Holden Commodore VE Wagon

AutoTrader NZ
Published 3 September 2020

New Zealand’s car market is undergoing upheaval the likes of which we haven’t seen since tariffs were lifted and used imports arrived. The landscape is changing faster than pundits can keep up – let alone the hapless importers.

Spend years developing a new big sedan, then present it as the climate turns against large cars? You have to feel sorry for Ford, launching its Falcon in June, or Holden with its Commodore wagon in July. They can hardly bin it after all that work. So they spin it…

Holden has some substance behind its spin, it must be said. Yes, the Commodore wagon is a husky beast; big, brawny and generously-powered. But by pitching it against the SUV market Holden’s playing a clever card. For though SUV owners like to think they’ll go off road, few do. With fuel expensive they may rethink their buying decision.

Four-paw safer than two-wheel-drive? Perhaps, but the wagon’s got ESP stability control as standard to assist with grip on slippery roads. Need the SUV for the space? This wagon’ll hold 895 litres with five aboard, or two square metres with the rear seats folded.

And though it isn’t the most fuel-frugal of cars – the entry level drinks at a claimed 11.1l/100km, while the V8 guzzles at 14.4 – it’s not bad compared to medium-to-large SUVs, even many of the diesels. There’s a BMW X5 diesel in my drive as I type; it drives like a performance SUV – which means impressive for a high-riding pseudo off-roader but not as well as a properly sorted car – and is averaging 12 litres of diesel for every 100km I travel.

Suddenly that Commodore wagon doesn’t look so bad. Then there’s the inconvenience of paying Road User Charges in an office, not at the pump. And though diesel is cheaper, the gap is closing. If diesel prices continue to rise faster than petrol the advantage will evaporate. Already diesel-fuelled car sales are faltering in Europe. In England 91-octane costs 119p per litre and diesel 132.4p, according to the IAM Motoring Trust in early July. That’s NZ$3.10 and $3.44 as I write, neatly offsetting the frugality advantage and trouncing the consolation prize of all that diesel-fuelled torque.

If diesel rises as much here, those buying an SUV diesel ‘because we need a spacious car’ will be searching the wagon market. And Holden is ready.

More than ready, for this Commodore wagon is rather an impressive beast. It looks good, in a muscular sort of a way. It’s genuinely useful, and if you like to drive, it will most definitely reward you – especially if you opt for the more sporting versions.

Holden’s chassis gurus put a lot of effort into this car, beefing the body to retain the stiffness wagons lose – adding 91kg in the process. Then working on the suspension, with stiffer spring rates, bigger stabiliser bars and three ball joints replacing two out back to take the weight – and reduce that typical wagon oversteer.

The chassis department tested these wagons with five 68kg adult equivalents and up to 130kg of load. They put them through every test the sedans undergo and spent a lot of time on the rear, ensuring the altered centre of gravity and weight distribution didn’t overly corrupt the handling.

The result’s impressive. The Omega, with its higher-profile tyres, is a tad softer in its ride; otherwise compliance is remarkable, the wagons assured even over sudden camber changes and the roughest of the rural roads we encountered.  You don’t feel like mum and the football team. Indeed, it’s easy to forget there’s that big boot behind you.

Traditionally wagons are deeply unsexy sausages on wheels. This Commodore escapes the tag without going as cartoon-brash as Chrysler’s 300C affair. It uses the same wheelbase as the sedan, the front end identical though the long side pressings are unique to take in that generous rear, with its elegantly muscular styling.

It’s not quite as eye-catching as the original concept which, as exterior design manager Martin Love admits, was “a little bit overcooked.

“It wouldn’t have worked as it was – the scale model was pretty exaggerated and probably a little impractical in terms of space.”

There’s plentiful space now – a 1.9-metre adult had leg and knee room in the rear, and this is a genuinely useful wagon. The large tailgate is mounted well forward into the roof for a wide opening. It’s unexpectedly easy to reach for the average-sized mum and only requires 26cm clear space behind it – yes, you can empty this thing in the garage. Shopping bag hooks, power outlets, a tonneau cover and a wide range of accessories; it’s all there.

Plus, of course, the six airbags, the rear park assist and the ESP. Shame there are no isofix fittings for some matching leather kiddie seats, but there we go.

Chief designer Richard Ferlazzo says designers can’t forget their social responsibility, and that this wagon is more PC than an SUV. But that’s largely image; it’s just a less obvious dipsomaniac, which may be all that matters if you’re worried about the Joneses. But the days of wagons like this could be numbered. For its carbon footprint starts at 269 and tops out at 343g/km.

If there’s burden sharing across the industry, the blow it suffers once the proposed 170g limit arrives might be minimised. But some options being considered would hit it and its ilk with a massive price premium that will put most buyers off – and may make wagons like this uneconomic to build.

Which is a pity – because if you can afford the fuel, and need a truly capacious cargo-carrier that minimises the handling compromise without soaring into Euro price territory, this Commodore could be hard to beat.