WHAT IS IT?
Think Ford Mondeo – European mid-to-large sized liftback or wagon with petrol or diesel option – and that’s exactly what the ZB Commodore from Germany (via Opel) is aimed at. But Holden’s influence is visible in the chassis calibration, V6 AWD availability and aggressive marketing. The big rear-drive sedan is dead… for this.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
Firstly, the ZB Commodore must step in the big wide shoes left by the Australian-made VFII, and so must possess identifiable performance, dynamic, packaging and visual family traits to be considered a worthy successor. Secondly, as a global front or all-wheel drive family car, the Opel Insignia-based ZB must crossover (quite literally in the Tourer’s case) into SUV territory as well as be a Toyota Camry and Mazda 6 competitor.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
The world’s moved on from large rear-drive sporty sedans (but don’t tell Kia), and so basing the replacement for the Aussie-made Commodore on a front/all-wheel drive Opel Insignia seemed inevitable.
But Holden’s input has made a difference for the better, with added spice in the guise of the V6 AWD variants (especially the VXR) not offered in the host model, while the advent of the Subaru Outback-esque Tourer as well as the excellent four-cylinder turbo petrol and diesel versions have also broadened the series’ appeal. But while the higher you went the better the cars became in the old VF, the opposite may be true with the new ZB.
Case in point: the sub-$40K ‘fours’ are ripper-value hot performers with more than a little Holden dynamics DNA fused in, but the V6s simply aren’t as responsive as we’d hoped (particularly compared to the fabulous Stinger), while the Calais-V version rides too hard and its interior isn’t special enough. So, in summary, we’re quietly confident that if Australia opens her mind, she can have a satisfying – if somewhat complicated – relationship with the new Holdens from Germany.
We’d certainly try these before buying any of the aforementioned rivals.
PLUS: Four-pot value, performance, dynamics, refinement, economy; space, choice, versatility
MINUS: Disappointing V6 AWD acceleration, 20-inch wheel ride (VXR excepted), styling
THE WHEELS REVIEW
NOTHING says ‘new era’ like 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 is repeating with the ZB – a rebadged and refettled Opel Insignia. Made in Germany, five doors replace four, four cylinders oust eight, 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!”.
More pertinently, is it a true Commodore?
Deceptively, 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, subjectively Commodore still seems wider than a Camry. 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.
Horizontal dash themes (a la Astra) further boost that sense of room, with the layout and driving position garnering praise for reach, clarity and operation. Contemporary instrumentation (fully digital in swisher variants), friendly multimedia, effective ventilation, stacks of storage and Teutonic build quality elevate Commodore to Passat levels of liveability.
Tech too, including AEB Autonomous Emergency Braking in base $33,690 LT Liftback; a hands-free powered tailgate in wagons from $39,490 RS up; AWD for all V6s (from $40,790 RS-V); and adaptive cruise and active dampers in flagship VXR (from $55,990).
But most VFs offered something more. The old cabin’s warmth and texture hasn’t migrated, giving way to smooth but dull monochromatic homogeny. We had to check the $51,990 Calais-V’s badge to confirm it wasn’t a lesser model.
Mind you, spirits should soar behind the wheel of the 191kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four/nine-speed auto front-driver, sampled in bestselling $37,290 RS Liftback form.
Rapid off the mark, brawny in the midrange, this ‘entry level’ powertrain is forcefully responsive as well as notably cultured. We even forgive the auto lever’s back-to-front tip-shifter, for the tranny calibration is masterfully tuned, with the right ratio selected every time. Even the 125kW/400Nm 2.0L/eight-speed diesel – muscular yet oh-so cultivated – blitzed expectations. These aren’t no VC Commodore 4s!
Furthermore, the 2.0L’s handling is defined by light yet involving steering, providing quick and confident cornering, backed up by unflappable roadholding. Just as outstanding is the comfortable, isolated ride (on 18-inch rubber). The fierce four-cylinder ZBs truly punch well above their weight. Great finessing job, Holden.
Things, however, become complicated with the V6 AWD. Adding 140kg-odd of extra mass, the naturally-aspirated 3.6L sounds energetic enough off the mark, but only really feels racy once the revs rise (maximum power is at 6800rpm!). So, while the VXR makes the right noises, a V8-belting SS alternative it sadly ain’t. Considering that big Holdens have long been tuned to lunge off the line, this might irk the church of Commodore. That toey take-off has gone AWOL.
A huge shame too, because the VXR’s chassis poise and grip are remarkable, resulting in exceptional agility and control 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 direct VF predecessor?
Ironically, then, it’s the high-flying 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.
Model: Holden Commodore RS Liftback
Engine: 1998cc 4-cyl, dohc, 16v turbo
Max power: 191kW @ 5500rpm
Max torque: 350Nm @ 3000-4000rpm
Transmission: 9-speed auto
0-100km/h: 7.2s (estimated)
Fuel economy: 7.6L/100km
On sale: Now