Curbside Classic: 1986-88 Holden VL Commodore – A Heart Transplant From Overseas

(first posted 5/8/2018)     Most cars would usually be looking rather tired eight years into their model run. Not so the first-generation Holden Commodore. Other than an unchanged width, the VL looked remarkably different to the inaugural VB Commodore. Even more refreshingly, it came with two new engines: both straight-sixes from Nissan, one a turbocharged version.

How did Nissan engines end up under the Commodore’s hood? Let’s look back at Holden in the 1980s. The first Commodore, the 1978 VB, had been lauded for being the right car in the right size at the right time. The 1979 XD Falcon, in contrast, was seen as being oversized and out-of-touch. As fuel prices fell, however, the Falcon began to soar and the right-sized Commodore suddenly wasn’t so right-sized. By 1982, the Falcon overtook the Commodore in sales. The bigger Ford had been aided by strong fleet sales and a whopping 95% share of the taxi market, but even private buyers were looking past the Commodore.

1984-86 VK Commodore

General Motors-Holden as a whole was also suffering. They had spent $AUD400 million on a factory to produce the Family II four-cylinder and, despite a fledgling export program for said engines, the whole endeavor was proving highly unprofitable. The government had also mandated the use of unleaded fuel from January 1, 1986, throwing another spanner in the works for Holden. General Motors was reluctant to throw even more money into what was effectively an isolated outpost, at that point catering almost exclusively to a domestic market that bought only around 600,000 cars a year. By 1986, Holden’s market share was down to 20.84% while Ford sat at 30.59%. Despite a growing market, Holden was faltering. This failure wasn’t just on the back of the Commodore range, mind you, as Holden had some concerning gaps in their lineup (no ute or long-wheelbase sedan after 1984) and some mediocre products (Camira, Astra).

As early as 1983, Holden was in talks with Nissan to obtain their inline six engines. They had looked throughout the rest of the GM stable first, of course, but found Opel’s sixes to be too old and heavy and GM North America’s V6s to be too weak. The deal was struck with Nissan to source their RB30E six, used in the Skyline range, for the revised 1986 VL Commodore.

The new, imported six signified the end of the line for 38 years of Aussie-built Holden sixes, although local production would eventually return. The electronically fuel-injected, single overhead camshaft 3.0 was more modern and refined than its predecessor, although it weighed fractionally more than the old Holden six. Horsepower and torque were 152 hp and 182 ft-lbs respectively, compared to 142 hp and 196 ft-lbs for the fuel-injected version of the old six. That still put it down 36 ft-lbs to the volume-selling carburetted 4.1 six in the Ford Falcon but the Commodore also weighed around 600 pounds less.

Holden engineers had made tweaks to the Nissan six, hoping to increase low-end torque without sacrificing its broad rev range. Automotive journalists at the time were highly impressed with the overall refinement and tractability of the engine, as well as the new five-speed manual and Nissan-sourced four-speed automatic transmissions. Nissan’s impressive engine netted a great many comparisons to Europe’s finest, particularly in its ability to rev effortlessly to its 6200 rpm redline.

Those who bristled at the notion of a Japanese engine in a Commodore – and there were quite a few grumbles at the time – could still opt for the 4.9 V8 eight months into the VL’s run. Holden had retooled it to run on unleaded and it now produced 164 hp and 238 ft-lbs. Although it was quicker off the line, the V8 was no faster than the new naturally-aspirated six to 60mph: both did the dash in around 9 seconds.

While the new engines and freshened styling elevated the VL, the rest of the package was showing its age. Although the Commodore had been stretched longer and longer, it had never been pulled wider and wider. This put interior space at a disadvantage compared to the 5.4-inch wider Falcon. Surprisingly, for a car engineered in such a hot country like Australia, the air-conditioning was lousy. At least Holden freshened the interior, with a new, more modern-looking center stack that sat lower. They also ditched the odd, square gauges of the VK for more conventional round ones; the posh Calais also lost its digital instruments, sharing a gauge cluster with the mid-range Berlina (the Calais did, however, gain stylish semi-concealed headlights). The changes were positive but there was still plenty of room for improvement in terms of build quality. Wheels compared a VL Calais with the top-spec VB SL/E and found plenty of cost-cutting and some concerning build quality issues.

Wheels also wasn’t a fan of the tweaks to the VL’s suspension, although many buyers may have been pleased. The VL’s suspension was softened, resulting in greater body roll and vertical motion. Engineers had aimed to decrease road noise and ride comfort but the Commodore’s handling suffered. Critics also noted the steering now provided less feel, power steering-equipped Commodores now requiring 2.7 turns lock-to-lock instead of 3.3. The “Euro” feel of the Commodore had been dialled out somewhat.

After a short, six-month delay, Holden introduced the eagerly anticipated turbocharged version of the Nissan six. Rather than restrict it to certain models, Holden made it an option across the entire range. Producing 201 hp and 218 ft-lbs, the turbo six was smooth and lacked the lag that plagued other turbocharged engines. Like the naturally-aspirated Commodores, the turbos also came with a choice of five-speed manual or electronically-controlled four-speed automatic transmissions. With the manual, 0-60 mph was accomplished in around 7.6 seconds; the auto reached 60 in around 8.5 seconds. Those were some heady numbers for the mid-1980s. Turbo Commodore buyers also had the option of an available FE2 suspension tune with firmer springs and shocks, negating the retrograde revisions to the VL’s suspension.

The turbo was intended only to be a niche model, Holden projecting around 3000 sales a year and the bulk of those were expected to be the high-end Calais. That made sense considering the price premium the boosted model carried: although a turbo Calais was only around $AUD 1500 more expensive than a regular one, the price premium was $2000-3000 in the SL, Executive and Berlina models.

By 1987, Holden buyers were spoilt for choice: there were two performance engines they could choose from, one representing the comfortable and the familiar, the other new and fresh and exciting. More importantly, even buyers at the bottom end of the Commodore range could enjoy a more refined, fuel-efficient Aussie sedan or wagon.

The New Zealand market also received a smaller 2.0 inline six from Nissan, replacing the lethargic 1.9 “Starfire” four they’d continued offering even after Australia had had enough. Keen pricing of Commodores with the small six – $2000 lower than equivalent 3.0 variants – allowed it to account for half of Commodore sales there. In turn, the Commodore overtook the Falcon in sales there.

The Falcon remained king in the Australian market, however, thanks largely to its greater fleet and regional sales and incentives. With an imported engine, Holden couldn’t afford to slash VL prices too much and instead focussed on private buyers. It would take until 1989, the second year of the VN Commodore, for the Commodore to finally wrestle back the sales crown from the Falcon.

It was common knowledge a new, wider Commodore was on the way as the VL was being launched. The 1988 VN offered greater interior space and more modern styling, although under its new sheetmetal it was much the same as the VL. The key difference was under the hood: the Nissan sixes were gone, replaced with the Buick 3.8 V6. An increasingly unfavorable exchange rate had killed any chances of Holden continuing its deal with Nissan. The VN’s V6 may not have revved as sweetly as the VL’s six but it made up for that loss with more torque.

The decision to use Nissan sixes was an expedient decision made by a company in the red, but it’s made the VL one of the most respected Commodore generations. To this day, VL turbos command obscene prices. While it was controversial ditching the Aussie “Red” six for Japanese engines, history has remembered this decision, and the VL, fondly.

VL Berlina photographed in Taringa, Queensland in February 2018.

Related Reading:

Magazine Classic: 1986 Holden Commodore vs Europe – Challenging Teenage Perceptions II

Automotive History: Australian Auto Family Trees – The Holden Commodore From A-Z VB-VF.

Curbside Classic: 1988-91 Holden VN Commodore – Revisiting the Opel Mine

Curbside Classic: 1978-81 Holden VB/VC Commodore – The Beginning of a New Era