Holden has been Australia's large car king for almost 70 years, riding a wave of success that started with the first 48-215 sedan in 1948 and, apart from a few jibes from the Ford Falcon over the years, has enjoyed unmatched success with models like the Kingswood and Commodore.
This year marks a massive change for the brand however, with ‘Australia’s own’ car company switching to a full-importer status as the last Aussie-made Commodore prepares to roll down the line in a few weeks time, meaning the next generation car will be sourced from another of General Motors’ portfolio of brands, just like the rest of Holden’s range.
Despite the sweeping changes, Holden is determined to keep the Commodore nameplate alive, and knows that this is a car it cannot get wrong - even though large car sales volumes are set to continue sliding and SUV’s (like the coming Equinox and Acadia) are set to take over as the volume sellers.
With so much riding on the Commodore badge, Holden is understandably keen to prove that the new ZB Commodore - a version of the Opel Insignia - is the right fit for Aussie buyers, inviting Australian media along for a preview drive of a selection of pre-production validation vehicles to highlight the all-important Australian engineering work that’s set to become a crucial selling point for the new model.
Vehicle Style: large hatch and wagon
Engine/trans: 191kW/350Nm 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol, 230kW/370Nm 3.6-litre 6cyl petrol
Fuel Economy Claimed: TBA
There’s no escaping the fact that this new Commodore will be unlike any other before it, with traditional Commodore selling points like rear wheel drive, V8 engines, a ute version and even a traditional sedan all meeting their maker.
Instead the new Commodore will come with a choice of front or all-wheel drive, powered by a choice of turbocharged four cylinder petrol or diesel engines or a flagship petrol V6. The wagon will remain but the sedan will morph into a five door hatch, reflecting the Commodore’s Euro-centric Opel origins.
There’s still plenty more info to come from Holden, with the company yet to reveal details like pricing, exact specifications, model range and the like but for this preview, staged at Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground, where the bulk of the new Commodore's ride and handling tuning has taken place, we were granted the opportunity to test the local version against its base-level European-spec four-cylinder sibling.
Holden also had a pair of V6 models on hand, a luxury-oriented model that appears set to succeed the Calais and a slightly sportier variant that seems likely to slot in beneath the sports-luxury Commodore VXR flagship.
Holden’s not new to preparing imported vehicles for local consumption, having done so with cars as varied as the Spark, Astra sedan and Trax SUV, and yet again the brand is keen to highlight the localised tuning its engineering team has conducted over the last 18 months to refine the steering, ride and handling characteristics of the new Commodore to suit Australia unique demands.
To keep it short and sweet, it’s simply not easy to tell you much about the quality and finishes of the interiors of these pilot-build vehicles.
While the cabin looks good and the seating position is as it should be, final details are too difficult to discern in cars that aren’t built with production parts and processes. Holden still has to lock in full details of variants, specification, connectivity and safety features - all of which will be revealed closer to launch.
Most importantly for Aussie families though the new Commodore doesn't feel much smaller than the current generation car, with plentiful rear legroom, a generous boot under the hatch and, owing to a squarer roofline, an even larger cargo bay in the wagon.
The arching roofline of the hatch does impact upon rear headroom slightly but if you’re up to 185cm tall it won’t pose a problem, and even though the rear bench is slightly narrower than before there’s genuinely enough room for families.
ON THE ROAD
The mechanical package of the new and old Commodores couldn’t be more different, yet the engineering target for the new model was to ensure it carries a consistent dynamic thread with the rest of Holden’s range.
When driven back-to-back with the Euro-tuned Opel Insignia the ZB Commodore displays none of the soft, roly behaviour of the donor car, which tends to wallow through big bumps and lean through corners.
Instead Holden’s solution balances out the ride to feel every bit as compliant as the Euro car, with improved composure through bends and a more positive and linear steering tune.
The engines themselves are little changed from their global versions, but the best news for base model buyers is that although the entry-level engine drops in size to just 2.0-litres and four-cylinders, its 191kW and 350Nm put it ahead of the 3.0-litre V6 in the outgoing Commodore Evoke by 6kW and a significant 40Nm, providing the kind of flexibility and efficiency that modern families demand.
There’s more good news when it comes to refinement; No matter how hard you punt the turbo four it stays smooth and quiet. There’s also plenty of midrange punch, and the new nine-speed automatic transmission changes gears with silky smoothness, backed by control logic that keeps the engine revving in its sweet spot.
Holden hasn’t been completely able to eradicate tugging through the steering wheel when you get aggressive with the throttle, but apart from slight torque steer the base-level car appears to be a dynamic match for the benchmark Mazda6 it will now line up against.
A turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine is also on the cards when the car goes on sale, but Holden didn't have that powertrain on hand for evaluation.
Upper specification models that will feature the latest generation of GM’s global V6 increase outputs to 230kW and 370Nm, meaning increases of 20kW and 20Nm over the current 3.6-litre Commodore engine.
Fuel saving tech includes a cylinder deactivation system that cuts fuel to two cylinders under low-load conditions but the V6 models also add weight thanks to an on-demand all-wheel drive system and torque-vectoring rear differential. As a result the V6 Commodore is heavier, and thirstier, with the naturally aspirated V6 lacking the low-rpm punch of the turbo four which keeps the nine-speed gearbox on high-alert to keep it on the boil.
As an everyday machine the four-cylinder makes more sense, but - and encouragingly for those that enjoy driving - it is surprisingly fun to pedal enthusiastically.
That said, comparisons to the VF Commodore, particularly V8-powered SS models with rear wheel drive and a manual transmission option, are futile. All the clever technology in the ‘Twinster’ rear differential of the new car still won’t smoke the rear like the current car can, but riding on 20-inch wheels with 245/35 Continental tyres and with Brembo brakes as standard, it feels more agile, points quicker into the apex and has significantly more mid-corner grip thanks to the pre-emptive all-wheel drive system that apportions torque to outside rear wheel while cornering.
There’s some salvation in the form of a rewarding exhaust note at the top of the rev range, and with the closely-stacked middle ratios of the gearbox keeping the big-gun Commodore in its peak-power zone the new car does all it can to deliver maximum acceleration.
The early signs are promising, and Holden appears to have a competent new-generation car on its hands. That doesn’t make the brand’s job any easier though as this new car doesn’t speak to the enthusiast community that has kept V8 sales strong over the years.
No matter how you look at it, the ZB Commodore isn't as loveable as the VF Commodore it replaces. And, further adding to the challenge, established front and all-wheel drive rivals like the Mazda6 and Subaru Liberty make this new car’s task all the more difficult.
Even taking the loss of local production out of the equation, there’s every chance that the Commodore as we know it would have always evolved into this kind of vehicle - discussion of a front-driven Commodore started way back in the 1980s with plans to base the VN Commodore on the Camira’s underpinnings, a move that was ultimately delayed for almost 30 years, but still occurred nonetheless.
Putting aside the emotional attachment, this new Commodore still continues the concept of being a great Aussie family car thanks to the input of dedicated Aussie engineers, but going forward it loses the title of an Aussie-built family car which might stand as perhaps the most difficult sticking point to overcome.
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