30 May 2013 - 09:00
Holden's VF Commodore: The TopGear Test
By BILL MCKINNON
THE VF is nothing like the "Billion Dollar Baby" the company boasted of when VE was launched in 2006. It gets the make-it-look-like-a-brand-new-car-without-spending-much-money treatment: a nose and tail job, interior reno, new wheels, a visit from the Bling Fairy and more gear. Engines and transmissions, both of which cost megabucks to change, are unchanged. However, to dismiss the VF as just a tart-up would be unfair.
The Holy Grail of car engineering is weight reduction, and here Holden has delivered, big time, stripping a useful 43kg out of the base model (despite the car carrying 30kg of extra equipment) using aluminum instead of steel for the bootlid, bonnet and bazooka (the big tube that runs across the front of the car, off which hang the steering column, dash, vents and the rest) and ferreting out other incremental weight savings all over the place.
Add a lower engine-idle speed, electric power steering and slipperier aerodynamics, and the base 3.0-litre V6 automatic renter/fleet hack/repmobile, now called the Evoke, achieves a six per cent fuel-economy gain over the VE II Omega.
SO, THE DRIVING...
Holden offers four suspension tunes for the VF. The Evoke and Calais get FE1, tuned for comfort rather than speed. The engineers told us to expect a more nimble, responsive Commodore, with quicker steering and improved roll control.
That's exactly how it feels, but the Commodore's signature handling qualities are still evident, too. Few cars give you as much feedback from each corner as the big Holden, so even when you're up it for the rent, it feels smaller and lighter than it actually is. As you push a Commodore deeper into a bend you become increasingly aware of exactly how much front-wheel grip you've got and where the car is heading, which is into progressive understeer. Ease into the gas and it squats on the outside rear, which you feel with similar clarity as it puts its power to the road and straightens the car, as if it's the most natural thing in the world.
Electric steering comes in three calibrations: Touring (with FE1 and FE1.5 suspension models), Sport (on FE2 SV6, SS and SSV) and a switchable Track mode on the FE3-fettled Redline, which isn't here for us to drive today. Bummer.
The VE II's hydraulic system was okay, though inconsistently weighted, overassisted and a few degrees off centre. The VF's electric system holds the straight-ahead position with authority, is more linear and precise, albeit without that super-sharp BMW-style turn-in everybody else is now trying to imitate.
While the engineers are rebuilding the SS I'm supposed to drive, I jump into a 260kW 6.0-litre V8 Calais V Sportwagon. What in God's name is this? I've sat in a few over the top, Vegas-style interiors in my time, but this one takes the biscuit. There's fake suede on the dash. Plastic alloy and chrome are trowelled absolutely everywhere. It's overkill, bordering on bad taste. Did they get Donald Trump in as a consultant?
This car drives like a big-hair special, too. There's a lot of front-end bounce because the extra weight of the V8 in the nose isn't properly controlled by FE1. The front suspension hits the stops on one sharp bump and gives the body a huge whack. Sure, the VF Calais rides like a limo, but whereas the VE II Calais was a sporty-ish handler, this one isn't. It's loaded, though. Holden now has unfettered access to GM's electronic lolly shop, so the Calais includes the worksburger safety specification, with lane-departure warning, a forward-collision alert and a head-up display. Leather upholstery and 18-inch alloy wheels with 235/50 tyres are also standard; the Calais V adds rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats, 19-inch alloys with 245/40s and, in the sedan, Bose speakers and a sunroof.
It's amazing how much lighter and tighter the SV6 ute feels. It runs FE2 suspension, with a bespoke tune at the back to suit its load-carrying brief, plus weightier steering and 18-inch alloys with 245/45s. Inside, Holden has stuck with its familiar black-and-red sports model colour scheme. It's a lot more twinkly, though, than the VE II SV6/SS cabin, which was a dark, chrome-free man cave. The sports seats are supportive and luxurious.
We're carrying amazing cornering speeds here at Lang Lang. And the ute changes direction with virtually no body roll at all. I've also forgotten what a potent engine the 210kW 3.6-litre V6 is. This thing flies. I love it.
And I won't be alone.
GRAB A COPY OF OUR JUNE ISSUE, OUT NOW: A VF Commodore SS flashes past. It's sideways, in a perfectly controlled drift, smoke pouring off the back tyres. At the wheel is a man - The Man - in white. Some say his mother was an HQ Kingswood and that he was born with ‘Peter Brock can't drive' tattooed on his left buttock. All we know is he's called The Stig. For the full story, plus more pics and video, grab the June issue of TopGear Australia magazine - it's on sale now.