The performance edition heading the last blast VF2 Commodore line reminds that brand intention is not to allow Australia’s final edition of its homebuilt car to fade away quietly.
IF Mad Max had been set in the ‘now’ rather than in an post-Apocalyptic future, then the Duke Nukem ‘red mist’ edition headlining the mid-life refresh of Holden’s final homegrown project would surely be the perfect road weapon for war boy Nux.
As is, a flagship performance Commodore re-equipped with a celebrity 6.2-litre thumper stands to be an immediate winner with red-blooded blokes (Holden picks most buyers will be 40-ish males) keen to ride this phwoarhorse to its own Valhalla.
Mad? You betcha. Car world convention says downsizing is the way; even Ferrari does it now. No-one replaces a big-bore engine with one that’s even larger. No-one, save for Holden that is.
What’s the risk level here? The most obvious spoiler would be if pump prices should soar. At the moment it seems unlikely – indeed VF2’s introduction times sweetly with a period of falling oil prices – yet history relates how quickly good times can turn bad.
On the other hand, the climate for a brawny Holden V8 is strong. This is no matter of a sledgehammer engine being used to smash a nut-sized market.
Everyone now knows that when Holden stops building cars in Australia, it’s not just a curtain drop on 67 years of Holden carmaking in Australia, of which 37 were dedicated to this model line, but also the pin pull on a long-standing eight-cylinder habit. At least insofar as placing a big grunter into sedans, wagons and utes go.
After 2017, the only V8s from this brand will be sports cars out of America and while the Commodore name will continue (probably attached to a new Insignia), its brawn will not provide beyond four and six-cylinder form.
So the solution for enthusiasts is to buy now or miss out: And that’s exactly what has been happening. The last-chance splurge has elbowed the SV6 as the best-selling Commodore derivative on either side of the Tasman, but it is strong here – for the past year V8 editions have accounted for one in four Commodores sales locally – and even more pronounced in Australia, where the ratio is one in three. Can Kiwis catch up? Holden NZ boss Kristian Aquilina doesn’t discount the possibility. “I would certainly like to see it account for more than 30 percent.”
That’s wholly possible because rev heads are now the only private sector crowd that can be called truly loyal to Commodore now that the mums and dads who once counted
as supporters have all moved to utes, SUVs, crossovers and smaller cars.
The brand openly acknowledges its intention to stay sweet with petrolheads – sorry, ‘enthusiasts’ - has been enough to drive the VF2 update in a certain direction.
While the V6 editions don’t escape attention, the primary focus is on the V8s. It’s a blatant ‘forget Green, we’re seeing red’ pitch given the quality of the engine under this now-slatted bonnet.
Nothing in the GM arsenal offers bigger bang or bore size now than this LS3. That it started out in the Chevrolet Corvette then configured for US-market versions of the Commodore sold as the Pontiac G8 and Chevrolet SS makes for good conversation, but far more brag-able is that it has until now been the exclusive domain of Holden Special Vehicles models for the past seven years.
Admittedly, the HSV cars were in a higher state of tune and the sub-brand maintains an advantage, having powered up their VF2-derived product even more, but this reflected glory is still no a bad factoid to chuck in at the next barbeque.
Doubtless owners might also casually mention that, with 304kW and 570Nm, this mill has three times the power of the original V8 Commodore of 1978 and makes VF2 the most powerful Holden Commodore (as opposed to HSV) engine ever. There’s also motorsport cachet to cash in on. Red Bull’s 2015 Bathurst victory, with Steven Richards and Craig Lowndes, gives Commodore an unsurpassed 23 victories on The Mountain in 37 years.
All this adds up to the flagship SSV Redline sedan being such a good – and slightly wild and wide-eyed – thing. Actually, forget slightly. The manner in which this model has been outfitted for its run to the finish line supports impression that quite few of the folk you’ve seen on the show Bogan Hunters have found gainful employment with Holden’s engineering and marketing department.
Muscle car enthusiasts who dream of the Commodore exiting the scene by drinking deep, laying down a window-shaking bass soundtrack and leaving thick black lines of tortured rubber will have no trouble identifying that this flagship edition is tailored perfectly for them.
With retuned suspension, Brembo brakes on the rear to aid those already working the front discs, a louder exhaust and an extra 34kW and 40Nm than the outgoing manual 6.0-litre LS2 SS variants mustered, it feels extremely fit for performance purpose.
Heard of Collingrove? It’s the grand cru motorsport attraction nestled amongst some of South Australia’s most famous vines, up in the Barossa Valley behind Adelaide. This isn’t a race circuit but a permanent, purpose-built hillclimb track that, by having been in use since 1952, is our neighbour’s second-oldest motorsport venue after Bathurst.
We were given two goes up the hill; the first two to get a feel for the place, the last against the clock. At first sighting, Holden’s big sedan felt way too big for a tight, twisting tarmac thread that was presumably designed for stripped-down Austin Sevens and the like. But that was an illusion; good grip, great grunt, stupendous stoppers – the Redline, after my sighting run, felt right at home.
The record time here is 27.2 seconds. It wasn’t threatened. But most road cars don’t get under 40s, so it was impressive more than half the attendees on our day, myself included, bettered that benchmark.
Out on the real road, that Redline also impressed; just as pointable, firm but not so hard-riding to be unbearable. At this level you have to anticipate that Holden will have taken most of the body movement out of the suspension during cornering ands over bumps, but what I’ve previously liked about the Redline setup previously still maintains in its retune: It’s not comfort with a capital ‘C’ but it is well-damped enough to nonetheless avoid spoiling with undue harshness and hyperactivity. Which, to my mind, separates this car from, and makes it superior to, products from a certain other company with a Holden-prefixed name.
The Redline’s directional responses are in tune with expectation; crispness and dynamic stability are obvious calling cards and it feels stable and easier to place than, again, that certain other.
I’m also quite impressed by the engine’s tune. The combination of more grunt and more noise is obvious, and it’s possibly not as instantly ferocious as the outhoing Clubsport R8, yet you’d call it a friendly kind of feral and even though the LS3 only revs out another 600rpm to its now 6600rpm redline, there’s more flexibility in how it enacts, with a broader torque and power spread. You’ve still got to take care with the clutch when kicking off to avoid axle tramp, but it does provide a cleaner delivery than the 6.0-litre which, in hindsight, didn't fully awaken until it was right in the meat of its mid-range. With the LS3 there’s more shove down low and a greater willingness to rev out. That alone adds up to it being more likeable around town, more relaxed at cruising speeds and more engaging when driven with enthusiasm.
All the same time, it’s no tame tabby. This is tiger country and sometimes the enhanced punch is just a toe twitch away. The shove and energy is patent enough to convince Holden to u-turn on past reluctance to provide performance data. Cited official 0-100kmh and 0-400 metres times of 4.9 and 13 seconds shave half a second off the old car’s. By the 400m post, it’s up to 182kmh – a 20kmh gain. Phew.
They’ve gone bogan with the soundtrack, too, the sedan’s bi-modal exhaust earning an A-grade in anti-social behaviour with a deep-throated bellow and the encore of an evil over-run crackle.
It’s pure mischief resultant from careful tuning. Holden places a "mechanical sound enhancer" (basically a diaphragm between two tubes) under the bonnet and a larger exhaust with an opening cleverly designed to expand as the revs rise to increase engine note. Holden intends to patent this "Baillie tip", as a tribute to the engineer responsible, David Baillie, who died as result of illness just before the car was ready to launch.
Most of the roar goes into the cabin yet enough escapes into the environment that, at full bore it’s twice as loud externally than the old model. Holden’s lead development engineer Amelinda ‘Ammo’ Watt’s comment “you’ll hear it before you see it” was borne out on the hillclimb track.
It could be louder. The sound enhancer includes an innocuous-looking piece of industrial foam lodged in one end that, ‘Ammo’ told me, is a crucial element. “We spent a lot of time working out exactly where it needed to locate within the tubing.” The sweet spot is right at one end; close enough to be pulled out with a pair of tweezers, I suggested. What difference would that make? Says ‘Ammo’: “Put it this way .. at certain revs your ears hurt.”
A $1500 premium over the outgoing cars makes the LS3 an easy aspiration for those already in the V8 mood: Holden’s claim of more bang for the buying buck than any other naturally-aspirated V8 performance sedan you can think of seems solid.
The usual catch applies, though: The outgoing LS2 was already something of a drinker and the replacement is optimally one litre per 100kms worse. Realistically, it can behave really badly: Redlines on our drive were averaging 17-18 litres per 100km.
Aquilina dryly doubts that’ll concern the faithful. “V8 customers tend not to be constrained by fuel economy figures.”
The broader story about VF2 is that cosmetic changes and equipment enhancements spread through the family.
SV and SS gain keyless entry/start and new design 18-inch wheels, the SSV takes 19s, the Redline 20s, and both have a colour head-up display.
On the luxury side, Calais has heated seats with position memory, eight-way electrically adjustable front-passenger's seat and bolder boot badging. For Calais V, the new 6.2-litre V8 and a brake performance package are options, and it has 19-inch alloy wheels and a limited-slip differential.
Really, though, the focus is on Commodore-Rex - that SVV Redline that performs and sounds like a 'real' V8 performance sedan should.