Full-house Alloytec 190 engine performance, safety features, extensive standard equipment, crisper handling than lesser Commodores, luxury styling, five-speed transmission, comfort, quietness, ride quality
We Don't Like:
Lack of low-rpm torque, engine noise, V8 version lacks stability control, cumbersome shift paddles, heavy kerb weight, fuel consumption, no split-folding rear seat
There was a time, between long-wheelbase models, when the Calais was about as flash a Holden as you could get. Remember the first – and last – Holden to have pop-up headlight covers? That was the VL Calais, and it was based on the landmark Nissan-engined Commodore from 1986 (the first Calais was in fact the VK, which used the pushrod engine dating back to the "179" used in the 1963 EH Holden). Until the time it was out-gunned by the reintroduced Statesman/Caprice long-wheelbase cars in 1990, the Calais had a lot of work to do attracting buyers away from Ford’s Fairlanes and LTDs.
That, of course, is no longer the case, with Statesman and Caprice blitzing the long-wheelbase market - but the Calais remains. And it’s about as good as you’re likely to get with a regular-wheelbase four-door Holden short of going all-out with a top line HSV. The VZ Calais also picks up all the new technology adopted at VZ Commodore time. This means it comes as standard with the 190kW version of the new Alloytec V6 as well as – providing you don’t opt for the Gen III V8 – the new sequential-shifting five-speed automatic transmission, electronic stability control (ESP) and electronic brake assist that is factored into the engine management system (other Holdens get brake assist too, but without the sophisticated electronics that come with the 190kW Alloytec). If you opt for the V8, you are denied the ESP and electronic brake assist, but gain a limited-slip differential and traction control. Go figure.
The Calais V6, as a result, is something of a showcase for all the technology Holden has to boast. It joins other 190kW Holdens as the part of the first group of local sedans to get electronic stability control, and is fitted out with practically every bit of luxury gear available. It’s a sporty prestige sedan too, with a tighter, crisper-handling suspension than lesser Holdens, as well as a meaningful set of alloy wheels shod with 225/50 tyres.
Standard gear includes things like leather seats (although our test car was trimmed in optional velour) with eight-way adjustment and three-position memory settings for the driver, dual-zone climate-control, a 260-watt, 10-speaker sound system, elevated, leather-covered centre console, sports steering wheel, heated external rearview mirrors, rear parking sensors and a set of side skirts to emphasize the sporty flavour. The Calais also gets the active front-seat head restraints only seen in premium Holdens (and the safety-oriented Acclaim). All this brings it pretty much up to Statesman level, except it has the sportier flavour shared by the top of the line Caprice.
The Calais was our first experience with the new 5L40 five-speed automatic transmission and there’s no doubt it’s a good match with the 190kW engine. The whole operation is smooth, and less prone to "hunting" through the gears on give and take gradients, or during deceleration. This is controlled by, among other things, hardware cutely described as PAL, or Performance Algorithm Liftfoot. The five ratios allow for a better gear spread, enabling the Calais V6 to cruise lazily at 100km/h with just 1700rpm showing on the tachometer, but also producing a quicker off-the-line launch via a lower overall first gear ratio. The spacing between gears is tighter too, which means a more progressive supply of power as the V6 accelerates through the first four ratios. As a good auto should be, the whole operation is non-intrusive, shifting smoothly up or down and reacting quickly to driver commands. The only downside is the use of steering-wheel paddles to control the manual-shifting, sequential function. The problems occur when trying to shift gears with any sort of steering lock applied. Because up or downshifts are controlled on separate sides of the wheel, attempting a shift with half a turn or more of lock is virtually impossible. The paddles are certainly easier to find and use than buttons on the steering wheel spokes, but let’s hope Holden reverts to the now-proven effectiveness of central shift-lever control on the next model.
In the Calais V6, which is getting quite weighty for a short-wheelbase Holden at 1642kg, there’s more of the feeling that it needs to be stirred along and this impacts on fuel consumption. A recently tested SV6 manual achieved a quite remarkable 10.5 litres per 100km average fuel consumption, but the Calais didn’t come anywhere near that with an on-test average of 12.6L/100km – thirstier than the official claimed average of 11.5L/100km. At least the fuel tank holds a useful 75 litres. In the Calais, the 190kW Alloytec, despite its twin camshafts per cylinder bank, four valves per cylinder, six separate ignition coils and variable valve timing, lacks the lively feeling of the old supercharged 3.8-litre Ecotec V6. It needs more prodding of the accelerator to get moving. This is understandable because although the Alloytec produces more power (the supercharged 3.8-litre Ecotec developed 171kW), it is down on the torque that gives initial accelerator response, from 375Nm in the supercharged engine to a commendable, but still lower, 340Nm. But there’s one thing beyond question – it’s a lot smoother, and freer revving. The new five-speed auto will allow the alloy V6 to run out to an easy-feeling 6500rpm through the gears.
Calais handling is a little tighter than regular Commodores, and is improved further by the front-end and steering revisions that sharpen the whole car. It is noticeably more responsive to the wheel than in the past, and rim effort feels a little lighter – but it’s still a heavier, stodgier system than that of rival Fords. The electronic stability control is welcome here, particularly on wet roads where Commodores are apt to break into throttle lift-off oversteer. We didn’t get to activate it on test, but it was nice knowing it was there. The ride, always pretty good with Commodores, is firmer but still compliant enough in the Calais and remains one of its strengths. It cruises quietly, and the seats are proven performers in long-distance work. Legroom aplenty, front and rear, is also part of the package, as is generous shoulder room and a decent-size boot that only suffers from intrusive hinges and the lack of a proper load-through rear seat. A large ski-port at least allows things like ... skis ... to be loaded.
Like other members of the VZ Holden range, the Calais benefits from its new V6, its new gearbox and the stability control that comes with it. We already know the Alloytec’s impact has been somewhat less than expected and can only hope that its potential will eventually be fully realised.