A new era: We drive the all-new Holden ZB Commodore range
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While emotion and internet chatter surrounded the closure of the Australian car manufacturing plants, the reality of the modern automotive world is that cars designed specifically for smaller regional markets are no longer viable.
It’s all about global platforms and economies of scale — but scope remains for smart car makers to make significant regional adaptations.
The Holden Commodore’s transition from VF II to new ZB is a prime example. The ZB Commodore set to launch in New Zealand from early March is built in Germany on the GM E2 global platform and shares its architecture with the latest Opel/Vauxhall Insignia.
That means a slightly smaller Commodore and a five-door Liftback bodystyle to replace the sedan. The versatile Sportwagon line continues and there’s also a high-ride wagon badged as Tourer to widen Commodore’s lifestyle appeal — a spiritual successor to the Adventra.
All-new aspects of the ZB are the transverse engine location with a choice of front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive and a nine-speed automatic transmission on all petrol models. The new entry level engine is a four-cylinder 2.0-litre direct injected and turbocharged petrol with modern high-torque characteristics.
Holden has had input into the ZB styling while its engineers have worked since 2012 on local suspension, steering tune, transmission calibrations and electronic controls to meet the demands of Australasian roads.
And the V6 engine is the direct result of Holden influence. When the ZB programme began, the car wasn’t going to offer more than four cylinders. Holden pushed the V6 argument and North America has also reaped the benefit by getting the V6 version badged as a Buick Regal GS.
Initial plans and in-house GM debates were directed from Holden’s Melbourne headquarters. The workplace that has transformed the Euro Insignia into a Holden Commodore is about 80km southeast at the Lang Lang Proving Ground.
Holden has been eager to showcase the Lang Lang input to the ZB programme. In October 2016 I was part of a group of journalists allowed past the security gates (camera lenses on our phones were covered by a coded security sticker) to drive two ZB test prototypes (integration vehicles in GM-speak) on sections of the proving ground. At that point, the car was referred to as the NG Commodore.
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Last week I returned to sample the finished article — on Victorian roads and then within the Lang Lang security perimeter.
The completion process has been impressive. Exhaust tuning has given the 3.6-litre V6 engine a richer exhaust note that wasn’t evident in late 2016. And Holden says the new exhaust has also improved engine response and 2016 indications of 230kW and 370Nm have been surpassed with 235kW and 381Nm being the official figures.
Suspension, steering tune and electronic chassis controls have been refined. The new nine-speed transmission has had its shift timing and refinement polished.
Inside the seats, dash components, cabin surfaces and carpets have progressed to stylish finished articles. Road noise levels have reduced and we have the detailed information about specification and model line-up.
On the highway I began the ZB drive programme in a taut, nimble RS-V Liftback and then moved to a more comfort-focused four-cylinder Calais and finished up driving a Calais-V.
There are enough direct-injection turbo engines on sale today to not be surprised about the responsive performance the 2.0-litre Commodore delivers.
There’s 191kW output and 350Nm of torque to motivate a Commodore that’s about 100kg lighter than its predecessor and has the close-ratio benefit of three more gears. The upgraded V6 displays more power when worked harder but the steep early torque peak and lighter weight of the 2.0-litre car makes it as quick in most part-throttle situations.
The progressive steering feel is a highlight and one that’s become an engineered-in-Australia character trait of modern Holden models as diverse as the baby Spark and Colorado utes. The steering is accurate and leads the car with reassuring on-centre feel and communicative feedback as cornering loads increase.
On the proving ground roads there’s a chance to push harder using the mix of bitumen and gravel test roads where the ZB has been fettled.
The ZB shines as surfaces become more challenging. The Lang Lang loops showcase its composure over aggressive mid-corner bumps along with progressive control of pitch on undulating straights. It carries momentum through the twists and turns with small steering inputs and taut body control while maintaining comfortable ride characteristics.
Holden works on gravel road behaviour, the ride across lumpy road surfaces and power-down capability across corrugations. The ABS and traction control calibrations are refined to work on mixed surfaces.
As a back-to-back comparison we drove four-cylinder turbo ZBs to compare Holden’s suspension tune and the standard Opel settings for Europe. The difference is most marked across large mid-corner bumps where the ZB settles quickly but the Opel floats, squirms a little and takes longer to settle. ZBs enhanced body roll control and quicker initial steering bite also meant less steering wheel angle was needed to negotiate tight cone-marked chicanes.
The ace in the Commodore dynamics package is the Twinster adaptive all-wheel-drive system — a simple bevel gear and electronically controlled twin clutch pack set-up that combines all-wheel-drive with up to 50 per cent of power directed to the rear wheels and cross-axle torque vectoring capability.
On mixed surfaces the ability of V6 AWD models to hold a tight cornering line as the power is applied was impressive. Sport mode sees the system adopt a more rear-drive attitude and a powdered dirt loop, a gravel slalom plus a partially soaked skid pan slalom course showcased the grip and balance inherent in the Twinster AWD system.
I quickly liked the ZBs seating support and driving position. The flagship VXR has rib-hugging sports seats but good supportis also found in the other models, and the relationship of the seat to the steering wheel and pedals works well.
The most evident change in the cabin is the front occupants sit closer together. The measurement is 36mm closer in a car that is also narrower by 36mm to preserve clearance distances from the roofline and pillars. Making this possible is the transverse powertrain locationwhich allows more front footwell space.
A short drive in the high-ride Tourer revealed a raised eye-level and seat position achieves a partial-SUV feel — and it’s the variant I’m most eager to spend more time aboard.
This Commodore will have to overcome some parochial not-made-in-Australia opinions and four-cylinder prejudices.
However, the true test is the driving experience and first impressions are of large family car with polished dynamics, plenty of sports sedan personality in the models pitched at that segment and a significantly raised level of sophistication.
A roomy, stylish wagon remains a compelling family solution and the new Tourer lends the Commodore a slice of SUV lifestyle appeal but with little of the high-riding dynamics compromise attached to most SUVs.
If you own a recent Commodore SV6 and are considering an upgrade, the ZB in RS-V specification delivers more power and a better sounding V6, weighs less and has slightly better fuel efficiency with three more gears. It also has a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system that can be prompted to exhibit some rear-wheel-drive characteristics.
That formula shifts further upmarket in Calais V and VXR grades with same inherent driving appeal and new equipment features and technology.
At the opposite end of the scale there’s modern four-cylinder turbo muscle that outguns anything from the mainstream ``two-point-something’’ naturally aspirated medium category and is quicker and more fuel-efficient than its 3.0-litre V6 predecessor.
Holden recognises there is a challenge to convince customers that the Commodore can be a large family car that is great to drive with a 2.0-litre engine and front-wheel-drive.
I have one last thought about how the New Zealand market might accept a 2.0-litre Commodore.
Mention a small-engined Commodore and the breathless 1.9-litre Starfire Four introduced in the VC model from 1980 is usually the first thing to be mentioned.
But New Zealand drivers have a slightly more recent and much more positive experience to re-count if you talk about a 2.0-litre Commodore.
Australia didn’t get the 2.0-litre Nissan RB20E in-line six-cylinder engine in the VL Commodore (concentrating on the 3.0-litre Nissan engine instead) but the smaller six was a significant success in this market and highly regarded for its performance and refinement gains over the old Holden pushrod six.
If you have fond memories of the 2.0-litre Nissan six powered VL Commodore you might use that as a start point to setting aside preconceptions about the new-for-2018 2.0-litre turbo model.
2018 ZB Holden Commodore line-up
LT Liftback (2.0-litre turbo petrol) — $45,990
LT Liftback (2.0-litre turbo diesel) — $48,990
Calais Liftback (2.0-litre turbo petrol) — $52,990
Calais V Liftback (3.6 V6 AWD) — $61,990
RS Liftback (2.0-litre turbo petrol) — $49,990
RS V Liftback (3.6 V6 AWD) — $58,990
VXR Liftback (3.6 V6 AWD) — $67,990
LT Sportwagon (2.0 turbo petrol) — $50,990
LT Sportwagon (2.0 turbo petrol) — $50,990
RS Sportwagon (2.0 turbo petrol) — $51,990
RS V Sportwagon (3.6 V6 AWD) — $60,990
Calais V Tourer (3.6 V6 AWD) — $65,990