Holden Commodore SS Sedan Oct 2002 to Aug 2004 Buying Guide
Holden's VY Commodore SS has a lot to live up to. As the performance flagship of a model range that has comprehensively outsold its direct rival at Ford for the past five years, strong sales and an even stronger image are what Holden needs SS to deliver. Arguably the most convincing of all the controversially facelifted VY models - which cost half as much to develop as Ford's BA Falcon range - SS delivers a bigger dose of HSV styling than any Holden before it, along with a fresh new interior and a few more standard features. Backing up the new cosmetics is communicative new steering, a peak power increase to 235kW, improved low-down driveability and a more fitting V8 exhaust burble - all of which makes SS more rewarding to own. But as the only VY variant to increase in price, is this enough to continue its reign as Australia's favourite sports sedan in the face of a renewed performance vehicle campaign from Ford? |
Perhaps the most convincing of all the facelifted VY models, Commodore SS is the wildest, most HSV-like Holden ever produced. The clean, contemporary and unmistakably new front-end styling carries GM corporate cues already introduced for Monaro. The slipperier new shape is said to reduce aerodynamic drag by 4.2 per cent to 0.319Cd, thanks to the sharper lines of the bootlid and front fascia. Combined with attention to the underbody, the changes also mean lift has been reduced by a big 47 per cent to 11.7kg at 100km/h, resulting in a reduction of the yawing moment coefficient of seven per cent and therefore slightly better crosswind stability.
As SS is based on the low-series VY Commodore, there's no chrome and no projector headlights but a simple, single-slat black grille incorporating a prominent Holden lion badge. The new grille is flanked by twin headlights behind a single, clear lens with black bezel backgrounds and the interesting "bullseye" parking lights. Further down in the aggressive new bumper there are circular foglights and a huge, gaping air-dam with a blacked-out lower section to match the grille, while the full-length shoulder crease has been made more prominent in the front quarter panels. Meantime, the trailing edge of the deep new wedge-shaped bonnet pressing rests on a somewhat unsightly new black plastic plenum ramp to deflect wind more cleanly over the wipers and windscreen.
Sculpted side skirts, body coloured rub strips, new-design wing mirrors, V8 front quarter badging, twin chrome tailpipes and a new, floating-style rear spoiler further set SS apart from Executive in terms of exterior styling, as do the massive new and exclusive five-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels. But if the new front-end design is modern and distinctive, the jury is still out on the VY SS rear end, which appears more compact due to its sharper, edgier new styling treatment and attracts claims that its somewhat triangular tail-lights are similar to Magna's, making the rear a mismatch with the front-end's rounder proportions. Either way, it will be interesting to see if the slightly controversial VY styling will be as widely accepted in the longer term as VT's ground-breaking shape was.
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Seat Plan & Seats
Seat Plan & Seats
Like all Commodores, SS offers seating for five adults, each with a lap/sash seatbelt and plenty of legroom. Front passengers benefit from height and angle-adjustable head restraints, plus twin front and now twin side airbags, while only outboard rear passengers get (fixed) head restraints. There are a pair of cupholders front and rear, storage bins in the front doors, armrests for all outboard passengers and both upper and lower air-conditioning vents for all passengers.
Commodore SS comes standard with hip-hugging sports bucket seats. Trimmed in a garish new triangular geometric-patterned cloth upholstery, they feature pronounced side support wings on the seat cushion and backrest. While both front seat occupants get adjustable lumbar support, only SS drivers get four-way power height adjustment, with recline and lumbar both operated manually by side-mounted rotary dials. Both front seats offer height and angle-adjustable head restraints, with the centre rear occupant missing out altogether and outboard rear occupants getting a small, fixed restraint built into the seatback. Commodore SS continues to offer embroidered leather seat upholstery as an optional extra, with the Bermuda Blue (pictured), Anthracite and Red Hot colour schemes matched to the door inserts, being exclusive to SS and costing about $2000.
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Dash & Controls
Dash & Controls
Commodore's new dashboard is of a contemporary, European-style design and features a revised instrument panel and centre console to match the new, geometrically styled steering wheel. A prominent lip on the new instrument binnacle hood obscures vision to gauges for tall drivers. The SS improves on the plain low-series instrument design markedly by offering three colour-coded backgrounds with larger, white italic increments. Our Hothouse Green test car was matched with Hothouse Green instruments, including a 5500rpm tacho on the left and 260km/h speedo on the right, flanked by temperature and fuel gauges. A new, larger LCD screen nestles between speedo and tacho underneath, revealing trip computer functions, audio information, service intervals and gear selection. The Porsche-like intersecting semi-circle instrument theme is echoed by the centre console, which replaces the sweeping, organic lines of VT with a more technical, symmetric layout that remains functional enough. New upper air vents and a hazard light switch reside above three rotary dials for air-conditioning and the new Blaupunkt audio head unit featuring a low-mounted LCD screen. Unlike Falcon, the optional satellite navigation screen is mounted even lower, taking the place of the optional ashtray. The new headlight switch on the right mirrors the trip computer control pad on the left, but the consistency ends about there. A hard, flat panel at the top of centre console appears to house an extra Subaru-style storage nook but in fact does nothing other than make one wonder what's missing (HSV models add extra gauges here). Plastics used on the carryover door skins is not well matched with the new dashboard finish, which is generally of a lower quality than Falcon's new BMW-like textured dash material. The new VY cockpit looks convincing enough, but you don't have to look too closely to find plenty of carryover components and the feel of most controls does not live up to expectations invited by the new look.
Commodore SS controls remain largely unchanged despite the new dashboard. The multi-function steering wheel continues to offer remote audio controls, with indicators and the awkward cruise control system operated via the right-side stalk which is carried over from VXII. Similarly, the left-side stalk operates the road speed-variable intermittent wipers and windscreen washer. The new-style headlight switch remains on the right-hand end of the dash, Euro-style, and now incorporates an auto lights on/off function, plus instrument illumination adjustment and a pull-out foglight switch. The newly designed handbrake lever is of a different, more substantial feeling shape and provides more leverage than before, while the gearshift lever also has a more tactile feel to it. Commodore's power window controls avoid durability issues by being mounted between the seats in the centre console, but the new control pad, which incorporates the traction control and window lock buttons, is not as ergonomically sound as driver's door mounted units. Still, Commodore does score points over Falcon by offering an auto-down function for both front windows
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Wheels/Tyres & Luggage
Wheels/Tyres & Luggage
Big news here is that Commodore SS now runs on 18-inch wheels and tyres as standard, raising its grip and turn-in capability at the expense of some ride comfort. VY SS sedan joins Monaro and most HSVs by wearing 18-inch alloy wheels as standard, in this case new-design five-spoke 18 x 8.0-inch alloys with directional Bridgestone Potenza RE040 235/40 ZR18 tyres. While S sedan and SS ute models continue with 17-inch alloys, and the new SV8 model also gets new-design 17-inch items (but with inferior B530 Bridgestone rubber), SS now betters its opposite numbers at Ford with XR6 Turbo and the forthcoming XR8 both employing 17-inch wheels as standard.
Not much change in this department. Capacity of the fully lined and illuminated boot remains a generous 475 litres, which is slightly smaller than the reduced (and no longer flat-floored) BA Falcon boot, which itself is now dwarfed by Camry's enormous new boot. The boot can be opened via a button within the glovebox or remotely via the keypad and, while Falcon's electronic fuel flap release is backed up a manual release inside the boot, Commodore's floor-mounted, cable-operated fuel flap release lever apparently does not require such measures. The 12-volt power outlet has been relocated from the awkward spot under the optional ashtray to within the centre console bin, which also houses holders for multiple CDs, a pen and coins. Meantime, the illuminated and lockable glovebox accommodates a pen and business card holders, while multi-sized (but unlidded) twin cupholders reside alongside the new power window control unit. The front doors contain useful storage pockets, there are vanity mirrors on both sunvisors and map pockets on both front seatbacks, and the extra large centre section of the rear seat back houses an armrest and folds down to reveal a large tray and another two cupholders. No steps have been taken to change Commodore's cheap and intrusive boot hinging system, which robs valuable load space. However, its extra large ski-port delivers almost as much through-loading capacity as BA Falcon's vastly reduced 60/40 split-folding seatback system.
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Apart from the new front and rear exterior sheetmetal styling, changes for the VY SS include new exterior mirrors, a new plenum ramp behind the bonnet, twin chrome tailpipes to replace the single oval-shaped unit fitted previously, dark-tinted tail-light lenses, new 'floating' rear wing and, not least, the switch from 17-inch alloys to 18-inch wheels off Monaro. Inside there's an all-new dashboard, new steering wheel, mobile phone compatible Blaupunkt six-CD in-dash sound system to replace the dated Eurovox unit, side airbags, satin chrome interior door handles, new cloth trim, new instruments with a choice of three background colours and a multi-function information screen displaying gear selection, audio details and service indicator. The 12-volt power outlet has been relocated to inside the centre console, road speed sensitive variable intermittent wipers and audio volume control have been added, and there is now a stopwatch function for the trip computer. Commodore SS now also comes standard with auto headlights on/off, twilight sentinel, front reading spotlights, rear windscreen sunshade, front seatbelt force limiters and an alloy pedal cluster. There are also a number of powertrain updates, including the liberation of an extra 10kW and 15Nm - plus a beefier exhaust note - via Monaro-style induction tract revisions and the adoption of a full-length, stainless steel twin exhaust system. Finally, recalibration of the front suspension damping is aimed at increase front-end compliance and ride comfort.
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Stand Out Features
Of course, the wild new bodykit is a standout feature of the VY SS. Incorporating a more aggressive version of the air-dam insert for both the front and rear bumpers, the latest SS look is more HSV than ever. Like Commodore S, SS is now also available in three new metallic colours, plus the Hothouse Green hue that first appeared exclusively on Monaro. Commodore SS is further differentiated by dark tinted tail-light lenses. Alloy pedal clusters are now standard on SS as well, as are side impact airbags in addition to two front airbags, and colour coded instruments (pictured). A host of new accessories are also available for Holden's flagship performance sedan, including rear park assist, rear sunguard, Holden Assist and new shades of colour coded leather upholstery.
Commodore SS continues to be based on the low-series Executive specification, which means it gets the entry level VY variant's basic new air-conditioning system. Dominated by three large rotary dials, each featuring tactile rubber outer grips, the new AC controls operate, from left, four positions of fan speed (Falcon gets 14), temperature control and air-flow mode. The outboard controls feature push-buttons to activate the air-conditioning itself (left) and rear demist (right). Like all the air vents, the redesigned central front and rear twin vents are closeable, but the familiar outboard vents continue to exit via the carryover door skins, making the system less efficient than Falcon's twin-vent design. There is a recirculate function, floor venting for rear-seat passengers and side glass ventilation.
A new German-designed electronic Blaupunkt sound system is a highlight of the redesigned VY Commodore interior, replacing the ageing Eurovox audio unit. Operated exclusively by push-buttons, except for the large and tactile rotary dial on the driver's side to adjust sound functions, the security PIN-coded system has a total output of 80 watts (compared to Falcon's 100-watt system) and, like its XR6 Turbo rival, six speakers. Commodore SS improves on Executive's entry level AM/FM Blaupunkt system by offering an in-dash six-CD stacker with load and eject buttons. The new Blaupunkt system also features a large LCD screen revealing the time, station selection and disc selection, keyless play, auxiliary input for a mobile phone, auto mute, compatibility with Holden Assist, six presets and remote steering wheel controls.
Satellite navigation is a Holden By Design optional extra on Commodore SS. Taking the place of the optional smoker's pack but no longer replacing the 12-volt outlet, which is now located in the centre console compartment, the large colour display screen sits low in the centre console. It is operated by a console-mounted remote control unit and features mapping plus directional and audible navigation instructions.
VY Commodore SS continues with Holden's rolling security coded immobiliser system, featuring remote central locking via Commodore's familiar (but still unique among locally built vehicles) integrated key/fob. The one-piece remote key features tactile lock, unlock and boot release buttons - but no panic button like Falcon - and can be programmed for anti-hijacking two-stage unlocking, which unlocks only the driver's first. The remote key also activates the interior light upon unlocking, while the interior light also illuminates when the ignition is turned off and automatically turns off after one hour. The rear wing features a high-mounted stop light. Twin overhead reading spotlights are a new feature for SS, but there are still no rear side reading lights, no courtesy door lighting, no footwell lighting, no vanity mirror illumination and no internal lock button, apart from the door tag itself. Commodore SS offers a park brake and low fuel warning lamp/chime but, unlike Falcon, a door ajar warning is reserved for high-series models. SS buyers also miss out on Calais' rear lamp failure warning light and Falcon's seatbelt warning light/chime.
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Performance, front-end styling, interior, steering
We Don't Like:
Price, rear-end styling, brakes, transmissions, gearing
One drive in the VY SS leaves no doubt where Holden has placed its emphasis for this car - changing the looks. Apart from refinements to the steering, you'll need to be a ride/handling or performance testing expert to detect any further differences wrought by the number of detail changes for VY Commodore. As a result, it is really the interior itself that is the most noticeable change from behind the new-look steering wheel. Although not as comprehensive as BA Falcon's all-new interior (outboard air vents are carried over from VT and the steering column stalks introduced for VXII remain unchanged, for instance), it is a refreshing change for Commodore drivers who have lived with the stylish but oh-so-familiar interior for five years now.
The new interior is a classy, Euro-look affair with large, tactile rotary air-conditioning controls and an array of push-buttons for the six-CD Blaupunkt audio system, which contrasts with the multi-function approach of Falcon's piano keys. As with Falcon, there's a modern information display revealing everything from trip computer to audio functions - mounted within the instrument cluster not on the centre console. A stylish new woven headlining material lifts overall cabin ambience considerably, even in base Executive models, making Commodore's driving environment unquestionably more upmarket. Narrower spokes make the new Volkswagen-look steering wheel more functional and we liked the steering wheel's new, braille-equipped audio controls too. To go with the new-look steering wheel is that dramatically improved steering, with better on-centre feel that requires less driver input to achieve similar results as before. It still lacks the feedback of BA Falcon and is too heavy at parking speeds, but no longer requires constant correction to maintain a straight line and feels far more responsive and precise than before. Combined with a slightly stiffer bodyshell and the fitting of larger 18-inch alloys, the steering lifts SS Commodore's dynamic potential up a notch or two.
Although ride quality has suffered with the arrival of larger wheels, the VY SS is generally a nicer package to drive. The addition of side airbags and front seatbelt force limiters increases passive safety, while new standard features like a rear sunshade, front reading lights and auto headlights make it marginally better equipped, and the full rear wheel arch linings considerably reduce noise from road debris contacting metal out back. But the biggest change in the driving is the noticeable improvement in both exhaust and induction note, along with more refined off-idle engine response, making SS less of a chore to drive in traffic. While better steering and a skerrick more peak power and torque make the new SS more rewarding to drive than its predecessors on the open road - and there's no doubting the deceptively quick pace of the mighty Gen III V8 - for the first time Holden's performance king has an opposite number with the credentials to seriously threaten its supremacy.
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VY Commodore SS is available with six-speed manual transmission or, as a no-cost option, four-speed automatic transmission. Its 5.7-litre Chevrolet engine is about as big as a V8 gets in a family sedan, and delivers an outstanding power-to-weight ratio of 148kW per tonne. Fuel economy suffers, though, and we were unable to match Holden's claimed figures of 8.5 litres per 100km in the city and 13.5lt/100km on the highway, with an average of 11lt/100km.
Commodore SS remains the epitome of the Aussie sports sedan, its large four-door body being propelled by an all-alloy V8 mounted longitudinally up front, driving only the rear wheels.
A few extra kilowatts of power and a handful more Newton metres of torque may not sound like a huge incremental gain for Holden's revered Gen III Chevrolet V8, but a number of detail changes have made the brawny alloy lump a far more civilised thing to drive. The same induction tract changes that were necessitated for Monaro by its more intrusive projector beam headlights have been applied to both Holden's standard 225kW V8 and to the "high output" 235kW V8 found in SS and SV8 models. The changes make for a much deeper, more satisfying induction note and bring big gains in off-idle throttle response and refinement. Less of the outgoing V8's coughing, wheezing and spluttering is accompanied by sudden throttle inputs at low revs. Combined with the long-travel clutch and super-tall overall gearing, the more civilised and tractable engine makes SS more pleasant to drive in urban traffic. To achieve the 10kW and 15Nm peak performance gains (now 235kW at the same 5200rpm and 465Nm at 4400rpm), a new full-length twin stainless steel exhaust system is fitted to Holden's hi-po V8, which feels just a little stronger in the mid-range and more willing to rev cleanly to its 5500rpm redline. Despite the odd firing order, it also produces an exhaust burble more in keeping with an engine displacing almost six litres. The pushrod alloy V8 may still feel a little coarse, but there's no denying its ability, propelling the 1600kg SS to licence-losing speeds with devastating ease and building even more speed deceptively and with a little more character and effectiveness. Commodore SS will run on regular, 91-octane unleaded fuel, thanks to its twin knock control sensors, which of course reduces performance. The vastly oversquare pushrod V8 also employs sequential fuel injection, coil-per-cylinder ignition and a six-bolt crankshaft.
Commodore SS continues to employ Holden's FE2 sports suspension as standard, the lower ride height combining with massive standard 18-inch alloys to fill the wheel arches like no Holden before it. Of course, the firmer set-up reduces bodyroll, lifting Commodore SS's handling prowess over other VY models by making it more agile during changes of direction and more willing to hold a tight line. But the trade-off is ride comfort, which is further reduced by the use of lower profile 18-inch rubber. Despite detail changes to the front suspension's compression damping, including the addition of a progressive low speed disc stack aimed at increasing front-end compliance, the ride is now best described as busy. Still, combined with far better rear wheel location thanks to VXII's Control-Link IRS, plus the refreshing new steering, the almost HSV-firm ride is a small price to pay for Commodore SS's more accomplished dynamics.
The new trip computer control unit echoes the headlight switch on the left side of the instrument binnacle and adds a stopwatch to its list of functions. They include distance to empty, average speed, average fuel consumption, odometer, tripmeter and, going one better than Falcon, an overspeed alert. Holden Assist is now optional across the range, as are reverse parking sensors, while the electronic traction control system has been refined to be a little less intrusive. Traction control is standard on SS, which employs four-channel ABS, while models not fitted with traction control make do with three-channel ABS. Other notable electronic features include road speed-sensitive volume control for the new Blaupunkt sound system, which also features an auxiliary input to enable phone and Holden Assist audio to be fed through the speaker system.
Holden says both shift quality and durability have been improved in the archaic four-speed GM auto that, surprisingly, is specified by the majority of Commodore SS buyers. Along with shift recalibrations, the V8 automatic transmission's clutch pack has been uprated from a six-plate to a seven-plate design for increased durability, while both V6 and V8 autos feature increased capacity hydraulic force motors to reduce shift shock. But the reality is Holden's V8 auto is still slow and abrupt-shifting and is made to appear even more primitive by Falcon's new sequential-shifting auto. The six-speed manual, with similarly tall overall gearing (like third in the auto, fourth in the manual is directly driven at a ratio of 1:1), is still vaguely gated, but for the same money remains our choice of transmission for the SS. Its clutch pedal action is still long-throw and slightly heavy, but the subtle improvement in off-idle engine response makes it a little easier to avoid the driveline snatch that plagues most V8-powered manuals. With sixth gear at 100km/h still equating to just 1500rpm, the top ratio is purely a flat road economy device.
Commodore SS brakes remain unchanged in VY specification, despite the increase in performance, and in fact have not changed since the VT surfaced in 1997. That means twin-piston finned callipers up front working on ventilated discs and single-piston callipers gripping solid rear rotors at the rear. ABS is standard, of course, and while Commodore's braking system incorporates a load-sensing brake pressure proportioning valve, Falcon goes one better with standard electronic brake-force distribution. Unlike SS, XR models offer a Premium brake package as optional equipment, while standard BA Falcon brake discs are much larger to start with as well.
Steering is probably the single biggest mechanical change for VY Commodore, the vastly improved rack being instantly recognisable to anyone who has driven a new one in the past five years. It combines with the Control-Link IRS introduced for the VXII update last year to lift Commodore's dynamic abilities substantially. Featuring increased torsion bar stiffness and changes to valving, the steering rack's new power assistance curve reduces the amount of driver input required for any given deviation from a straight line. That is, the same amount of effort at the steering wheel produces a greater change in direction. More precise while offering a little more feedback, the new steering set-up gives Commodore a new-found level of steering control, particularly on-centre. There's a reduced need for constant correction to maintain a straight line and initial turn-in precision has improved markedly - although this is also aided by the move to larger, 18-inch wheels and tyres. Enthusiastic Commodore drivers will revel in the VY steering's more accurate nature - finally there's some indication of where the front wheels are pointing - and, while feedback is also improved, it still falls short of Falcon's more communicative tiller. It's also a little under-assisted at parking speeds too, requiring plenty of elbow grease to perform full-lock manoeuvres. The height and reach adjustable steering wheel itself is of a new design, the SS following other VY models' new four-spoke design but adding silver-finished spokes and a thicker leather-wrapped rim with perforated hide at top and bottom. Its rim is now made from lighter magnesium.
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5.665-litre 16-valve all-alloy pushrod V8
Location: front-mounted, longitudinal
Bore/stroke: 99.0mm x 92.0mm
Compression ratio: 10.0:1
Front: independent by MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Rear: independent by control link semi-trailing arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Power-assisted variable-ratio rack and pinion
Turning circle: 11 metres
Twin front and side airbags
18-inch alloy wheels/tyres
Power driver's seat height adjustment
Driver and passenger lumbar
Steering wheel audio controls
Height/reach steering wheel adjustment
Front and rear cupholders
Illuminated lockable glovebox
Variable intermittent wipers
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