Know your Commodore: A to Z on ZB

The next gen Commodore is days from going on sale. What makes it different to all previous iterations? Good question. 


It's the first Commodore not to be built in Australia

Yeah most of you know this. But just to reiterate for those cave-dwellers, this line is based on a European design – the Insignia - and built in Germany by Opel, which at the time the deal was done was part of General Motors but is now owned by PSA Peugeot-Citroen, having been sold to the French late last year.

This is why ZB is set to be the shortest-lived of any Commodore line.

It can only be guaranteed to be sold as a Holden until 2022, which is when the French apparently seem set to morph the Insignia into the just-revealed new Peugeot 508. PSA said last November it intends that by 2024 all Opel models will switch from GM to PSA platforms and powertrains; that spells the end of the Epsilon 2 platform and the engines and drivetrains used by Holden.

For now, though, the terms of the supply agreement settled between Opel and Holden prior to the PSA takeover have kept the Commodore alive. Even so, a protection lasting just six years means ZB will have the shortest ever run in the nameplate’s 40-year career. 

Another interesting Insignia factoid: Had Holden not given up on car-building in Australia, this is the model that would very likely have eventually replaced the VFII anyway, but perhaps not for another three years.

BTW. If you’re going to nerdishly argue about how Aussie an Aussie car needs to be, bear in mind the VE and VF cars were the only Commodores genuinely developed from the ground up in Australia.        

It’s the first front-wheel-drive Commodore


Again, because the Insignia is not a rear-drive car. In fact, the Commodore was inevitably going to head away from rear-wheel-drive because – shock horror – it was the last of that kind within the GM world.

The front-drive ZB models are all powered by 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines. Sound familiar?

ASsuredly, what we have now is wat superior to the Starfire powerplant that featured in the VC ‘egg crate’ Commodore. A quick fix reaction to the Energy Crisis of 1979, effectively this was a ‘blueline’ inline six with two cylinders chopped off,

The benefit of a smaller capacity engine was dubious. A lack of power meant the engine needed to be pushed hard to deliver acceptable performance, negating any fuel saving benefits. It is not considered one of Holden’s finer moments, even though it was relatively well accepted in New Zealand. Which was a saving grace for Holden, as the mill bombed so badly in Australia they basically decided to dump all they had on the Kiwis.

It’s the first Commodore to offer all-wheel-drive.


Well, yeah, sort of. Insofar that it’s the first Commodore to offer with a road-pure all-wheel-drive format.

There has been a four-wheel-drive Commodore wagon before, though at the time the brand reckoned that the Adventra of 2003-2006 was sufficiently different to the mainstream wagon to be considered a standalone product. The same argument could apply to the new Tourer, which aims at the Subaru Outback and VW Alltrack.

You might be wondering why only the V6 editions are all-wheel-drive. Holden has admitted this is not an engineering issue. It had to forgo all-wheel-drive four-cylinder versions to accomplish V6 power.

Holden vehicle development manager Jeremy Tassone told an Australian website recently that Holden management was not willing to bet that traditional Commodore buyers would be happy to give up six-cylinder driveability in their full-sized family cars for the greater efficiency of downsized four-cylinder turbo alternatives.

“There was no way we weren’t going to fight for the V6 AWD,” he told GoAuto. “But there are areas where you have to prioritise your needs over your wants … and great as it would have been, the four-cylinder AWDs didn’t make it (into Commodore).”

It’s the first Commodore with a diesel engine


Diesel is big in Europe, so the Insignia’s ready availability with a 2.0-litre engine seemed like a safe bet choice and, obviously, a low cost one too, since Opel had already undertaken all the expensive engineering.

What’s its history? We asked Holden New Zealand and they came up blank. But previous Insignia diesels were versions of Fiat-JTM engines, so perhaps that continues. Latest Insignia has several, the one chosen by Holden is a mid-range pick, being a single turbo 2.0-litre making 125kW/400Nm. The flagship Opel model has the same unit in biturbo, which cracks out 154kW/480Nm biturbo. Sadly, that’s not on Holden’s buy list.

Nerd fact: Back in 2013, Holden let it be known that turbo-petrol 2.0 and 2.4-litre engines and four and six-cylinder diesel engines were considered, and rejected, for the VF line.

It’s the first Commodore without a manual transmission


Every Commodore since that original Kingswood-replacing 1978 VB – which, incidentally, was based on two European Opels, the Rekord and Senator, has had a manual option.

Whereas the V6 is only configured for automatic, the four-cylinder Insignia does provision with a manual in its Opel/Vauxhall formats, so conceivably Holden could have had those versions. And might still be able to pick them up in the future.

However, the brand is for now being guided by the low incidence of interest from VF buyers; some SS and SS-V Redlines were bought in manual, but overwhelmingly the fan club for the previous Commodore preferred a two pedal setup.

Notwithstanding, as every car enthusiast knows, a performance – or at least torque-rich – four is an extra-sweet thing when its married up to a manual.

 It’s the first Commodore without a V8 option


And don’t bother starting a petition for change. I’m sure some after-market wizard will yet try to disprove it, but Holden says that even if it wanted to fit an eight cylinder – and it doesn’t – the outgoing choices would not fit in the requisite east-west location.

So it’s a V6, in two states of tune, 235kW/381Nm for the mainstream models rising a further 5kW and 11Nm for the VXR. Which, the make concedes, possibly isn’t enough fire to those who were satisfied by the VFII’s  304kW/570Nm 6.2-litre LS3.

What can Holden do to win the revheads back? Not a lot. Holden’s senior engineers have never ruled out the possibility of squeezing more power out of the 3.6-litre down the track, but they say the obvious method to effect stirring change, turbocharging, is not likely to occur for the road car (even though the ZB race car will run that kind of unit).

There are several reasons why the six will remain naturally-aspirated unit for showroom application.

Latterly, Holden has been saying there physically isn’t room under the bonnet for a couple of turbochargers.

A year ago Opel also said it ruled out forced induction in preference to prioritising other areas such as weight loss over outright performance.

Insignia chief engineer Andreas Zipser said a turbocharged V6 was not “considered in the programme”, despite the fact Holden engineers and the requirements of the Australian market “was definitely one of the drivers” of the V6’s development.

The choice for developing a naturally aspirated V6, instead of a higher-power turbocharged powertrain, was due to the overall weight and balance of the car, he said.

Of course, that was with an Opel engine. There’s also been talk that Holden also created a ZB prototype for evaluation using GM’s 3.6-litre twin-turbo LF3 V6, which produces 313kW/483Nm in the Cadillac CTS Vsport, Apparently it did fit in the hole. The problem, never resolved, was getting the GM North America powerplant to talk to Opel chassis and engine management electronics.

It’s the first Commodore not to conform to historic market expectation


The previous VF was hardly an everyman car, of course, but it did hit the nail fairly squarely on the head within its target sales zones, even if this enduring favouritism was ultimately flavoured by it being pretty much the last man standing in those places.

Insofar as the new crop is concerned, there’s sense that even when putting aside the VF-centric sentimentality, this is to some degree going to be an exercise in hitting square pegs into round holes.

It’s nothing to do with the quality of the product – if that were the sole deciding factor, the car would be guaranteed a hot start, because reports from Australia are overwhelmingly favourable in respect to how well this model performs.

 Regardless, we buy to trend, and in that respect the formatting that Holden has gone with raises questions of suitability. Arguably, not one model immediately meets current market logic.

The diesel editions are particularly out on a limb. No sector has shifted more graphically than that for road-pure diesel passenger cars. They were never ever dominant, but some did well enough to create good business for specific brands: Peugeot can attest to that.

But no longer; the VW scandal, the Road User Charge turn-off, the premium, the sense that these days modern petrol engines are near-as-dammit as cheap to run and have better residuals … these factors, and potentially a few more, have significantly eroded interest in this product. Fact is, Holden is coming in when most others have been there, tried that, failed to succeed and moved on.

So petrol’s the go, then? Conceivably, yes, but only to a point. The 2.0-litre turbo that places most widely across the family is being heralded as the surprise package; quicker than the old V6 and almost as powerful, yet far more economical, it’s primary role is to pull new business to Holden. Yet it could prove to be as valuable an attractant as the 3.6-litre V6 in persuading the old customer base to keep the faith.

However, that all presumes the buyer set isn’t already looking elsewhere. Medium four (and six-cylinder) passenger cars – in wagon and sedan formats - are especially threatened by consumer abdication to crossovers; even the big names are feeling the heat. Toyota is already admitting it doesn't see its fleet-feeding Camry doing as well in its next-gen form because of this. And look at the Ford Mondeo. Four years ago a big hitter; it’s now well outside the top 10. So, again, trends suggest petrol Commodore road cars are fighting the tide. Holden will be pleased, at least, that it has an ongoing commitment to supply NZ Police with patrol cars, a contract (believed to stretch to 2020) for the new car having been settled more than a year ago.

Which leaves the Tourer. An elevated wagon touting as a quasi-SUV is a smart move, no argument. The huge success of the Subaru Outback here shows as much; it accounted for almost 3000 registrations last year – a count not far off the entire VF volume for 2017.

Yet has Holden read the market condition correctly by restricting their format to a high-end V6 petrol? In Europe, the Insignia equivalent comes in four-cylinder format; too, and that would seem to be a blend Kiwis quite like. Though the Outback family includes a 3.6-litre flat six, it’s market ascendancy is driven by the 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol variants. Holden doesn’t have those. A Tourer with diesel would conceivably be a sweet thing, too, but it’s a tricky landscape. The VW Passat Alltrack, another rival, does okay with diesel, but Subaru couldn’t make its own Outback oiler work, so it was quietly withdrawn late last year.

It’s the first imported and six-cylinder Commodore to race at Bathurst

The Great Race is important to Holden. Since 1968 when it debuted the Monaro GTS at Bathurst and scored its first outright Mount Panorama win, the brand has been continuously involved in local touring car/Supercars racing, even when it has had to cloak its involvement behind dealer teams.

Also, Commodore is the winningest car at Mount Panorama by huge margin; it’s win count is almost double that of the next most successful car, the Ford Falcon.

How ZB will go in Supercars is going to captivate fans. The car is a mystery on so many levels. All previous factory Holden touring cars and Supercars have been locally-manufactured; a heritage can be traced as far back as the 1963 EH Holden ‘red motor’ S4, developed for the Bathurst 500-mile production car race.

This year is also special because, while all Commodores have updated to a ZB look, the V6 has yet to get sign-off as being race-ready. That has to happen this year, however, as Holden is insistent that this engine should be a required fit for 2019.

In fact, it is already pressing that it wants the new mill to be the ONLY homologated variant once it is approved. Adding to the pressure: Until it signed a three-year deal with Triple Eight last month, 2019 was going to be the last year of the company’s current commitment to Supercars.

For now, though, there is no impetus yet to divest the tried-and-true V8 from the VF.

So many teams are sticking with that Holden Motorsport five-litre, which is made by GM Racing in the USA. That includes Triple Eight, which is co-ordinating development of the new engine (a version of the motor used in the Cadillac ATS GT3 racer) with GM Racing.

What chance of seeing either Jamie Whincup or our own Shane van Gisbergen flexing the V6’s muscle on Mt Panorama this October? Nothing is yet certain. If trhe V8 is running hot, and champ[ionship battle is at precarious state, you’d have to think they’d want to stick with the tried ‘n true. As is, Whincup was warning just this week that it might take the team up to three rounds before they’ve got the ZB fully bedded in.

However, there is potential that in some events this year, you might see ZB V8s – which within the sport are known as ZB A cars - racing against versions with the TT V6 (ZB B) as wild card entries. But that depends on Supercars’ determining that the new engine doesn’t affect parity rules.

They already have some idea of what it can do, through Greg Murphy have demonstrated Triple Eight’s development car, dubbed the Sandman, around Bathurst on 2017 race weekend. No official times were taken, but it was no Lap of the Gods.

The twin-turbo V6’s requirement for increased cooling will mean the ZB bodywork will need to be modified for extra air intakes and bonnet venting.

It's the first Commodore not be crash-tested by ANCAP


Don’t misunderstand this to mean the Commodore doesn’t have a crash test rating. It certainly does, and a top one at that.

But the five-star score accredited the ZB was recorded by Europe’s NCAP, a sister organisation to ANCAP, using a 2.0-litre Opel Insignia.

Should that matter? Well, to some critics, it does leave the question about how well the flagship V6 – which has no equivalent in Opel-dom - would acquit.

But we might never know, since Holden has elected not to supply the independent crash-lab with cars to test. And ANCAP, which is part-funded by the NZ Government and NZ Automobile Association, won’t buy any to wreck.

There’s a view that, since the V6 is an Australian-only fitment, it needed to be tested separately. But it has not and whether it will ever is an unknown.

Beyond that, the ZB Commodore boasts plenty of safety tech with every version getting autonomous braking, an active bonnet, lane-keep assist, lane-departure warning, forward-collision alert, head-up display, rear view camera, front and rear parking sensors and rain-sensing wipers. You’ll need tick the Calais to gain rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring while the VXR adds Brembo brakes, 360-degree camera and adaptive cruise-control.

A quick guide to the ZB range.


There are two bodyshapes – the liftback, a five-door hatch, and the Sportwagon (a station wagon) - structured into four product lines and seven editions.

There are two drivelines, front-drive and four-wheel-drive, and three engines: 2.0-litre petrol, 2.0-litre diesel, which are four cylinders, plus a V6, in 3.6 litres’ capacity.

Outputs? You’re looking at 125kW/400Nm from the diesel, 235kW/381Nm from the six and 191/350Nm from the four-pot petrol.

The oiler is the thriftiest (5.6 litres per 100km claimed), the turbo four petrol the quickest off the line – Holden doesn’t provide figures but independent tests suggest 6.9 seconds - and the six is slower and thirstiest (9.3L/100km claimed), but also potentially the best fun to drive (due to its complex twinster all-wheel-drive) and, also, is the one they had to have due to brand history.

The six-cylinder cars are AWD in NZ. The petrol engines marry to a nine-speed auto, the diesel to an eight-speed.

The liftback provides in sport and luxury lines.

The lux lineup starts with the entry LT model and then progresses to Calais grade – both in front-drive and 2.0-litre turbo configuration. There’s also a Calais V. This has the 3.6-litre V6 engine and all-wheel-drive.

The sports liftback family starts with the RS model with a 2.0-litre front-drive layout. There are two more sports models, with V6 and AWD, the RS V and the flagship VXR.

Sportwagon comes in LT and RS 2.0-litre turbo models, with front-drive. There’s also an RS-V, with the V6 and all-paw.

There’s another wagon twist. All of the above have the same ride height as the liftback. However, Holden has another Sportwagon, with elevated suspension. This is the Tourer, designed to take on the Subaru Outback. This comes out in V6 and Calais trim only.

The diesel an option for the LT liftback and LT sportwagon models.

There are two V6 AWD variants available in Australia which Holden New Zealand has decided not to offer. These are the RS liftback and the Calais Tourer.

All NZ-market models have automatic emergency braking, heated and ventilated massage seats, a 360-degree camera, Adaptive Cruise Control, dual panel panorama sunroof and head-up display. The car also comes with a three year free scheduled servicing programme.

Prices are: Front drive: LT petrol liftback $45,990, Sportwagon, $47,990; turbodiesel, liftback $48,990, Sportwagon $50,990; RS 2.0 petrol liftback $49,990, Sportwagon $50,990; Calais petrol liftback, $52,990. All-wheel-drive: RS-V liftback $58,990, Sportwagon $60,990; Calais-V liftback $61,990, Sportwagon $65,990; VXR liftback $67,990.