Curbside Classic: 2003-05 Holden ZC Vectra – A High Flyer Stuck At Baggage Check

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Holden’s core product for decades has always been a rear-wheel-drive sedan equipped with six- and eight-cylinder engines, but the supporting lineup has changed markedly over time. After a period of relying heavily on GM Korea products, Holden is now switching to a predominately European, Opel-sourced range and the next Commodore may even be a rebadged Opel. Holden’s last European era ended a few years ago, and this Vectra was the last mid-size Opel to wear a Holden badge.

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The European-derived but thoroughly Australianized rear-wheel-drive compact Torana and Gemini of the 1970s made way for front-wheel-drive compact and mid-sizers in the 1980s.  The J-Car Camira replaced the Torana, but struggled due to criticism over its durability and powertrain options. The T-Car Gemini would be replaced by the much more modern RB Gemini (Isuzu I-Mark), but it was a flop and lasted just two years. Just to confuse things even more, Holden had another front-wheel-drive compact during the 1980s: a rebadged Nissan Pulsar, inexplicably named Astra. It was outsold by the Ford Laser, a rebadged Mazda 323, and by the end of the decade it was replaced by the Holden Nova, a rebadged Toyota Corolla. Surprise, surprise: it sold poorly too, as did the Apollo, a rebadged Toyota Camry.

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Evidently, Holden was getting frustrated with the sales performance of the Commodore’s supporting players. The Commodore was holding the water, but import tariffs were being reduced and consumer demand for smaller cars was stronger than ever. The Apollo and Nova lasted well into the 1990s, but never came close to the Top 10 charts. With their impending demise and no new agreement with Toyota, Holden had to find replacements. The mid-size segment had (and has) only ever enjoyed sporadic moments of moderate popularity in Australia since the 1980s, and the “wide-body” Apollo was unnecessarily large: the Camry in Australia has generally oscillated between being pitched as a mid-sizer or, generally by using a different name like Vienta or Aurion, as a full-size Commodore rival. Holden needed a mid-size offering that fit more logically, size-wise, into their lineup.

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With exchange rates looking favorable, Holden turned to Europe, and sourced the mid-size Vectra. The 1992-vintage Astra (which I owned) appeared for two years at the end of its model cycle. The subcompact Barina ceased to be a rebadged Suzuki Swift after eight years, with the Opel Corsa adopting the nameplate for 1995. Visiting a Holden showroom in 1997, you would see that of the four core passenger car models, three were now stylish, imported, European models.  The new 1998 TS Astra would offer even more modern styling, and became a runaway hit for the Holden brand.

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The Vectra, thanks in part to unique Australian suspension tuning, was moderately successful for Holden. Interestingly, the Ford Mondeo was also imported from Europe during this time but, despite enjoying much more critical acclaim in Europe, it was a sales flop for Ford Australia. The Vectra easily outsold the Apollo and shifted 8000 units in 1998. Granted, the Commodore shifted 94,642 units that year and compacts like the Pulsar, Corolla and Lancer outsold the Vectra 2-to-1, but those were still acceptable figures for a mid-sizer.

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Feeling confident, Holden even decided to assemble the Vectra sedan and wagon locally (the hatch remained an import), but record Commodore sales saw Aussie Vectra production end after just two years. Incidentally, mid-size sales figures were also faltering, although high-end V6 Vectras were enjoying a decent proportion of overall sales. The Vectra had obtained somewhat of a reputation, though, for unreliability: contemporary JD Power rankings from Europe told a grim story about the Opel lineup.

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The ZC Vectra arrived in 2003, and featured Opel’s new, more angular and imposing design language. The wagon remained in Europe, with the Australian range consisting of sedan and hatch variants. Although they shared similar lines, the hatch was pitched as the more upmarket offering; the sedan was available only in base CD trim, while the hatch was available in CD, CDX and range-topping CDXi trim (our featured CC).

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CD Vectras featured a 2.2 four-cylinder with 144hp and 149 ft-lbs, while CDX and CDXi had an Australian-built 3.2 V6 with 207hp and 221 ft-lbs. Both engines offered a choice of five-speed automatic with manual shift control or a five-speed manual, even in top CDXi trim.

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Inside, the Vectra was a big change from its predecessor. The very vertical instrument panel echoed the exterior’s slab sides, and metal-look trim was employed throughout the cabin. Overall, the look was distinctive but not exactly warm: interior color choices were limited to black and grey, although the CDX had fake wood trim.

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Underneath, the Vectra shared the Epsilon platform with the Saab 9-3. A multi-link rear suspension replaced the old Vectra’s torsion beam, and the front suspension used MacPherson struts with triangulated alloy wishbones. The structure was much stiffer, with torsional rigidity said to be increased by 74%. Length was up 5 inches, with a wheelbase 2.3 inches longer, but the new Vectra only weighed around 3300lbs. And for North American Curbsiders, although the Vectra heavily resembled the Saturn Aura with which it shared the Epsilon platform, the Aura rode a six-inch longer wheelbase and featured a different interior and engine options.

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The Vectra was praised for its accurate, variable-assisted steering and secure handling. The four-cylinder outperformed the Camry, but the V6 was the star with fuel economy that was only marginally worse but smoother power delivery and gutsy performance: 0-60 was under 8 seconds. Peak torque was delivered at 4000rpm, and there was always plenty of power when you needed it.

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Vectra pricing came as a rude shock, though. The base 2.2 CD sedan listed for $AUD 34,990, $3000 more than the cheapest Commodore. It came with standard air-conditioning, power accessories, dual front and front side airbags, keyless entry, steering wheel audio controls and cruise control. The CDX added a leather steering wheel, fog lights and the V6, while the range-topping CDXi had smoked lights, lowered sports suspension, leather sport seats and 17-inch wheels. The CDXi auto, though, was $AUD50k; lofty pricing for a mid-sizer from a mainstream brand, and close to base models from German marques.

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The ZC Vectra’s launch year was not a good year for Holden. Despite a record sales year for the industry, Holden sales fell and it lost the sales crown to Toyota. Vectra sales slumped 39%, and although Holden had anticipated sales would decrease to niche levels – 4000 annual units, less than half the Vectra’s 1999 sales – they hurriedly renegotiated prices with Opel. The next year, the Vectra range saw price cuts across the board by as much as $3000 on the base model.  But the revised VZ Commodore stole the Vectra’s thunder, offering freshened styling, the modern Alloytec (High Feature) 3.6 V6, and a base MSRP of only around a grand more. A new Astra also arrived at the end of 2004 and featured a pretty interpretation of Opel’s new design language for those buyers happier driving something smaller.

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The Commodore and Astra may have been formidable showroom rivals, but it was the compact crossover segment that was really eating into mid-size sales. In 2005, Holden cut Vectra prices even more and added features; the flagship CDXi remained the same price, but the CD sedan and hatch were now $2k cheaper and had the option of a V6 engine.

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It was all for naught. Vectra sales remained in the wilderness, and it was costing Holden too much now to import them. Although the ZC was reportedly a strong improvement over its flaky JR/JS predecessor in terms of reliability, it still used computer systems and electronics more complex than the Aussie Commodore. There were still electrical gremlins to be concerned about and plenty of mechanics out there that might struggle with them.

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The Vectra would be axed after 2005, and wasn’t immediately replaced. Holden was introducing a lot of South Korean-sourced product, although this scarcely improved sales and ended up generating a lot of negative publicity. The “new” Barina was merely a Daewoo Kalos/Chevrolet Aveo, and received a 2-star safety rating in the ANCAP test. Sales fell, and critics saw the new Barina as being a big step down from its predecessor. A rebadged Daewoo Lacetti, the Viva, was launched as Holden’s budget complement to the Astra but despite low prices and a range consisting of sedan, hatch and wagon, it went nowhere.

The biggest flop, though, was the Vectra replacement, known as the Epica. Aimed squarely at the Camry, it was priced several thousand dollars below the Vectra and had an extensive equipment list. However, the Epica featured dull and dated styling inside and out and not even Australian tuning could bring its dynamics to its predecessor’s level. That was no mystery, as the basic platform dated back to the 1997 Daewoo Leganza. The introduction of a diesel engine in an increasingly diesel-loving country failed to salvage sales, and the Epica died unmourned in 2011.

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Although later GM Korea models were much more competitive, like the Australian-built Cruze, Holden is now returning to an era of European dominance within its lineup: Astra, Insignia and Cascada all arrive this year. The less said about the 10-month life of the Opel marque in Australia, the better.

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But while Holden’s sourcing has been inconsistent, their success in the mid-size segment has been much more consistent… Consistently poor. Alas, the blame can’t be laid entirely at Holden’s door: whenever they have offered a competitive product (ZC Vectra, Malibu), they have been kneecapped by poor exchange rates and/or a general apathy from the public towards this segment. Now, the mid-size segment is practically moribund in the face of rising crossover sales. When the number one seller outsells the next five best-sellers combined and sheerly by virtue of being the sole Australian-made four-cylinder mid-size sedan and thus desirable to fleets (Camry), and that car will soon switch to overseas production, you know a segment doesn’t have much life in it.

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The ZC Vectra enjoyed much greater success in Europe, but in Australia it simply had too many forces working against it. Better, though, for Holden to have fielded an unsuccessful entry like the Vectra and have a hidden gem in its lineup, than to foist a mediocre product like the Epica upon the public. As far as Holden’s menagerie of failed mid-sizers goes, the ZC Vectra was easily one of the best.

 

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