By Tony O'Kane & Tim O'Brien
Even the Commodore nameplate is under a cloud. Despite former Holden boss Mike Devereux’s assurances, there are whispers that the badge may also be retired once Elizabeth shuts down.
But whether the name lives or dies, there will be a large segment sedan in Holden’s line-up.
“There will be a large car replacement and we are confident that it will honour our Australian legacy and perform very well in Australian conditions,” Kate Lonsdale, GM Holden Product Communications Senior Manager said.
“I can tell you our plan is to deliver a full offering of world-class vehicles across the different segments.
“We have access to world-class vehicles from across the GM global network and are looking to harness the very best of design and engineering from across the company globally,” she said.
But which car will Holden take from GM’s broad global product portfolio to fill the gap the VF Commodore will leave behind?
Let’s take a look at the contenders.
The tipping (at the moment) has Holden’s future large sedan being sourced from Buick - and not just any Buick, but a Chinese-built long-wheelbase Buick.
Why China? Cost of manufacturing is low, a free trade agreement is in negotiation, and the Chinese appetite for large sedans is surprisingly strong (providing economies of scale for production).
The Buick brand is hugely popular there, selling no less than 809,000 cars in 2013 - about four times Buick sales in North America. It is, according to the New York Times, China’s “hottest luxury brand”.
GM, in fact, sells over 1.2 million cars in China annually, and dukes it out with the Volkswagen Group for ‘top-selling foreign automaker’ status.
There are two contenders under the Buick badge which could fit the bill.
The Regal’s wheelbase however measures 2738mm - somewhat shorter than the VF Commodore’s 2915mm wheelbase.
This would count against it as a ‘large car segment’ competitor here.
Also running against it is that the smaller Regal is strictly a four-cylinder affair.
While the Regal has been well-received in the US, the grim performance of the Holden Malibu here, which also sits on the same platform and is essentially a down-market version of the same car, would perhaps delete it from considerations.
That throws up the Buick LaCrosse - a V6 contender and a larger car than the Opel Insignia - as a potential Commodore replacement.
Built on a stretched version of the Insignia’s Epsilon II platform, the current LaCrosse (and the equivalent Chevrolet Impala) has a wheelbase of 2837mm - just three-inches shy of the VF Commodore’s 2915mm wheelbase.
But though close in size, a LaCrosse-based Commodore would be very different to the Commodore that we know.
For starters, it is transverse-engined and only available in front-wheel or all-wheel drive.
The engine range will be somewhat familiar however, with the current-gen LaCrosse available with a range of V6 engines similar to the 3.0 and 3.6 litre direct-injection powerplants used by the VF Commodore.
It is generally well-reviewed in North American markets. Marty Padgett (of thecarconnection.com) gives it a four star rating:
“The LaCrosse has gone premium, along with the rest of Buick, and that's meant leaving the softly sprung past in the past, and a turn to more sporty and more shapely alternatives to the brand's heritage,” he said.
Why the Buick, why not the Chevrolet Impala?
True, the Impala and Buick LaCrosse are different versions of the same car - the more upmarket Buick, versus the ‘middle-America’ Impala.
But the Impala is built only in North American plants and a recovering US dollar, and retreating Aussie dollar, effectively removes the Impala from the list.
There would be no business-case to re-engineer the Impala and North American production lines for a small, and shrinking, large sedan market here.
The stronger case is for a Chinese-sourced LaCrosse.
Well, why not the Opel Insignia, the originator of the Epsilon II platform upon which the Buick Regal, Buick LaCrosse (and even Chev Impala) sit?
In fact, for the Insignia to replace the Commodore would be poignant, given that the original 1978 VB Holden Commodore was based on the Opel Rekord.
But with a wheelbase of 2737mm, the current-generation Insignia is - like the Buick Regal - a markedly smaller car than the Commodore.
It is, in reality, a medium segment car.
Then there's its largely four-cylinder range of powerplants and FWD/AWD drivetrains.
It would, however, open up the possibility of a diesel Commodore - something Holden has been experimenting with since the VE arrived in 2006 - and a flagship OPC variant is available to keep enthusiasts happy.
The Insignia also has the benefit of already having time in the market.
Is the VXR a sign that Holden is testing the waters again with the Insignia nameplate? We have yet to find out.
Another contender, but this time from GM Korea - where a free trade agreement is now in place - is the Alpheon.
The Alpheon is a premium sub-brand of GM Korea of just one car, one model. Essentially it’s a local version of the LaCrosse for the South Korean market.
Like the Buick, it has a 3.0 litre V6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission mounted transversely under the bonnet.
As Holden already sources a significant part of its showroom from GM Korea - like the Captiva, Trax and Malibu - it may seem logical to GM US to add the Alpheon to those shipments.
Sure as eggs it won’t be called Alpheon though, unless someone in Holden goes completely mad.
At a very long shot, there is also the Roewe 950, and, again, GM’s Epsilon II platform is the common factor.
The Roewe is a restyled Chinese version of the Buick LaCrosse. It is manufactured by Roewe of SAIC and competes in the Chinese market with the Buick.
SAIC, or the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, is a joint venture partner with GM in China, and, notwithstanding Buick’s dominating presence in that market, produces a number of GM models under licence there.
Very unlikely, for sure, but in the mix.
But what if Holden wants to keep the Commodore RWD?
While the thought of a FWD Commodore might have red-shirted traditionalists heaving, there may be salvation in the form of a RWD performance sedan or coupe built on GM’s new Alpha platform.
The CTS would be a good contender to step in when the VF Commodore SS disappears in 2017, and though the flagship V8-powered CTS-V has yet to launch, the CTS Vsport’s 310kW twin-turbo 3.6 litre V6 gives it more than enough mumbo to make it worthy of the SS badge.
However there’s one problem with a Holden-badged CTS arriving here as a Commodore replacement.
There are other problems with a Cadillac variant.
While a growing brand in China, it’s a premium luxury brand, competing upmarket with the likes of Lexus and Mercedes-Benz there.
The CTS would be an unlikely fit here other than as a replacement for the now almost-invisible Caprice.
Will it all be too hard? Will Holden ditch the large sedan altogether in favour of importing a two-door sports car?
In other words, the next generation Camaro.
It offers RWD to keep enthusiasts happy, and, besides, family and fleet buyers will likely be happy enough with a larger ‘medium’ sedan, like the Malibu - if Holden can get it up to speed that is.
The current Camaro is built on the same Zeta platform as the VF Commodore (and was in fact designed and developed here in Australia), but its replacement is expected to migrate to the lighter and more modern Alpha platform later in the decade.
And while the present-day Camaro is only engineered for left-hand drive, its Alpha-platform replacement could very well be built in both left and right-hook versions.
The likely scenario:
Bringing in a Chinese-made large sedan to fill the Commodore-shaped gap in Holden’s range after 2017 makes economic sense, especially given the strong likelihood of a falling dollar - just ask the Reserve Bank - and, similarly, a falling Yuan.
The commitment to “a large car replacement” (GM Holden's Kate Lonsdale) would seem to sideline the medium-segment Insignia.
While the next-generation Opel Insignia may yet be named, exchange rates between the Euro and the Aussie dollar would need to remain favourable - something that is looking increasingly uncertain.
A Chinese-built Buick LaCrosse therefore sits at the shorter odds in our estimation, followed closely by the GM Korea Alpheon, but Holden is keeping mum.
Certain however, is that the replacement will be FWD or AWD. As one GM forum commenter noted, “There is no RWD renaissance at GM.”
Also certain is that the decision has been made. But it will be at least two or more years before any news escapes from the GM ‘zone of silence’ on what will fill the Commodore’s large and competent shoes.
Watch this space.