CC Editorial: Holden – What They’re Doing Right, What They’re Doing Wrong

Holden is doing it tough in Australia. Local manufacturing is over and GM’s Australian brand is now struggling to stay in the top 10 best-selling car brands. Despite once having half the market, Holden’s market share is down to just over 4%. Last month, it posted its lowest monthly sales result since 1948.

As someone with a connection to the brand – I grew up in the back of a Holden and my first car was one – it’s been painful to watch. So, what’s gone so wrong and what can Holden do to fix it?

Just the other day, despite denials as recently as a week prior, Holden announced it was discontinuing the Astra and Commodore. Both were sourced from Opel, recently sold to Groupe PSA. This meant GM was buying them from another company, allowing little room for negotiation on price.

It wasn’t the only news from Holden. Its recently appointed managing director and a 30-year veteran of Toyota, Dave Buttner, announced he was stepping down. Though it was reportedly due to personal reasons – and apparently actual personal reasons, not the usual PR BS – it was inauspicious timing for Holden. The following week, the Astra and Commodore’s discontinuation was announced.

Though the Astra was once a hot-selling small car in Australia, the latest generation has proved to be a disappointing seller. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the car other than perhaps a drab interior, so it’s clearly suffering from strong competition and potentially the Holden name. Sales have also been affected by GM Korea ending production of the Chevrolet Cruze, which was rebadged as the Astra Sedan here. Holden no longer has a suitable small car it can put its name on unless it imports one from China, a PR firestorm waiting to happen.

Then there’s the Commodore. Holden had been accused in the past of being the Commodore Car Company, focussing on its locally-built model and its sprawling range of sedans, wagons, utes and mechanically-related models like the Monaro and Caprice. Therefore, it was always going to be hard to move on from the Aussie Commodore. Ford wisely avoided reusing the Falcon and Territory names on those cars’ imported successors. Holden, however, saw the remaining equity in the Commodore name and decided to continue it.

The ZB Commodore, however, has been a failure.

It’s not the car’s fault. The twin to the Opel/Vauxhall Insignia and Buick Regal is a perfectly competent car. It has features never seen before in a Commodore, like autonomous emergency braking and matrix LED headlights. Its base engine, a turbocharged 2.0 four, is far superior to the anemic 3.0 V6 in the base VF Commodore Evoke. It has versatile hatchback and wagon body styles, offers the first-ever turbo diesel in a Commodore, and still offers a punchy 3.6 V6 like the VF. Reviews have praised its dynamic chops, particularly the VXR with its Twinster all-wheel-drive system.

In some ways it’s superior to its predecessor, such as in feature content and fuel economy. In other ways it’s not, like its lack of a V8 and RWD, its narrower width (by 1.4 inches), and a drab if well-made interior that’s available only in black and with little contrasting trim to lighten things up.

Bizarrely, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries still categorizes the Commodore as a Large Car despite the hatchback measuring less than an inch longer and wider than a Toyota Camry, a Medium Car per VFACTS. That’s allowed the Commodore to remain a segment leader in sales despite the fact the Camry has outsold it year-to-date by around 3-to-1. The Commodore does, however, outsell the Kia Stinger 3-to-1 and puts everything else in the moribund Medium and Large segments to shame.

It’s not just the general decline of mid-size cars that’s to blame for the ZB Commodore’s sales, nor is it the loss of its predecessor’s rear-wheel-drive and optional V8. With local manufacturing over, fleets obviously no longer have “buy Australian” requirements. Holden was never as strong in the taxi market as Ford, and now Toyota’s got that market all sewn up. And as for the once loyal police departments of Australia, they’ve moved onto the Kia Stinger, Chrysler 300 SRT-8 and BMW 530d for their highway patrol cars.

Off the highways, you’ll see the Volkswagen Passat, Toyota Camry and Hyundai Sonata. It seems police departments have no problem with front-wheel-drive patrol cars – they’re just not buying the ones Holden are selling, at least not in anywhere near the numbers previous generation Commodores were bought in.

Holden scored a win in getting a 3.6 V6 under the hood of the Commodore (it’s doubtful Buick cared either way, considering the previous Regal GS was a turbo four). Releasing a Commodore solely with four-cylinder power would have been a disastrous mistake, particularly considering the last four-cylinder Commodore used the infamous Starfire mill. Though the turbo four is a punchy engine and in some ways superior to the 3.6 V6, the Commodore needed a six-cylinder to survive. Nevertheless, a V6 wasn’t enough. The most overtly sporty ZB is the VXR which uses the exact same 3.6 V6 as Commodores as much as AUD$15k cheaper. For buyers of the VF SS and SS-V with their 6.2 V8, the VXR was a non-starter, particularly considering its AUD$55,990 price tag, almost $10k more than a VF SS.

It seems Holden expected ZB sales to be much higher as the car has been offered with a dizzying range of variants. Three engines. Three body styles: the hatchback, Sportwagon, and raised Tourer. Trim levels comprising LT, RS, RS-V, VXR, Calais and Calais-V. There was talk recently of Holden thinning some of the less popular variants but instead, the whole range will be gone by the end of next year.

To illustrate how far the Commodore has fallen, in its best year – 1998 – Holden sold 94,642 of them. So far this year, it’s sold 5,417 units.

The axing of the Commodore and Astra hatch follows that of the Spark, Barina, Astra wagon and Astra sedan (a rebadged Chevrolet Cruze), all of which were terminated over the last 12 months. Holden will now sell only SUVs (what we call both crossovers and BOF SUVs) and utes (what we call pickups).

Focussing on SUVs and pickups is something we’ve seen before over in North America. Ford and Chevrolet recently revealed they were discontinuing all their cars bar their pony and sports car models. Buick just announced it was axing its last car, the Regal (an omen the Commodore’s death was nigh). In Australia, Nissan’s passenger car range has only consisted of sports cars and the Leaf for the past couple of years. Mitsubishi Australia is down to just one car, the Mirage.

Unfortunately for Holden, their SUVs aren’t selling as well as rivals. The Equinox in particular is a disappointment, with just 2.8% market share in a viciously competitive segment. Its lack of name recognition and arguably its lack of marketing has been to its detriment, though Holden was probably wise not to call it Captiva like its predecessor. That crossover was sold for 12 years, had more facelifts than Priscilla Presley, and is referred to by many as the “Craptiva”.

The Trax, like everything else in its segment, is trounced by the Mitsubishi ASX (Outlander Sport) which, despite its advanced age, enjoys unrivalled popularity. Worryingly, however, it’s also outsold by rivals from Mazda, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota and even Suzuki.

The seven-seat Captiva was replaced by the much larger and much more expensive Acadia, sourced from GMC. Like other imported models, the Acadia received some local suspension tuning and engineering input. We also received the nine-speed automatic transmission and 8.0-inch infotainment system ahead of the GMC. It’s yet another new name in a segment full of established rivals, however. Toyota dominates the large crossover segment here with Hyundai and Mazda taking the other spots on the podium. Holden isn’t completely in the weeds but it’ll take time for them to catch up. Fortunately, the Acadia has received critical praise for its spacious and versatile interior, balanced handling, and smooth powertrain. Of Holden’s SUV range, it’s regarded as the most impressive, with some critics even calling it the “real” successor to the Commodore.

Though the Acadia is off to a slow start, more worrying is how the Colorado and its Trailblazer sibling are performing, especially as the pickup segment is Australia’s biggest. Again, they’re being outsold by key rivals from Ford, Toyota and Mitsubishi, but they’re also being outsold by the very same vehicles wearing Isuzu badges. Even worse, last month, the two-model Isuzu range was just 508 sales from beating the entire Holden range.

GM and Isuzu developed the Colorado/D-Max trucks and Trailblazer/MU-X SUVs together. Originally, Isuzu supplied trucks and SUVs to Holden to sell but they decided to re-enter the pickup and SUV market here in 2008. With strong and sustained marketing, they’ve made a name for themselves here to the point that, even though the Holdens have been refreshed and have vastly superior interiors, the Isuzus are outselling them.

On one hand, Holden is lucky to be able to choose product from a number of GM brands (albeit fewer than before). On the other hand, Holden never seems to pick a car and stick with it. Since the 1980s, for example, Holden’s mid-size offering has gone from Camira to Apollo, Vectra, Epica, Malibu and then Insignia.

Lines are imported for a single generation and then disappear, never to be seen again – see Viva, Piazza, Calibra, Suburban, Tigra, Zafira, Cascada and Volt. This inconsistency even affects established lines. For example, the defunct Barina went from being a rebadged Suzuki to an Opel, then a Daewoo, then finally a GM Korea product. The Astra took a break and was replaced by the Korean and then Australian-built Cruze, before returning.

Holden has had loyal fans over the years. There’s an inherent tribalism to the Ford vs. Holden rivalry, fuelled as it is by the V8 Supercars race series. Even as many private buyers abandoned the Commodore and Falcon for SUVs, there were still dyed-in-the-wool fans of both. Older folk who’d only ever driven a big Aussie six or V8. Aussies in regional areas. Lovers of inexpensive performance. People who tow. V8 Supercar fans. Buyers who appreciated the fact they could break down in any town in Australia and there’d be no problem finding parts. As nice as the ZB Commodore is, it was never going to appeal to many of these buyers, while the rest of the market had moved onto SUVs.

Meanwhile, over at Ford, their passenger car sales have largely been disappointing. Local production of the Falcon and Territory ended in 2016 and since then, they’ve discontinued all Fiestas bar the ST and look set to wind down the Mondeo due to dismal sales. Even their SUV sales are nothing to write home about. However, Ford has an ace up each sleeve: the Ranger and the Mustang.

The Ranger is narrowly beaten by the Toyota Hilux in overall sales but outsells the Toyota in sales of the higher-spec, more profitable 4WD variants. Then there’s the Mustang. Ford Australia must be counting its lucky stars that its corporate parent decided to engineer the new Mustang for right-hand-drive. It’s allowed Ford to continue flying the performance flag and kept something with serious showroom appeal at Ford dealerships. Though sales have dipped slightly as coupe sales tend to do, the Mustang has been an enduring sales success that’s helped soften the blow of the Falcon’s demise.

You’ll see the Chevrolet Camaro SS and ZL1 in some Holden showrooms but they’re converted to right-hand-drive by HSV instead of coming that way from the factory. Consequently, the SS is priced around AUD$22k higher than the Ford. That’s why Mustangs run wild throughout Australia while Camaros are much, much rarer.

Though the Camaro has never been as much of a household name in Australia as the Mustang, a factory RHD model and subsequent lower price could have helped Holden. Dare I say it, slapping the Holden Monaro name on such a vehicle could have helped ease the pain of Holden fans and generated plenty of showroom traffic.

One car that will generate showroom traffic is the upcoming C8 Corvette. The first factory RHD Corvette, it’s coming to Australia and will be sold in select Holden showrooms. It won’t, however, wear Holden badges… or Chevrolet badges, for that matter. So while it’ll get gawkers, it’s not going to have a halo effect on the Holden brand.

Unfortunately for Holden, in its corporate parent’s pursuit of becoming a leaner and more profitable company, it’s been all too willing to exit markets where it’s underperformed. It sold Opel and Vauxhall, despite having reduced Chevrolet to a boutique operation in Europe just a few years prior. It withdrew from India in 2017, an emerging market it had re-entered in 1996. The same year, it also withdrew from South Africa. It’s pulling out of Indonesia next year. The situation in South Korea is looking shaky as well, with heavy losses, industrial action and a dwindling number of products being produced. If GM divests itself of its Korean operations, that will have a direct effect on Holden as it’ll spell the end of the Trax.

Then there’s the fact Australia, New Zealand and Thailand are GM’s only remaining right-hand-drive markets (it sells only LHD vehicles in Japan). How much longer is GM going to be willing to invest in engineering cars like the Equinox and Acadia for right-hand-drive?

GM hasn’t helped Holden’s reputation in Australia. Quality issues with GM Korea cars sabotaged the brand’s image here, and even those cars’ Opel-sourced predecessors acquired a reputation for flakiness.

Nothing in Holden’s current range is bad, though some of their products (e.g. the Trax) fail to rise much above average. What they need, however, is stability and some targeted, effective marketing. The brand’s image needs to be rehabilitated and matching Kia’s 7-year, unlimited kilometre warranty – and not just as a temporary sales promotion – is one tangible first step they could take. Kia’s soaring up the sales charts and it once had a reputation far worse than Holden’s.

Alas, Holden is at the mercy of its corporate parent. If sales don’t turn around, it’s not implausible that GM will shutter the Holden brand after more than 70 years.

What they’re doing right:

  • Refocusing the brand on what sells
  • Cherry-picking the most suitable GM products

What they’re doing wrong

  • Showing no signs of stopping their frequent chopping and changing of model lines
  • Struggling with slow sales of models in hot segments (e.g. Equinox)
  • Not communicating to buyers clearly enough why they should consider Holden again

Read all our Holden articles at Curbside Classic Archive: Australian Brands