News of the death of the Australian large-car might have been greatly exaggerated, but the fact remains that Commodore is no longer New Zealand's favourite Holden.
Year-to-date April, it's been beaten by the Cruze small-car – no doubt helped along by the launch of the hatchback model last year, to supplement the familiar sedan.
Okay, Commodore hasn't been soundly beaten, because there are only three units in it. But it's still a signal that times are changing. A few years ago, we would have laughed at the notion of a Korean GM small-car outselling the mighty Commodore. No longer.
But Commodore still has something to offer, according to Holden. Jobs in Australia for a start, which is why there will be another new model (the VF) from 2013. Not to mention A$275 million of co-investment from the Australian government and A$1 billion directly from GM to ensure two brand new model lines will be manufactured by Holden in Australia at the end of this decade – one of which may or may not be something like the Commodore as we currently know it.
So there's still a lot of expectation riding on Commodore. The new VF is expected to be a big advance, using lighter materials, more efficient engine technology and more sophisticated electronics. It's already been confirmed as something of an export success, with the new car scheduled to go on sale as the Chevrolet SS in the United States. It'll also provide the styling base for the brand in NASCAR.
But that's all in the future. The Commodore VE Series II, launched late last year, is a minor update by comparison – in something of a holding pattern.
Take our $66,790 Calais V test car. The major mechanical change is the addition of E85 compatibility to the 3.6-litre V6 engine – not a lot of use to Kiwi customers unless they live in Hamilton, where the country's only E85 pump is located. Call it future proofing.
Small tweaks to the calibration of the six-speed automatic transmission on all Commodore V6 models have resulted in a three percent improvement in fuel economy for the Calais: now with a Combined figure of 9.5 litres per 100km, which is not bad for a big fella.
The Holden IQ touch-screen system has also been improved in terms of Bluetooth compatibility with the latest smartphones (and it comes with sat-nav in the Calais V). As we said, these are Series II baby steps towards the big leap forward from VF next year.
It's easy to dismiss the Commodore as a car from a past time. It's clear that it will not be the sales force in the future that it once was, even in its VF (or beyond) guises. But for all that, the current model is still a likeable machine. It's perhaps less convincing as the pseudo-luxury Calais than as the entry Omega (where it impresses as an honest, good-to-drive effort) or the V8-powered SS (where it makes its mark with performance and undeniably sharp looks). But in any guise, it's still an appealing package.
The V6 powertrain still has a touch of that whine you associate with Holdens-of-a-long-time-ago, but the Calais is a strong performer and the six-cog gearbox is slick. The chassis is still a big drawcard: rear-drive might not be the most efficient way to package a family car, but it does result in superb handling balance and more than a few smiles from the driver's seat.
The quality of the Commodore cabin has improved a lot since the launch of the VE in 2006, but it's still the one area where the Calais is lacking – it just doesn't look or feel like an executive car costing nearly $70k, no matter how much leather has been sewn into the thing.
But then, a touch of crudeness has always been considered acceptable opportunity cost for going the Aussie way. Yes, the Calais V is a lot of money for a Commodore – especially when you consider this model is nearing the end of its run. But in another context it's still cheap-as-chips: the Calais still has stunning styling, a rear-drive chassis that appeals to the enthusiast, loads of equipment and plenty of space for the family.
Apart from that 'other' Aussie large-car brand, you have to go European to find anything with the same combination of talents. Sure, that car would be a world away from Commodore in terms of quality – but it would also have a six-figure price tag.