I needed wheels, and borrowing my dad’s old Swift wasn’t cutting it for me. I had flirted with the idea of a spicy Italian, but my pragmatism kicked in and I decided that something cheaper to repair and service was the way to go. Still, I didn’t want to buy something too ordinary, and I’ll admit a small part of me wanted to selfishly buy something that most of you, my fellow Curbsiders could not… I mean, altruistically buy something most of you, my fellow Curbsiders could not, so that you can live vicariously through my experiences. Yes, that’s it. A practical Australian purchase sounded like just the ticket, and a little bit of national pride played into my decision too.
The day I checked out that XR6 Turbo – the car I initially intended on buying – I had a glance at a Holden VE Berlina. The VE Commodore range – exported to the US as the Pontiac G8 – was quite comprehensive in Australia. The fleet-oriented Omega and family-oriented Berlina models were initially launched with a lower output (240hp, 240 ft-lbs) version of the 3.6 V6 mated to a four-speed automatic transmission with no manual shift mode. The sporty SV6 and luxury Calais and Calais V had a more powerful version of the 3.6 with 261hp and 250 ft-lbs. For even more power, there was an available 6.0 V8, with five- or six-speed automatics. Sports models (SV6, SS, SSV) had an optional six-speed manual.
Interior trim differed markedly from model to model, and there were three different dash layouts (base, sports and luxury). The Berlina resembled the Calais in terms of dash design, with a central screen albeit a cheaper, monochromatic one, but I was struck by how drab the fabrics and the door trims were. That, coupled with the four-speed auto, was enough to eliminate it from consideration.
The next rung up in the Commodore hierarchy was the Calais, with a nicer dash design and nicer trim. Still, the seating surfaces were cloth and resembled plush mouse fur. What I really wanted were the leather pews of the Calais V, specifically the beige leather interior. Despite our generally quite hot and sunny climate, I was surprised to find a lot of Calais Vs with the black leather option. Still, I was beginning to think I’d be lucky to even find a Calais V at all in my price range. Then I found it.
I had test-driven a Calais V that I had no intentions of buying, due to its high mileage (124k miles). Surprisingly, the salesman just threw me the keys and told me I could take it for a solo spin. Suffice it to say, I drove it a little bit more aggressively than I would have with a salesman in the car. The Calais impressed with its strong power delivery and a smooth-shifting transmission. I wanted this car. (I would have loved one of the later V8 models with cylinder deactivation, but I was being realistic and the registration and running costs would have been too much.)
As luck would have it, I came across a listing on Carsales for a 2007 Calais V. It had around 108k miles and, coincidentally like my last car, was located on the Gold Coast. I was 45 minutes late to view it and the owner’s wife was none too pleased. However, she obliged me a short test drive and everything seemed to be in good nick. Ordinarily I try to stick to cars with less than 93k miles, but I tend to trust higher mileage Aussie cars more than those from other countries, if not because of their inherent reliability then because of their cheaper repair costs.
I had an RACQ inspection carried out, as usual. These inspections are notoriously thorough and sometimes it can be very daunting to receive a copy of the report. Even a solid used buy can seem like a basketcase! I called the mechanic directly though, like I did with my Falcon several years ago, and he said everything seemed to be above board.
The owner was an extremely friendly real estate agent who had gotten quite attached to his car. Adorably, he even took one final photo of it as I drove it away. He hadn’t lined up a replacement car yet but a front-runner was a used Mercedes-Benz CLS55 AMG, a suitably flashy car for the Gold Coast.
Silver may be a ubiquitous color, but it sure looked good on this Calais, exposing its muscular stance and flared wheel arches. Inside, there was the two-tone beige and grey interior I was looking for.
Interestingly, the dash top has this distinctive grain to it. It’s not exactly soft-touch, but it looks nice.
Suede wraps the bottom of the dash and door panels. While it is nice, it is a questionable design choice as I’m sure we have all used our feet to kick open a door while parked on a hill and suede sure scuffs. The glove compartment door is a little flimsy in its operation, there are numerous hard plastic pieces, and the doors don’t quite close with a solid thunk. Otherwise build quality is quite good, although I might rate my Falcon as being slightly better built (although with vastly inferior paintwork). And I love the leather trim on the door panels!
Feature content is high, as the Calais V was the most expensive short-wheelbase Commodore derivative outside of Holden Special Vehicles at $AUD50,000; a 6.0 V8 was available for an extra $3000. Front and rear parking sensors have been a wonderful feature for me, as I am admittedly not great at parking. Dual-zone climate control impresses people, although I initially found it somewhat pointless. The Bluetooth is an excellent feature, and pressing the ‘phone’ button activates Siri on my iPhone so I can dictate text messages (although Siri is often frustratingly inept, but that’s the phone’s fault!) The power seats are a nice feature, and I also love the ambient lighting under the dash and the puddle lamps on the doors.
There are two features I haven’t used. The first is the rear-seat DVD player, which my brother has confirmed works. The second is the satellite navigation. I didn’t realise my car had it when I bought it and the seller never mentioned anything about it despite giving me an extremely thorough tour of the interior. It seems to require a disc, and I’ll look into that eventually. In the meantime, I have an AUX jack that I can connect to my phone and just navigate using Apple Maps.
Enough about the gadgets, though. I’m sure you are all curious how it drives. Well, if you’ve ever driven a Pontiac G8 3.6 then you already know. Acceleration could be just a tad quicker, although I guess I’m used to the responsiveness of driving a torquier car with a stickshift. Speaking of the transmission, the manual shift mode is something I have used on numerous occasions and it isn’t one of those annoying nanny ones that just countermand you. It’s no manual, but it is an acceptable substitute.
Early Calais and Calais V models received the same FE2 sports suspension as the sports variants. It wasn’t until 2008 when a FE1.5 setting was introduced, specific to the luxury models. Accordingly, my Calais rides quite firmly and it could stand to be a bit more compliant. Still, roadholding is excellent and it’s a fun car to drive hard. Maybe I’m a hoon but it is satisfying trying to trip up the stability control. Fuel economy is averaging around 19mpg thanks to my leadfoot… I guess it’s good I couldn’t afford the V8!
I’ve only had one issue with the Calais so far, and that was a leak in the cooling system. It had been overheating regularly for a little while so I topped it up with coolant and watched it all gush out from the engine bay. Taking it to my mechanic resulted in a $700 bill (including servicing). This issue did highlight a certain quirk of the car, though: if it has been sitting in the hot sun, or the engine has been running hot, the engine note has this lovely throaty growl. Still, I’m glad I got the overheating issue fixed before any damage could be done.
She’s not perfect, but I’ve already gotten quite attached to Callie! And damn, does she photograph well!