Just over 60 demonstrator Holden VF II Commodores remain at dealerships in Australia nationwide as of January 2019. The dramatically different, imported front/all-wheel-drive ZB Commodore has replaced the local rear-wheel-drive VF II and has started to appear in rental fleets. Last year, I test drove and reviewed a rental WN II Caprice and said it would probably be the last time I got to drive an Aussie rental car. I was wrong – Budget afforded me one last spin in a “Light My Fire” orange VF II Commodore SV6 sedan. Does this final “real” Commodore deserve to be romanticized?
Commodore sales have declined markedly with the new Opel Insignia/Buick Regal-based ZB series, even considering the slow atrophy of the mid/full-size passenger car segment (note: our sales reporting organization, VFACTS, calls the mid-size Commodore a full-size for some reason but not, for example, the similarly-sized Camry). Perhaps a large part of that decline is because the 30% of Commodore buyers who bought a V8 now have nothing remotely comparable – the ZB lineup tops out with a naturally-aspirated 3.6 V6 with 315 hp and 281 ft-lbs, the most powerful engine Holden could wrangle for this global model.
There’s a lot of enthusiasts critical of Holden for putting the Commodore name on an imported, front-wheel-drive hatchback. To those most vocal enthusiasts, the ZB isn’t a Commodore. To those who don’t know much about cars, the ZB is a Commodore… and that name comes attached with plenty of memories. A lot of Aussies don’t realize that many Holdens weren’t actually manufactured here and some Aussies think the entire division is shutting down, not just local manufacturing. To these regular consumers, even a broadly competent German hatchback and wagon might conjure up memories of bogans doing burnouts, taxi cabs, and maybe build quality that’s not quite on the same level as the Japanese. Add to that a general distaste for larger passenger cars and the ZB is suffering badly – Holden has had to halt imports due to excessive inventory.
It almost makes you think Holden should’ve given the new Commodore a different name, even if “Commodore” has some of the best name recognition of any vehicle nameplate in Australia. However, in terms of purpose and positioning, the new Commodore is much like the old. I can’t tell you what a ZB drives like but I can tell you how the VF II drives. For a car whose roots date back to 2006, the answer is pretty well. I’ve had first-hand experience with this platform, having owned a VE Calais V. The good news is Holden largely addressed its faults with the VE II revision and the VF overhaul. The bad news is they added some new quirks along the way.
The SV6 was one level up from the base Evoke, a trim level largely relegated to fleet purchases. Holden had seen a compression of its lower-end trims since the VE, with the Omega and Berlina being supplanted by the Evoke as buyers flocked to the sportier SV6. That wasn’t just private buyers but also company car buyers, police departments and even rental fleets. For $AUD4000 more than the Evoke, the SV6 swapped out the direct-injected 3.0 of the Evoke for a 3.6 and included sportier interior trim and a firmer suspension tune; for just $2k more than the Evoke, you could get the SV6 with a six-speed manual.
Let’s start with the good. Holden added direct injection to the 3.6 V6 in the VE II upgrade, increasing power and torque by 19 hp and 20 ft-lb to 280 hp and 260 ft-lbs. The French five-speed automatic in my ’07 VE Calais – as well as the four-speed automatic in lesser models – was replaced a few years back with a six-speed GM unit. In classic GM style, the six-speed shifts smoothly and never seems to get caught out of gear. If you are so inclined, there is a manual shift mode – using the shifter only as there are no paddle shifters – but there’s really no point. The SV6’s FE2 suspension tune also felt more compliant than the FE2 tune in my old Calais. My rental was well and truly broken in with almost 30,000 miles on the odometer, likely meaning it’ll be auctioned off soon enough.
The VE had a neat, user-friendly cabin but the VF brought a complete overhaul to the interior. Black interiors can look funereal in some cars – and yet it remains a popular interior color choice, go figure – but the SV6 maintains some visual interest with a flowing strip of faux carbon fiber trim and upholstery on the dashboard. The 8-inch infotainment screen is mounted nice and high while the switchgear is of good quality and positioned in a straightforward manner. There’s also a rather large storage nook below the center stack and a couple of well-sized cupholders.
The seats are grippy and supportive and upholstered in leather and suede, with leather-look trim also applied on the doors. There are some hard plastics on the lower half of the dash as expected and the shifter is a bit low-rent but otherwise this is quite an elegant cabin.
Perhaps with the exception of the little black-and-white screen in the gauge cluster, the VF’s cabin appears sufficiently up-to-date. A bonus: unlike the old VE and Pontiac G8, the window switches are correctly located on the doors, not on the center console.
And, being an Aussie Commodore, there’s both a large boot (trunk)…
…and a spacious rear seat with room for three adults, although one of those will have to sit perched on the drivetrain hump. They will, however, enjoy more elbow and shoulder room than in the new ZB – the VF is 74.7 inches wide, 1.4 more than the ZB.
Since the VE, Holden has added features like proximity entry, push-button start, blind-spot monitoring, Bluetooth audio streaming and a head-up display to the Commodore range. I’ve spoken before about the value of a HUD and how it can help keep your eyes on the road instead of looking down at the infotainment screen for your next navigation instruction or down in the gauge cluster for your speed readout. Blind-spot monitoring is also an excellent, unobtrusive safety feature. But Bluetooth audio streaming is something I demand in a new car and something my rental SV6 couldn’t effectively deliver.
No, it’s not all good news for the VF II. A lot of the complaints can be aimed squarely at the infotainment system, including the aforementioned Bluetooth. The car managed to forget my phone every time I shut off the engine. It defaulted to radio in my phone’s perceived absence, meaning I had to wait an unusually long amount of time until it “found” my phone and connected. In my current car – which lacks Bluetooth audio streaming – I have to use an AUX cable to connect my phone. Believe it or not, it’s actually quicker for me to pick up the cable, plug in my phone and press play in my own car than it was to use Bluetooth in the SV6.
I’ve had some frustrating experiences with Holden’s MyLink system before and my feelings weren’t assuaged with this SV6. The user interface could be better and the way the screen is recessed into the dash finally made me realize why those somewhat silly-looking tablet-esque screens are so popular in cars today – they’re more in your line of sight and it’s easier to press buttons on them. MyLink’s navigation functionality has easy-to-read maps but the UX design clashes with the physical location of the screen, meaning you have to push buttons tucked away into corners. I’d much rather use Google Maps via Android Auto, something that was never available on the VF. At least your turn-by-turn navigations are displayed on the HUD, a very handy feature. One final gripe about the interior, though: the rear park assist beeped incessantly. It was much too sensitive, although the camera display was sufficiently high-resolution.
The Commodore also had some faults on the road. Don’t get me wrong: it had the aforementioned smooth-shifting transmission and plenty of low-end torque. But the V6 makes a bit of a racket while wind noise is also surprisingly noticeable in the cabin. And although the ride quality felt more compliant than my older VE, it was a little unsettled on concrete highways.
Sadly, the switch to electric instead of hydraulic-assisted steering has meant some road feel has been sacrificed. My travels took me along Nerang-Murwillumbah Road, a scenic 21-mile (34km) road of sweeping curves overlooking beautiful Advancetown Lake. The SV6 had plenty of power but as speeds increased, the steering felt overly light. Such a road would’ve been more enjoyable in a VE SV6. My seat-of-the-pants impressions were that the VF feels a little less planted in corners than the sporty VE models, although only back-to-back test drives could confirm that. The balanced handling inherent in the Zeta chassis, however, means a Commodore is still going to feel more enjoyable to steer than, say, a Camry.
While the VF took a step forward in many respects – interior design and quality, feature content – it was no better dynamically than the VE and, while still handsome, lost the visual edge of the chiselled VE with its flared wheel arches and angular, purposeful front and rear styling.
I couldn’t help but feel less impressed with this VF II SV6 than I had with its big brother, the WN II Caprice V. The Commodore was a resolutely capable car, don’t get me wrong. But the V8 engine elevated this platform and certainly made it stand out in a market where affordable V8 performance was virtually non-existent. An SV6 was a regular middle management sedan or family sedan, more easily replaced by an imported, front/all-wheel-drive Opel. A V8 SS, in contrast, was a muscle car. The loss of the latter is much more poignant than the loss of the former. Nevertheless, it’s still a sad loss.