Holden's VY II Commodore slipped almost unnoticed on to the New Zealand market.
There was no big media launch, virtually no fanfare. There were run-out sales of the VY, but virtually no clamour about its replacement. The VY introduced some changes, perhaps most significantly, a power boost for the already muscular 5.7-litre GEN III V8 motor in the sports sedan SS and SV8 Models.
The engine got an extra 10kW, to take the output to 245kW.
Did anyone really need that extra 10kW? Probably not in Australia and New Zealand where the cops keep a hawk-like eye on speed limits. But the Holden marketing departments need those extra kilowatts to keep pace in the ever-escalating horsepower war with Ford. So the SS and the SV8 now have 245kW of maximum power and a chunky 465Nm of peak torque. The latter figure is unchanged from the VY's motor.
Whether most drivers will notice the difference in the motor is debatable. Unless you drove the cars back-to-back, it'd be virtually impossible to detect, and maybe impossible even then.
The SS and SV8 have much more than adequate power, and the muscular motor endows the cars with vivid, yet manageable performance. We've been driving two Holden sports sedans in the past week or so, a stock standard SS and an SV8 given the NZ V8 Touring Car replica treatment by race car driver Paul Manuell's Eastern Automotive garage.
The SS was painted Cosmo, a dark metallic purple that looks black in some lights. It's available only on the SS and S versions of the Commodore sedans and utes, the One Tonner S ute, and the Series III Monaro (another model which slipped into NZ virtually unheralded). It's an attractive colour that yields interesting shades as the light plays on it.
The interior is colour-coordinated. The test car had cloth upholstery and the seat cushions and backrests were a patterned duotone purple. I'm all for colour, so I thought it fine, but it won't be to everyone's taste.
The seats are comfortable and offer good lateral support without pinching in the side bolsters on the seat cushion.
The Commodore cabin remains the pleasant environment it has always been, and the Series II retains the Ford Mondeo-like silver-spoked steering wheel introduced on the VY.
I find the Commodore steering wheel to be a shade large in diameter. It's not as nice to use as the smaller, chunkier one Ford fits to its high-performance Falcons.
The cabin is roomy. Legroom is 1071mm in the front cabin and 986mm in the rear; shoulder room is 1515mm and 1522mm.
Front cabin headroom is 992mm; rear is 966mm. Hip room is 1440mm and 1515mm.
That means plenty of space for five adults - who all get lap/sash seatbelts.
Though there's plenty of room in the real sense, the cabin ergonomic fall down a little in some details.
The driver's seatback adjuster is a case in point. It's difficult to get at, down in the cramped space between the seat cushion and the door.
Performance is an SS strong suit. The 0-100km/h sprint will be cut out in a shade over six seconds. Power for passing is abundant, and instantly on tap.
It's all delivered rather discreetly, with little of the traditional V8 burble and bark.
The test car ran the four-speed electronically-controlled automatic gearbox which offers smooth and reasonably fast shifts.
Unlike the Ford auto, the Holden gearbox doesn't have a sequential-shift feature.
However, it can still be shifted manually if you want to change down and hold a lower gear for a stretch of winding road.
The manual shift is quick and smooth, and more than adequate for an engine with as much torque as the GEN III.
I prefer the four-speed SS to the six-speed manual, especially for city commuting. The manual, with its heavyish clutch and rather slow gearshift can become tiresome in stop/start traffic where the manual transmission car's driveline shunt can also be wearying. The manual's sixth gear ratio is also rather high, and the car is more comfortable in fifth at city speeds. Its real use is as an overdrive for relaxed 100km/h motorway and highway cruising. Passing at highway speeds requires a shift down to fifth.
The SS has sports suspension which helps achieve a flat cornering stance. But though the suspension is firm, ride quality remains good. Certainly the ride isn't jarring.
Series II VY SSs get a strut brace for the front suspension to stiffen up the front end and cope better with the engine's torque and power.
Subjectively, the Series II VY SS has slightly crisper turn-in than the VY; but without driving the two cars back-to-back in identical conditions and on identical roads, it's difficult to tell for sure.
But the Commodore still doesn't feel quite as eager to turn-in as the Falcon XR does.
It corners flatly and dependably, with just the right amount of mild understeer on turn-in.
The independent rear suspension keeps the tail nicely under control and the switchable traction control keeps the SS's behaviour under check on wet roads.
The overall handling feel is secure, and the car can be punted quickly on tight and winding roads with great confidence.
The SS rides on handsome 18-inch diameter, eight-inch wide alloy wheels. They're the currently in vogue chunky spoked type with the spokes meeting flush with the rims. Which can mean that if you're not careful you can damage some spoke faces as well as the rims if you hit s kerb while parking.
The 235/40 R18 tyres provide excellent grip on dry and wet roads.
Creature comforts include air-conditioning, power windows, power mirrors, central door-locking, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift lever, and a good quality Blaupunkt multi-disc Compact Disc player, now thankfully with in-dashboard loading rather than a boot-mounted magazine.
Safety equipment includes ABS anti-skid braking and front and side airbags for the driver and front seat passenger.
The VY II SS is a comfortable, roomy and well-sorted sports sedan with strong performance, confident handling and a good level of standard equipment.
The list price is $62,400 with either the manual or automatic gearbox.
Fuel economy? Well a big, 1664kg car with this much power is never going to set economy records - though if you make heavy use of the throttle you'll set consumption records. The car's onboard computer told us it used petrol at an average rate of 13.4 litres per 100 kilometres.
- story and photographs by Mike Stock.