2014 Holden Commodore- The Greatest Car That You’ve Seen But Never Heard Of

CAM00917Imagine a land where the family car of choice is not a silver Toyota Camry or gold Honda Accord.  Where the prevalent sedan on the road comes with rear-wheel drive, the choice of a V6 or potent V8, the availability of a manual transmission and a station wagon, and offers up to 576 adrenaline-infused horsepower.  Oh yeah, and can be had in provocative colors such as “red hot” and “fantale orange.”  It’s a land where the geriatric “Camcords” of American highways are relegated to being slow sellers.  This place sounds like an enthusiast’s wet dream, but it really does exist.  If you’re thinking Germany, you’d be making a good guess.  But you’ve got to think a little further south; as in all the way to Australia.  For years, the land Down Under has been a place of fascination for American car buffs; both for it’s isolation, obscurity, and the shared love for large cars with big engines.  But unlike in the US, Australia’s top sellers have prominently remained these cars.  And no large car gets more attention in Australia than the Holden Commodore; the local pride and joy.

vb-commodore-redYou’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of the Commodore, but you’ve more than likely seen some on American roads.  Introduced in 1978 to replace the ancient and gargantuan Holden Kingswood (think of it as the Aussie Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme of the day), the Commodore was based on the rear-wheel drive and compact German Opel Senator.  Built in Australia, it was modified to survive the country’s brutal conditions, and immediately became a sales sensation.  Growing up, my mother owned a 1982 Commodore and adored that car.  To this day, she mourns the loss of it after it was wrapped around a eucalyptus tree.  Tough, rugged, and fuel-efficient, these older Commodores are common sights to this day.

holdenhistThe Commodore was redesigned in 1988 and still based on an Opel.  This time, its dimensions were stretched out to meet the preferences of Australian buyers and to compete against its local archrival and then Australia’s best-selling car; the Ford Falcon.  Sales improved, yet it still didn’t match the Falcon.  Another successful redesign in 1997, along with a simultaneous but disastrous one for the Falcon, shot the Commodore to the top-selling position in the nation.   Until recently, it has stubbornly clung onto that title for 16 years, making it the Camry of Australia.  That 1997 version was again based on a rear-drive Opel Omega, which was also the same platform for the Cadillac Catera.  A two-door variant called the Monaro was developed and for the first time, shipped to the United States as the ill-fated Pontiac GTO.

CAM00908Finally, the last major redesign of the Commodore arrived in 2006.  The Holden folks had a dilemma and this is when things became interesting.  By this time, Opel no longer had a rear-wheel platform to share and Holden didn’t want to give up on the success of its winner.  So for a reported cost of $1billion, an all new platform was designed and developed completely in Australia for the new series.  Also unlike the previous generations, this Commodore was designed for export from the beginning.  The car proved to be surprisingly popular in the Middle East, badged as a Chevrolet Lumina, and was shipped to the US as the nitch-market Pontiac G8.  Timing is everything, and Pontiac closed shop within that year, eliminating any success for the car in America.  However, the Commodore doesn’t give up easily and can currently be had at your local Chevrolet dealer as the limited-edition Chevy SS.  GM possibly wanted some return from its huge investment.

CAM00913The Commodore did get a major rehaul last year, including updated styling and massive revisions to the suspension and body structure to reduce weight and fuel consumption.  Plenty of new technology was also packed in this latest Commodore, including GM’s newest infotainment system, and all Commodores come standard with a self-parallel parking feature.  The car has been dubbed by the press as the best Holden ever.

Okay, enough history.  The big question, what is this elusive beast like to drive?  As an Australian, I was very excited to be given the keys to the new Holden Commodore.  It’s a national icon and symbol of local manufacturing and engineering.  I’ve never had the chance to be behind the wheel of one of these Aussie legends.

CAM00902Ours was the mid-range SV6 model, which came equipped with a direct-injection 3.6 liter V6 engine boasting a healthy 281 horsepower.  Base model Commodores in the Evoke trim start out with a 3.0 liter V6 while moving up to the SS package bestows a burly 6.0 liter V8.  The 3.6 liter has been used in the Commodore for almost a decade but was reengineered with a whole new personality amidst the 2013 update, being 20lbs. lighter than before thanks to new cylinder head designs and intake manifolds.  While driving around, the V6 was smooth in its operation and strong off the line.  Acceleration was robust under full throttle from a stop and had no issues reaching freeway speeds.  Hills don’t pose any trouble and the tach needle barely moves past 2,000rpm at highway speeds as the powerplant hustles the 3600lb Commodore against the force of gravity.  It’s a sweet engine with plenty of punch that likes to rev, yet comes across as a little thrashy toward the 6700rpm redline.  The growl at idle sounds aggressive, yet somehow refined at the same time.  Regardless of how strong this engine is, or if the traction control was turned off, getting rear wheel spin was impossible.  The immature child inside me was disappointed, but it was still a thrill to punch the gas pedal.

CAM00904Matched to this seductive engine is GM’s 6L50 six-speed transmission.  It makes the perfect companion, with smooth, well-mannered shifts and perfect timing.  It was completely transparent in its operation.  There is a Sport mode and the option to switch to manumatic, but there’s not much point in doing that as the transmission is so well sorted.  A six speed manual is available for those who prefer their own gears the old-fashioned way and control the power on tap.

CAM00914The latest Commodore switched over to electric power steering over the traditional hydraulic setup.  It was a move that upset loyalists, but did shave more weight supposedly at the cost of some road feel.  I’m proud to say that although not quite to BMW or Mercedes standards when it comes to cornering, the Holden comes darn close and is far better than any Impala or Taurus back in the States, and has a fun Chrysler 300 vibe to it.  Steering has a meaty and sure feel, and feedback from the road is communicative adding to driver confidence.  The car handles consistently and feels stable through turns, begging to be hustled through bends with its grippy 18in. tires.  This is a driver’s car to the core.  However, it is also a family car and the Commodore couldn’t bely its heft.  Although nimble, it was difficult to ignore the sheer size of this car and it did feel balky in some turns.  The large turning circle also posed a problem and negotiating some of Melbourne’s tight parking spots took creativity and nerves of steel.

CAM00910The Commodore’s suspension has an uncanny knack of absorbing the bumps of Australia’s rough roads while remaining firm and sure-footed.  It’s been calibrated to an almost BMW-perfect blend of ride and performance.  It took a major bump to throw the Holden off course and it soaked up the miles effortlessly on mediocre roads.  Some larger ruts would fine their way through the steering wheel, but that’s a small price to pay for the minimal body lean in corners.  Additional sound isolation was recently added into the firewall, which Holden claims as “good weight”, making for a serene cabin.  There was some prevalent road noise and just a touch of wind whistle around the A-pillars, but not enough of either to interrupt conversations.  The extra soundproofing paid off and the engine’s fury was barely a wimper from inside.

CAM00890Anyone who has been in a Chevrolet recently will feel at home in the Holden.  For years, well actually forever, the Commodore shared little of the GM parts bin with its American counterparts.  With the 2013 update, Holden borrowed a few bits and pieces here and there, much like a fussy buyer at an estate sale.  The gauges scream Chevy Malibu, the cruise control buttons are stolen off of a Chevy Sonic, or maybe a Buick Regal, and the center touchscreen pod, aptly namedCAM00887 HoldenMyLink, is almost identical to ChevyMyLink.  But that’s not a bad thing, as GM has dramatically improved its interior game lately.  As interfaces go, HoldenMyLink is pretty user-friendly with big, colorful displays and is efficient in its operation.  The secondary knobs for both volume and tuning are a nice touch and easy to reach.  Not quite as affective are the ventialation controls below the radio.  They are mounted too low to see at a glance and all of the buttons are clustered too close together to use by touch alone.  Once they had my undivided attention, they are intuitive and make sense.  Otherwise, CAM00898nothing in this foreign car seems, well, foreign.  Everything in the interior was well-laid out and thoughtful.  Gauges were crisp and easy to read at a glance, and like most Chevy products, the instrument panel housed a trip computer that was beaming with loads of information.

CAM00891Cabin materials are above average and all of the panels fit together perfectly.  Plastics felt upscale and durable, and between the leather trim on the dash and solid construction, this car feels more like a luxury car marque’s entry model.  That being said, the overall look of the dash was a little busy.  There were at least five different surfaces used, and some of the chrome on the shifter and console appeared overdone, and their shine under direct sunlight was distracting.  Even though I miss the honest-to-goodness nature of prior Commodore interiors, this is one of GM’s best efforts for interior quality.

CAM00897Storage space was ample with a large center console with covered armest, and generous door pockets on all four doors.

Seats proved to be very supportive and comfortable over the 700 miles that we drove around Victoria.  Inside, the Commodore has as much space to roam around as Texas.  With the seats slid back to their rearmost position, taller front passengers weren’t able to reach the wheelwell with their feet.  The dash easily clears the footwheel area and there’s gobs of knee room.  The rear seat is also accommodating, although the protruding axle hump does stCAM00893eal some real estate for a center passenger.  Knees will barely brush the front seatbacks, and headroom is pretty generous.  The roofline gracefully arches over front passengers, and only the tallest rear seat passengers will find their noggins caressing the headliner.  Back seat occupents are also treated to two air vents, a feature that can’t be taken for granted in this class.

CAM00894Seats are extremely grippy with aggressive bolstering, but weren’t overly done.  They had just the right amount of padding and shape, and that contouring did hold the driver in place during spirited driving.  Like the dash, the seats themselves are a mismatch of materials; with upscale kinetic suede, opulent leather, and regular, but still rich feeling, cloth all rolled into one.  They looked great and implied sportiness.  The rear seat is similarly designed, but the seat bottom cushions were mounted low; creating a butt-on-the-ground sensation.

CAM00884From the driver’s seat, visibility to the front and sides was excellent.  A large greenhouse and thin roof pillars helped in giving a clear view of the road. The back window isn’t large, rather average sized, but the prominent spoiler lip that juts from the trunk lid effectively hid anything directly behind the car.  Also, miniscule side view mirrors didn’t cover much area in the lanes adjacent.  However, Holden is counting CAM00885on technology to make up some of these shortcomings.  The Commodore is equipped with lane-watch assist and a small orange light on those tiny side mirrors would light up if a car was in the lane beside us.  It was non-intrusive, as well as effective, and on several occasions did catch cars that I couldn’t see.

CAM00896The HoldenMyLink did convert to a rear view camera when reversing, giving an expansive view behind.  The camera lens did have a tendency, in Melbourne’s notoriously lousy weather, of fogging up when it rained, making it utterly useless.  Lastly, this car has more audible parking warnings than a space station.  There’s a cluster of sensors in the front of the car, and an army of them in the back to detect objects that we may bump into.  And with the sensors came constant beeping and warning buzzers….lots of warnings, and lots of buzzers.  The detection system is ultra-conservative  and would pick up cars, walls, trees, anything really; that was within the same time zone.  The park assist grew to be aggravating and like the boy who cried wolf, we couldn’t heed all of its warnings with so many false alarms.  Luckily, the system can be turned off.  It must be notorious for being bothersome, as the rental agent went out of their way to mention all of the parking alerts and how to override them.

CAM00895What isn’t so annoying is Holden’s automatic park assist, which essentially allows the car to parallel park itself.  The process is simple; while scoping out a parking space, press a button on the center console and the car begins scanning for a space large enough for the Commodore to squeeze in.  Once it detects an opening, the car will advise the driver through a display on the dash to shift into reverse and once done, the car will steer itself into the spot.  The driver still controls the brakes and gear selections under the guidance of a series of yet another set of alarms and buzzers, but the car takes care of the rest.  It is a little creepy the first few times to have the car turn the wheel by itself; as though possessed by a proficient parallel-parking ghost.  It’s standard on all Commodores and is helpful for those who cringe about parking this big car on city streets.  As good as the system is, it is conservative in looking for a large enough space and the process does take time, which could hold up traffic in a narrow street.  Regardless, it’s brilliant.  Holden also claims that the system will work with backing the car up into a regular parking lot space.

CAM00889Not only is the Commodore technologically advanced and fun to drive, but its also practical.  Cargo, or in Australia, “boot” space is at 17.4 cu. ft.  That wallops most full-size sedan offerings in America, with the exception of the new Chevy Impala and Ford Taurus.  The trunk is a usable shape and the hinges are the expensive four-strut hinge design that don’t impede on luggage.  The opening itself is wide and low enough for easy loading.  The only downside is that the seats do not fold and there’s a miniscule pass-through for skis.  Under the trunk is a temporary spare tire; which is sufficient in the U.S. but frowned-upon in this vast and desolate country.

CAM00915For a car that came out at the same time as Lance Bass, the Commodore is still a modern, attractive vehicle.  The clean greenhouse, meaty wheelwells, and upright stance give it a muscular, yet tidy look.  The original 2006-2013 version, identical to the Pontiac G8, has simpler lines and some of the new details on the fascia look cluttered and busy.  The resemblance on the newest Commodore to US market Chevrolets is the strongest it has ever been.  From the rear, there’s a strong kinship to the Chevy Malibu and it may take a second glance to differentiate the two.  Someone even mentioned an unfortunate likeness to the last Chrysler Sebring.  Still, the car looks classy yet manages to appear beefy and appealing.  It has aged well with time and continues to do so.

CAM00918Australian fuel efficiency testing has the Commodore getting an estimate of 14mpg in the city and 26mpg on the highway.  On empty, country roads, we managed to squeeze up to 31mpg out of the Commodore’s V6, not bad for such a large, powerful car.  Holden’s obsessive weight reduction tactics paid off.  Once in a mixture of Melbourne’s city streets and freeways, we still managed an average of 23mpg.  That’s slightly more consumption than the similarly sized and athletic rear-wheel drive Chrysler 300 that was tested a few months ago in California.  Just for reference, fuel prices in Victoria were about USD$4.97/gallon at the time of testing.

CAM00906The Commodore had 10k miles on it at the time of rental, and I’m happy to report that it was not afflicted with any squeaks, rattles, or defects.  Despite the advanced technology, all of it worked like a charm and, in the case of the parking alerts, a little too well.  All the panels were tight and didn’t feel loose.  That hasn’t always been the case with GM sedans, even on this side of the pond.

CAM00911Prices for a base Commodore in Evoke trim start at USD$36.689.  At that level, the car comes standard with a smaller 3.0 litre V6, the six-speed automatic transmission, 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, Bluetooth, rear-view camera, automatic parking assist, the Holden Mylink Infotainment system, power windows, door locks, and cruise control.  The next step is the SV6, like our tester.  That automatically adds the 3.6 litre V6, a sports suspension, the trunk pass-through for skis, 18-inch alloy wheels, rear spoiler, unique front styling, upgraded suede seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and side-impact airbags.  Our SV6 had no additional options and came in at a total price of USD$39,552.  That may sound like a lot, and it is compared to a Taurus or 300.  But keep in mind that wages are higher in Australia and for a little less than $40k, it is possible to have the best car this side of the allied forces that can compete against the Germans.

CAM00916My next claim could start a barrage of hate mail.  Simply, the Holden Commodore is GM’s best sedan.  Period.  Its looks are elegant and sporting, it’s a hoot-to-drive, and it’s comfortable for long distance driving while easily gobbling up five passengers and their gear.  It also feels solid and well-built.  Basically, it’s the perfect balance of everything a car enthusiast, and a regular buyer, desire with few compromises.  You can buy one of these right now at your Chevy dealer as the SS, CAM00903equipped with a V8 lifted from the Corvette, for just over $46k.  That model will be a low volume seller in the States, so grab one while you can.  Even though the Commodore has been a top seller in Australia for decades, its days are numbered there as well.  Holden announced last year that 2017 will be the end of local Australian production, and in turn, the Commodore.  Exorbitant production costs, a limited market (Australia has as many people as Southern California), high fuel prices, and consumers switching to cheaper and more efficient Asian competitors has sealed the Commodores fate, as well its archrival Falcon’s.  Too bad.  Because what we have here is the most technologically advanced, spirited, handsome car to come from the Holden brand.  Like a fine wine, the Commodore has gotten better with age and could possibly be the greatest Australian, and American-badged, car ever.  An almost perfect 4.5/5.0 boomerangs.

 

 

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