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Mike Stevens | Nov 9, 2009 | 20 Comments

2009 Holden Calais V AFM Road Test Review

WE'RE NO STRANGERS to Holden V8s. Whether it’s the 6.0 litre Gen 4 in the SS Commodore or the HSV-tuned LS3, we’ve driven – and adored – the GM small-block on many occasions.

But how can you make the package better? Extracting power is a no-brainer (just ask HSV), but is it possible to make the big, brawny bent-eight easier on the hip pocket and – dare we say it – more environmentally friendly?

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Holden reckons it has the answer in the form of its Active Fuel Management (AFM) cylinder deactivation technology, which all auto-equipped Holden V8s now ship with. Whether it’s the SS, the Calais, Caprice or Statesman, buy a brand-new V8 with an automatic transmission, and it’ll have AFM.

The premise is simple: during cruising, cut the number of active cylinders from eight to four, and enjoy reduced fuel consumption. After all, a big torquey V8 doesn’t need all its reserves of grunt while just coasting along, right?

We’ll find out in just a minute.

 

Styling

The engine tech may be new, but the body that clothes it, isn’t. Aside from a smattering of AFM badges on the Calais’ rump and front quarter panels, the 2009 Calais V is the same VE-based fare that we’re all familiar with.

It may look a bit plain next to competitors like the FG Falcon, but it’s still an attractive body and one that will age well.

Compared to lesser VE models, there’s more chrome around the side glass, a pair of twin-outlet exhausts and a discreet bootlip spoiler. There’s also a different front bumper design, a chrome accent above the meshed grille and a quartet of 18-inch alloy wheels.

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Unique tail lamp lenses also mark out the Calais as something a bit different from the ordinary Commodore, but unfortunately the Calais misses out on the business-like good looks of the Statesman/Caprice.

 

Interior

On the inside, the Calais V certainly carries more than a whiff of opulence.

The basic layout is pure Commodore, but the light-coloured dash trim, perforated leather seats, suede-effect plastics and black headlining lends a premium flavour to the Calais V’s interior.

A leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear selector feel good in the palm of one’s hand, and the former adjusts for both rake and reach. The driver’s seat adjusts electrically in six directions, however the passenger makes do with a manually-adjusted pew.

The instrument panel is clear and easily understood, however the reflection problem that plagues VE instrument clusters is still present under certain lighting conditions.

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The rear seats are expansive, thanks to the Calais’ sheer width. Legroom is adequate for all but the most long-legged of adults.

The centre tunnel is a little intrusive though, and can make sitting in the centre seat an uncomfortable experience after a while. Aside from that, the Calais still has one of the most capacious cabins in the segment.

There are a couple of negatives though. Although fit and finish is good (we heard no rattles on our tester), some of the plastics (like the catch for the centre console box) were rough-edged. The glovebox lid also felt a little low-rent when opening and closing it.

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Still, there’s an abundance of storage space, with large door bins on each door and a sizable glovebox and centre console box. There’s four cupholders too, and a convenient space for mobile phones/portable music players at the base of the centre stack.

The flat-floored boot is big and can accommodate 496 litres of cargo with the rear seats up, while a generously-sized ski port helps when loading long items.

Beneath the boot carpet there’s just a tyre inflation kit, however a full-size steel spare is a no-cost option.

 

Equipment and Features

The Calais V comes loaded. There’s a six-stacker CD player with auxiliary input and steering wheel-mounted controls, cruise control, power windows, heated mirrors and dual-zone climate control.

A sunroof and sat-nav are optional extras (and were fitted to our car), however a roof-mounted DVD player for the rear passengers comes standard on the V-series.

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Curiously though, there’s no genuinely convenient place to put the DVD player’s wireless headsets. Either wiggle them into the door bins, or cram them into the seatback pockets.

Rain-sensing wipers and auto-on headlights are also part of the Calais V package, along with cruise control, a trip computer and Bluetooth phone integration.

Front and rear parking sensors are of great assistance when slipping the Calais V’s big frame into tight parking spots, and the puddle lamps mounted under the wing mirrors are a nice touch.

In terms of safety equipment, the Calais V ships with all the kit that most drivers would demand of a modern car.

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In addition to its high-strength steel passenger cell, the Calais boasts front, front side and full-length curtain airbags to protect its occupants in a crash.

ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist, traction control and stability control are standard features in the Calais (and indeed across the VE range), and work to keep the car on the straight and narrow.

Pretensioning seatbelts are fitted too, and all seats receive a proper lap-sash seatbelt. Thanks to the addition of a passenger seatbelt reminder, the VE Commodore range now scores a full five star ANCAP crash safety rating.

 

Mechanical Package

The Calais V is now powered by two recently introduced engines: the 210kW direct-injected 3.6 litre SIDI V6, and the 260kW AFM-equipped 6.0 litre Gen 4 V8.

The AFM V8 is only available with an automatic transmission (the SS manual is the only vehicle not to get AFM), and before you’ve even twisted the key there’s a downside.

The adoption of the AFM technology has stripped the V8 of 10kW of power and 13Nm of torque, bringing total output to 260kW and 517Nm. Those are still very healthy numbers, mind you, and the average punter will struggle to notice a difference.

How does it work?

In light-throttle situations such as high-speed cruising, the engine control unit cuts fuel to cylinders 1,4,6 and 7, effectively turning a V8 into a V4. The changeover between AFM modes is virtually seamless, and takes a keen ear to detect.


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In fact, Holden says it takes just 20 milliseconds for all eight cylinders to fire up, meaning overtaking manoeuvres aren’t hindered by the transition from 4 to 8 cylinder operation.

Fuel economy is a claimed 12.6 litres per 100km over the combined cycle, although as we found out it’s extremely easy to achieve better – or much worse – numbers than this.

The engine is also E10 compatible, and the Calais V AFM scores two and a half stars in the Australian Government’s Green Vehicle Guide.

Backing the V8 is a six-speed automatic transmission, with sport and tiptronic shift modes. It’s a good gearbox and a great pairing for the V8, as it is tuned to use higher ratios whenever possible and exploit the Gen 4’s bounteous torque.

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Tip the gear selector to the left, and a sportier shift map engages, holding gears longer and delivering more power to the rear treads.

Drivers can also select their own ratios by pulling or pushing the lever through the plus/minus plane, with upshifts achieved by pulling back and downshifts by pushing forward.

Suspension is courtesy of MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear end, while the Calais’ turning circle measures up at 11.4 metres.

Braking is handled by ventilated discs all around, clamped by twin-piston sliding calipers at the front and single-piston sliding calipers at the rear.

 

The Drive

Considering most of the changes have been limited to the powertrain, the driving experience isn’t all that different to the last non-AFM V8 Calais V.

It handles well for a car its size, with roll and bumps kept well in check by its suspension. The brakes are a little lacking in feel but still haul you up quickly, and the steering is great – if a little heavy at times.

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But like we said, the engine is the key difference here. Not that you’d really notice it.

Aside from an indicator within one of the trip computer’s screens, you’d find it difficult to tell whether the engine is running in 8-cylinder or 4-cylinder mode, such is its smoothness.

There can be a bit of vibration when the revs drop too low while in 4-cylinder mode, but in most situations the rumble of the tyres drowns it out.

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It is rather difficult to actively keep the engine in fuel-saving four-pot operation though. Modest squeezes of the accelerator and small inclines see the motor pop back into 8-cylinder mode.

Unfortunately, Holden couldn’t tune the AFM V8 to idle in four-cylinder mode, meaning that big engine burns more fuel than it otherwise could when stopped at traffic lights.

Additionally, the need to have full power on hand to shift the Calais V’s 1800kg frame means AFM typically won’t kick in until at least 60km/h.

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Does it save fuel? The short answer is yes. We managed to average an impressive 10.6l/100km over an even mix of highway and urban driving, and even more frugal drivers could certainly achieve less than that.

However the fuel saving with the AFM is only really achieved if you’re gentle on the throttle. Drive it with a heavy right foot and the advantages disappear.

The Verdict

So, is AFM the advance that V8 drivers may have been hoping for? Certainly, although the AFM tech can’t fully arrest the V8’s thirst for fuel, it does help when out on the open road, or cruising urban freeways.

It’s an incremental advance, but an advance nonetheless; and most drivers will appreciate any savings in fuel costs.

That V8 engine is still a fantastic one, with a great note, huge torque and the ability to sprint past slower traffic with consummate ease.

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Of course, if you are looking for a large Aussie luxury sedan with performance and efficiency, there are a couple of rather polished alternatives.

The new 210kW 3.6 litre SIDI V6 powered Calais is one, and we know it will return around 10 l/100km under duress. Ford's 'almost perfect' turbo-charged 4.0 litre G6-E is the other.

For many though, the mantra "there is nothing quite like a V8" rings loud and clear. There is just something about the way a big V8 serves up large dollops of lazy torque from tick-over, that continues to appeal.

If this is you then the Calais V AFM will not dissapoint. It's loaded with luxury and continues to offer all of the positive attributes of a big V8, along with improved fuel consumption on the open road.

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