Space, utility, ruggedness, fuel economy, midrange performance, upgraded standard equipment, stability, cabin quietness, ride comfort, interior comfort
We Don't Like:
Base Alloytec V6-only, no V8 option, no stability control, no standard air-conditioning, no five-speed auto, lack of sequention shift mode, mechanical clatter, lack of bottom-end torque, reluctance to rev, average engine note
The smart money might suggest that, as a breed, conventional station wagons are heading for extinction. SUVs and MPVs are tending to do a lot of the things we traditionally used wagons for in the past. Utility, space, a certain ruggedness and not too much concern about aesthetics are common denominators among family wagons. Most of these - and more - can be found in any of the specialised vehicles that are breeding so prolifically today. SUVs have much of a wagon’s load space and they are also able to go places wagons can’t. MPVs focus more on carrying capacity and make a big deal of treating passengers. The larger ones often provide an extra row of seats that can mean they’ll take up to eight passengers. So why would you buy a conventional station wagon?
For many of us, that’s a vexed question. Even if you don’t wish to join the SUV throngs, there’s not much option if you plan to be entirely pragmatic. There is so much SUV activity out there that the deals are often stupendous. And the products aren’t bad either. Slightly less so with the MPVs, but they certainly pack a lot of passenger comforts into a relatively compact space. On the other hand, there seem to be fewer and fewer conventional wagons around, especially in the "family" category. Toyota is out of the game (the Corolla doesn’t quite cut it as a family wagon) and so is Mitsubishi (the same comments apply to its new Lancer wagon), leaving only Holden and Ford to supply whatever demand is there. And even then, both are moving into SUV country – the Territory in Ford’s case and the Adventra in Holden’s. So what is it that makes people still consider a new full-size family wagon? Certainly it can’t be price, because as well as being prolific, the SUVs and MPVs are very competitive. And it’s probably nothing to do with utility. Or social acceptability. Most likely it’s due to things like running costs – not many things are more expensive to run and maintain than a large SUV, which is more like a light truck when it comes to fuel consumption, tyre replacement and fuel costs. Then there is the actual load space behind the rear seat of a conventional wagon - and, importantly, the car-like road manners.
Take Holden’s just-launched VZ Commodore wagon. Running on the same extended wheelbase as the Statesman and Caprice, it combines a load area big enough to contain an interstate rep’s full range of samples and will cruise from one country town to the next averaging better than 10 litres per 100km. Or it will swallow the whole family, plus luggage, for a holiday trip down the coast, without feeling like an overloaded truck to drive. And it won’t suffer the vestigial van-like uprightness that remains in a few MPVs. The Commodore wagon is capable of holding a massive 2752 litres of luggage with the rear seat folded down and offers truly generous seat-to-tailgate dimensions – as well as decent body width - in the same configuration. Even with the back seat in place, there’s a lot more space than you’d expect to find in even the biggest 4WD. And, interestingly, the Commodore wagon can be fitted with a third row of seats.
Particularly interesting also in the VZ Commodore is the all-new Alloytec V6, built right here in Australia, already being exported and due to appear in some diverse European product in the next few years. The Commodore wagon comes in Executive and Acclaim form only, which means only the 175kW version of the new engine is available (no V8 either) and that the standard transmission is the reworked version of the old four-speed automatic. It also means that, if you opt for the Executive, air-conditioning is an option - and that, on Acclaim, the electronic stability control that is standard on the sedan fails to make an appearance. What you do get on the Executive wagon - which is the subject of this test - are dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes with EBD and Brake Assist, cruise control, power tailgate operation, power mirrors, power windows (front only), a minimalist trip computer, auto headlights, a six-speaker sound system with CD player, power adjustments for seat height and tilt on the driver’s side and 15-inch steel wheels.
Like other VZ Commodores, the Executive wagon gets front-end modifications that have sharpened up the steering, as well as a reworked 4L60 four-speed auto transmission that is claimed to give better shifts and improved economy. Externally, there’s not much to it. The VZ wagon shows off the bolder grille, new headlights and the new ribbed bonnet but is otherwise little changed. The wagon, in standard Executive form, weighs 72kg more than the equivalent sedan but this is no problem for the 3.6-litre Alloytec V6. Despite being smaller than the old 3.8-litre V6, its torque and power figures are higher. Indicating how technology has advanced since the ex-Buick V6 sprang to life so long ago, the torque figure is not merely higher, but is also developed at lower rpm. This is achieved by technological trickery such as the variable-camshaft timing that alters advance and retard on the inlet camshaft, helping maximise power whichever end of the rpm band the engine is operating at. The four-valve cylinder heads, individual ignition coils for each cylinder and electronic throttle control all help too. Yet the Alloytec V6 drives similarly to the cast-iron, pushrod V6 that was first seen in the VN Commodore in 1988. Expectations of an audibly appealing, high-winding engine were replaced by real surprise when the Alloytec idled with some mechanical clatter and virtually no inlet exhaust note. A Japanese-style V6 it is not.
The driving experience, similarly, is one that suggests the Alloytec may not be too fond of high rpm either, particularly when you note the 5500rpm redline - which is patently silly because it doesn’t develop maximum power until 6000rpm. As it happens, this is an engine that must be used forcefully to give its best. It doesn’t have anything like the dramatic "step-off" at once beloved and reviled in the original VN. But it does have some mid-range depth, with something like 90 per cent of maximum torque developed from about 1600rpm through to 5500rpm. The final sign that it is not related to the old engine comes when it spins comfortably past, say, 5000rpm. There’s no breathlessness or signs of distress – and no sonorous note to be savoured either. The engine works quite well with the revised four-speed automatic, due in part to the engine’s much wider power band, but undoubtedly it’s far happier with the new five-speed auto that only comes with the 190kW Alloytec. The four-speed also lacks sequential shifting, which makes it seem somewhat primeval.
The Executive wagon cruises well on the open road, maybe not as economical as expected, but not too bad nonetheless and undoubtedly better than comparable Ford Falcons. It’s pretty quiet once up to speed, too, and the ride remains as absorbent and comfortable as ever – particularly with the long wheelbase. It’s a plush-feeling wagon, the Commodore, a relaxed interstate cruiser with excellent seats and a nice, secure feeling on the road. In this respect at least, the majority of SUVs would find it difficult to match.