Refinement, build quality, ride quality, seat comfort, noise supression, interior space, new standard equipment, turning circle, bottom-end torque, fuel economy
We Don't Like:
Engine noise, vibration and harshness, ageing rear suspension, lack of split-folding rear seat, space-robbing boot hinges, steering inferior to Falcon's, auto shift quality
It's so subtle that it’s barely noticeable at times but, remorselessly, Australian cars are getting better and better. True, we’ve been saying this for a long time, to the point almost of myopic patriotism, but the gap between Australian technology and just about everybody else’s, as well as quality and dynamic behaviour, is at the point of closing up completely. A big step will be made when Holden adopts its new, locally built high-tech V6 in the 2004 VZ Commodore. The old, Buick-sourced V6 has done a soldierly job for too long since its 1988 launch in the VN Commodore. Holden’s semi-trailing link rear suspension is getting elderly, too, but we won’t see a replacement for that until the VE Commodore in 2006.
In the meantime, rival Ford is striding along confidently with an all-new rear suspension, a relatively high-tech twin-cam six-cylinder and a new V8 all working in its favour. But the Commodore remains the big sedan most Australians want. In its latest VYII guise, this should come as no surprise. The Commodore remains a very good car for the money. It might attract criticism when compared in terms of the refinement and technology found in Japanese competitors, but the big Holdens (and Fords) are getting harder to fault for on-road competence, quality or equipment levels. And, of course, no-one offers more metal for the money than either of the big locals.
The Series II VY Commodore was introduced in August 2003, at the time Holden was under pressure from the new BA Falcons. It came almost unexpectedly, almost on top of the VY’s launch in late 2002, with only a few refinements to justify price rises ranging between one and 2.5 per cent. The V6-only Executive, in fact, was probably the least favoured in terms of the upgrade, missing out on things like the "active" front seat head restraints used from Acclaim upwards and extra power for the V8s. But it did get enough to achieve virtual balance with the Falcon XT. This means the Executive now has a sunglasses holder, lumbar support for both driver and front-seat passenger, higher front seat backs, new cloth trim, rear reading lights, power front windows and the coup de grace – standard cruise control. Externally, there are new "technical" wheel covers and an Astra Convertible-style chrome trim running along the bottom of the bootlid, plus the telltale Series II badge on the boot. There are also amber indicator lenses, body coloured licence plate surrounds and new wheel trims.
Driving the Series II is basically a reconfirming of the qualities that have made Commodore such a walk away success. And the negatives that remind of underlying shortcomings. It is notable for its family-car qualities; namely the interior space, the smooth ride and the big boot. The 11-metre turning circle is quite handy too. The Commodore cruises very quietly, with minimal wind and road noise, and absorbs bumps with a softness that avoids any suggestions of floatiness. The revised "Control-Link" rear suspension, which minimises unwanted rear-end steer and hopefully is easier on tyres, seems to work well although it’s clearly not as effective in transferring power to the road as Ford’s more contemporary and universally applied (except to wagons and utes) independent system.
The Commodore is not a sports saloon, nor does it pretend to be; the handling is best described as predictable, the steering relatively linear (although not as sharp or communicative as Ford’s) and the performance of the 3.8-litre, 152kW V6 easily adequate. The only problem with the engine, really, is its lack of smoothness, its uncomfortable sound and its dislike of anything like high rpm. Tool around town, relying on the 305Nm of torque, and it’s pretty good - despite the poor shift quality from the GM four-speed auto that lacks a manual shift function like Falcon's. Open-road cruising isn’t too bad either with enough response to deal with overtaking requirements and fuel economy that can often be quite outstanding given the size of the car. The test car, for example, averaged just on 10 litres per 100km over something like 500km of mixed city-suburb work and the odd stretch of freeway. That’s not too bad for a close to 1600kg sedan. And it does a pretty good job of looking after its passengers, too, especially in the front where the decent-size seats give adequate support to ensure consistent comfort on a long up-country trip. There’s plenty of room in the back seat as well, not quite Statesman-like in generosity, but particularly adequate when you compare it with Camry or Magna – neither of which are too bad in their own right. The new dash that came with VY seems to look even classier than before (Holden says it has spent a lot on refinement with the Series II) and things like the cruise control and passenger seat lumbar support are appreciated. And the right-side, stalk-mounted cruise, while not quite as visible as the steering wheel located control on the Falcon, is still relatively easy to see and operate.
What is not appreciated, in comparison with the Falcon, is the lack of a proper load-through facility for the boot, capacity of which is further restricted by archaic boot hinges that intrude into the cargo space. The Holden makes do with just a simple ski-port arrangement, where the Ford has external multi-link hinges and proper split-fold seats which can prove to be very handy more often than you might think.
Today’s family cars score pretty well on safety though: the Executive offers dual front airbags, with sidebags an option as well as standard thee-channel anti-lock. But the Commodore remains an appealing large sedan with its easy power, good economy, comfortable ride, stretch-out interior and looks that still appeal, even though the sharper, Magna-like rear-end had its early detractors. The upward creep of equipment levels is accompanied by a concomitant upward creep in prices, but at $34,690 with air-conditioning (it’s still not listed as standard in Commodore, just to give the appearance of having a price advantage over Falcon) it’s only $30 more than the Ford. As with Falcon XT, what you hardly feel in the Commodore Executive any more is the suggestion you are driving the bog-standard, base model.