Holden Commodore VE Series II

words - Ken Gratton
It's hard honing a car already near the top of its form, but Holden's Commodore range just moved up another peg

Holden Omega Sportwagon, Berlina Sportwagon, Caprice V

Local Launch
Adelaide Hills, South Australia

What we liked
>> Remains a comfortable, capable and solid performer
>> Useful functionality from iQ infotainment and telematics
>> New colour: Hazard

Not so much
>> Same old VE design flaws
>> Will likely cost more to run on E85
>> Ride quality over smaller bumps

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

About our ratings

OVERVIEW
-- Inching towards the leading edge
Holden's Series II update for the VE Commodore is finally with us. It's been a long time coming too -- for a car that doesn't look markedly different from its predecessor. Just like the brave new world of minority government, the 'new paradigm' Commodore looks a lot like the old one.

Certainly, the Series II cars have been restyled (however subtly) and two of the three engines are now capable of operating on E85 flex fuel. Then of course there's the much anticipated Holden iQ touch-screen infotainment system.

But even with all that, the Series II is hard to pick from the Commodore launched at this time four years ago. At least, in the case of the MY10 upgrade model introduced around this time last year, there were significant fuel efficiency gains through the adoption of the direct-injection 'SIDI' engines and a new six-speed automatic transmission in lieu of the previous four-speed box. It was also the MY10 Commodore that introduced five-star ANCAP safety across the entire large-car range.

Holden has progressively upgraded the Commodore since VE's original launch, through such milestones as the introduction of the Sportwagon, to use one example. In fact, Holden's Director of Marketing, Phillip Brook, claims that the four-year history of the VE Commodore has been punctuated by up to 15 of these technical milestones -- including the Series II launch.

And if all these milestones had been delayed until Series II was ready to go, perhaps we would all now be raving about the extent of change wrought by Holden on its best-selling product. Instead, in line with the strategy outlined by former Holden MD Mark Reuss, the pride of the lion brand is being constantly polished and honed so that it is ready to go, should a new export market opportunity open up.

Leaving aside the questionable value of E85 compatibility or whether Holden is not repeating history as it did during the early 1980s, when the Commodore's style languished, the VE Series II -- objectively -- is a worthy achievement. It’s even more so given the backdrop of sliding large-car sales in recent years, evaporating export markets and the lingering vestiges of the Global Financial Crisis.


PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
-- Pricing 'as you were', but Caprice offers better value
The vast majority of Series II variants have not been adjusted in price at all, says Holden. If anything, the Caprice ($61,990) has dropped $2000 from the pricing of the Statesman V6 it basically replaces. Similarly, the Caprice V ($69,990) has come down $5500 from the price of the pre-upgrade Caprice V8.

The one variant that has risen in price is the Omega Ute ($35,490), which has risen $2000 over the price of the pre-upgrade Omega, to reflect the adoption of the SIDI engine at last.

Pricing for all other models is unchanged. Automatic transmission is a $1000 option and the extra charge for LPG is $2400. In addition Holden is offering buyers the Redline edition package option for $2500, rear camera for $350 and satellite navigation with Suna Live Traffic information for $990.

Standard features for the full model range include: remote central locking, tyre repair kit, reach-and-rake adjustment for steering column, multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, Holden-iQ touch-screen infotainment system, trip computer, road speed-sensitive variable-dwell wipers, auto-on/off headlights, electric mirrors/electric windows, Bluetooth connectivity, front-seat lumbar adjustment, dual-zone climate control and auxiliary power socket in centre console.

Omega variants ride on 16-inch alloys with 225/60 R16 tyres and feature cloth seat trim and a lower-grade computer reading out from the instrument binnacle.

Berlina moves up with 17-inch alloy wheels and 225/55 R17 tyres. Kit additional to the Omega spec includes a front fog light, leather-bound steering wheel, upgraded trip computer with instantaneous average fuel consumption, reverse parking sensors, added side bolstering for the front seats and rear-seat centre armrest.

SV6 and SS are fitted with 245/45 tyres on 18-inch alloy wheels. The trim and equipment for the two sports-focused grades comes closer to the Omega level than Berlina and other than the wheel and tyre combination or exterior features, the only significant item fitted as standard to these two but not included in the Omega is the leather-bound steering wheel. The SS has a rear-seat centre armrest missing from the SV6's specification.

SS V is upgraded from the SS to 245/40 tyres on 19-inch alloy wheels. This level of trim adds reverse parking sensors and leather trimmed seats to the equipment of the lower-grade SS and the leather-bound steering wheel is in a unique sports design. A leather-wrapped gear selector and alloy-faced pedals are exclusive to the SS V among the sports models.

Like the SV6 and SS, the Calais rides on 245/45 tyres and 18-inch alloy wheels. The Calais has the Berlina's upgraded trip computer and also comes standard with leather seat trim, but not in the SS V's sports design. As for the V8-powered sports models, the Calais too gains a rear-seat centre armrest. The one other feature incorporated in the Calais equipment list is an adjustable luggage net for the boot and the leather-bound gear selector.

Also shod with a wheel and tyre combination of the size specified for the SS V (245/40 tyres on 19-inch alloys), the Calais V builds on the Calais equipment with the addition of a sports-profile leather-bound steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, puddle lights integrated in the electric mirrors (which are also linked to the seat position memory), front parking sensors, rear-view camera, satellite navigation, eight-way electrically adjustable front seats with three-position memory and exit lights.

The Caprice and Caprice V are both fitted with 245/45 tyres on 18-inch alloy wheels and are based on the Calais level of trim, with these additional items: front parking sensors, satellite navigation, rear-view camera, eight-way electrically-adjustable driver's seat with three-position memory, four-way electric adjustment for front passenger's seat and exit lights.

For the Caprice V, the specification extends to bi-xenon headlights, puddle lights integrated in the electric mirrors, electrochromatic mirror, BOSE 10-speaker audio, rear-seat entertainment system comprising DVD player with two LCD screens, premium leather upholstery, eight-way electrically-adjustable front passenger's seat and tri-zone climate control.


MECHANICAL
-- More power from E85 engines, but are they actually greener?
Holden is making much about Series II VE Commodore and its derivatives ability to run on E85 'flex' fuel, a blend of up to 85 per cent ethanol and petrol. Holden has modified the 3.0-litre SIDI V6 and the 6.0-litre LS2 V8 to run on the biofuel. The 3.6-litre engine that powers the SV6 and the Calais will migrate to E85 compatibility in the next few months, but for the moment it's pure petrol only.

Changes to the engines to run on E85 include zinc-plated fuel lines and fuel rail, hardened valves/seats, new fuel pump with unique calibration and added flex-fuel sensor.

As Holden tells it, all three engine variants have reduced fuel consumption compared with their counterparts from the MY10 range now superseded by Series II. A two per cent improvement down to 9.1L/100km applies to the 3.0-litre models and the larger 3.6-litre V6 sees a three per cent gain with the 6.0-litre V8 notching up over six per cent. Those stats are based on running the car on petrol alone -- no ethanol mixed in. Ethanol raises the octane of the mix, but doesn't deliver as much energy per litre as petrol.

Holden is vague when it comes to facts and figures for the new engines, other than saying the enhanced midrange response from running E85 can be felt.

Performance figures remain 190kW and 290Nm for the 3.0-litre V6, 210kW/350Nm for the (currently petrol only) 3.6 and either 260kW/517Nm (auto) or 270kW/530Nm (manual) for the V8 models.

On the other side of the coin, the new engines will consume more E85 to travel the same distance at the same speed, but there's currently no way of quantifying just how much worse fuel consumption is against petrol alone.

The government is yet to establish a fuel consumption standard for flex fuel engines running on E85 and part of the problem there is that the E85 blend may not be the full 85 per cent ethanol, 15 per cent petrol. In winter time, to aid cold starting, the mix available from the pump will be more petrol, less ethanol.

So if you're hoping to undertake the Melbourne-Sydney run while doing your bit for the environment, best to do it in winter if you aim to accomplish this using one tank of fuel or as close as possible... !?

Confused? If so you might prefer to stick with good old LPG. A dual-fuel (LPG and petrol) option remains available for the Commodore, but both power (175kW) and torque (318Nm) of the 3.6-litre engine suffer and the only transmission available is the aged four-speed automatic.

All manual transmissions, where available, and automatics are six-speed units otherwise.

Discs are ventilated all around and are suspended at the front by MacPherson struts and at the rear by a multi-link coil-sprung IRS. Steering is a variable-ratio rack and pinion system with hydraulic assistance. For wheel and tyre dimensions by variant, see PRICE AND EQUIPMENT above.


PACKAGING
-- iQ is ingenius, but legacy flaws remain
Holden's new-fangled iQ system will stream music from smartphones via Bluetooth. In addition, the new infotainment/telematics system issues warnings for speed camera proximity, speed limit changes, the approach to level crossings, school zones, etc... It's quite useful but the audible alarm for each point of caution was disconcertingly loud in its default setting.

In addition to issuing warnings at interval, the iQ system allows users to select music from multiple sources -- and we do mean multiple -- or operate the Bluetooth hands-free phone. Indeed, the system will even treat your hands-free phone as an additional source of music -- along with the MP3-compatible (data) disc in the single-CD player, an internal flash drive (N/A Omega), a USB input jack, iPod integration and a conventional auxiliary input jack.

iQ is easy enough to use and proved to be every bit the flexible system Holden promised, particularly when considering the purchase price and the market position of the cars to which it's fitted.

The changes to the interior -- aside from Holden iQ -- are small but significant for the way they've raised the Commodore's presentation. Our first glimpse of the car's interior (an SS V in the new colour, Hazard) in the week prior to the drive program left an impression of new-found style and quality that had raised the Commodore's ambience to around the same level as that of the smaller Cruze.

Seats in the Commodore are among the most comfortable you can get for the money. It's our recollection that the previous Commodore's seats (for MY10) were firmer than the equivalent Falcon's, but still preferable to those fitted to the Ford. If anything, the Commodore's seats seem even better now, although Holden hasn't announced any changes to the seats for Series II.

Sadly, the same design flaws remain in the upgraded Commodore. The handbrake lever is more at home in a torture chamber and the A-pillars are like the buttresses of Notre Dame Cathedral and the centre-console location of the electric window switches will continue to cause momentary confusion... But the more we drive the VE, the less these issues will concern you. Indeed, you have to make other, greater concessions at times, driving cars much more prestigious than the Commodore.

And let's face it, for its packaging, the Commodore is otherwise a fabulous car; especially when you take into account purchase price, equipment and build quality. Rather than rabbit on about ad nauseum, it's worth searching through our database and reading one (or more) of our reviews published since the VE’s arrival back in 2006. There’s around 50 of varying relevance from which to choose.


SAFETY
-- All five-star ANCAP baton
With even the utes in the range securing five-star ANCAP honours in the recent past, the entire Series II range is right up there for crash safety.

All models come equipped with standard stability control, antilock brakes, Brake Assist and Traction Control. For passive safety, all models -- including the utes -- also offer dual front airbags, side-impact airbags, side-curtain airbags to protect the head of outboard occupants, seatbelt warning reminders (an ANCAP pre-requisite for five-star rating) and load-limiters and pyrotechnic pretensioners for the front seatbelts.


COMPETITORS
-- EcoBoost Falcon a blip on the radar?
Flex fuel is big news in most other markets around the world -- but not Australia. Why? Because we've had dual-fuel capability in our large cars for decades...

Not the same thing perhaps, but LPG has blazed the trail where E85 and hybrids are latecomers. And Holden even has its 'own' dual-fuel option for the Commodore, although as pointed out already it's down on power and stays with the clunky old four-speed automatic we thought had been left behind with the introduction of the MY10 upgrade to SIDI engines.

Where that leaves the Commodore is here: a new Falcon is known to be due within 12 months, fielding a you-beaut liquid-injection LPG (LPI) engine option and a 2.0-litre EcoBoost four-cylinder running on petrol.

Now the crystal ball aspect of the EcoBoost Falcon lies in the possibility that the smaller-displacement but turbocharged and direct-injected engine in the Ford may consume less petrol in some situations than Holden's 3.0-litre V6 running on E85 -- say stop/start traffic, for example. By the time you take into account the thirstier consumption, the lower level of ethanol in winter, and the fact that you're paying for ethanol as well as petrol -- with the former admittedly costing less at the pump -- the V6 Holden won't necessarily be cheaper to run, but it could actually be better for the environment.

If all that ultimately concerns you is the environment, Toyota can also sell you a Hybrid Camry at a price at least competitive with the Commodore's and chances are that the Toyota will cost less to run on petrol alone than the Commodore will on E85. In fact, the Camry should actually be cheaper to run than the Commodore on petrol.

For other competitors -- and depending on driving environment and assuming that you're as anxious about the weekly family budget as much as the environment -- you might also consider Honda's Accord V6, which can run lean if it's only operating on three cylinders, thereby saving you running costs on the open road, for example.

But running costs and the environment aside, there's not much around other than the Falcon that can provide a credible alternative to the Commodore if you're seeking an affordable rear-drive large-car package -- and one's that locally built to a quality standard.


ON THE ROAD
-- Few hallmarks of change in Series II
Holden laid on a very benign drive program for the most part -- and in doing so the manufacturer has done itself no favours. Running on E85, all the vehicles taking part should have shown significant mid-range performance gains, which would have presented the 3.0-litre variants in a kinder light.

But that didn't happen. Instead it was the sort of anodyne route that didn't throw out any hints that the Series II Commodore and its derivatives drive in any way markedly different from its predecessors.

The SIDI engines remain refined in the two short-wheelbase cars and the AFM-equipped V8 in the Caprice V (now modded to run on E85 like the small-displacement V6) provided effortless thrust without imparting lead-tipped arrow cornering characteristics. In fact, the Caprice impressed with its prompt turn-in, for a vehicle of its size. The longer wheelbase possibly enhanced the ride comfort too. The Berlina, by comparison, felt just a bit jiggly over smaller bumps.

Steering weight felt over-light in the Caprice, but loaded up in the corners. All three cars provided satisfying feedback through the tiller, which felt unnaturally large in diameter in the Omega.

As others have said in the past, the Sportwagon feels no different to drive than the sedan version. And that’s a good thing... There's no sense of added weight or unhappy weight distribution; it just steers and goes like its sedan equivalent.

The VE II's brake pedal is slightly slow to apply the anchors -- something we've mentioned in the past -- but does provide soft-stop action hauling the car up to a halt in all three variants.

The E85 engines (including the V8) behaved impeccably. They delivered the right amount of performance and started on cue, without endless cranking, and there no signs that the E85 was any the less acceptable than standard Unleaded Petrol. It's hard to assess the 3.0-litre V6 for performance as the drive program didn't make much allowance for putting the hammer down -- and our one previous drive of a car powered by this engine was at Holden's SIDI launch around this time last year. And that was an economy run.

This time around, and running on an unknown ratio of ethanol to petrol, the automatic Omega wagon delivered average fuel economy of 12.9L/100km, according to the trip computer. In light of the relatively gentle driving through the Adelaide Hills, that's telling -- we were driving at a slower pace than normal as the local schools emptied and peak-hour traffic began to build.

But the car's new-found biofuel compatibility is almost incidental. Boiled down to its constituent parts, the revised Commodore range provides the same basic recipe that Aussies have chosen ahead of any other car since the launch of the VT in 1997.

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Published : Monday, 20 September 2010
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