Comfort, performance, well-balanced chassis
We Don't Like:
Thirsty, looks a bit bland
Although its seemingly Mitsubishi Magna-inspired face looks fairly unassuming, Holden's VX Calais is a highly accomplished luxury sedan. It offers exemplary levels of refinement and performance - especially in V8 form - at a none-too-prohibitive price. Given that the outgoing VT Commodore was the biggest-selling car on the market for its entire model life, Holden's engineers and stylists opted to change as little as possible in the VX.
The most obvious changes are revised headlight and tail light treatments across the range and a new grille for the Berlina and Calais models. The Berlina and Calais also gain slightly longer bumper overhangs and chrome detailing on the nose and flanks. Holden says the new look was conceived to make the up-spec models stand apart from their cheaper siblings. Stand apart they do, but few will argue it is the low-spec cars - with their teardrop headlights - that look more distinctive.
There is no doubt the SS, formerly a handsome car, is a stunner in VX form. The Calais is very understated by comparison and unlikely to garner a second look from passers-by. The flagship model's face has as its centrepiece a grille that has remarkable overtones of the superseded Mitsubishi Magna. Its revised headlights dispense with outer lens optics which, according to Holden, results in better low-beam spread, penetration and beam pattern evenness. Viewed from the rear, only keen car-spotters will distinguish the revised tail-light cluster as being different from the outgoing model. Nevertheless, it is beneath the skin where most of the improvements lie.
The US-sourced 5.7-litre Gen III engine was not short on power in the first place, but a few minor tweaks means it now offers even more grunt. Peak power is up from 220kW to 225kW, while torque rises from 446Nm to a stump-pulling 460Nm. The engine upgrades include a higher flow inlet manifold and a recalibrated powertrain control module. Higher dynamic range fuel injectors complement the new manifold. On the road, this translates into effortless performance that makes overtaking a breeze. Mashing the accelerator delivers a seamless rush of acceleration accompanied by a muted rumble from the big-bore exhaust. Heavy-footed drivers can expect to cover the standing 400m in around 15 seconds and dispatch the 0-100km/h sprint in about seven seconds - impressive figures for an equipment-laden luxury sedan with automatic transmission. But, be warned, making the most of the available performance will result in frequent wallet-pounding trips to your local petrol station. Holden quotes fuel consumption figures of 8.5 litres/100km on the highway and 14.0 litres/100km around town. These figures may be achievable in practice if you exercise restraint with your right foot.
The four-speed auto performs well enough, but there is still the odd clunk from the driveline when engaging reverse or moving off from rest. Getting the abundant reserves of torque to the tarmac is not a problem thanks to the standard traction control system. Incidentally, traction control is now available on manual V8 models as well. Not a moment too soon, we might add.
All VX models gain a new dual damper propshaft with rubber couplings at each end to reduce vibrations. This, along with addition of an "anti-booming" brace to the transmission tunnel, contributes to improved refinement levels, according to Holden. Although the improvements to the driveline are subtle, they help the Calais to eclipse the Ford Fairmont Ghia in terms of refinement. While Ford's engineers equipped the AU II Falcon with a laminated firewall to improve noise suppression, Holden's technicians have adopted a different approach, filling the A, B and C pillars with heat-expandable foam to block road noise travelling up the body structure. A noise deflector board and foam blocks under the rear parcel shelf - along with a seatbelt silencer - are said to further enhance refinement levels.
Holden has also worked hard to overcome the slightly nervous steering at cruising speeds that is a characteristic of the VT Commodore. The front suspension features a lower control arm pivot that is raised by 4mm to build in more understeer and reduce the steering's directness just off centre. Its variatronic steering has been recalibrated to provide greater feel at highway speeds - but this means slightly more effort is required at parking speeds. Even though its semi-trailing arm rear suspension does not match the Fairmont's double-wishbone set-up in terms of sophistication, it performs well in most conditions. It soaks up an assortment of road surface undulations in its stride and gravel roads are dealt with similar aplomb. The less nervous steering means the Calais is now an effortless mile-eater that makes long trips a welcome proposition. Although oriented more towards comfort, its cornering abilities are impressive and body roll is kept well controlled. Only die-hard hoons - few of whom are potential buyers of this car - will be able to get it out of shape. But should you find the suspension settings a bit soft for your liking, you can opt for a $300 sports suspension pack. A limited-slip differential is also available for $510.
Passive safety levels benefit from a new B-pillar designed to swing with a pendulum effect to direct impact velocity away from the body's most fragile areas - the head, neck and chest. Energy-absorbing foam between the door trim and inner door sheet metal further lessens the risk of serious injury in side impacts. Dual front and side airbags are standard, as was the case before.
Inside, the new Calais is much the same as its predecessor, which means it shares its instrumentation and switchgear with lower-spec Commodores. Nevertheless, its velour upholstery and woodgrain facia on the dash and centre console endow it with an upmarket ambience. Those seeking greater levels of opulence can specify leather trim for an additional $1855. Steering wheel-mounted stereo controls -standard across the VX range - are a welcome addition. An electrically-adjustable driver's seat makes it easy to find a comfortable position behind the wheel. Rear-seat passengers also have little reason to complain as there is ample head and legroom.
Overall, the Calais V8 is an accomplished luxury sedan that can hold its own against any of its rivals. It shades the Ford Fairmont Ghia in terms of performance and refinement, as well as being arguably better looking. The Toyota Avalon Grande and Mitsubishi Verada Xi are worthy rivals, but neither can match the V8 Calais for grunt or presence.