FROM ITS INTRODUCTION in 1984 the Calais has occupied the top tier of Holdenâ€™s Commodore range. Even doing a short stint as Holdenâ€™s headline act during the absence of the long wheelbase Statesman in the late 1980s.
It blends Aussie-big car engineering with levels of luxury and comfort not found in the fleet-focused volume models. As the name suggests, Holden, from day one, has had the Calais aimed straight across the bow of the Europeans.
While it has been a solid enough performer, the Calais has arguably fallen short of its intended goals and never really laid down the gauntlet to the 5 Series or the C Class. But perhaps now, with the updated and refined powertrains of the VE range, it may have taken a step closer to its Euro aspirations.
Thanks to a direct-injected V6, six-speed automatic transmission and serious interior refinement, the Calais, on paper at least, has both the power and luxury demanded of a range topping model.
How does that blend of space, sophistication and power equate on the road? TMR put its plutocratic bum behind the wheel to see if the Calais lives up to its executive-express aspirations.
For the 2010 upgrade, the VE Commodore range - and consequently the Calais - makes do without much in the way of styling upgrades.
Points of difference over previous VEs include SIDI badges mounted low on the front guards and boot lid, as well as a new one-piece Calais V badge on the rump.
Arguably the VE never really needed a styling revision, it stll looks sharp and contemporary after three years (if perhaps a little familiar).
On the Calais and Calais V thereâ€™s additional chromework framing the windows, a smoother front end with a chrome-topped grille and single-frame lower air-intake in the bumper.
Out back thereâ€™s a set of lightly smoked ridged tail-lights and on the Calais V a subtle lip-spoiler on the bootlid and chrome number-plate garnish.
The pumped-up guards sit over machined ten-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels, which, in concert with the twin chrome exhaust outlets, add a slight edge of quiet menace to an otherwise stylish, if restrained, package.
Just as the outside wrapper sits mostly untouched, so to the interior.
Yet again, over-familiarity is perhaps the biggest stumbling block to overcome.
In daily use, the VE interior proves itself to be well laid out and easy to use, right down to little details like the more commonly-used audio buttons being closer to the driver.
As the range topper of the Commodore range, the Calais comes plushly trimmed with perforated leather seats teamed with alcantara on the door trims and lower dash, with metallic highlights straked throughout.
Seating for five is rarely a pinch with ample shoulder room in the rear and plenty of head and legroom on offer for all but the tallest of basketballers.
Front seats are impressively wide and generously padded. But while the more 'lardy' among us will appreciate the generous width between the bolsters, smaller drivers may perhaps find them a little too enveloping.
Finding a decent driving position is a relatively simple affair though, with eight way electrically adjustable seats and a three-position memory setting for the driver.
Cargo is also easily accommodated with a 496-litre boot, but it misses out on a proper split-folding rear seat (although it does have a ski-port for long items).
Equipment and features
If youâ€™re toying with the idea of spending $56,790 on a Calais V, youâ€™d want to be sure there were plenty of bells and whistles.
Luckily then, the V comes very well appointed.
Gearshift, steering wheel and seats are leather trimmed and the steering wheel features audio and trip computer controls.
Front seats are electrically adjustable and headlights and wipers are automatic. Bluetooth connectivity comes standard, as does cruise control.
For rear seat occupants thereâ€™s a roof mounted DVD player with wireless headphones. There is also a six-disc MP3 compatible Blaupunkt CD changer, which drives 11 speakers including two subwoofers.
Cabin comfort comes courtesy of dual-zone climate control, with rear outlets.
Safety is not forgotten about either. The VE range scores 5-stars in the ANCAP safety ratings.
The Calais V scores electronic stability control, ABS brakes with brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution, dual front and side airbags, plus full-length curtain bags and pyrotechnic front seat-belt pretensioners.
Holdenâ€™s new Spark Ignition Direct Injection (SIDI) V6 is more than just another awkward acronym. It is, according to Holden, one of the most important new technologies in the Commodoreâ€™s history.
Certainly, reduced fuel consumption and emissions, teamed with increased power and refinement are hard points to argue against. Particularly in the current â€˜green at all costsâ€™ climate.
The addition of direct injection to the 3.6 litre version of Holdenâ€™s 60Â° dual cam V6 brings power outputs up to 210kW @6400 rpm and lifts torque to 350Nm @2900 rpm. That's a gain of 15kW and 10Nm over the previous port injected high-output 3.6 litre engine.
Official fuel consumption figures now stand at 9.9 l/100km on the combined cycle, as opposed to 11.2 l/100km previously.
On test in our hands, the Calais V almost matched its city consumption figure returning 14.2 l/100km (officially rated at 14.1). On the open road the claimed 7.8 l/100km was easier to match; we recorded 7.6 l/100km for our highway driving.
Along with the new engine, the Calais, as with the entire Commodore range, comes fitted with GMâ€™s 6L50 six-speed automatic transmission, replacing the previously-fitted five-speed box.
Programmed with economy in mind when left in drive, the box will shuffle off the first five gears before reaching 60km/h. Selecting 'Sports' shift sees gears held longer and responsiveness improved.
Other revisions to the Calaisâ€™ mechanical package are harder to spot, but worthy of a mention for the incremental improvement they make to the drive.
Stiffer bushing in the rear lower control arms and thicker rear swaybars make up the suspension changes. The rest of the Commodoreâ€™s MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension remains unchanged.
So, is this new engine really worth all the hullabaloo? Put simply, yes.
The 3.6 litre SIDI V6 represents everything the Alloytech engine should have been when it was first launched in the VZ Commodore range.
The engine performs smoothly throughout the rev range and sounds more satisfying as the tacho needle rises. The fact that fuel consumption is improved comes as a bonus.
The engine's best work is still performed around the thickest part of the torque band. Here, from around 2500rpm and beyond, it also provides the most rewarding engine note, tying in nicely with the rush of performance being unleased at the same time.
Left to its own devices, the transmission works well. Thereâ€™s still a noticeable first-to-second shift, but beyond that the 6L50 gearbox works well.
Sport mode brings just the right amount of aggression to the shift pattern without resorting to red-line shifts every time.
In the mountains and along winding country roads, the six-speed automatic impressed with its decisive shifts. Rarely was the box caught out in the wrong ratio or a miscued shift.
Refinement is still a little way off the likes of the Falconâ€™s six-speed auto, but the gap has certainly closed. Importantly the Holden gearbox now offers enough ratios for any situation, where the previous five-speed auto was sometimes left wanting.
Tuned to sit between the Omega and Berlinaâ€™s comfort-oriented suspension and the SV6 and SS Commodoreâ€™s sports-biased ride, the FE1.5 suspension of the Calais V offers a superb compromise.
Travelling solo or with a carload of crew and cargo, the Calais offers more than enough ride comfort over patchy surfaces and pockmarked country roads.
It simply soaks up big hits (some of our secondary roads are terrible) and will tackle a winding road with real verve. It is surprisingly agile for a big heavy car.
Steering is well weighted, and although steering reactions can feel a little dull, there is little to find fault with. Not everyone finds the Calaisâ€™ chunky steering wheel comfortable, but in these hands it felt just right.
For long haul country-crossing stints the Calais offers plenty of space for all occupants. Seat comfort is great for long hours on the road, and with the added benefit of a rear DVD player, those relegated to the rear have little to complain about.
Mechanical noise at highway speeds is almost entirely absent. Wind and tyre noise, thanks to the overall refinement and composure of the package, barely rises above a murmur on most road surfaces.
If you need to swing a bigger hammer, thereâ€™s always the 6.0 litre V8 option. Chances are though, after a spirited run in the 3.6 SIDI equipped Calais, youâ€™ll be more than happy with what's on tap.
Thereâ€™s no V8 rumble, but the high-tech mechanical symphony of the V6 has its own satisfying aural rewards. Thereâ€™s also the matter of smaller fuel bills and fewer harmful emissions, a point well worth consideration in these times.
And, of course thereâ€™s space, comfort and luxury, just as Holden promised.
In summary, it has to be said that, though sumptuous, refined and swift, Holden's luxury contender falls just a little short of similar-sized Euro competitors. But once you factor in the massive pricing advantage the Calais holds over a BMW or Benz, the gap between them closes markedly.
For what it offers at the price, the Calais makes a strong case.
Of course, closer to home, thereâ€™s Fordâ€™s G6E to be wary of. Thatâ€™s where the competition really heats up.
- Plenty of room inside
- Generous equipment levels
- Balance between ride and handling
- SIDI V6 ready and willing to perform
- Familiar styling inside and out
- Lack of folding rear seats