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Holden VX II Commodore Executive wagon


All motoring involves compromises: virtually no car can do everything you might want of it or everything that changing sets of road conditions might require.

But sometimes a car will come very close to doing everything a particular journey might require, and do it well.

And sometimes it's the cars you least expect to deliver as all-rounders that spring the greatest surprises.

The Holden VX II Executive wagon proved to be one, and we were mightily surprised - not to highly say impressed.

The task was no small one - a one-day round-trip from Auckland to Taihape to cover the BP Gumboot Taihape Rally.

Now if the trip involved merely zipping down the Southern Motorway and then down State Highway One and back, the Commodore might have been a logical choice.

It's powerful, fuss-free, very user-friendly and effortless (both it and the demands - or maybe better put, the lack of demands - it places on the driver).

The Commodore eats up kilometres with ease, tracks well and precisely and has plenty of comfort. Space in a Commodore cabin is never at a premium. In the longer wheelbase wagon, it's even better.

But State Highway One and the motorway are only part of the deal when you're covering a rally, especially a rally that uses roads as demanding as those around Taihape.

Last year our Taihape Rally transport was Mitsubishi's outstanding Galant VR-4, an under-sung and sadly rather ignored automotive masterpiece.

It ate up the easy open road going and came into its own brilliantly on the demanding roads bordering the main highway near Taihape.

To say we were sceptical of the Commodore wagon's abilities in similar terrain would be an understatement. Colleague Colin Smith assured me the Commodore would be fine, but I'm hard to convince. Another colleague said it was obvious that if I was driving a Commodore wagon I'd be spending my time zipping up and down State Highway One and not going to the start and finish of rally special stages.

Well Smith was right, my other colleague was wrong, and I shouldn't have been so sceptical.

Picture the terrain. The road known as the Gentle Annie is a notoriously demanding secondary route to Napier. It winds out of the east fringes of Taihape township, and winds is the operative word.

It climbs and twists and plummets and snakes through rugged hill country, often with big-big drops to one side of the narrow carriageway. Once it was all gravel - from which much of its notoriety arises - and more than 27km are still unsealed.

The corners vary from moderately open to ultra tight blind hairpins that tighten on themselves. The views are breathtaking, though drivers are so busy they have little time to notice them.

Commodore wagon country? Well, it probably wouldn't be your first choice. And before the adoption of independent rear suspension, and the subsequent VX II front and rear suspension revisions that sharpen handling and give better stability, a Commodore wagon might have been a handful on such tight roads.

This is, after all 60km/h to 100km/h territory with most corner speeds towards the lower end of that range.

Something agile like a Toyota Echo T-Sport or - even better - the new Mini with its almost neutral, sharp-steering handling might be a first choice.

But on to the Gentle Annie we ventured in a car that many might have considered to be a barge more suited to a motorway.

The Commodore was a revelation. It turned-in to corners precisely and with good feel. It changed direction with aplomb in sequences of left/right corners.

Despite its size - it's 5046mm long with a 2938mm wheelbase, stands 1545mm tall (much of that height behind the B-pillar) and weighs 1584kg - the wagon never felt clumsy or ungainly.

The independent rear suspension kept the rear end well in check. We felt a touch of rear-end breakaway only once, on a tricky corner off a bridge, and even mid-corner bumps didn't unsettle the rear wheels or break the 205/65 R15 Bridgestone tyres' grip.

And this impressive stability is achieved without resorting to traction control. The Executive doesn't come with that electronic helper.

The Executive's excellent road manners are testimony to the solid development Holden's chassis team has put into the wagon chassis.

We can't imagine the Executive sedan feeling any better.

It's hard to credit that a car with such good handling and chassis refinement is the base model in the Commodore line.

Wet road behaviour? We didn't encounter rain during our time with the Executive wagon, but the car remained controllable and user-friendly on gravel.

Ride is serene on smooth-surfaced motorways and main roads, but is quite firm on rougher going.

Mechanical and tyre noise are well-muted - unless the engine is at full throttle when it becomes raucous. The most noise we encountered was wind noise from around the A-pillar and exterior mirrors.

The Executive comes with the naturally-aspirated 152kW 3.8-litre V6. It's not a terribly refined unit, but it is willing and delivers plenty of performance. Peak torque of 305Nm ensures strong punch out of corners and for overtaking.

The standard gearbox is the smooth-shifting four-speed automatic. Its ability to be shifted manually helped the Commodore to achieve its sparkling performance in the Taihape hill country.

One of the Commodore's other strong points is fuel economy, another factor you don't usually associate with a big heavy car. Holden quotes 17 litres per 100 kilometres on the city cycle and 10 litres/100km on the highway.

We had covered 570km of often quite hard driving before the warning buzzer came on to tell us we had enough 91 octane left for another 60km (the tank holds 75 litres).

Headlight performance is outstanding, especially on high-beam.

The Executive's wheels are 15-inch steel with styled wheel covers. Brakes are discs on all wheels, strong with good feel and good stopping power. Even in reasonably heavy use on very demanding road we encountered no fade. Nor did the brakes get smelly.

Standard equipment includes manually-controlled air-conditioning. It's unobtrusive and cools the cabin nicely without resorting to blasts of icy air.

The sound system has six speakers and a single disc, dashboard-mounted Compact Disc player. It has good, easy to use controls with a substantial power switch that is marked "on/off" and not something obscure like "src" (for source). Volume is controlled by a beefy circular knob.

The headlights switch off automatically if you leave them on when you get out of the car.

There's a trip computer, a tailgate dust deflector at the top of the load door, electric remote locking for the tailgate, electrically-adjustable exterior mirrors, a power-retracted aerial, electric driver's seat adjustment, twin front cabin cupholders, storage pockets in the backs of both front seats, 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks, cargo area storage locker for small items, carpeted cargo area, and remote-control central door-locking with deadlocks.

Safety equipment includes drivers' front airbag (passenger's is an added-cost option as are side airbags for driver and front seat passenger), ABS anti-skid braking, and lap/sash seatbelt for all five occupants.

Quibbles? We have only a few, though one of them seems like penny-pinching to me. A retractable blind to cover the cargo area is an added-cost extra which I think should be standard. The inability to hide cargo/luggage from prying eyes is one of the Executive wagon's downsides.

I'd like to have power windows as standard, too.

The Executive - like all Commodores - is a fast, strongly-accelerating car, but the well-honed chassis ensures the performance doesn't become an embarrassment.

The Executive is the base model and is intended to be a workhorse, but proves to be much more.

At $43,000 it provides space, comfort, fine road manners and above all, excellent value for money.

We asked a lot of the car during our Auckland-Taihape-Gentle Annie-Taihape-Auckland round trip and it delivered handsomely proving competent and enjoyable in widely-differing terrain and conditions.

And after almost 1100 kilometres at the wheel we weren't dog-tired: weary, glad to be back home but by no means exhausted.

A very fine vehicle indeed, and one which delivered a satisfying and very impressive performance.

AutoPoint road test team

Auto Trader New Zealand