Holden’s factory hot rod masterpiece
STAR CAR 2007
HOLDEN COMMODORE SS-V
Holden’s factory hot rod masterpiece
There are people around who’ll tell you the big car is dead – that it’s a dinosaur that’s had its day.
That in this age of eco-friendliness and emphasis on top-drawer fuel mileage, that the traditional big Australian car is socially irresponsible and on the way out.
We’ve heard these arguments – or variations on them – before.
In fact it was General Motors’ reaction to the fuel crises of the late 1970s/early 1980s that spawned the nameplate that is now the General’s big Aussie car.
The original Commodore was a mid-sized car – though you could get them with six-cylinder and even V8 engines.
It was much smaller than its Kingswood predecessor – the American car lookalike Kingswoods, Premiers and Monaros had begun with the HQ of 1971.
They continued through the HZ before giving way to the Commodore which was based on a German Opel floorpan – even the Commodore name was an Opel staple.
Ford toughed it out with big Falcons, though V8s were dropped and weren’t available again until the EB in the early 1990s.
But memories of the fuel crises faded, and Holden succumbed to the pressure and reintroduced a full-sized car to match the Falcon.
The General retained the Commodore name, but the VN which debuted in 1988 was a much bigger car, though still with some Opel influences.
Models that didn’t have the FE2 sports suspension were rather floaty old boats, but the GTS with the sporty suspension was a good-handling car
Holden toyed briefly with a four-cylinder version but it was feeble in the big body.
The Holden got progressively better handling, and by the time the all-new VT arrived in 1997, it was a sophisticated and extremely good-looking car whose harmony of line made it look smaller than it really was.
The VT evolved over the next nine years, being progressively upgraded and refined, and culminating in the VZ.
The top-line motor in VZs sold in New Zealand, retained the 5.7-litre LS1 V8 developed for the Chevrolet Corvette.
Australian buyers got the 6.0-litre LS2 Chevy in the final VZs, but unsold 5.7-litre cars were shipped here.
You’ll find people labelling the 5.7-litre and 6.0-litre V8 Holdens as “gas guzzlers” but the cars don’t have to be.
We drove a 5.7 HSV Clubsport R8 from the Chateau, Tongariro, to Auckland on the demanding roads that wind up through Taumarunui and the King Country, averaging more than 90km/h and using petrol at the rate of 10.4 litres per 100 kilometres.
So I’m unconvinced by people who slag these cars as being environmentally unfriendly and conspicuous consumers.
In fact, it’s such a car that we’ve chosen as our Star Car of 2007, and only an absolute bigot could label the Holden Commodore VE SS-V a dinosaur.
Holden launched the all-new VE line in 2006 but virtually no New Zealand motoring writers got to drive one for any more than a few hours on home soil until this year.
The SS-V sports sedan came our way in the middle of the year.
Holden has built exciting SS models before – we think that in many ways the factory hot rod is a better buy than an HSV. You can undercut the Special Vehicles Commodore’s price by a significant amount an d if you want, can get the car enhanced to HSV standards or beyond and still have some money to spare.
Of course, you won’t have the HSV badge or the bodykit, but…
In a Holden Commodore VE SS-V, you’re not going to be short of power and performance anyway.
In fact, you’ll find there’s plenty of potential to fall foul of the law, which brings us to what is perhaps the most important instrument in the dashboard.
You’ll overlook it at your peril, for it could be the difference between continuing to drive your SS-V or catching the bus while the Holden languished in police custody.
It’s the digital speedometer which provides a back-up reading to the analogue instrument.
It’s a direct statement of the speed and is free of the potential to misread an analogue instrument because of the angle of view.
Why is the digital speedo so vital in a VE SS-V?
Quite simply, because the car can run away with you.
Where its Commodore predecessors left you in little doubt that you were moving fast, the VE SSV, with its rigid body, sublime handling and light, nimble feel, gives you little impression of your actual velocity.
Corners that can feel like 100km/h can easily be 20 to 30km/h faster – or more.
V8 Commodores have never been slow cars; in their most developed forms, like the Vauxhall-badged version of the HSV-tweaked Monaro they can run out to a shade under 290km/h.
Cars out of Australia never reveal; their top speeds, and Holden engineers sidestep the question, saying they use gearing to keep terminal velocity below stratospheric levels.
But fast they certainly are, and the SS-V’s 6.0-litre (5967cc) LS2 V8 develops 270kW (around 352bhp), and a punchy 530Nm of peak torque.
Slot that into a car weighing 1790kg, and drive the rear wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox, and you have the ingredients for an exhilarating driving machine that delivers plenty of bang for each of the $66,690 you shell out for it.
If you drive one, we promise you that you won’t be disappointed.
This is clearly the best factory Commodore yet, with a smoothness, precision and all-round capability that gives Ford’s well-sorted XR8 a real run for its money.
Where older SSs had an initial feel of understeer and reluctance on turn-in, the SSV is direct, light and eager-to-please.
In fact, the superbly-communicative steering gives a crispness of turn-in that can initially catch you out, causing you to wind off lock.
Get used to it and it’s brilliant, endowing the car with a confidence-building surefootedness that is difficult to fault.
Ally that to stellar league roadholding and you have a very engaging point-to-point sports sedan.
On a favourite stretch of road, the SSV was an absolute delight.
The crisp turn-in was backed by unshakable grip and a rock-solid on-road feel. The suspension, though tuned to provide agile handling, is also absorbent, and the car treats mid-corner bumps with disdain.
And though the handling is sharp, the ride retains a suppleness that doesn’t compromise precision.
It truly is a car that shrinks around the driver, its very real bulk replaced by a feeling that you’re driving a 2.0-litre class sports sedan.
On a road where corner follows corner in rapid succession, the SS-V changes direction with no hint of drama.
It rewards a light touch, though, responding best to minimal steering wheel movements: manhandling and heavy-handedness have to place in driving an SS-V fast.
The engine’s strong power and torque delivery is matched a nicely-evocative exhaust note when being worked hard.
The six-speed manual shifts cleanly and reasonably quickly, though the abundant torque reduces the need for lightning gearshifts.
The actual gearshift is moderately chunky and heavy, though this is the first SS manual that we’ve felt entirely happy with in stop/start Auckland commuting.
We’d happily opt for a manual SS-V where previously our preference was for an automatic.
The great joy of a manual gearbox in cars with this sort of torque is second gear corners.
Brake, slot the shifter back to second and floor the gas and the SS-V rockets off the bend with a force that shoves you back into the seat. Heady stuff.
Open-road passing moves are near-instant, the 530Nm catapulting the car past slower traffic.
There was some driveline shunt in stop/start traffic, something that you also find in manual gearshift supercars like the Aston Martin AM V8.
The brakes are excellent, hauling the big car down from high speed with a reassuring consistency, time after time.
It has to be said, though, that the car’s cornering and roadholding limits are so high that you’ll find yourself using the brakes less than in older SSs.
The seats give excellent support and the driving position can be set low to give the driver an at-one feel with the car.
The steering wheel is comfortable, a shade too big in diameter for my tastes but without the ocean liner feel of older Holden tillers.
The essence of the VE Commodore SS-V is its power and pace, its handling finesse and unshakable grip and the sheer driving pleasure it delivers.
Without doubt it’s the best SS model Commodore yet, with a sublime match of power to handling.
This is one of the world’s great sports sedans.