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Tim O'Brien | Aug 9, 2008

Spend a week in the Sportwagon, and the strength of the package is irresistible. [...] Quite simply, at $46,290 for the SS V8 manual (rising to $53,790 for the SSV manual), it’s far and away the best wagon of the moment.

Show me someone who does not respond to the bellow of a V8 under the whip, and I will show you a corpse – an ex-parrot, dead as a maggot.

It is one of the polarising sounds of the post-Kyoto age. To some, a V8 on song is akin to sin: its sound is the devil at work, the screech of the Nazgul, the wail of the Banshee, a harkening to a darker – and best forgotten – primal past.

Others, young blokes and ‘tradies’ mostly, love it. They’ll turn and take an eye-full; to them, it’s as irresistible as breathing.

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Will it disappear? Will the pressure on scant resources and the race to reduce emissions eventually hammer the final nail into the coffin of the beast, and banish the V8 to the mists of motoring history?

These are scary days for the hopeless petrol-head. It’s the kind of thing that keeps rabbits like me – and, I suspect, rabbits like you – awake at night.

Of course, there is a perfectly sensible reason why Holden and Ford still offer a thumping V8 as part of the Commodore and Falcon model line-up. It’s because people want them. Some – in fact, many of us - are prepared to pay the price; to suffer a little additional pain at the pump for the singular joy of sliding behind the wheel with a V8 under the toe.

One part of the price to pay may mean driving a little less. It may mean using the car the way Europeans do… as part of a chosen lifestyle: a premium to be enjoyed. It may mean thinking a little more before jumping behind the wheel.

And if that’s the price…?

So, what then of the superlative, rock-solid and sinfully quick SS Sportwagon?

Did I say superlative? Ah yes, superlative indeed.

But before we talk about the drive, let’s spend a moment or two to talk about the car. Because this car, the Sportwagon, represents a u-turn for Holden. The style of that back is Euro to the core. It turns long-accepted notions of the Aussie ‘station wagon’ on its head.

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Since the VT, and earlier in the Kingswood, the Commodore wagon has ridden on the extended wheelbase of the Statesman. And had the shape and style of a wine barrel. You could put a football team in there and still find room to hang a chandelier. Commercial and fleet buyers loved it.

That was the old wagon. With this one, the VE Sportwagon, the extended wheelbase, raised roof and bulbous lines disappear. They’re gone - and also gone is the cavernous space.

Instead, in the Sportwagon, it is replaced by ingenious (smaller) space, and arresting Euro-style. It makes an emphatic statement. In our care, it turned heads everywhere.


The long flat roof, sitting low above a rising belt line and raised tail, imparts a hunkered-down athleticism to the Sportwagon - it looks ‘chopped’ when you first view it in the metal – and sits nicely with the muscular ‘jaw’ and flared arches of the front.

Not as feminine as the Mercedes E-Class wagon, nor as heavy-handed as the Chrysler 300, the Commodore Sportwagon is world-class in style and practicality.

The rear door and opening – a near perfect marriage of form and function - is ingenious. Cut deep into the roof, it hinges from just to the rear of the back seats to open high like a hatch-back, exposing nearly all of the rear floor. In tight nose-to-tail shopping-centre car parks, it can be swung open with just 27cm of space behind the car. For ease of loading and unloading, it’s unbeatable.

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And it is still a large space. After all, the Sportwagon is a large car. With the rear 60/40 seats folded down, it offers a 2.0 metre bed length and 2000 litres load capacity. Seats up, the rear can swallow 895 litres. This compares with the 963 litres of the E-Class wagon but smaller by a biblical cubit than the 1402 and 2752 litres (seats folded) of the VZ wagon it replaces.

So, while it loses in carrying capacity, it gains in style and practicality. Families will love it, but commercial and fleet users may not be as enamoured.

The V8 will likely not be the choice for families or the commercial classes. In SS guise, the Sportwagon is one bruising mother of a drive.

Ours, the SSV, came with 19inch rims, SS-style nose and rear splitter, quad pipes, leather seats with embossed SS badging, thick leather-bound sports wheel and multi-function display.

Parked, it looks fat. With 270kW of Gen IV V8 in the nose, the SS Sportwagon is no mere stylish cargo-carrier. There is no mistaking its athletic sporting intent.

So, we put the Sportwagon through its paces, covering nearly 2000km of city driving, long-legged country runs, and along gravel and secondary roads. We also put it under the whip with a sustained high-speed belt over the rises and flowing turns of TMR’s special ‘test track’.

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From behind the wheel, the first thing you’ll notice is the rock solid, unitary feel of the Sportwagon. It’s like a vault. For torsional rigidity it feels no different to the sedan. And although the centre of gravity is slightly higher, it is all-but transparent at the wheel. It wants to push a little wider in high-speed cornering, but we’re talking scant margins here.


With the Gen IV, Holden takes the crown from Ford for ‘auditory satisfaction’. At idle, it signals its presence with a mellow gruff rumble from the quad-pipes at the rear. But give it the heavy shoe and the cabins fills with a glorious, deeply sonorous throttle-body roar. It is the basso profundo of V8s, it taps the deepest part of the soul, and begs for the whip.

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Ours was the six-speed manual (always our first choice). While Holden manual boxes haven’t been quite up to the mark in the past, this one, though heavy, feels ‘right’. Sure, it needs a firm hand (as though you are pulling against the pivot point of the lever), but it can be whipped through the ratios, slotting neatly, firmly and precisely into place.

(Off the line, our low-tech timing suggests a 6.0 second 0-100km/h blast. The extra 90kgs of the wagon add a little to the SS sedan’s times.)

At high-speed, when ‘wired’ into the drive, with the deep bellow of 270kW and 530Nm straining at the leash, lining up one apex and spearing to the next, it all makes sense. The weight at the wheel feels right, the six-speed box perfectly hooked-up; it ‘shrinks’ at the wheel as speeds rise, inspiring confidence and feeling surprisingly nimble.

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In this driving, you will notice that the stability control (ESP) stays ‘out of your face’. It allows a bit of rear correction; it allows you to ‘feel’ the drive.

What is also apparent is the balance of the SS Sportwagon and how well it sticks. While big and relatively heavy (at around 1900kg), its limits of adhesion are beyond the point where good sense and self-preservation intervene (discretion being the better part of valour). The SS Sportwagon is a seriously fast car – a rocket should you wish to call on all of its capabilities.

Of course, all that power, and all that torque, are useful for more than point-to-point sprints. For overtaking safely, or towing, the sheer grunt of the SS has practical benefits. Why buy a mammoth, dynamically-awful, 4WD for towing when you could choose instead the SS Sportwagon?

In our care, fuel consumption varied from around 16.7 l/100km (in city driving and when giving it the stick), to fall to 14.2 l/100km after a day of cross-border freeway cruising. (Holden claims 14.4 l/100km combined cycle.)

Off the highway, and onto broken bitumen roads and gravel, the Sportwagon is unfussed, quiet, and completely at home. With increased rear spring rates, multi-link Linear Control Suspension system (the most advanced ever under a Holden) and MacPherson strut front with direct-acting stabiliser bar, the Sportwagon soaks up pot-holes and corrugations effortlessly. (Australian cars have always been able to cope with a life of use on back-country roads that will shake others to pieces.)

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Out here, it also becomes apparent that Holden has done a very good job of ‘tuning-out’ the resonance typical of wagons. There is a slight harmonic hum from the drive train of the V8 model (and ours, after having spent some torturous weeks in the hands of the motoring press, had some ‘back-lash’ apparent), but road roar and NVH matched the high standards of the Commodore sedan.


Spend a week in the Sportwagon, and the strength of the package is irresistible.

In its overseas markets, the Commodore (as the G8 or Lumina) is spoken of – and measured - in the same company as BMW, Lexus and Infiniti. For an equivalent ‘Euro’ wagon, you can expect to spend many tens of thousands more to find a vehicle of comparable performance and offering the sheer quality of the drive provided by the SS Sportwagon.

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Quite simply, at $46,290 for the SS V8 manual (rising to $53,790 for the SSV manual), it’s far and away the best wagon of the moment.

The Omega, with 180kW 3.6 litre V6, starts from just $37,790. With Berlina and Calais versions also available, Holden’s brilliant Sportwagon is worth a very close look if you’re in the market for a larger car, and do not wish to compromise on style and dynamics.

The Insider’s big statement

“GM Holden is smart. It does everything with an eye to the future. With the Sportwagon it clearly has markets beyond Australia and New Zealand in sight. Given that wagons don’t have the same traction in North American showrooms that they have here and in the UK and Europe, it’s a fair bet that the Sportwagon is destined for a Vauxhall badge, as a premium ‘Estate’ for the UK and possibly European markets.”

  • The Sportwagon’s stunning style and practicality
  • Gruff, glorious song of the Gen IV V8
  • Refined ambience, near-absence of ‘wagon resonance’
  • Sedan-like torsional rigidity
  • Ingenious tail-gate

  • Heavy steering at low speeds
  • ‘Too fat’ steering wheel
  • Seats are ok, but lack a little side support
  • Filling the tank (if using it as a daily driver)

Gallery

Engine: 6.0 litre V8

Gen IV (L98)

Cylinder capacity: 5967cc
Valve system: VVT (two valves per cylinder configuration)
Maximum power: 270kW
Maximum torque: 530Nm
Fuel System: Multi-point fuel injection
Bore x stroke: 101.6mm X 92.0mm
Compression ratio: 10.4:1
Speed: 6.0 second 0-100km/h (estimated)
Transmission: Six-speed manual (as tested)
Wheels: 19 x 8.0 alloy wheels; space-saver spare
Tyres: 245/40 R19 98W tyres
Steering: Electronic power assist: variable ratio, forward mounted rack
Suspension: Front: MacPherson strut, direct-acting stabiliser bar

Rear: Multi-link, coils

Brakes: 4-wheel discs (ESC, ABS, EBD)
Fuel Consumption: 14.4 l/100km (claimed combined average)
Cargo Capacity: 895-2000 litres
Prices: SS manual: $46,290 RRP

SS V manual $53,790 RRP (As tested)

(Sportwagon from $37,790: Omega)

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