VE SERIES II SPORTWAGON SS REVIEW
Always a good car, and super buying value, now it’s even better. That’s what Holden has done with the VE Series II Commodore.
But don’t go looking for broad brush changes. It’s the subtleties and new technology that define this model update.
The Commodore is Australia’s top-selling car, a title it has held for the past 14 years straight. The new model will do its cause with buyers no harm; dollar for dollar, against its imported opposition, the improved Series II is strong buying value whichever model you choose.
We’re spoiled here by the sheer competence and world-class value of our local large cars.
Holden let the press loose from its Elizabeth plant in Adelaide in a fleet of brand new VE Series II Commodores. We scored the Sportwagon SS: manual, blue metallic, stump-pulling 270kW V8 nestled under its broad bonnet.
Stylewise, not much has changed.
The grille is deeper, the snout more contoured, there are new driving lights and the lower edge of the headlights curves upward, softening the lines of the front.
Depending on the model, there are new chrome trims, bigger, sharper-looking alloy wheels and a subtle lip-spoiler integrated into the line of the boot.
The VE Series II looks better in the metal than early images suggested; there is more character to its revised lines than is immediately apparent in photographs.
But, as Holden’s Marketing Director Phil Brook said, “It (the design) wasn’t broke, so we didn’t fix it…”
The real changes are under the skin: small improvements at the wheel, improved fuel consumption, bio flex-fuel capability, revised engine and transmission mountings, improved transmission mapping, underfloor aerodynamics, and, the big one, Holden’s all-new iQ touch-screen infotainment system featured across the range.
The latter item, the iQ system, is simplicity itself. And because it carries so many functions, it leaves the centre stack with a clean minimalist look.
Importantly, whether hooking up to the Bluetooth, or programming the sat-nav, the touch-screen functionality of the iQ is clear and intuitive. Even techno-dunces will have no trouble finding their way around it. (That assurance comes from the king of dunces.)
Interior quality and features
Except for the number of cylinders doing the work, both the SV6 and SS come with the same level of specification, trim and features.
The SV6 Sportwagon is the only odd one out. Unlike the SV6 ute and sedan, it is not available in manual (whereas the SS can be specified in six-speed manual or six-speed auto across each model variant).
The SS Sportwagon we drove comes with a sports-style instrument binnacle with ‘white on red’ illumination, high-mounted circular air-vents, piano-black facings, brushed alloy trim highlights, nicely contoured sports-style front seats, and high-quality materials throughout.
With generously padded bum-hugging sports seats – leather can be specified but our tester was trimmed in dark fabric – a stubby solid shift at the left hand, and a nice ‘straight ahead’ driving position, its sporting character is apparent the moment you slide behind the large-ish wheel.
But it is also family-friendly with wide, well-shaped seats fore and aft, a thumping sound system, dual-zone climate control, centre armrest, twin cup holders, and rear seat centre ski hatch.
The iQ system in the SS (and for all models except the Omega) can rip and store up to 15 CDs on flash drive. It is also compatible with MP3, WMA, CDDA, CD-R and DVD.
Seats in place, the wagon back offers 895 litres of cargo space, this rises to 2000 litres wiith the seats down. Rear seats also fold 60/40, and a rear cargo blind is fitted as standard to SS and SV6 models.
The high rising hip-line disguises the size of the wagon back. Although the roof has a sporting rake, there is ample head and knee room for rear-seat passengers, and a spacious feel throughout.
Across the range, the VE Series II has an appealing interior: a match for any from Europe or Japan.
And, as Commodores past have demonstrated, it is also an interior that can withstand the ravages of time and the scuffing, spills, sticky hands and muddy paws of family transport duties.
What’s under the bonnet?
At the heart of the SS is a 6.0 litre OHV V8. Producing 270kW @ 5700rpm and 530Nm @ 4400rpm in manual configuration (the Active Fuel Management auto produces slightly less: 260kW and 517Nm), it is an immensely powerful and hallowed unit.
The six-speed manual has fourth gear as a direct drive ratio, with, in the Series II, a higher fifth gear ratio, and a highway cruising sixth.
Fuel consumption is a claimed 12.2 l/100km; this is a 12% improvement over the previous model's 13.9 l/100km. Importantly, it can also be run on E85 bio-ethanol mix.
CO2 emissions are also improved by 12%, dropping from 327g per kilometre to 288g per kilometre.
There are four-wheel ventilated disc brakes all round, a twin-piston calliper up front, single-piston at the rear.
The Series II range also comes with all the safety acronyms: electronic stability control (ESC), anti-lock braking (ABS), electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD), electronic brake assist (EBA) and traction control (TCS).
Down below, the Sportwagon rides on a sports suspension with lowered rifde height, firmer spring rates (coils front and rear), and front and rear stabilisers.
In practice it works well, isolating the worst of the shocks our secondary roads can throw up while providing good feel at the wheel and a quite refined and comfortable ride.
How does it drive?
You could be forgiven for thinking that the story of the SS Sportwagon is about one thing: that gruff, quite sensational V8 under the bonnet.
But it’s not. The brilliance of our home-grown large performance car sub-segment is their practical, family-friendly versatility. With the SS Sportwagon, you get supercar performance in a family car package at a family car price.
The Gen IV 6.0 litre V8 is the centerpiece of course. It makes a fabulous noise, and, with all those 270kW and 530Nm at work, is immensely powerful. Mated to the six-speed manual, it’s an incredibly swift car and huge fun at the wheel.
It also seems to get better with each iteration and can happily be held spinning effortlessly between 5000 and 6000rpm. Above 4000rpm, the howl becomes electrifying.
Improved, but still not as good as it could be, is the feel of the six-speed shift. It has a firm, precise gate and the throw is relatively short, but it’s got to be muscled through each change.
It’s a little too heavy - as if you are pushing against the pivot point. The manual shift and clutch feel of Ford’s XR8 is considerably better.
Sure, some will like the robust feel of the SS, but most, I think, prefer to be able to ‘snick’ the gears through the gate.
The clutch is improved; it’s not light, but has better feel and, even in the constant gear changes of stop-start traffic, is not such a chore. (It is also engineered for second-gear starts – the SS will effortlessly pull away from standstill in second.)
For pushing through the curves, and running up and down through the box, the pedal relationship is just right for heel/toe driving.
The big Holden in fact is surprisingly nimble when pointed at a mountain road. And even though carrying additional weight over the rear wheels, is a very sharp steer.
With good feel through the wheel, a nicely weighted rack and good ‘turn-in’, the Sportwagon can be precisely placed for high speed cornering. It’s a little more top-heavy than the sedan but not noticeably ‘oversteery’.
And, with instant torque on tap from the V8, you can bring the back around to quickly sharpen the line before the ESP chimes in. Holden has got the ESP operation very right: it will keep you out of trouble (up to a sensible point, of course) but allows some natural controlled lateral shift.
Around town, it is easy enough to live with; women however will find the manual transmission too heavy. For shared driving duties, better to go with the six-speed auto.
It is not heavy at the wheel though, even with the 18-inch rims. And, while offering large car interior space, it doesn't feel overwhelming from the tiller.
Sure, you know you're in a larger car, but with good vision, a tight turning circle, and nicely weighted steering, it can be poked around the ‘burbs easily enough.
Its turning circle, the good access to the ‘roof-hinged’ wagon back, and general tractability, make the Sportwagon a more sensible choice for family duties than a lot of the larger SUVs (and their barge-like turning circles) that clutter shopping centre car parks.
Improved, the SS Sportwagon certainly is, and one hell of a lot of performance car for the money - $49,790 plus on-roads for the manual, $51,790 for the auto (unchanged, incidentally, from the previous model).
With versatile wagon capability, stylish lines, seating for five adults, a quality interior and bullet-proof engineering, the keen driver with a family will find a lot to like with the SS Sportwagon.
Dollar for dollar, kilowatt for kilowatt, it is simply brilliant value.
If it was for sale in Germany for a third the price of an M3, or a fifth the price of Audi's RS6 Avant – as it is here – it would be selling like hot cakes. (The Germans would think we were nuts for overlooking such a well-constructed and versatile high-performance bargain.)