WE'VE ALL GOT A DREAM, deep within. The sad reality is we didn’t get to be rockstars, or marry Heidi Klum.
As for that ball-tearing V8 coupe that was supposed to be parked in the driveway… well, 2.5 kids and a labrador took care of that.
Thankfully, Holden understands. That’s why it has given us the VE Sportwagon SS. And that’s why this car throws the cat amongst the pigeons.
Not only does the package shun the box-on-back look of yesteryear’s wagons, but in SS guise there’s a sinful 270kW 6.0 litre V8 on tap. In our test car this was tied to a nicely matched ‘row your own’ six-speed manual.
Better still, behind the rear seats there’s room aplenty for carrying whatever you need to carry. And the kids? There doesn’t seem to be one on the planet who doesn’t love the looks and sound of the Sportwagon SS.
Gone are the days when fleet customers dictated the form of Holden’s wagon. Chief Designer Richard Ferlazzo and his team on the crayons at Holden have come up with a decidedly new form for the Sportwagon.
This one is pitched straight at the lifestyle conscious buyer; someone who needs a little added versatility but who’d like to maintain a degree of style, not possible in an SUV.
For that reason the shorter sedan wheelbase appears under the Sportwagon, helping to maintain its proportional purity. Also gone is the hearse-like profile of past wagons, with a chopped low-roofed taking its place.
At the rear, the Sportwagon is forced to share the same tail-light lenses and tailgate garnishes across the range, unlike the sedans that wear individual lamps dependent on specification. (Seeing as it’s the nicest rear to appear on an Aussie wagon for a long time it’s a forgivable act.)
The VE’s hallmark styling traits are still in place, including the vented side repeater lamps, rising beltline, gently curved window line and pumped up, muscle-bound wheel arches.
In SS guise, the Sportwagon also carries a deep-chin front bar with deep mesh-filled intakes, machined-face 18-inch alloy wheels, deeper side skirts and a venturi styled rear bumper punctuated on each side by dual-outlet exhaust tips.
On the inside the Sportwagon SS gives up none of its visual aggression. Open the driver’s door and instantly you are greeted by a black interior filled with body-hugging sports seats and glowing with red-illuminated dials.
However, the Commodore’s interior architecture is starting to show its age. While ergonomically it still works well, the polish of Ford’s newer FG Falcon puts the big Holden in the shade.
There’s still plenty to like though, deep set instruments for the driver, a multi-function steering wheel, brushed aluminium trim across the dash and a spacious centre stack with large, easy-to-read controls.
Front seats are wide and supportive with an astonishing array of adjustment to suit the very tall, way down to the very short. The heavily-bolstered front seats provide great support through corners without ever becoming too grippy for relaxed cruising.
In the rear, even behind taller front occupants, there’s plenty of room to stretch out - rear seat travellers are never going to feel short-changed. The rear bench is even lightly sculpted into a twin-bucket arrangement so that no one misses out on the sporting feel.
One thing those in the rear may not enjoy so much is the rising window line, which puts a large section of door trim into the sight line of kids in particular.
On the plus, there are full lap/sash seatbelts in all three rear positions as well as a slide-out cup holder and folding centre armrest. But none of the seat belts are height adjustable, and the rear seat has two positions: up or down, with no backrest angle adjustment.
Equipment and Features
One of the things that makes the Sportwagon SS so compelling is its affordable price tag.
For $49,790 it sits as the cheapest way into a V8-powered wagon and looks great value against the $41,290 base model auto-only Omega. It’s a steal compared to the more lavish, but mechanically identical SS-V at $57,290.
Surprisingly though, it’s no stripped out dollar-dodger. Included in the package are six airbags, Electronic Stability Control, ABS brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and Brake Assist.
Inside there’s a seven-speaker six-disc MP3 compatible CD player, multi-funtion trip computer, sports seats with lumbar support and electric tilt and height adjustment for the driver, and a leather wrapped steering wheel.
For convenience sake, automatic headlights, reverse park sensors and cruise control are also included.
This is where the real adventure lies. The SS badging and body kit of this car are not merely for show. To back up its visual punch, the Sportwagon SS packs some serious hardware beneath its skin.
For real contentment, some will need look no further than the GM-sourced 6.0 litre aluminium V8 sitting in the nose. On 98 RON unleaded this engine kicks out 270kW at 5700rpm and backs that up with 530Nm of torque at 4400rpm.
The only way to get those figures though is in the manual equipped SS, with the Active Fuel Management equipped automatic losing out by 10kW.
Surprisingly, fuel economy fell into unexpected territory with the Sportwagon recording ‘just’ 9.7 l/100 km on the open road, beating Holden’s official claim of 10.5 l/100 km. Even around town a return of 18.4 l/100 km was better than the factory 20.7 l/100 km figure.
Make no mistake, at no stage was the Sportwagon spared in the interests of economy, so with a little careful piloting fuel consumption figures could well be improved upon further.
The six-speed manual has undergone a clear leap in refinement from the early days of Holden’s six-speed boxes. It still lacks the click-to-click travel of some Japanese offerings, but the meaty feel through the lever suits the boofish brutality of the drivetrain as a whole.
Power is put to the ground though a limited-slip differential, which can have its work cut out for it with 530 Nm to sort out. It works very well; you can get on the power quickly and early without things turning nasty.
There’s also fully independent suspension with Holden’s first Aussie built multi-link rear suspension set-up helping keep those 18 inch wheels in contact with the tarmac.
There comes to be something of a ritual with a car like this. Early morning starts saw the SS slowly awakened, from the first twist of the key the car was gently warmed until engine and gearbox reached a reasonable operating temperature.
Some time after that, the temptation to explore the performance potential inevitably emerged. (It will happen to you too. Let’s face it; you’re not likely to park something like this in the driveway unless that raw V8 appeal taps a nerve somewhere inside.)
Prod the throttle and the instant push back into the driver’s seat is matched only by the aural sensation that fills the cabin. Not since Holden laid it’s 5.0 litre Aussie built, iron block V8 to rest has a GM power-plant sounded this good.
There’s more to the game than just a metallic-edged, big bass noise-quake though. The Sportwagon does something no previous Commodore wagon has ever done so compellingly before. It begs you to drive it.
At 1931 kilograms, the Sportwagon SS is no lightweight, yet, find a winding road with a series of corners to string together and the weight seems to simply fall away. Or maybe it just can’t keep up.
Braking is strong and with good pedal feel, although if heavily exercised the Sportwagon’s weight takes a little of the shine off their performance. They’ll pull up true time and time again, but the initial bite seems to fall off slightly with heavy use.
If you believe in a greater power, then now would be the time to give thanks to the Sportwagon’s ESP calibration. Not only does it keep you from shamefully putting the rear in front of the car, but it does so with enough slip that you feel like you’re pedalling like a pro.
While the suspension tune feels right at home on a winding country road, it also does a surprising good job around town too.
While Holden’s FE2 sports calibration isn’t the last word in ride-comfort on a pockmarked road, the feedback it brings is worth the trade-off. It’s never jarring, just consistently firm and efficiently resisting body roll.
If you’re looking for head-kicking urge up front and cargo capacity behind – and a family-friendly price – you haven’t been forgotten. When it comes to a niche market, Holden has this category all-but sewn up.
Fleet buyers can happily look to the superior cargo-hauling abilities of Ford’s ageing BF wagon and Europhiles can hand over triple the money for a Benz or BMW of equal ability.
But passion, compelling performance, and head-turning looks need not be out of reach. Better than that, it can all be had in a package that’ll easily swallow a family’s necessities for a week away, in the best old-fashioned road trip style.
Holden’s Sportwagon SS is designed for those who want to take the wheel, not those who have to.
- Break from Aussie-wagon styling tradition
- ‘Proper’ V8 noise
- Muscular proportions
- Brilliant ESP calibration
- Fuel consumption around town
- Interior showing its age
- Brakes loose out to all that weight