Improved steering, better auto transmission shift quality
We Don't Like:
Engine still harsh over 4000rpm, no manual gearbox choice, more thrills around for the money
Up until Ford reset the parameters of performance with its BA XR6 range in late 2002, the Commodore S supercharged was a pretty credible machine. But now the naturally-aspirated version of the Falcon outdoes it, while the turbo is in a whole other league. The figures tell the story. With the aid of an M90 Eaton supercharger pumping more air into the cylinders, the Commodore's Ecotec 3.8-litre V6 produces 171kW at 5200rpm and 375Nm of torque at 3000rpm. Without the assistance of forced induction, the XR6's 4.0-litre inline six - now with the aid of double overhead camshafts and 24 valves with variable timing - produces 182kW at 5000rpm and 380Nm at 3250rpm. And the Falcon's cheaper as well. And you can get it with a manual gearbox, an asset the blown Commodore has never been able to boast. The only big number going in the Commodore's favour is kerb weight, where it undercuts the lardy XR6 by well over 100kg. The Falcon XR6 Turbo is more expensive than the Commodore and its form of forced induction is obviously different, but we'll give you the figures just for the hell of it because they make great reading - 240kW at 5250rpm and 450Nm between 2000rpm and 4500rpm.
Okay. The message is coming through loud and clear. Number-for-number the Commodore is struggling in most departments to match up against its arch-rival. So let's stop comparing right now. Forget about Falcon and let's just look at the Commodore S supercharged within the VY range that debuted last October, the result of a $250 million investment.
The S is the V6 sports sedan. You can get it with the normally aspirated 151kW Ecotec V6 or tick the supercharged box and grab the extra power and torque and prepare to hand over $40,000-plus once you are on the road. A consistent if not gigantic seller for Holden since the launch of VT back in 1997, the supercharged S - like the rest of the range - has primarily been updated in the looks department for VY. This is this generation Commodore's mid-life makeover, with a more angular and aggressive front and rear-end design attached to the rounded center section, resulting in a car that looks like it's in transition - which is precisely the case. The abandonment of the twin-nostril grille across the range allows the Holden Lion to take a more prominent position on the nose, rather than be slid back up the bonnet. You can also expect to see these sorts of styling cues spreading into Holden's new cross-over family of two and four-wheel drives which are launched in 2003.
Holden claims a significant drop in aerodynamic lift, and a slight reduction in aerodynamic CD thanks to the sharper exterior, which in turn is supposed to produce a slight reduction in fuel consumption. The S gets a bodykit comprising front and rear airdam with blacked out centre section - which gives a racing car-style venturi tunnel effect - side skirts and a rear wing. All this is somewhat undone by the 16-inch alloy wheel and tyre combination, which looks kinda sporty, but lacks the machismo of the SV8's 17s, let alone the SS's 18-inch set-up. Inside, again like the rest of the range, the instrumentation, steering wheel and the centre console are new. The S gets the low-series presentation, which means three big knobs in the vertical centre console to twirl for the air-conditioning, rather than push buttons, while there's a cohesive four-gauge instrument panel sitting behind a new four-spoke steering wheel. It's more technical and less organic than the old set-up, which we liked. But it's certainly well thought out and practical. The only weird bit being the pad at the top of the console, which looks like a flip-up lid but isn't.
Mechanically, the supercharged S shares the updates that have been spread across the range, such as increased bodyshell stiffness thanks to different rear sheetmetal, revised steering comprising a stiffer torsion bar and revised valving and increased capacity hydraulic force motors in the auto gearbox to reduce shift shock. Both V6 engines also have increased beaming stiffness (11 per cent vertically and five per cent horizontally) courtesy of redesigned engine-to-transmission bracing, while V6 service intervals have been increased from 10,000 to 15,000km following a change in camshaft bearing material from copper-lead to aluminium-lead, and by increasing oil capacity - via a larger cast alloy oil pan - from 5.2 to 6.1 litres. Rear wheelarch noise was reduced by the fitment of full rear wheelhouse liners, while further engine noise isolation is the aim of an engine-side dash absorber and new absorption material for the passenger side dash mat, centre console and under-instruments hush panels. A plenum wind deflector in front of the windscreen and wind tunnel designed exterior mirrors that reduce wind noise by 2.5 and 3dBA respectively. A strengthened front floor area aims to reduce floor intrusion, while an energy absorbing tray has been fitted below the instrument panel to reduce lower limb injuries.
The supercharged engine also gets what Holden calls a Dampolator, which is a combined accessory drive isolator and crankshaft damper aimed at enhancing smoothness above 4000rpm. Engine power and torque are unchanged, however. It's small stuff really, reflecting the fact Commodore was already quite a competent package and that the company's engineering emphasis and focus has shifted to the debut of the new generation overhead camshaft High Feature V6 family in 2004, followed by the crucial all-new VE "world car" Commodore in 2006. Which means when you jump behind the wheel, the VY S supercharged feels very similar to the VXII S supercharged. But not identical. There's no doubt the steering is heavier, meatier and more decisive than the old car. That is undoubtedly be the most noticeable improvement. Secondly, the ongoing refinement of the auto continues to reap rewards. The shifting is definitely smoother and quicker. It means that these days the drivetrain is ready to accelerate when you ask for it, rather than first having a discussion. A far cry from the original VT. Progress is also more serene thanks to those efforts to improve NVH, but we remain unconvinced by the dampolator because the engine seems as rowdy and rough over 4000rpm as ever. There's also plenty of noise emanating from the suspension and tyres over rougher roads.
The chassis is unchanged, the S getting the FE2 sports version of the Commodore's simple MacPherson strut front suspension and Control-Link rear-end. That means the car loses some of the standard set-up's outstanding suppleness in exchange for cornering sharpness. But it's a compromised set-up because the S is not that happy on winding, tight roads. There's understeer in, oversteer out when you're pushing along. You notice the car's weight transition in these circumstances too, from side to side and then fore-aft under brakes, which incidentally do a fine job of retardation initially, but can fade under extended use. In these conditions the traction control also continues to be overly intrusive and quite agricultural compared to some other local systems. The S is more at home as a cross-country blaster, sitting planted and secure on typical Australian country roads, showing off its fundamentally sound spring/damping relationship and the advantages of a nice, long wheelbase. The engine response is good in these conditions - aided by the improved auto - but to be honest until you kick it hard in the guts it's hard to tell which version of the V6 this is. Only until the revs rise and you detect the supercharger whine does it become obvious. Around town it's quiet and civilised, and on the freeway it ticks over at less than 2000rpm at 100km/h. Fuel consumption returned during our test was 14.2L/100km against a claimed combined average of 10.3L/100km. Bear in mind when doing your budget calculations that this car runs best on premium unleaded petrol.
The final area of the VY upgrade that needs to be noted is in equipment. A passenger airbag is now standard, the alloy wheels are a new design, as is the cloth trim. Other stuff, like the new six-speaker Blaupunkt stereos, headlamp auto off, stop watch function in the trip computer and front seatbelt force limiters are offered across the range. That adds to a package which already included power windows all-round, anti-lock brakes, air-conditioning, cruise control, part-power driver's seat and in-dash single CD - not a bad package all-up. It's not great package any more though, and one that's heading for the end of its lifespan.
In isolation Commodore S supercharged is enjoyable enough, but you already know how we think it compares with the Falcon. Perhaps even more telling is that for around the same money you can get another sports Commodore that's more compelling than the S supercharged - the SV8. It's a bit rough and a bit rugged but this bare-bones V8 engages and excites in a way the V6 can never quite achieve. And excitement is what sports sedans are surely all about.