, the big news with the VZ is under the bonnet, but it's far from the full story. There's also a different look thanks to a re-styled front end and a couple of bold "fender vents" on the SS, worthwhile safety upgrades including Brake Assist on all models, ESP on the Acclaim and tyre pressure monitoring on Caprice, and V8 versions get more power.

But in a nutshell, the new engine line-up works like this. The entry level, 175kW version of the 3.6-litre Alloytec goes into the Executive, Acclaim and Berlina models, and along with it an upgraded version of the old four-speed auto. The 190kW Alloytec 190 is reserved for the Calais and Statesman along with a new five-speed auto, or the new SV6 model gets the 190kW engine and six-speed manual. The SV8 and SS are retained, but their 5.7-litre V8 has been upgraded to 250kW, while the Caprice has 245kW V8-power.

That's the short story, but there's also a plethora of detail. Not least is the good news that despite all this new cast alloy, prices have lifted by only about one per cent so all this extra technology is good value for the consumer. The VZ cost Holden $104 million in engineering; $61 million more investment in plant tooling and at least half a billion on the new engine plant, so the flow-on effect could have been a lot worse.

At first glance the VZ Commodore looks very similar to the VY and indeed, most of the metal remains the same. The exception is the new bonnet with a more distinctly raised centre section that feeds visually into the grille, which is also new, and features a horizontal sports bar on all models. Front bumper skins are also new and vary depending on the model, but all have larger air intake openings.

While the shape of tail lights across the entire range remains the same, each model gets its own inserts ranging from fairly bland on the Executive to Monaro-esque on the SS. Interestingly, the new SV6 (which replaces the old S model) has the same extroverted front bumper treatment as the SS, while the more powerful SV8 has the less flamboyant front end off the Executive or Acclaim. Only the SS gets the so-called fender vents (which are filled in and don't vent anything) and while they could have looked like misplaced retro afterthoughts, actually look the biz.

The new engines and transmissions are obviously the big talking point in any Commodore variant, so equipment levels have only been massaged and not re-arranged. So if you're up-to-date with Holden specification levels there exists only added details instead of wholesale changes.

The Executive accounts for almost 5000 Commodore sales every month and receives the 175kW engine, upgraded four-speed auto and brake assist to go with the usual package of 15-inch steel wheels, ABS, cruise control, front power windows and cruise control. To that the Acclaim adds air conditioning, powered rear windows, side airbags and stability control.

The Berlina has more luxury, the Calais more again, including now standard leather to go with the more delectable prospect of 190kW Alloytec power and a five-speed auto with steering wheel-mounted manual gear selection or "active select" in Holden speak.

The active select feature also goes into the SV6 automatic, but this model's main attraction is that it's the only model with both the 190kW V6 and the new six-speed manual transmission. The SS and SV8 get the new look and a little extra power, but overall they have less changes thanks to the retention of the Gen III V8, T56 six-speed manual, or optional four-speed auto.

The VY Commodore brought a new dashboard fascia and other interior upgrades and given the fact that the VZ upgrade has concentrated on drivetrains and, to a lesser extent, exterior styling, not much has been changed inside.

In fact you'll be hard pressed to spot the differences, but they are there. Seat trims have been changed across the board, for instance, and that strange silvery plastic bump atop the centre of the dashboard has been transformed into a lidded storage compartment on Calais and Berlina. There are also new instrument graphics, and a digital speedo has been included on the trip computer display.

Calais and SV6 models with the five speed auto get steering wheel mounted manual gearshift paddles - the left is for up; the right for down - but there's no sequential manual shift for the gearstick.

Apart from these touches the VZ interiors should be familiar to anyone who's been in a Commodore. That means the driver's seat has power height adjustment and the steering column adjusts for rake and reach. All the switchgear is large, accessible and virtually idiot-proof and there's storage space aplenty scattered about the cabin.

The back seat is wide and generous in its leg room, and the boot is suitably family-sized. And yes, the Executive, Acclaim and Berlina wagons continue, with Holden stressing their importance in the range while perhaps implying the arrival of the Territory has made Falcon wagons less so.

The VZ Commodore has a powerful safety story to tell, much of it brought about by the new electronics that come with the engine management on the Alloytec V6 and the fitment of the latest generation ABS8 anti-lock braking system from Bosch.

The combination has encouraged the availability of a new traction control system and an electronic stability program (ESP) to automatically use the braking to correct skids and slides. There's also electronic brake assist to increase levels of braking and cornering brake control, which makes braking smoother when wheels are rotating at different speeds around corners.

But what model gets what? Basically, the Executive misses out on any form of traction or stability control, which is a disappointment because all the hardware seems to be there. It does, however, get upgraded brakes and the new ABS system with electronic brakeforce distribution to optimise braking front to rear. Dual airbags are also standard.

The Acclaim gets pretty much the Big Kahuna of ABS, EBD, ESP (which includes traction control) and side airbags so it is the model that stands out if maximum safety at an affordable price is important. By comparison, the Berlina is more expensive but doesn't get ESP. It has traction control, which incidentally is a new system that doesn't have the uncomfortable 'push back' on the pedal of previous Commodore systems.

Another word of warning: The V8-powered models don't come with the Alloytec's engine management, so ESP isn't available on these very powerful, very fast, rear drive cars. It's worth remembering if you're an SS or SV8 driver faced with a slippery road on a dark night.

You've probably already read a lot about Holden's new V6, first known as the HF or high feature V6, then Global V6, and now Alloytec. As its latest name suggests, it's a high-tech unit made from alloy (duh!) and runs the full gamut of low friction internals, high-flow breathing and full-on electronic control.

Both versions have dual, chain-driven camshafts driving four valves per-cylinder, 32-bit engine management, electronic throttle control and durability features including a forged steel crankshaft and oil cooling jets under each piston. The cylinder banks are arranged at 60 degrees, doing away with the need for a balance shaft as on the old engine with its 90-degree angle and inherent balance problems.

The less powerful Alloytec V6 produces 175kW of power at 6000rpm and 320Nm of torque at 2800rpm, with both figures eclipsing those of the bigger capacity engine in the VY. The Alloytec 190 from the SV6 and Calais adds continuously variable phasing for inlet and exhaust valves and a variable length intake manifold, and increases outputs considerably; not only does it produce 190kW at 6500rpm and 340Nm at 3200rpm, but has the Aisin-produced six-speed manual, or GM's 5L40 five-speed auto to take advantage of the extra grunt.

The 4L60 four-speed auto may continue on the biggest selling models, but a new torque converter and a control module capable of processing vastly more data than before are aimed at improving shift quality and consistency, and provide a better link between engine and driver.

The 5.7-litre V8 hasn't been forgotten, with the addition of electronic throttle control doing away with a cable, and allowing better mapping of the torque curve. Along with a new exhaust and bigger air intake, it's now good for 250kW at 5600rpm and 470Nm at 4800rpm in the SS, SV8 and Caprice, although Berlina and Calais get a 235kW version and the Statesman a 245kW unit.

Front suspension has been tweaked mildly, with the anti-roll bar pick-up point now fixed by a ball-joint instead of a rubber mount for increased responsiveness. There's also a new power-steering pump for better feel off-centre and, one presumes, better durability.

Mitsubishi with its Magna and Verada, and Toyota with its V6 Camry and Avalon would like to think they are on the same shopping list as a V6 Commodore, and while that is true to a certain extent, the Ford Falcon is this car's biggest rival.

Interestingly, Ford released details of the BA Falcon MkII just before the VZ's launch, even though the Falcon doesn't go on sale until October. Rather than any wholesale mechanical changes, the BA MkII is mainly about specification adjustment, with all models getting cruise control; the Futura receiving side airbags and electrically adjustable pedals, and a new six-speed manual going into the XR6 Turbo and XR8.

While each Falcon and Commodore model follow each other closely - for every Executive there's an XT, and every Calais has a Fairmont Ghia rival - there are a couple of divergences. The addition of five-speed autos and ESP to some models has given Holden a marketing edge over Ford, although if there was ever a power war at the bottom end of the family sedan market, the Falcon wins with a 182kW six (to the Alloytec's 175) and even the 260kW XR8 out-powers the SS's 250kW.

Then there's the Commodore SV6 which is Holden's best effort yet at countering the successful XR6. Will it work? In the SV6's favour is a free revving engine with more power than the standard XR6, but Ford's trump card is a turbo model. Holden has the upper hand in sales, and it's hard to see that slipping, especially as the VZ has only added lustre to the range while the Falcon seems to have stood still.

It would be a disappointment indeed if all those millions of dollars hadn't delivered a better Commodore, and the good news is that the VZ is a much better thing to drive.

Starting at the bottom of the heap with the Alloytec 175 and four-speed auto in the Executive, there's noticeably more acceleration with the engine delivering better power high in the rev range compared with the old unit that was thrashy, noisy and harsh.

This one revs cleanly, and while it doesn't sound especially inspiring, gives a very useful spread of torque across the rev range. Almost better than that is the old automatic that has had its act cleaned up with better shifts, smoother kick downs and is much more willing to do what the driver wants it to.

It's the 190kW engine that's the star of the show, and nowhere better presented than in the six-speed manual SV6. This engine has real guts and real glory and linked to a responsive and useable gearbox delivers great flexibility in the lower and middle gears, with a surprisingly raucous engine note into the bargain. The gearing is tall, however, and that's presumably to aid fuel consumption so don't expect a V8-like kick in the higher gears.

The five-speed auto teamed with the same engine is a revelation. Intelligent software means it will hold onto gears if the driver is using plenty of throttle, or even change down a ratio without being asked by the driver's right boot. Otherwise it is smooth with clean shifts, and the active select toggles work a treat.

It all looks like leading to a let-down when it's time to drive the SS, but the reality is different. Performance is in another league and helped by a lower differential ratio that has improved mid-range response, even if top gear in the six-speed manual is still way too tall for decent acceleration.

Handling? Much the same as the VY Commodore although with marginally more responsive steering, and if anything the front-end changes seem to have increased understeer. The ESP system can be switched off if the driver wants some fun, but when left on has a high intervention threshold.

We'll leave complete observations for the full test, but be assured the VZ is a quicker, more refined and more complete Commodore. Probably doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out it should have been, but we're glad that's the case.


Model tested: Holden Commodore SV6 manual
RRP: $38,990
As tested: $38,990
Date: August 2004
Tester: Glenn Butler

BOTTOMLINE: Not an outright screamer, but a real delight nonetheless.

The Holden Commodore SV6 manual is the VZ Commodore variant CarPoint was most interested in testing. Why? Because it's the only 190kW Alloytec V6 model that gets the new six-speed manual transmission. Should make for a lively pairing, we thought.

And we were right; it's a real barrel of fun. But it's no Falcon XR6 Turbo tamer. And nor should it be. To compare this model to a forced induction Falcon as some newspapers did is ludicrous. What part of the 190kW vs 182kW, $38,990 vs $38,655 equation didn't make sense, we wonder!

The SV6 is not the giant step up in performance we were hoping, but perhaps we were expecting too much. After all, it looks sporty, handles extremely well and accelerates strongly in any of the first four gears.

The SV6 comes standard with traction control, though in the dry you will be doing well to make it cut in... or dipping the clutch. Off the line, the SV6 accelerates away with a sense of restrained urgency. It is tough work for a 3.6-litre V6 to propel a 1600kg sedan from a standing start with earth-shattering gusto, no matter how short the gearing.

It is clear from our drive that the SV6 is more at home in the twisties, where chassis dynamics and tightly packed gearing deliver the goods for every situation. Improvements to the steering system are also felt here, endowing the 'dore with an eagerness for corners it previously didn't have.

But this extra performance doesn't come for free, as the SV6's fuel consumption on test showed. A mix of urban, highway and back roads driving returned 13.4 litres / 100km -- and most of that was highway cruising. We expected better, but with a little more care on our part we could have dropped into the high 12s.

Seems we've been far too positive about the SV6 overall, but there's really very little to dislike. It's a good, honest performance car that may not blow your V8 mates away off the line, but will deliver miles of smiles on tight country roads. And it won't murder your wallet like a V8 will every time you fill up, either.

A V8-lite, if you will...


Model tested: Holden Commodore Acclaim V6 auto
RRP: $39,050
As tested: $42,870 (HBD bodykit, 18inch alloy wheels)
Date: August 2004
Tester: Glenn Butler

BOTTOMLINE: Optional clothes make repmobile really desirable.

It was one of those things. Pulling out of a 24hr supermarket car park late at night, we simply didn't see the bright yellow, metre-tall steel pole on the left of the parking space. But we felt and heard it as it scraped the Acclaim's flank, leaving a dent in the otherwise pristine Commodore.

Call us stupid, inattentive, whatever. It happened, and it meant we had to give the Acclaim back to Holden early so it could be fixed up before the next road tester grabbed it. We were really warming to this car, just beginning to discover the subtle joys Holden has engineered into its biggest selling model after the Executive.

The Acclaim we tested came with optional HBD bodykit -- side skirts, deeper bumpers and sexy 18in wheels and tyres -- a real eye catcher. Inside it was exactly as all Acclaims are, which means cruise control, electric windows and mirrors, remote central locking and dual front airbags.

Interior changes from VY to VZ haven't reached the back seats, apart from new trim colours, and the boot's the same cavernous affair as before.

It's a delightfully comfortable car to drive, thanks to the very adjustable driving position, and the sweet 175kW V6 Alloytec under the bonnet. Acclaim doesn't get the new five-speed automatic gearbox, but Holden's improvements to the old four-speed 'box definitely make driving a less fussy affair. It changes between gears more smoothly and quicker than before, and the car jolts less as a result.

Modifications to the suspension mean the Acclaim absorbs sharper bumps much better and deals with speed humps easier. It steers more accurately and requires less effort at low speeds, and the weighting builds up more progressively as vehicle speed increases.

On test, the Acclaim's fuel economy computer was relating a stable 10.8 - 11.1 litres/100km for what was a predominantly urban test. Well, it was in the three days we had the car, anyway.


Model tested: Holden Commodore SS
RRP: $50,990
As tested: $53,795
Date: August 2004
Tester: Glenn Butler

BOTTOM LINE: Mechanical changes make it an easier performance sedan to live with.

It doesn't take long to re-acquaint yourself with Australia's big V8 love affair. Strong, surging power and that barrel-chested exhaust rumble kicks the pulse up a notch every time. A smidge extra power and torque improves performance marginally across the range, but not where the SS needs it most.

It's a shame, really, that we drove the new Monaro in the same week as the SS, because Monaro's more tightly-packed gear ratios, and 260kW/500Nm make a world of difference over the SS. Monaro charges hard off the line like you wished SS would, and its gear change action works with you too, instead of begrudgingly giving way.

That said, the VZ generation SS is no sloth; it picks up its heels and flings itself harder at the horizon than the VY. It beats serpentine roads to a pulp with its mid-range torque, and those soft 18inch hoops deliver all the grip you rightfully expect. The rear sets also know when it's a good time to let go, as our photos on the right show.

Holden's new electronic throttle adds an immediacy to the show that the previous model lacked. It also adds refinement to the traction control system, instead of that rude punch on the ball of your foot which accompanied a tractionless reaction.

Commodore's revised steering and minor mods to the front suspension give the SS more feel throughout the turn, and iron out the level of assistance under pressure. But execute a couple of tight left-right combinations and you can still catch the power steering assist on the hop.


Model tested: Holden VZ Calais
RRP: $53,290
As tested: $69,750
Date: May 2005
Tester: Melissa McCormick

BOTTOM LINE: A stand-out sedan for luxury lovers who just have to buy local.

The Calais has sat atop the Commodore range for 20 years and while some of us are now accustomed to its modicum of decorum, the VZ version is a very pleasant surprise. During our seven-day test case, a black, Holden By Design-treated beauty turned plenty of heads, even those in Euro-badged rivals.

It's a far less conservative Calais now. While the previous Calais was aimed at 'suits', the new car has a much wider appeal and should attract those with a sportier bent. With bigger wheels and a hint of aggression to the modest body add-ons, the styling reflects this change. Holden says suspension set-up is sports-oriented, with a firmer spring rate and reduced ride height -- that said the Calais is still comfortable around town and in sporty going is agile with a good rein on body roll.

Apart from its striking, sporty styling, the Calais has high-end equipment including steering wheel paddle-shift (called Active Select) for the five-speed automatic transmission and Electronic Stability Program: the stuff of luxury import lists. Calais is available with the Gen III 5.7lt V8 but, as powered our test car, the 190kW Alloytec V6 is smooth and spirited, if a little underwhelming on the ear.

Leather trim is standard and the eight-way electronically adjustable driver's seat has memory function allowing for three individual settings. Our test car had the optional cloth trim, which was attractive but too reminiscent of the Berlina for our liking and detracted from the Calais' luxury look and feel. We can only imagine vegetarians choosing the cloth over cow-hide.

The dash was finished in gloss piano black and featured the standard six-disc CD player. The Calais gets instrument gauges with chrome surrounds and white details. Front and rear power windows are standard, so too courtesy lamps and Holden's Priority Key function, which restores individual driver settings (for two people) for onboard devices such as climate control, sound system, trip computer, speed alert.

Our seven-day test car was treated to a host of additional HBD cabin comforts including electric sun roof, satellite navigation, overhead DVD player and Bluetooth hands-free phone kit. Among the standard-fit items: rear-parking assistance, dual-zone climate control and 17-inch wheels.

The loaner was fitted with stunning 'L' series 18-inchers. It also had a neat rear spoiler kit; one of two available from HBD. Loaded to the gunwales, you could say... nearly $17,000 worth. Shame, however, that the navigation is so hard to use and view on the move.

In short, the HBD-fettled Calais is a good-looking, well-equipped, refined and capable range-topper. And if you're a true blue Aussie who's not disposed to buying European, it offers lots of luxury for those not interested in upsizing to the long wheel-base Statesman and Caprice models.




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Published : Sunday, 1 August 2004
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