Four-pot value, performance, handling, polish, economy; space; versatility
AWDs (with V6) need more punch to shine; ride on 20s (VXR excepted)
NOTHING says ‘new era’ like a new-gen Commodore.
Back in ’78, the VB original – designed by Opel – was smaller and way more sophisticated than the American-esque HZ it replaced, with Holden promoting it as “a new kind of car for Australia”.
Now, 40 years later, history repeats with the ZB – a rebadged and refettled Opel Insignia. Made in Germany, five doors replace four, four cylinders oust eight while a V6 continues, rear-drive gives way to front or all-wheel drive and manuals are history. There’s even a bloody diesel. Echoing then-PM Ben Chifley in 1948, we can almost hear Angela Merkel declare, “Sie ist eine beauty!”
Deceptively, the ZB sits between VF and the 1997 VT in length and width, so despite an 86mm shorter wheelbase, there’s room to stretch inside. And though shoulder room shrinks 57mm, the Commodore feels wider than a Camry. The dash design promotes a sense of width and the layout’s ergonomics, clarity and functionality are praiseworthy.
Ample tech, too, including AEB in the base $33,690 LT Liftback; a hands-free powered tailgate in wagons from RS ($39,490) up; AWD for all V6s (from $40,790 RS-V); and adaptive cruise and active dampers in the $56K VXR. But the VF’s warmth and texture hasn’t migrated, giving way to smooth, monochromatic homogeny.
Mind you, spirits will soar behind the wheel of the 191kW/ 350Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four, nine-speed auto front-driver, sampled in predicted volume selling $37,290 RS Liftback form.
Rapid off the mark, brawny in the mid-range, this ‘entry-level’ powertrain is both responsive and cultured. We even forgive the auto lever’s back-to-front tip-shifter, for the transmission picks the right ratio every time. Even the 125kW/ 400Nm 2.0-litre eight-speed auto turbo-diesel – muscular yet oh-so cultivated – blitzes expectations.
Furthermore, the 2.0-litre’s handling is defined by light yet involving steering, allowing quick and confident cornering, backed up by unflappable roadholding. Just as outstanding is the comfortable, isolated ride (on 18-inch rubber). The fierce fourcylinder ZBs punch well above their cylinder count.
Things, however, become complicated with the V6 AWD. The naturally aspirated 3.6-litre adds 140kg or so to the kerb weight, sounds energetic enough off the mark, but only really feels racy in the mid to upper reaches (maximum power is at 6800rpm). So, while the VXR makes the right noises, it’s no hi-po flagship. Big Holdens have long been tuned to lunge off the line, so the more measured delivery might irk the church of Commodore. That toey take-off has gone AWOL.
It’s a pity, because the VXR’s chassis poise and grip would respond well to some punch. Still, the AWD ZB is exceptionally agile and controlled at higher speeds; but though the driver is connected to the action, the steering does feel uncharacteristically light. We actually prefer the 2.0L’s set-up.
At least the VXR’s adaptive dampers side-step the hard ride on the other models wearing 20-inch wheels. On one craggy stretch the Calais-V pounded over the bumps. Where’s the suppleness of its predecessor?
Ironically, then, it’s the highflying four-pot turbo front-drivers rather than the favoured V6s that best reflect Holden’s dynamic DNA. Or, in other words, less is more in this new era of imported Commodore.
The rear is almost flawlessly packaged, blending space and comfort sumptuously. And cargo capacity, though five litres shy at 490L, introduces hatchback versatility. Downsizing doesn’t mean downgrading.
Contemporary instrumentation (fully digital in swisher variants), user-friendly multimedia, effective ventilation, stacks of storage and Teutonic build quality elevate Commodore to Passat levels of liveability.
The more-harmoniously styled Sportwagon (and 20mm higher-riding Tourer) offer a 560-1665L load area, though a space-saver or tyre-inflation kit sit in for a spare; towing capacity is 1800kg (2.0) or 2100kg (V6).
Holden let us loose on the fast gravel circuit at Lang Lang in the Tourer, the Commodore’s V6 AWD-only response to the Subaru Outback. Boasting the GKN Twinster AWD system, it sends up to 50 percent of drive rearwards, with torque-vectoring capabilities via twin clutches on the rear axle – one for each wheel (hence the name). Calibrated by Holden in the US, the result is precise and controllable cornering at speed on dirt or in wet or slippery conditions, aided by specific stability and traction control tuning.
Ford Mondeo Ambiente $33,190
Now three years old, the Euro Mondeo still impresses with its roomy cabin, athletic dynamics, supple ride and strong performance. But where are the sorely needed sporty versions, Ford?
Toyota Camry SL Hybrid $40,990
Imported Camry brings improved styling, dynamics and value compared with the old Oz-built car. Grunt and economy in the 423Nm hybrid makes the four (with motor assistance) the pick over the V6.