Holden Sportwagon

words - John Carey
After almost a year without one in its line-up, Holden has a new Commodore-based wagon poised for a spectacular re-entry

wheelsmag.com.au

Space shuttle

Wheels Magazine
August, 2008

Richard Ferlazzo is a self-confessed long-term wagon dag. For the past 20 years the GM Holden chief designer claims to have owned nothing else, but for a man whose skill with the felt-tips is considerable - he penned the 2005 Efijy concept coupe, a car of exceptional (and award-winning) beauty - those wagon-bound decades must have dragged.

"Wagons are second only to people-movers in lack of desirability," says Ferlazzo, speaking with the unmistakable authority of someone with first-hand knowledge. But he's also talking about the past, because Holden's hearse-drawn wagon era is about to come to a very welcome end.

This isn't exactly a surprise. Holden first revealed the VE Commodore Sportwagon at the Sydney motor show last October. From the moment the curtain went up it was obvious that the new wagon was a car in which pert proportions had equal billing with pragmatic considerations. Back then, hard information was scant. Now, with the arrival of the Sportwagon in Holden showrooms imminent, Ferlazzo's the man chosen to deliver the background briefing on the newest VE variant's design genesis.

The Sportwagon design basics, he says, were developed in parallel with the VE sedan in the early years of this decade. The key idea was simple; adopt compact proportions to create a cargo carrier with good looks and reasonable, if not vast, room inside. Length and height measurements for the Sportwagon would be within millimetres of the VE sedan.

And then the job was effectively parked for a couple of years, while Holden's design department concentrated on completing the VE Commodore sedan in time for its 2006 introduction. It was a simple issue of workload, Ferlazzo explains. Holden didn't have enough people to do the detail design work on both sedan and wagon at the same time.

The sedan, with its much higher sales volumes, obviously had to take priority.

But the chief designer is able to identify some attributes of the VE body architecture that date back to the variant-doodling stage. Ferlazzo points to the section of the Sportwagon roof, right above the B-pillar. It's horizontal here, he explains, to serve as a "neutral launching point" for a bunch of different roofline profiles. In the case of the Sportwagon, there's a very gentle descending curve aft of the B-pillar. This, with the VE trademark rising belt-line, squeezes the rear side window.

The compact glass area each side of the cargo compartment creates the impression - from outside - that the Sportwagon's cargo compartment is going to be skimpy. But the area is sizeable and, thanks to some thoughtful design, easy to use. Rear seat room is excellent. According to Ferlazzo, the Sportwagon has better rear seat headroom than even the WM Statesman and Caprice. The view to the side, thanks to the wagon's larger rear door glass, is excellent.

Ever since the Sydney motor show reveal of the Sportwagon 'concept' last year, it's been no secret that the production version would share its wheelbase with the VE sedan. But the two variants have even more in common than expected. They share exactly the same basic floorpan, including plastic spare-wheel tub, and are identical from the B-pillar forward.

The Sportwagon has a unique stiffening crossmember across the floorpan just behind the rear seat. This addition provides torsional strength in the same place as the sedan body's rear cabin bulkhead and parcel shelf, but the wagon body is slightly less stiff than the four-door. Like the sedan, the body sides are big, one-piece stampings and are a couple of the 72 body parts unique to the Sportwagon, not including rear doors (which have the same skin as the sedan, but a different, larger glass frame) and the tailgate.

The tailgate hinge is forward mounted, for two very good reasons. Firstly, the large opening makes the cargo compartment easy to get at - you can lean right in there. Secondly, and less obviously, the opening arc of the tailgate extends only a short distance beyond the rear bumper making it possible to park the Sportwagon with its rear just 268mm clear of a wall and still open the back. Parking this close to walls won't be hard; every Sportwagon model is equipped with standard reverse parking sensors.

Naturally, the Sportwagon weighs more than a comparable VE sedan. The difference, according to Holden engineers, is 91kg. This is enough to increase fuel consumption marginally in all models. In the case of the Omega Sportwagon, for example, the consumption penalty is 0.3L/100km (according to the Federal Government's ADR81 test), or about three percent. But the VE Sportwagon's 11.1L/100km result is 0.1L/100km less than the comparable VZ wagon.

The Sportwagon, with its undeniable good looks, will play a rather different role in the VE Commodore line-up than the old VZ wagon. That model, which ceased production in September last year, was sold mainly (90 percent) to fleets. There were only three model grades, while the VE Sportwagon, in contrast, will be made in the same seven grades as the sedan; Omega, Berlina, SV6, SS, SS V, Calais and Calais V - all an even $1000 more than the equivalent sedans. All the Sportwagon range lacks is a couple of drivetrain options available in the four door. No V8 option in Berlina or regular Calais, and no manual SV6, for example.

It's quite obvious that the Sportwagon, with its looks and broad model range, will have much wider appeal. Specifically, Holden's market research indicates the wagon will be significantly more popular with females than the VE sedan. Holden marketing types don't dare make any prediction on sales (this is a proven way to look stupid a few months into the future, especially when times are volatile). But they do point out the old model, with a restricted model range and negligible aesthetic appeal, used to sell at a steady rate of 800-900 per month.

This means the new Sportwagon has the potential to pull Commodore past Corolla in the 2008 sales race. Toyota's popular small car won the first half of the year by 1092 sales. Through the second half of the year, Commodore's wagon sales boost could reverse these positions. Time will tell ...

With its extra weight and cargo capacity, Sportwagon suspensions aren't the same as VE sedans. In Omega, Berlina, Calais and Calais V models, the front suspension matches the equivalent VE sedans, except for a 1mm increase (to 24mm) in the diameter of the anti-roll bar. In SV6, SS and SS V, there's also a 23 percent increase in front spring stiffness. There are greater changes at the rear, however, with stiffer springs for all models, and a 4mm reduction (to 12mm) in anti-roll bar diameter. And while the Sportwagon has the same compact, multi-link rear suspension layout as the sedan, each side has three cross-axis ball joints instead of two, to optimise toe-link stiffness.

How do they drive? In some cases, better than the sedans. The base grade set-up (we sampled a Berlina, on standard 17-inch wheels and Bridgestone Turanza ER300 tyres) seemed to roll less and steer more accurately than the sedan, with little loss in ride quality. Very impressive.

The Calais shares suspension essentials with the less expensive six-cylinder models (the increases in stiffness specific for Sportwagon making the development of an equivalent to the sedan's in-betweenie FE 1.5 suspension calibration superfluous), and was similarly agile. Ride quality on the Calais V's standard 18-inch and Bridgestone Potenza combo did suffer a little, however, while in the SS and SS V, ride comfort, to be honest, isn't great. The V, with its standard 19-inch wheels and low-profile Bridgestone Potenza rubber, is borderline harsh on poor quality country roads.

Aside from the changes noted earlier, the Sportwagons are very similar to their sedan equivalents. So the big gaps between the ratios of the four-speed auto in the Omega and Berlina are bloody annoying. And the five-speed auto of the Calais isn't as suave as it should be.

Both the 180kW (Omega and Berlina) and the 195kW (SV6 and Calais) versions of Holden's Australian-assembled 3.6-litre V6 remain aurally insipid. The imported 270kW 6.0-litre V8 of the SS and SS V proves that pushrods and two-valves-per-cylinder is no impediment to sounding good ... or going hard. Especially when teamed with the GM-made six-speed auto, this is the pick of the VE powerplant parade.

And what of noise levels, a traditional wagon weakness? Well, if it wasn't for the reflection in the rear-view mirror, you'd be hard pressed to pick the difference. The Holden engineers say their sound meters indicate the Sportwagon isn't quite as quiet as the sedan, but it can only be a decibel or two.

So the Sportwagon is, all in all, a smart addition to the VE Commodore line-up. It delivers additional space and versatility for only a little more money and without any significant sacrifice in refinement, driving dynamics ... or looks.

SEAT UP...
Ready to carry five people, the Sportwagon's cargo bay is naturally less than the much longer VZ wagon. Measured according to the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) standard, its 895 litres is also less than the 1153 litres of, say, a Ford Territory. But the Holden does have space enough to compete with popular compact SUVs.

The Sportwagon's luggage compartment includes expected features like a 12-volt power outlet, but Holden's designers have also provided some neat extras. The cargo cover is a good example. It retracts normally, but can also be tapped so that it slides out of the way up tracks in the D-pillars. All models have two shopping bag hooks and four D-ring tie-down points. Calais and Calais V also have a standard cargo net (a $72 accessory elsewhere). A rigid mesh cargo barrier is a $478 accessory in all grades.

SEAT DOWN...
With rear seats folded, 'Wagon's cargo compartment is almost two metres long. Almost flat, too. There's a six degree angle - so insignificant it's hard to spot - between the floor and the folded rear seatback. Yes, you could sleep in there ...

Holden designers decided the narrower section of the split-folding rear seat should be on the left. This means skinny, extra-long items can be carried inside the car if the front passenger seat is moved fully forward.


Vital statistics:
  Seat up Seat down
Volume: 895 litres 2000 litres
Height: 710mm 710mm
Width: 1123mm 1123mm
Length: 1113mm 1980mm

HOLDEN SPORTWAGON:

Omega
Price: $37,790
Engine: 180kW 3.6-litre V6, dohc, 24v
Transmission: 4-speed auto
Wheels & Tyres: 16x7 alloy & 225/60R16 98V
ADR81 result 11.1L/100km

Berlina
Price: $41,290
Engine: 180kW 3.6-litre V6, dohc, 24v
Transmission: 4-speed auto
Wheels & Tyres: 17x7 alloy & 225/55R17 97V
ADR81 result 11.1L/100km

SV6
Price: $42,290
Engine: 195kW 3.6-litre V6, dohc, 24v
Transmission: 5-speed auto
Wheels & Tyres: 18x8 alloy & 245/45R18 96V
ADR81 result 11.3L/100km

Calais
Price: $46,790 (V-Series $55,290)
Engine: 195kW 3.6-litre V6, dohc, 24v
Transmission: 5-speed auto
Wheels & Tyres: 17x7 alloy & 225/55R17 97V
ADR81 result 11.3L/100km

SS
Price: $46,290 (auto $48,290)
Engine: 270kW 6.0-litre V8, ohc, 16v
Transmission: 6-speed manual (or 6-speed auto)
Wheels & Tyres: 18x8 alloy & 245/45R18 96V
ADR81 result 14.4L/100km (auto 13.8L/100km)

SS V
Price: $53,790 (auto $55,790)
Engine: 270kW 6.0-litre V8, ohc, 16v
Transmission: 6-speed manual (or 6-speed auto)
Wheels & Tyres: 19x8 alloy & 245/40R19 98W
ADR81 result 14.4L/100km (auto 13.8L/100km)

Calais V V8
Price: $60,290
Engine: 270kW 6.0-litre V8, ohc, 16v
Transmission: 6-speed auto
Wheels & Tyres: 18x8 alloy & 245/45R18 100V
ADR81 result 13.8L/100km


More research
Holden Sportwagon range -- Carsales Network launch review: here
Holden Omega Sportwagon -- Carsales Network road test: here

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