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New Car Test - Holden Commodore VX Series II Wagon

2 April, 2002

Evolution of a proven design.

by Julian Edgar

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It's an easy trap to fall into - to think that the evolution of a well-known model contains no real advancements. However, while they are subtle, the Series II version of the VX Commodore does have some important and significant advantages over previous models. And, just as has been the case since the VT was released, the wagon version of the current Commodore remains a package with enormous interior space and practicality.

So what's the new with the Series II upgrade? Firstly, there have been a number of suspension revisions. The (now very old fashioned) semi-trailing arm rear suspension has been equipped with an extra link either side. This controls rear 'toe' (the small angles that the wheels point inwards or outwards), which with the previous design varied during suspension movement. The addition of this link is claimed by Holden to provide improved straightline and turn-in precision. And while the extra suspension link has been widely discussed, for this model there is also a host of other suspension changes.

The front anti-roll bar has been increased in diameter 1mm, with the back bar thinned by a substantial 3mm. Dampers (shock absorbers) have also been altered to provide more ride comfort over small undulations. Finally, purpose-developed Bridgestones are said to provide better steering feel.

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Inside the car the horrible old steering column stalks (complete with their sharp edges) have been given the flick, replaced with much nicer designs. Added to that are a handful of interior and exterior styling changes (for example the tested Berlina has a new grille insert) and some other minor changes in options and standard features.

But let's start with the suspension changes - are they effective? Well, when coupled with the fact that the Berlina is now equipped as standard with traction control, this is a much safer car than the VT Berlina that we tested a few years ago. Of that car we said, "Relatively slim and tall 205/65 tyres, a slick wet bitumen surface, ham-footed throttle use and something unexpected cropping up - a sharp hump mid-way through a corner, for example - and the VT can assume a missile-like life of its own as the rear attempts to snap past the front. That's a worse-case handling scenario - but on real roads and with real drivers they do exist!" However, even with the extra rearwards mass of the test wagon, it's very difficult to get the VX Series II to behave in this dangerous manner.

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This is the case because firstly, the suspension changes are effective. Able to be felt especially clearly on bumpy secondary roads, the damping and much better poise of the rear suspension keeps the car tracking truly and with reassuring stability. But there is another reason that you're much les likely to spear off the road backwards - should the driver prod too hard on the throttle while negotiating a tight corner, the back-overtakes-front behaviour of the older Commodore is completely neutralised by the excellent traction control system.

And that's not to say that a driver interested in sporty handling is disappointed. Although not mentioned in the Holden press information, the traction control on this car felt far more subtle and progressive that that fitted to previous full-size Holdens. So, unlike the earlier cars equipped with the anti-wheelspin system, the tail can still be moved about a little under power - but never to an excessive amount. If you want, the system can be turned off, but its standard operation will suit 99 per cent of people.

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Understeer can occur if the turn-in speed is too high, but in general the Commodore is relaxed, stable and competent. In fact, point-to-point over bad roads, the VX Series II is deceptively fast. Ride comfort is also quite good, with the impact harshness of small, sharp bumps noticeably reduced over previous models. Also a little different than we remember is the steering - it has a good weight and is a little slower around centre than the older models. Not as slow as a Magna, but not quite the slightly nervous system of old.

In fact we found that the worse the roads became, the better the suspension of the Commodore felt.

The ride and handling might be a good news story, but to get the same tale happening under the bonnet, buyers will probably need to wait for the products of Holden's new engine plant to come on-line. The pushrod 3.8-litre V6 remains harsh and coarse at higher rpm. In our previous test of the VT we suggested that "above 4000 rpm the engine starts to sound unpleasantly threshy", but these days with the current VX, we'd reduce that to 3500 or even 3000 rpm.

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Not because the engine has got worse, but because other engines have got better.

But it's quite easy to avoid high revs - tooling around, auto trans slurring through its ratios (and picking up lower ones with ease), and never going over 2000 rpm. Driven like this, the car is very economical (given its size and power) - we averaged 12 litres/100 km on test, which included a mixture of steep country road climbs, freeway and urban work. Despite the AS2877 government test figures of 13 and 7.6 litres/100 km, twelve is probably a typical 'real world' figure.

The engine develops 152kW at 5200 rpm and 305Nm at 3600 rpm, but its bottom-end grunt is even greater than these figures suggest. In normal use, the car always feels powerful and strong, and if the aural accompaniment of a country-road overtaking move is a bit of a downer, that's one of the trade-offs for getting so much car for (relatively) such little money.

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For a RRP of $43,080 is really very cheap for a car with a very well known (and strong) resale, ABS, traction control, four airbags, very good trip computer, air, electrics, competent single CD radio, alloys, and such a huge amount of interior space.

And the interior space really is exemplary. Sure, this is a car as long as yesterday's full-size limousine, but it's also a design with good space utilisation within those exterior dimensions. Headroom in both the front and rear seats is huge, and there is a massive amount of knee- and foot-room in all seats. The rear seats fold down on a 60/40 split, locking into space in a completely horizontal position and so giving a very long and wide load area. Importantly, the rear seats fold without any need for adjustment or removal of their head restraints. An extendable cargo blind can be stretched over the rear load compartment; when required this can be easily removed.

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The car also feels quite well built - with a few exceptions. Interior trim quality is overall better than an equivalent rival Falcon, however the cover of the rear jack compartment (the jack is stowed in the left-hand side of the load area) is flimsy and the jack rattled in our test car, and a panel under the steering column was badly formed, giving a gap to the nearest piece of trim that varied from nought up to about 5mm wide!

The seats (electrically adjustable for height on the driver's side) are comfortable and supportive, although one of our drivers complained that even the lowest position was still too high. The steering wheel is comfortable and of a good size, while the controls are all easy to access and use. The auto trans selector, however, is a little awkward. It also allows you to select only either 'D' or '3' without pressing the lock-out - we much prefer the Falcon system where fourth, third and second gears can all be easily selected during normal driving.

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Talking about the competition, the Commodore is not as quiet as its Falcon and Magna competitors, with engine noise intrusive at high revs and the cabin having a low frequency resonant boom. At higher speed the dull roar of the aerodynamic wake can also be clearly heard coming from the rear of the car.

However, overall we were very impressed by the Berlina Wagon - in fact more so than with any other recent Holden that we have driven since the 5.7-litre VT SS.

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The Commodore VX Series II wagon is a car that dynamically is safe and secure, with good fuel economy for its performance and size, excellent interior space and - of course - a parts and service support probably second to none in Australia.

Commodore Berlina VX Series II Fast Facts...

  • Wonderful rough road handling and competent on the smooth stuff
  • Huge amount of practical interior space
  • Good equipment levels
  • Engine that is coarse and unrefined at high revs
  • Comfortable, strong, safe and durable
  • Some trim quality a bit sus but still better than Falcon

The Commodore Wagon VX Series II wagon was provided for a week courtesy of Holden Ltd.

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