It’s badged as a Calais V, but does the luxury version of Holden’s new, German-built large car cut it? We line-up the old with the new in search of answers
Tell us what you really think
What Australians really think of the new-generation, imported Holden Commodore won’t be known for a while.
However enthusiastically it may be presented, the new ZB-series Holden Commodore is not the full-size family car we’ve come to know since the first Australianised Opel-based VB-series Holden Commodore came here in October 1978.
In fact it’s almost as if Ford (at the time, it quit Australian production in 2016) had decided to badge-engineer the imported Mondeo as a Falcon. Like the Mondeo, the latest
Euro-sourced Commodore is more a mid-size car, in reality representing a segment that has had a minimal presence in recent times as SUVs and small cars continue with their dominance of the market.
Nevertheless there will be customers willing to take on the proposition that the ZB Holden Commodore is the spiritual successor to the now-deceased, refined-to-the-max VF-series family car that managed to defy gravity right up to its demise with a still-meaningful market presence despite its battering by small cars such as Toyota Corolla and Mazda 3.
So how would it be if you stepped across from a previous-gen Commodore into the latest model? The latest model with every bell and every whistle that is available? Would you feel as though you were moving down in the world, or up?
These are things a lot of potential buyers will be curious about. If they saw the previous premium-spec Holden Calais as something that suited their needs, size-wise, one of the first considerations would be how accommodating the new car is.
To get some sort of handle on this, we decided to grab a previous-gen VF-series Calais V and stand it alongside the current ZB-series Calais V in an effort to quantify the real differences between the old and the new – and find out if they are really comparable vehicles.
Without wishing to go over ground already covered in a googolplex of reviews and evaluations published over the last few months, it’s still worth remembering the origins of the new Calais. As a mid-size car it’s never going to stand up to the departed VF in terms of size.
The ZB is no minnow, but the overall dimensions are smaller in every way except for front and rear track widths which are actually considerably wider than the VF. This doesn’t translate to the width of the body, or the size of the interior, although the ZB’s 490-litre boot volume is a scant six litres less than the VF and can be expanded considerably by making use of the hatchback configuration – up to a maximum 1450 litres.
With its 16mm taller roofline and more-relaxed seatback rake, the previous model’s rear headroom was way better than the low-slung ZB, as was the overall cabin width. But, not so surprisingly given the new car’s transverse engine configuration, the ZB’s rear legroom is, if anything, slightly better.
Inside the new 2018 ZB Commodore
And there are big discrepancies in hip points and front/rear seat heights. One tends to drop down into the front seats of the new Calais V, yet because the cabin is set up in a “stadium” configuration, the opposite applies to the back, which is easier to get into because the hip point is higher.
Driver and front passenger therefore feel more contained within the car, while in the back there’s a nice sense of not being swallowed up, which is great for kids big enough to want dialogue with those in the front, as well as some view of the outside world.
The upshot is that the new Calais feels narrower and generally lower from inside. It might be equally as lengthy in the cabin as the VF, but its innate narrowness makes it a four, rather than a five-passenger car.
Need to fit three ageing Aunties across the backseat in the old VFII? No problem!
Assessing cabin architecture is largely a subjective thing. The previous-gen Calais was generally viewed favourably for its lavish, contemporary dash design and, from our perspectives, it still stands up pretty well against the edgier, more cleanly-executed style of the new car.
Screen sizes are the same (8.0 inches), both use a chunky, flat-bottom steering wheel with spoke-mounted controls and all the base functions on the dash proper are similarly located and shouldn’t confuse owners familiar with past models.
If there are notable packaging differences between old and new Calais, there are even more things separating them dynamically.
The ZB Calais is not much lighter than the VF (1683kg v 1704 tare), largely due to the all-wheel drive mechanicals, but the guttural 3.6-litre V6’s extra power and torque (235kW/381Nm v 210kW/350Nm) contributes to a more urgent presence and a more favourable power/weight ratio.
It spins more cleanly too, assisted by the nine-speed automatic transmission and, though not in any way comparable to previous-generation V8s, it sits quite well, for now, as Holden’s sportiest engine.
The old V6 feels more constricted and less happy in the upper reaches of the rev band, although it fares equally with the new engine in terms of economy (both 9.1L/100km) and CO2 emissions (212g/km v 210g/km), indicating there’s a price paid for the ZB’s extra power.
Over a few days driving the cars back-to-back, we found the new Calais V to be slightly more consumptive, averaging 13.9L/100km against the VF’s 13.0L/100km (Understand that these figures were achieved during out-of-the-ordinary driving conditions and don’t necessarily reflect what an owner could expect in regular use).
The AWD factor
A big factor influencing the new car’s handling/roadholding is the AWD driveline that is part of the deal with the V6 engine.
The suspension, steering and stability control have been tuned by local engineers specifically for our market, and it shows: The ZB Calais is stable and rewarding to drive with all the grip you want from the adaptive, dual-clutch Twinster AWD system that can apportion the torque split between 100:0 and 50:50 front-rear.
The suspension tune, compared to the VF Calais, is decidedly firm – a quality exacerbated by the big 245/35R20 tyres – but there’s a worthwhile payoff. The new Calais feels way more composed and planted than the old, less prone to bump-steer on patchy sealed roads and crisply responsive to the lighter but equally-quick electric-assist steering.
While the old car is never bad, the new one feels more connected, more secure in its responses and, in the end, a better drive.
This is helped no end by the new V6’s deep torque reserves (Holden doesn’t tell us at what revs the impressive-for-capacity maximum 381Nm comes in) and the nine-speed auto which makes it nearly impossible to be in the wrong gear.
Naturally there’s a lift in safety: Over the previous-gen Calais, the new car comes with low-speed autonomous emergency braking, lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control.
The VF Calais didn’t fare all that badly though: It lacked AEB, but it came with lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert as well as self-parking capability – all of which are on the new car.
The ZB retains a six-airbag setup with a five-star ANCAP safety rating.
Standard equipment in the new Calais V has been detailed before, but worthy additions include such things as adaptive LED matrix headlights, active noised cancellation and a massaging driver’s seat.
Well, is the ZB Calais better?
The German-built ZB Calais is not the Calais we have known since the first 5.0-litre V8-engined VK edition rolled off the Australian production line in 1985.
In some ways it represents a similar paradigm shift to that performed by Holden when the original Commodore belatedly replaced the full-sized Kingswood in the early 1980s.
Then again, large family cars were unassailably dominant in those times. Now Holden’s latest is tasked to perform in a market that long ago shifted its focus off conventional family sedans, and toward the ubiquitous SUV.
One thing’s for certain though: Holden’s latest Commodore, fully-imported or not, is a better, more contemporary vehicle than the VF. As it should be.
2017 Holden Calais V pricing and specifications:
- Price: $48,750 (plus on-road costs)
- Engine: 3.6-litre six-cylinder petrol
- Output: 210kW/350Nm
- Transmission: Six-speed automatic
- Fuel: 9.1L/100km (ADR Combined)
- CO2: 210g/km (ADR Combined)
- Safety Rating: Five-star ANCAP (tested 2013)
2018 Holden Calais V pricing and specifications:
- Price: $51,990 (plus on-road costs)
- Engine: 3.6-litre six-cylinder petrol
- Output: 235kW/381Nm
- Transmission: Nine-speed automatic
- Fuel: 9.1L/100km (ADR Combined)
- CO2: 212g/km (ADR Combined)
- Safety Rating: Five-star ANCAP (tested 2017)