Clash with the Teutons
This certainly isn't the first time we've thrown Holden's latest and greatest into the ring against the benchmark sedans from Europe, but you might not believe how long it's been between genuine bouts -- 27 years.
Ever since the VB Commodore SL/E's 1979 Euro-stoush with a Volvo 264 GLE, Rover 3500 and Mercedes-Benz 280E (which the Holden won, even disregarding its price advantage), all such ensuing V8 battles have been staged with performance-outfit variants -- Brocky's VK HDT Group 3 (1985) and VL HDT Director (1986), followed by HSV's SV5000 (1990), GTS-R (1996), and GTS 300 (2000).
It could be argued that no Commodore since the original VB has displayed sufficient all-round excellence, from the very moment of its release, to challenge Europe's finest eyeball-to-eyeball -- neither the 1997 VT, nor the rough 1988 VN, were truly world-class.
However, with VE -- for the first time ever -- Holden has exactly the right car to make a huge impression, whether or not at exactly the right moment.
As both the pinnacle of Holden's regular VE range, and the model most likely to turn would-be Euro buyers, the Calais V-Series V8 has plenty stacked in its favour -- not least its sharp $58K price tag and stunning, taut appearance.
But the VE Calais needs to do more than merely look hot for beer money. To achieve true street cred, Holden's billion-dollar baby must prove itself in a direct confrontation with the cream of Kraut class.
In developing VE, Holden benchmarked BMW's previous generation E39 530i for dynamics, and Audi's superseded A6 for quality -- both of which were current at the time, and, interestingly, both of which are now viewed as superior in those respective disciplines to the models that replaced them.
Mercedes-Benz's W210 (1995) and W211 (2002) E-Class models didn't even rate a mention from Holden's engineers, but that's exactly what we have lined up here -- a facelifted, re-engineered 2006 Mercedes E500, fresh off the boat, ready to test the VE's mettle.
BMW's flagship E60 5 Series has also been re-engined of late, but the 2006 550i is otherwise much the same car as its 2003 545i predecessor.
Is it man enough to trounce VE, though?
Despite all the fuel-price doom and gloom, we chose to go with V8s. On paper, the premium Benz, BMW and GM engines couldn't be more evenly matched.
Factor in weight, and the Benz leads with a power-to-weight ratio of 167kW/tonne, followed by the steel/aluminium BMW at 163kW/tonne, and the Holden at 148kW/tonne. But that's not quite how it plays out in the real world...
With a full deck of gear ratios and such a buff engine, it's not surprising the E500 clinches the performance prize. Its 285kW 5461cc twin-cam, four-valve development of the old E500's 4966cc single-cam, three-valve V8 has really packed on some muscle -- try 60kW and 70Nm -- and the resulting acceleration is sensational.
Even with barely 300km on its odometer, the test E500 scorched to 100km/h in 5.5sec and raced down the quarter in 13.6, which is fantastic for a luxury sedan.
But it's the smoothness with which the Benz rapidly dispatches distance that stamps it as a vehicle of such remarkable talent. And expense
At idle, you can barely hear the E500's V8 ticking over, while, on the move, its tone is subdued, meaty and satisfying as it charges to 6200rpm before almost imperceptibly selecting the next tightly stacked ratio.
Australian E500s score a sports exhaust as standard, and, as the seven-speed auto wafts through its gear-set, riding the 5.5 V8's luscious wave of torque (80 per cent of it between 1500 and 6400rpm), the exhaust note burbles distantly, but assertively.
New steering-wheel paddles (replacing the old E500's click-clack rocker switches behind the wheel spokes) combine with Mercedes' traditional left-right gearstick tap for manual ratio selection to give the Mercedes driver more ergonomic choice than the simple tip-shift gate employed in the BMW and Holden.
And, despite the E500's big-capacity bullet status, it doesn't really scald you at the pumps, slurping 14.4L/100km against the smaller BMW's 13.9, and the Holden's equally impressive 14.5.
Jump into the Calais after the E500 and you notice an immediate difference. The Holden's Gen IV V8 is much louder than the Benz's at idle -- not necessarily a bad thing when you're talking V8s -- and its presence is more obvious right across the rev range.
There's a raw, old-school V8 demeanour to the Calais that, while not as slick-sounding as the high-tech Germans, seems to endow its engine with more character.
Wind it out to 6250rpm and the Calais delivers plenty of V8 rumble from both its engine and its quad rear tail pipes, but what really stands out is the immediacy of the Holden's performance. Throttle response is instant, yet never abrupt, and light-pressure acceleration is effortlessly urgent, accompanied by a lovely low-rpm burble from behind.
That said, GM's 6L80 six-speed auto is outshone in this company. Our Sandstorm-coloured test car was still preproduction, and the occasional dithered shift and pause before kick-down could be attributed to this. Generally, the 6L80 is a fine auto, but we've driven better examples in VE.
The test car's sticky lever was annoying when swapping between tip-shift and Drive gates -- especially in contrast with the beautifully fluid movement of the BMW's shifter.
The 550i doesn't live up to its on-paper promise at the drag strip, but it remains a bloody quick sedan. Only just pipped by the Calais, the 550i makes amends by proving both the least thirsty and the best to listen to. BMW's creamily refined 4799cc Valvetronic V8 doesn't sound as metallic as it used to in its non-Valvetronic 210kW 4.4-litre incarnation, but it still hollers a terrific noise, and possesses more of an acoustic edge than the Benz's 5.5.
Let the 550i change up automatically when in its pseudo-manual gate (as with all auto BMWs, in contrast to the Calais, it up-shifts at cut-out) and it'll stretch right to 6700rpm, but, such is the torque of the BMW V8, big revs are merely optional in its quest to annihilate most machinery on the road.
Given a fairly smooth surface, the 550i would probably out-corner most, too, although that's a somewhat qualified statement. On its Dunlop SP Sport run-flats (massive 275/35R18s on the rear), the BMW has the grip, poise, and litheness to be thrown around with confidence -- even with DSC completely disabled, and even with (optional) Dynamic Drive set to 'Comfort'. In the right environment, it mostly warrants the accolades lavished upon the old E39.
But two aspects continue to really let the E60 5 Series down. The first of these is Active Steering. Despite its benefits at the driving extremes (super-quick for parking and city work; nicely progressive for flat-out autobahn driving), it just doesn't feel natural in the way it responds, and cannot possibly hope to communicate to its driver exactly how much lock is required, depending on speed/corner, because this is always changing.
Live with one for an extended period of time and that may well happen, but it's surely a damning indictment of BMW's once-unquestioned 'Ultimate Driving Machine' mission statement that the Calais eclipses the 550i for crispness of feel and accuracy of response.
The second area in which the 550i genuinely stumbles is in its ride quality. Forgive our broken-record-style harping, but blame those bloody run-flats and their out-of-sync behaviour in relation to the suspension.
Over our ride loop in 'Comfort', the 550i delivered an uneasy mix of suspension suppleness and jittery brittleness -- to the point where the combination of vertical movement and an always busy, lively approach to initial bump absorbency started to induce motion sickness in all passengers and the driver.
Next out, after the BMW, the Calais V also rebounded vertically, but, with its suspension feeling completely in tune with its tyres, it had an immediate calming effect on passengers.
Switching the BMW's suspension to 'Sport' isn't a solution, either, because while it sharpens body control, it introduces an even greater lack of compliance.
What really puts the BMW in the shade, though, is the Mercedes. To put it bluntly, the Airmatic-suspended E500 simply annihilates the 550i. In comparing one against the other, it's a case of isolation (E500) versus intrusion (550i). In 'Comfort' (the softest of its three suspension settings), the E500's ride quality is close to unrivalled -- incredibly refined and possessing a level of isolation that neither the 550i nor the Calais could ever hope to achieve.
A large dip in the road launched both the BMW and the Holden skyward (with a slight squirm in the tail from the Holden), but the Benz simply smothered it, staying completely level and without any suspension noise whatsoever. We attempted the same exercise in 'Sport 1', and, again, the E500 impressed with its level absorbency -- not quite to the same extent as 'Comfort', but still head and shoulders above the other two.
However, it's the facelifted E500's handling ability that probably surprised everyone most. Alterations for '06 include a 10-per cent more direct steering ratio, revised steering weighting, and re-engineered front suspension, with a spring-link bearing that's twice as stiff as before to reduce understeer. The Avantgarde-spec E500 also sits 15mm lower than normal, and, with Sports pack, includes 18s, firmer dampers, and thicker anti-roll bars, in conjunction with standard 'Airmatic DC' air springs.
Handling can only be described as excellent. As in most situations, Airmatic's 'Sport 1' is the supreme choice for fine body control and lovely poise -- placing the E500's balance onto its outside back wheel, instead of focusing on understeer as in 'Comfort' mode -- mixed with underlying suspension suppleness.
Grip is considerable from the Merc's 18-inch Continental tyres, and, while its fluid steering still jiggles slightly when exiting corrugated corners, the effect is noticeably reduced, and there's no longer any rack-rattle.
Benz's reversion to hydraulic brakes (the old car had electrohydraulic items, like the CLS and old SL, seen as a halfway house to a future drive-by-wire arrangement) has also brought a noticeable improvement in pedal feel and progression of response. At the track, the low-mileage E500's stoppers held up mightily to several hard hits from over 180km/h, as did the BMW's and, surprisingly, the Holden's.
Compared with the old VZ, the transformation in the VE Calais's overall dynamics is huge. Every aspect -- even Holden's long-criticised brakes -- has been improved to the point where excuses simply aren't needed any more. The fact that a $58K Calais V is actually more accomplished in several areas than the $160K E500 and 550i seems almost unbelievable, but it's true.
The Holden's steering is incredibly easy to place, both crisper and more incisive than either German's, and with a finely tuned progression of response that once characterised BMW's 5 Series.
The Calais's handling is outstanding, feeling solid and planted on the road, and with a level of neutrality to its balance that defines confidence, even in the wet. Its ESP calibration is absolutely unrivalled -- allowing an amount of play in the vehicle's balance, yet intervening so subtly that it's hard to tell that its electronics have activated.
By contrast, both the BMW's and the Mercedes' stability-control systems are noticeably stricter. What both can do, though, is spoil the car's flow slightly, where the Holden's almost encourages fluid movement.
Then there's the Calais' adjustability. Sense some understeer in a corner, squeeze the throttle, and the V8's grunt simply moves the rear wheels outwards just enough to regain neutrality. You can do the same in the E500 and 550i, but the result is rarely as finessed.
It is in its ride quality that the Calais V sends mixed messages. Superior to the BMW's, with less movement, bang and suspension thump, it still feels too firm for what is essentially a luxury car, even a sporty one. If it were a genuine performance vehicle, you'd say the Calais rode well, but the lack of bolstering on its front seats suggests otherwise, and the forces generated by its fabulous handling can slide you right into the door trim.
That said, the Calais's ride quality is entirely liveable, and there even seems to be slightly less tyre roar than in the E500, although this could be related to the Benz's near-silence elsewhere.
Inside, the Holden is clearly the loudest -- particularly in terms of engine rumble and wind rush around the A-pillars -- but the margin isn't huge. Bigger differences lie in the size of each car's interior. So spacious is the Calais that it feels a whole class bigger than the Germans.
You sit higher in its front seats than in the others, and the lack of side support is a curious anomaly, but its rear seat is superb, offering great under-thigh support, and miles of head-, shoulder-, knee-, and foot-room. Its quality is also impressive, despite some cost-cutting measures like its cheap-feeling, centre-mounted power window and mirror switchgear (for easy left-hook conversion).
The E500 instantly feels much smaller than the VE. In contrast, its 'stadium-seat' rear bench positions passengers higher than those in the front for a terrific view, but it doesn't have the Calais's width, or under-thigh support. There's better lateral support for two people, though, and it feels of higher quality than the Holden. But its driving position remains strangely skewed. Its (electrically adjustable) wheel sits well to the left of the actual seat, and seems a bizarre ergonomic misjudgement in a modern car, let alone a Mercedes.
Of the three, the BMW has easily the best front seats -- large, but with a huge range of electric adjustment, and very grippy. It also positions its driver lower, in a darker, more claustrophobic cabin. Its rear seat is mounted much lower than in the E-class, thereby delivering more rear headroom to passengers, as well as greater toe-room.
However, the BMW lacks the Benz's perceived quality. Its door trims are an angular mess, its finishes are no better than average, and its interior certainly doesn't feel like $178,780-worth.
Superb engine apart, neither does the rest of the car. Besides its trick xenon headlights and chrome double-kidney grille, the BMW looks downmarket -- from its awkward rear lights to its bulky side profile, to its surprising quality gaffes.
Indeed, the 550i serves as a shining example of how BMW has chosen to forgo 'pure driving pleasure' simply to one-up its home-town rivals when it comes to technology. If the 550i can fit a 17-inch space-saver into its boot (which it does), why does it need run-flats? And why isn't Active Steering an option -- especially for countries like ours? Then, there's the Five's uninviting interior.
At its price, the BMW is poor value. The E500, on the other hand, is an absolute pleasure. Fussy front-bumper aside, it looks elegant, it's beautifully refined, packs astonishing performance, and has what must be the best ride of any regular-wheelbase sedan in the world, yet is cheaper than the BMW. That it has clearly superior dynamics to the 550i's seals the BMW's fate as a loser.
In the E500, you can see where your money went. In the Holden, however, you can't really see where economies have been struck to deliver a car that is $100,000 cheaper than either of its German rivals.
We'd happily choose the Calais V-series V8 over a 550i, even if money wasn't an object. Of the three, it's the best driver's car, even though its handling edge isn't as marked as the E500's superiority in ride and refinement. On pure ability, the E500 wins, but the Calais is so much more than a close second-best. It's the underdog, the straight-talker, the champion that came from nothing, the celebrity without affectation.
Indeed, it's the very epitome of Australian -- or at least what 'Australian' should be -- and that's something to be genuinely proud of.