Rental Car Review: 2017 Holden WN II Caprice V — Bittersweet

(first posted 8/29/2017)     Although it was chilly and drizzling, there were still flocks of tourists along the Great Ocean Road. Many of these tourists were from China and many of them had Holden Commodore SV6 rental cars. Those rental Commodores are almost like Australian ambassadors, rolling monuments to the talent and hard work of Aussie engineers and factory workers. Soon, when Chinese tourists come to visit, they will be reserving the same Hyundai Sonatas or Toyota Camrys they can purchase back home. “Made in Australia” will still apply to the food they eat or some of the souvenirs they buy, but not the cars they drive. How sad.

As you may remember, I already drove the Great Ocean Road five years ago with Brandon, renting a Hyundai i30. This time, I took my brother. I reserved one of those ubiquitous Holden Commodore SV6 sedans but was instead given my first-ever free upgrade, to a Holden Caprice V.

This will likely be the last time I rent an Australian-built car as GM ends local production on October 20 this year. Not long after, the VF II Commodore and WN II Caprice, the Aussie-built Toyota Camry and Aurion, and the Ford Falcon and Territory will disappear entirely from rental fleets.

The Caprice name has been applied since 1974 to the largest, most expensive and most well-equipped Aussie Holden (not including the separate Holden Special Vehicles range). Despite the introduction of the downsized Commodore in 1978, the Caprice (and the related Statesman) remained on the old Kingswood/Premier platform. Both Statesman and Caprice took a break in 1984, returning in 1990 as long-wheelbase, luxury spinoffs of the Commodore. The Statesman was the lower-spec model, equivalent to a Ford Fairlane and for many years coming standard with cloth seats. The Caprice was distinguished by the use of additional chrome and richer interior trim, much like the Ford LTD.

In 2003, a funny thing happened. Holden repositioned the Caprice and the Calais – the highest-spec short-wheelbase Aussie Holden –as sportier, more European-inspired offerings with a firmer suspension tune than the lower-rung Berlina and Statesman. The Statesman was left to appeal to fleet and conservative, older buyers. In 2010, it was axed and only the Caprice remained in regular and higher-spec V guises (the V nameplate didn’t denote higher performance, unlike on Cadillacs).

Full-size sedan sales, like mid-size sedan sales, have been on a downward trajectory for years now. Once a popular choice with families, the full-size sedan peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Commodores and Falcons have since been supplanted by crossovers in most suburban driveways and both have relied heavily on fleet, police and taxi sales. Full-size domestic luxury sedans have struggled even more. Ford withdrew its Fairlane and LTD in 2007, leaving the big Holden to battle the Chrysler 300.

VF Calais V

In 2013, Holden introduced the VF Commodore and Calais and WN Caprice. While the Commodore had new sheet metal up front (and at the rear for sedans, too), the Caprice kept the same exterior. Design tweaks were limited to new wheels and badges, although the WN Caprice received the new interior design and a whopping $10k price cut.

A range simplification for the VF Series II revision in 2015 led to the removal of the Caprice’s formerly standard 3.6 V6, leaving just one loaded Caprice V with the C6 Corvette’s 6.2 LS3 V8, pumping out 408 hp at 6000 rpm and 423 ft-lbs at 4400 rpm.

I have to be blunt, here: I don’t know who in Australia, short of government departments like the Prime Minister’s office, is still buying the Caprice. Perhaps there remain some traditional buyers out there but, for the most part, luxury car buyers have moved on to the German brands. In 2016, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class outsold the Caprice by almost 7-to-1. The mainstream brand luxury full-size segment saw an overall sales decline of 36%.

Lest you think the Caprice competes only on cubic inches and cubic feet of cabin volume (like its gigantic 18.9 cubic foot trunk), let me assure you this is one impressive vehicle. The rigid Zeta platform has aged like fine wine, the Caprice staying poised and hunkered down through sweeping switchbacks. The chunky, leather-wrapped steering wheel is a tactile delight and the electrically-assisted steering affords plenty of feedback to the driver, lightening at low speeds.

It’s really quite remarkable how the 4000-pound Caprice can be hustled in the corners with no body roll. It’s even more remarkable that the Caprice can still offer a firm yet compliant ride that softens out pockmarked pavement. The Caprice’s ride/handling balance is, dare I say it, Germanic and it feels ready for anything, the only concession being you can feel the extra length over the regular Commodore and Calais.

The VW is a rental, too.

As I was driving my brother under the seemingly omnipresent gaze (or possibility) of Victorian police, I didn’t try to push the Caprice to the limit. But although it has a tight chassis, the Caprice’s character is that of a refined, executive express. Road noise is nicely muffled and the 6.2 V8’s engine note is subdued except under hard acceleration. While the LS3 V8 may beg you to push it in, say, a Commodore SS, in the Caprice it quietly goes about its business and delivers effortless power through a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic. Think of it more as a graceful, rapid greyhound than a gnashing, frothing guard dog.

You can knock the shifter to the left to activate sport mode. If you want to manually shift your gears, you can then pull the shifter back or push it forward. No paddle shifters are available.

All that grunt means heavy fuel consumption. The big sedan is rated at 18 mpg combined (12.9 L/100km), which is more than the old 6.0 V8 and certainly more than the V6 in the Commodore/Calais. I achieved an average fuel economy of around 19 mpg, but that was mostly country driving. Premium fuel is recommended, although it can run on regular unleaded.

Taking the inland road back to Melbourne meant a few hours of highway driving, where the Caprice is in its element thanks to a comfortable ride and a hushed cabin. Sadly, however, the Caprice starts to lose its luster when you take a look at its cabin.

The design is really quite attractive. When the VE Commodore and WM Statesman/Caprice range debuted in 2006, four different interior designs were offered. This was fiscally imprudent for Holden and so, for the VF/WN revision, one basic interior design was introduced. Fortunately, they chose a simple bi-level center stack with a large, eight-inch touchscreen and audio controls on top and HVAC controls and a rather large storage recess below.

In the Calais and Caprice, the cabin is dressed up with leather trim, some leather trim on the dash, and some suede accents on the dash and seats. But the cabin is also dressed up with some fake metal trim on the dash and a strip of faux carbon fiber applique. There are an awful lot of different textures and materials on the dashboard so, although the overall design is simple and elegant, the execution isn’t. I’m also concerned the suede won’t wear well.

The faux metal trim on the dash and steering wheel also create annoying glare issues, while the A-pillars are just as thick and vision-obstructing as they were in 2006. Hard plastic is also used on the dash top and the bottom of the center stack. On a $AUD35,000 Commodore Evoke, that’s not so bad. On a $61,000 Caprice, it’s bothersome.

The plastic trim around the window switches is also tacky, although it’s nice to see Holden has moved these switches back to the doors where they belong; the old VE range had them in front of the gearshift for ease of conversion to LHD. While these controls may look cheap, the switchgear on the dash feels wonderfully high-quality and anything that reduces overall touchscreen usage is a win in my book.

If I didn’t have to use Holden’s MyLink infotainment system at all, I would have been happy. The overall design of the interface is inoffensive enough but the system needs work, with slow response times and an unintuitive layout. For some reason, the Bluetooth option was greyed out, forcing me to connect my iPhone via USB cable to one of the inputs located in the center console. But then, upon plugging in my phone each time and pressing Source on the touchscreen, the system kept defaulting to opening Pandora. Annoying. Another black mark was the quality of the backup camera with a rather hazy, low-resolution image for a car at this price point.

One of my fondest childhood memories involved relaxing in the cushy leather seats of a VR Caprice. The WN II Caprice’s heated leather seats, unfortunately, are anything but cushy. They’re overly firm although they offer a good amount of bolstering. Other companies can balance comfort and support better, though. The memory function was also supremely irritating, the Caprice refusing to accept my input. In hindsight, a flick through the owner’s manual might have been a good idea but this really shouldn’t be necessary for such a simple function. Also perplexing is why Holden engineered ventilated seats for export Chevrolet SS sedans but never bothered putting them in domestic market models. Nor did Holden introduce the massaging rear seats used for the Korean-market Caprice, the Daewoo Veritas. At least rear passengers in the Caprice get two video monitors, as well as an abundance of room.

The Caprice does get some technology right. The blind spot alert is a simple yet brilliant safety feature. Visibility is quite good overall in the Caprice but every car has blind spots, and the simple flashing lights on the side mirrors helpfully light up when a car is lurking just out of sight. This is a modern safety feature that truly works and can help reduce accidents.

One feature I can’t speak more highly of is the Caprice’s Head-Up Display. The technology has been around for decades – GM first started offering it in the late 1980s – but it has been refined over time. In the Caprice, the execution is sublime. The clear and legible display needed no adjustments and provided a digital read-out of the speed, as well as an analog tachometer reading. A little green car icon appears when sensors detect a car ahead. When using the satellite navigation, directions will appear in the HUD when there is a turn coming up. Song titles will also briefly display when you change songs. The HUD has all the information you need and none that you don’t, and it allows you to avoid looking down into the gauge cluster entirely except to occasionally check your fuel level. This feature isn’t just a gimmick—it’s an underrated safety feature. The only hiccup it had was when, at one point, a pictogram of two cars colliding briefly appeared when there were no cars ahead.

For $AUD61k, you can buy a base-model Mercedes-Benz C200 with a 181 hp, turbocharged four and the basic suspension set-up, or a 408 hp Holden Caprice V. There’s not much of a difference in dynamic competence between a base C200 and a Caprice and there’s a considerable gulf in terms of performance and cabin space.

But let’s consider another option. Say the snob appeal of a German badge means little to you and you don’t mind the extra hit in depreciation that comes with buying a fully-loaded Aussie sedan. Why not save $5k and buy a Calais V V8 sedan? You have all the luxury goodies and power of the Caprice and still ample cabin and trunk space. If you want to save another $8k, you can get a Calais V with the relatively gutsy 281 hp 3.6 V6. You have to ask yourself if you really need the extra legroom. Unless your back-seat passenger is Malcolm Turnbull, the answer is: probably not.

The frustrating thing is the Caprice’s flaws are really quite minor. Update the infotainment, put a little more padding in the seats, tidy up the interior trim a little and you’d have a world-class luxury sedan at an absolute steal of a price.

But GM won’t make those changes because it is shutting down local production. The Caprice will go and the Commodore will be replaced by a rebadged Buick Regal/Opel Insignia. I’m sure that car will be perfectly fine, like the current Regal/Insignia, but it won’t be as special.

It saddens me to think those Chinese tourists on the Great Ocean Road won’t be able to drive an Australian-made car. They probably won’t know about the VF Commodore and WN Caprice, world-class cars that used a platform we engineered and which we exported all across the globe. Those tourists won’t know we engineered and built cars in Australia and did a damn good job of it, too. Aussies will remember the Commodores and Falcons they grew up in, and enthusiasts will collect and lovingly maintain plenty of these. But the rest of the world will never know (or soon forget) that we made more than just Vegemite and Ugg boots. We made great cars.

Related Reading:

Curbside Expatriot: 2017 Chevrolet SS – “She’s the last of the (four door, RWD, manual) V8s!”

CC Comparisons: Last Of The Australians – 2007 Holden Calais V vs 2009 Ford Falcon G6E