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Holden VX Commodore SS


Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud. James Brown, the fast-dancing soulman with the soaring gravelly voice and high-voltage delivery belted out the black-consciousness anthem in 1960s America, and belted it out L-O-U-D!!!

If the jet black Holden Commodore SS road test car we had last month could have sung we'd have expected it sing much the same song as old James did.

And we'd expect it to sing it in much the same fashion as the Godfather of Soul - in a word, we'd expect it to sing L-O-U-D!!!!

I mean, there's something about a black car, especially a black car like the Commodore SS with its bright silver alloy wheels, its aggressive, mean-looking chin spoiler, its hunkered-down, ready-to-pounce stance. There's something almost sinister about it, crouching there like some powerful predator; an imposing, even menacing, presence.

It gives the impression that it'll be as loud and aurally aggressive as it looks - loud and hard-edged like a Gene Simmons thunder bassline or an Angus Young power chord.

Just sitting there it looks like hard-rock on wheels.

You climb into the sculpted bucket seat and turn on the chunky, security-coded ignition key. You roll the window down ready to savour the bark as the eight cylinders awaken, the burbling rumble as they settle down to their work, the barks and shrieks as you prod the throttle just so you can delight your ears.

The engine fires. What's this? There's no bark. It settles down to idle, and there's no burbling rumble. You blip the throttle, and there's just a muted revving sound.

It might as easily be a refined six as a hairy-chested high-performance V8. That it's assuredly the latter we discover when we unleash its horses on the open road. There what the Holden V8 lacks in bark is more than made up for by its bite: this is no engine that's all mouth and trousers.

But back to the sound - or lack of it - from the Chevrolet-developed 5.7-litre, 225kW V8.

To us part of the appeal of any V8, but particularly one with this sort of performance in a car as capable and as strikingly-styled as the Commodore SS, is the sound it makes.

And sadly the SS V8 doesn't deliver the aural magic the car's sleekly aggressive looks promise.

It delivers power, it delivers performance, it delivers driver satisfaction, it delivers refinement, but it doesn't deliver noise.

We were a little bemused one morning rush hour to be photographing a sports saloon fitted with a potent, US-developed V8 which was almost inaudibly purring away as two BMW V8s roared past, barking the V8 bark for all they were worth as they conveyed their executive cargo to the office.

Somehow it seemed things were the wrong way around. The German cars should have been delivering their power in refined muted tones while our magnificent beast stood rumbling and growling and metaphorically stamping its front hoofs.

Instead the opposite was the case: the world was turned upside-down.

The cause of this unwonted quietness, we gather, is Australian regulations governing noise levels. The fix is to fit an aftermarket muffler set-up which gives the V8 back its reassuring, friendly, ear-delighting pulse and bark. Owners do it to HSVs, and to Tickford Falcons and to lesser Ford and Holden V8s. It costs around $1200 we understand.

Ah the noise police!

Did they get at the SS's horn too? Hit the SS's horn and you cringe in embarrassment. It lets out a feeble little peep.

You may as well wind down the electric window and bellow at anyone whose driving dismays you. You'd make at least as much noise as the horn.

You may feel we've been harping on, but the SS's aural disappointments really bugged us and took an edge off the enjoyment of a fine car.

Now, time to consider the rest of this undeniably attractive car.

The new SS, styled in-house by the talented squad led by Holden design guru Mike Simcoe, is more aggressive-looking than its forebears. The more aggressive look is Holden's answer to the independent stylists who weave their magic on Commodores at HSV. Holden feels it wants a bit of the style-leading high-performance action for its own model range.

The Holden rendition of a high-performance Commodore is less chunky than HSV's, still radical but in a more linear way.

The frontal treatment with the two circular driving lights embedded in the spoiler, is a triumph. The sculpted side skirts are well done and the bootlid spoiler looks like it was part of the car from the outset: spoiler-less Commodores look plain and unfinished by comparison.

The VT/VX Commodores are beautifully-styled and detailed cars, and the Holden design team got it right first time. Add the SS body kit, 17-inch diameter wheels, low profile 235/45 tyres and lowered ride height and it looks even better still.

Interior accommodation is spacious and the driver's seat is comfortable and offers good support.

The upholstery is as upbeat as the car's exterior, but it doesn't strike any off-key notes. Holden eschews the fashionable white-faced instrumentation for red and the dials look just fine.

There's plenty of storage space, a good-sized lockable glovebox and a lidded bin in the centre console that is shaped just right to store Compact Discs for the in-dash CD player.

Since the VT, Commodores come with cup-holders in the centre console even if they won't hold "the tallest drinks in Australia" as Ford boasted its Falcon cup-holders did.

The cabin, then, is a nice environment to be in, user-friendly and well-designed.

The test car had the optional four-speed automatic (a six-speed manual is standard and, we believe, preferable).

I once took issue with an acquaintance who bought an SS Commodore over his choice of a manual gearbox over an automatic. He was using the car primarily for commuting where I felt the auto had advantages over the slow-shifting manual with its attendant heavy clutch.

He assured me that I was wrong and that a manual SS was far superior to an automatic-equipped one. I put it down, eventually, to the age disparity between us, remaining convinced that the automatic car's greater user-friendliness would outweigh the advantages of the manual on winding roads where you could, anyway, use the automatic manually.

After two hard-pushing country drives in the new VX SS automatic, I think he was right and I was wrong.

I haven't driven the current six-speed manual VX SS, but I felt the auto SS would have been better with at least one more than its four ratios, and that it would have been better still with a manual gearbox.

Like most modern high-performance thoroughbreds, the SS Commodore is perfectly at home in city traffic, totally fuss or tantrum-free at 50km/h with the engine ticking over quietly, the gearbox shifting almost imperceptibly.

The only hint of its capabilities comes from the bump-thumping of the tyres on less than perfect surfaces and the occasional jarring over heftier bumps. Though it never reaches the point of being uncomfortable, the suspension lets you know that it's set up firmly and means business.

Motorway cruising is effortless and beautifully quiet. On smooth tarmac there's virtually no road noise, little to hear from the motor or transmission and just a small amount of wind whistle as the elegant bodywork cleaves a path through the air.

Noise rises a little on chip surfaces, but we were pleasantly surprised by the relative absence of tyre roar in a car with such wide rubber.

The ride evens out at speed, though the SS can be unsettled momentarily by bumps encountered mid-corner.

There are two different characters in the SS and the key to discovering them is the amount of right foot pressure you apply to the accelerator.

On light to moderate throttle, the SS is brisk, refined, smooth and accomplished. It will gallop across country with seemingly minimal effort from the potent engine, slick-shifting auto or well-balanced chassis, and places minimum demands on the driver.

Floor the throttle, though, and the world suddenly becomes more vivid, especially to passengers. The SS is so user-friendly, so communicative and so manageable that as the driver you feel completely in-tune with its behaviour, aware of its every move.

So I pushed the throttle to the floor in what seemed a normal fashion and the car responded instantly and eagerly, launching off the line with a little chirrup from the tyres and zinging up through the gears till we reached cruising speed where I buttoned off.

I wouldn't say I felt blase about the away it accelerated, but it just seemed like a day at the office for the SS.

My passenger said later that he'd suddenly become aware of his stomach as the G-forces pushed him back into the seat. His breakfast had stayed down, but...he said, patting his belly.

So brute force is there for the asking, and the SS will accelerate better than most and as well as the best when it opens its lungs and turns air and 91-octane petrol into 225kW of horsepower and a mountain-moving 460Nm of torque.

Expect 0-100km/h times of a shade over 6.3 seconds for a manual, a little longer for an auto.

Top speed? Academic, but well into the 200km/h range.

Even when it's running hard, though, the SS never feels as if it's running away from you. As we said it's user-friendly and keeps you well in touch with what it's doing.

Roadholding is excellent and handling well sorted.

Mostly it feels neutral, though if you enter a corner too fast you're aware of a gentle amount of understeer and you're a little more conscious of the V8's weight at the front of the car.

The balance and feel in high-speed corners is excellent and the car tracks well and follows chosen lines faithfully.

Traction control and a limited slip differential keep the rear end well tamed even if you decide to get brutal with the car. It never ever felt like stepping out on dry roads (there was no rain during our week with the SS: can this really be Auckland?) no matter how hard we provoked it.

Only once, when we charged too hard and hot into a tighter-than-expected corner, did we feel the traction control come into play on a sealed road, braking the rear wheel that had lost grip. It intervened again when we were making a U-turn on a gravel road when looking for a suitable photo spot. There, frankly, it was a pain in the diff, the car hesitating and scrabbling around as the wheels bickered about which should be propelling the car forward. The lesson: turn the traction control off if you're U-turning or parking on a gravel road.

Even with the traction control switched off it's difficult to break the rear wheels' grip during ordinary - or even hard - driving. You have to make a conscious decision and make some pretty abrupt moves to get it to step out at sane road speeds. And even then it's only easy to do in second gear corners. The SS's level of grip is so high that its limits will only really be plumbed on a racetrack at race-like speeds.

The gearbox can be used manually but if we were going to use the car mainly for open-road running on demanding roads that require a lot of gear-shifting we'd opt for the manual (both manual and auto cost the same, $59,900).

There was a pause before the car settled into a gear when we downshifted manually, especially on the shift down to second. That meant sometimes you weren't in the gear you wanted for the corner and the car would understeer.

It convinced me that my acquaintance - who's a keen open road driver - was right to choose a manual ahead of the auto. Colleagues who have road-tested manual SSs also say they prefer them to autos.

Fuel economy? Do you even use the phrase with a V8 as powerful as this in a car that weighs 1652kg and offers such potent performance?

Holden quotes 20.9mpg for the Executive V8 model on the city and 33.2mpg on the highway cycles.

It wil depend on how you use the car, but despite a big (75-litre) fuel tank, you'll be making plenty of trips to the gas station if you use the SS's performance potential.

Standard equipment is comprehensive and includes: Holden's always excellent air-conditioning; a trip computer; electrically-operated windows and mirrors; Compact Disc player with a good-sounding audio system; airbags; excellent power steering.

In summary, the VX Commodore SS is an impressive car that provides top-drawer performance, capable road manners, acres of interior room and great comfort. For what it delivers, it is competitively-priced.

Modern Australian V8 supercars are a far cry from the brutish machines they once were.

With its quietness, its supple ride, its creature comforts and its driver-friendliness, the SS is a surprisingly subtle high-performance V8.

Vivid, some might say brutal, acceleration and thundering pace are there too, and the SS is more than willing to deliver if you feel the need to give yourself a cobweb-clearing blast.

And we're sure most SS owners and drivers will be asking the car to make regular deliveries.

Our only real quibble - which is where we started this story - is the lack of V8 noise to match the motor's V8 grunt.

There's a hoon hidden inside every bloke and the hoon in me wants an SS that backs its considerable bite with an appropriate bark.

Pictures Dean Smith, Elan Phillips.

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