First published in the July 2013 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
Three cars, three days, 1500 kays. We know VF is good, but what’s it like in the harsh light of the real world?
LONG, long time ago, people aspired to own a Holden. My great uncle Bill, bless his long-departed soul, almost bought a Humber Hawk because the wait for a brand-new Holden FX was so long. He eventually secured a black, second-hand 1950 model, at a time when Holdens were part of the fabric of society. And of our family.
Home on the Range - July 2013
View this article in its original format in the archive.
Bill owned nothing but Holdens his entire life, and even then, he didn’t own many – the ’50 FX, a ’56 FJ Special, a ’71 LC Torana two-door and, finally, a ’75 HJ Kingswood sedan. Cars he could work on and service himself. Cars that fringed my childhood. Cars I can still smell.
Looking back at the past isn’t something the new Holden VF Commodore can afford to do. To some people, it’s already an anachronism – too big, too heavy, and too out of touch with what people want. Yet after having driven a bunch at Lang Lang, I’ve no doubt that it’s still relevant. And more than what it says on the tin.
Pulling into the carpark of Holden’s HQ in Salmon Street, Port Melbourne, a month before VF goes on sale, it’s hard not to feel a little excited. We’re here to pick up an Evoke sedan, an SV6 Sportwagon and an SS-V Ute for another big Wheels drive. For anyone who’s been brought up on Aussie car mags, taking the latest home-grown model for a lap around, well, something, is always a great moment in time. But for how much longer…?
The original plan of circumnavigating Victoria has been knocked on the head because we can only keep the cars for three days. And Victoria’s a lot bigger than you’d think! So on Day One, we settle for south-east out of Melbourne, along the Princes Highway to Bairnsdale, then up the splendiferous Great Alpine Road to the lovely town of Bright, close to the Victorian snowfields.
Well, that was the plan. Just down the road from Salmon Street, we park alongside the Yarra for a ‘Melbourne’ shot, and are instantly surrounded by a bunch of folk wanting to check out the VF. The SS-V’s striking new orange hue called Fantale is what draws everyone in first. They like the new front, love the Ute’s colour, and think its 19-inch wheels are beaut, but what’s that? “I think you’ve got a nail in your front tyre mate.” Sure enough, there’s a whacking great piece of metal embedded into the SS-V’s front-left tyre. Luckily, Holden’s two kilometres away. Worryingly, the silver Holden Commodore Evoke – the only VF sedan we have in our fleet – is virtually ignored.
Back on the road, the route gets shifted. To make Bright before the pub bistro closes, we take the Eastern Freeway, peel off towards Warrandyte and aim for Kinglake. But it starts to bucket down, and as we approach Kinglake, we’re blanketed in fog.
I’m in the manual Holden Commodore SS-V Ute and it’s brushing off the conditions like Ruddy does suggestions of another leadership challenge. But regular Wheels contributor, Byron Mathioudakis, is behind me in the Evoke and he’s doing it tough. It’s those Bridgestone Ecopias – chosen because of their exceptionally low rolling-resistance, not their wet-weather grip. Admittedly, Byron’s stoking the Evoke along, but the car is sliding all over the place. Only the excellence of Holden’s ESC system keeps it pointing steadfastly in the right direction. In the meantime, the SS-V is rock solid, as is the SV6 wagon – both wearing Bridgestone Potenza RE050As. If I was buying an Evoke, first thing I’d do is dump the stock wheel/tyre package and order the optional 18s with the same-type rubber as the Calais (Bridgestone Turanza T001) in a 235/50R18 size. Better looks and grip.
After a sausage roll and a coffee, I jump back into the SS-V and dial the climate-control to ‘toasty’. And it hits home that there’s something genuinely different about this car. Sure, the sedan’s doors and glasshouse are shared with VE, and in the wagon and ute’s case, everything aft of the A-pillar, but the VF smells different. It’s the new, much higher-grade materials inside its radically altered cabin. Crank over a VF and you’ll hear the familiar starter motor, but everything else is new. From the tactile, luxurious new door handles to the vastly improved auto-shift and its metal-look surround from Opel’s Insignia, the VF lifts its game way beyond even the best VE variant. In terms of core architecture, that even applies to the base Evoke.
The SS-V, however, is … beautiful. Its leather and mock-suede upholstery is super-modern, yet classy, and I personally love the stitched fabric on the dash. The seats themselves are superb, but in Holden’s switch to global switchgear – the indicator stalks, window buttons, and most controls are shared with other GM products – seat adjustment has taken a backwards step.
Commodore has boasted electric cushion height/tilt for the driver’s seat since the 1997 VT, but in VF, you can only raise and lower the seat, not alter cushion angle. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but the VF is the first large Holden since 1968’s HK to not have an infinitely adjustable backrest. Instead, in manual-seat cars, it has a stepped lever – nicely tactile and easy to access, but not capable of achieving an ideal backrest angle. And you can’t tilt the cushion to fill in the gaps…
That aside, this SS-V manual Ute is bloody excellent. The keenness of its steering blends seamlessly with its chassis, making it feel much smaller than it actually is. Yet the thing that stands out most is that you forget you’re driving a Ute. Its ride is level, absorbent and brilliantly controlled, especially considering its sporting focus and 19-inch wheels, and its new-found refinement is remarkable. Even the carry-over 6.0-litre V8 has a crisper, more cultured induction growl, and anyone who complains that the six-speed manual is heavy and truck-like is a massive whinger, with a capital ‘W’.
I finish the day in the auto SV6 wagon and pull into Bright in the dark – temperature plunging towards zero. Byron climbs out of the SS-V and comments that he can’t believe how much he likes it. This, from a man who covets eccentricity in all its forms, and who is about the most unlikely V8 ute owner I can think of. We dump our gear, pile into the Evoke and head into town for a meal. No one notices the car.
With Mt Hotham having been re-routed out of our schedule, Day Two starts with a back-track towards Victoria’s high country. Half way there, we discover the road is closed due to tree-felling and won’t re-open until 4pm… So we turn around and head to Mt Beauty on the incredible Tawonga Gap Road instead.
Being the last really twisty and hilly piece of tar we’ll see for the rest of the trip, we go for it. I start in the SS-V Ute, stability control activated due to potential ice, and marvel at the almost subliminal delicacy of its ESC system, and its inherent poise. Refinement and reward … in a Ute. Only Australia could produce a two-door sports car with a 2064-litre boot.
At the lookout at the top, I hand over the SS-V and jump into the SV6 wagon. Its boot is brimmed to the window line with camera gear, yet this has little effect on its dynamics. The sweeter-sounding 3.6-litre V6 charges to 6750rpm without the induction coarseness it has become renowned for, yet it’s still not something you drive hard simply to listen to. It’s more a means of demonstrating just how good the SV6’s chassis is.
Stability control off, the SV6’s true dynamic nature is exposed. The electronics err towards slight understeer to keep mums and dads safe, but switch it off and you can throw 1776kg of SV6 Sportwagon around like few would believe. Its turn-in, body control, and throttle adjustability all demonstrate how good VF is as a driver’s car. Back in 2006, the volume-selling SV6 was the worst VE. Now it’s arguably the best VF.
Even the softer Evoke is fun on the Tawonga Gap Road, and while it mightn’t be as quick, or as grippy, as the FE2-suspended pair, its 3.0-litre V6 is sweeter than the punchier 3.6, and its keen, yet supple chassis is willing to give you everything it has. All that’s holding it back is those grip-shy Ecopia tyres.
Day Two ends with a slog along the Murray Valley Highway to Swan Hill, 400km north-west of Bright. The first fuel fill after our Mt Beauty enthusiasm shows a best of 10.5L/100km for the Evoke, and a worst of 13.2L/100km for the V8 SS-V, but the Swan Hill leg demonstrates just how economical a VF can be – 8.4L/100km for Evoke, 9.3 for SV6, 10.9 for SS-V. And, despite my aforementioned complaints about seat adjustment, VF’s long-distance comfort.
No Wheels drive worth its salt is complete without an obligatory dirt section, so we begin the final day looking for anything unsealed. The answer lies just outside of Lake Boga – 16km south-east of Swan Hill.
Ah, Lake Boga – all it’s missing is an ‘N’. And, for the last 10 years, a lake. On the edge of town, we find an abandoned motel – Catalina – which closed when the lake dried up and no one wanted to stay. But in the 1950s, this motel was probably all that most people needed. Double-bed and bunk-bed rooms. A bar and open-plan dining, eerily with old champagne glasses still sitting on the shelves. And the lake right out front.
I can’t help thinking about the irony of all this. Today’s VF Commodore is all that most people need, too. But with so much choice, do they still want it?
Chasing a 5pm drop-off time back at Port Melbourne, we head out along the local dirt roads linking tiny towns like Quambatook and Wycheproof into beautiful old Charlton. On these roads, the Evoke is brilliant. It’s blowing an absolute gale outside, yet the supple Evoke lopes quietly along like great-riding cars used to. French ones, mostly, and in modern times, Aussie ones. Few car-building countries know how to make a car ride these days, and those that do usually have roads like ours. Crap ones, but also interesting. Dead smooth is so boring unless you’re in Germany.
Thinking about the VF on the final leg into Melbourne, it’s hard not to be impressed. The harder you drive it, the better it gets. The only fault I can find in the electric power steering is a moment of stickiness with about 20 degrees of lock on through a constant-radius corner. Even then, it’s only noticeable in the Evoke and SV6, not the V8 SS-V, but that’s hardly a deal-breaker. One tiny flaw in an otherwise accomplished package.
Indeed, the Aussie car has never been better than VF – not by a long shot. The more time you spend in any new Commodore, the greater your affection for it. But is the Australian public willing to accept this modern twist on what was once a traditional favourite? Will people view the VF like they would having wi-fi and a flat-screen in a 1950s motel? Only time will tell…
Techno for jam
The vast leap in connectivity applies across the VF range, but only the SS-V on this test featured the techno works burger. Its trick, full-colour instrument display looks the biz, but we discovered one gaping flaw in the standard sat-nav. When we were looking for the town of ‘Charlton’, it found three of them, without assigning states. We touched the first one, assuming it knew we were in Victoria, but it started directing us to Charlton in NSW, 900km away. It needs a software fix.
Does she like a drink?
Holden’s focus on real-world driveability, not just a great fuel number on the windscreen sticker, has made VF much more pleasant to drive. Yet economy hasn’t suffered. Over 1500km, the hard-driven Evoke averaged 9.9L/100km, the fully-loaded SV6 wagon used 10.6L/100km and the manual SS-V Ute drank 12.2L/100km. None of the cars were driven for economy, but Evoke was the only car performance tested. We clocked 0-60km/h in 3.9sec, 0-100km/h in 8.1, 0-160km/h in 19.1 and the standing 400m in 15.9sec at 144.95km/h.