THIS most Australian of Commodores was Holden’s finest hour. Given a chance to show Detroit what it could do, the company grabbed it two-handed. Holden designed, developed and delivered a car that finally revealed the true dimensions of its ability.
No Commodore I’d driven in the previous decade prepared me for how good the VE would be. Road-testing Commodores from VN onwards, and talking with the people who developed them, didn’t convince me Holden was overflowing with talent. To use an analogy, the company seemed to be an outfit you would trust to do a great job building an extension or adding a deck, but you wouldn’t pick them to build a dream home from scratch.
And this is exactly what the VE was. With Opel deciding to quit building the rear-drivers that had been the basis of every previous Commodore, and nothing else suitable in General Motors’ cupboard, Holden would even have to lay the foundations for its next car.
The Zeta platform remains the basis of Commodore today.
The unity of purpose that pervaded Holden at the time was striking.
Design and engineering are very different disciplines, but it takes both to create a great car. Holden’s now-retired engineering boss, Tony Hyde, was as determined as anyone inside Holden to see the excellent work of exterior designer Peter Hughes into production with minimal changes.
It wasn’t until my first drive of the car outside Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground that I was completely convinced. Along with Robbo and Ponch, I was part of the Wheels crew trusted with the all-important first road test. It didn’t take long to realise that superb steering and sweet suspension were constants of the VE family. So was perfectly calibrated ESC.
The line-up wasn’t all perfection. It was telling that VE’s obvious weakness was drivetrains, where Holden had no choice but to draw on what GM could offer. The high-power was quite likeable, the V8 strong, and its six-speed auto mostly impressive. But at bottom of the range, in Omega and Berlina, things weren’t so great. In these, the low-output version of the Australian-assembled 3.6-litre V6 teamed with an outdated four-speed auto.
Still, for a bunch of reasons, the Omega is the model that for me packs the entire VE story into one car, and also highlights the difference between Detroit and Fishermans Bend. Holden created a car for the common man, with looks and steering to shame BMW for much less money. GM, on the other hand, cynically calculated a four-speed auto was all some of its customers should expect in 2006.