GM Holden has taken a pretty bold move with the introduction of its new VE Commodore based Sportwagon. The previous VZ’s target market of commercial users saw the wagon stereotyped as a bland, boring ‘rep-mobile’.
Enter 2008 and the successful VE Commodore. Holden wants to clear that ‘rep-mobile’ image with a Chrysler 300C-esque station wagon that appeals to a broader market, including families and people with active lifestyles.
Speaking at Holden’s media launch of the Sportwagon, Chief Designer Richard Ferlazzo said the design philosophy was to create a vehicle that was tailored to those buyers considering an SUV. The Sportwagon is considered by Holden to be a compromise between function and form, with an emphasis on ride quality and design.
Holden’s Sportwagon is based on the Commodore short-wheel-base platform and not, as in the past, on the WM long-wheel-base platform. The Sportwagon maintains the same length as the sedan but still manages to be one of the most spacious wagons on the market.
The tailgate cuts into the roofline to allow easy access when parked against walls and other cars. The Sportwagon needs just 268mm of clearance to swing the tailgate open, meaning that hectares of room aren’t required to load the shopping or the kid’s soccer gear.
$110-million was poured into the development of the Sportwagon (on top of the $1.03-billion spent on Commodore and $105.1-million spent on the Utility program) with just over half a million kilometres spent on the road testing.
The sporty design comes at a cost to interior volume though. The outgoing VZ station wagon could house up to 1402-litres with the rear seats up, while the Sportwagon can facilitate just under two-thirds of that volume at 895-litres. The rear is more accessible though, with the load height being increased by some 36mm.
The drive route had the assembled journalists drive across a variety of surfaces including bumpy asphalt, gravel and twisty mountain roads.
I started off in a Berlina. The bleak looking interior and monotone LCD screen did nothing to detract attention from the lifeless four-speed automatic gearbox featured in Omega and Berlina variants. The gearbox is mated to the 180kW Alloytec V6 which struggles at time to find the right gear for the terrain. I often found myself sinking the boot right in to keep momentum up, while overtaking took a bit of a run up.
Luckily though, it was a different story in my next ride, the SV6. The five-speed automatic transmission feels light-years ahead of the archaic four-speed and works brilliantly in unison with the 195kW high-output Alloytec motor. Sport shift can be selected by flicking the lever into the sequential mode, providing more apparent downshifts and retention of gears for upshifts.
It wasn’t long before I found myself in the luxo V8 model of the pack – the Calais V-Series V8. Here, 270kW of raw V8 power is delivered via the six-speed 6L80E automatic transmission. Generally speaking, it’s a decent unit which adapts to your driving style quite well. It too features a sport mode which improves shift quality for brisk driving.
The SS V-Series hero model was the most enjoyable of the bunch from a driver’s perspective. By chance our particular test route in nthis car featured some gravel, which simply amplified the SS V’s very impressive on-road dynamics. This particular vehicle featured a tight six-speed manual gearbox, which proved pleasurable to switch through cogs.
The general driving feel of all models was quite positive. You would be hard pressed to realise that you were in fact driving a station wagon. Even during the latter part of the day when the heavens opened, all vehicles remained firmly planted to the road, without even a hint of the regular light-end feel of a station wagon.
One of the vehicles (the Berlina) had a rattle coming from the rear roofline which became more apparent as we trekked over rougher terrain.
Sportwagon’s model range mirrors its sedan counterpart both in terms of features and model designations. The only difference being the addition of alloy wheels for the base model Omega.
Pricing was a keen talking point. Holden were keen to point out that Sportwagon is up to $5600 cheaper than the VZ station wagon it replaces. With prices maxing out at $60,290 for the V8 Calais V, it also makes the Sportwagon an affordable prospect for families looking at mid-size SUVs in a similar price range.
Although Holden wouldn’t speculate on competitors in this segment, it’s quite clear that one of the main – if not only competitors – is the Chrysler 300C wagon. With most sales planned to be heading toward females, it will be interesting to see if the familiarity of a Commodore will sway buyers over American muscle.
We can also expect to see a HSV derivative of the Sportwagon in the near future. HSV is working on an R8 specced version of the Sportwagon to be sold alongside its range of V8 powered VE sedans.
Fuel consumption remains quite similar to the sedan range of vehicles. During the launch the recorded fuel consumption figures were very similar to the average figures quoted by Holden. Although it’s positive that the figures are accurate, more can still be done to bring these figures down to levels achieved by Toyota and Honda V6 engines.
Holden wouldn’t comment on future products, but rest assured that if a diesel or E85 motor is introduced, it will almost certainly make its way into Sportwagon.
Displacement on demand for the V8 range will also be introduced later in the year when the VE receives a refresh. Holden delayed introducing the fuel-saving technology because it wanted it to feature in the model refresh, opposed to the introduction of a single variant.
Safety features such as Electronic Stability Control, dual stage front driver and passenger airbags, side impact airbags for driver and front passenger and side curtain airbags are all standard fitment across the range.
All in all, Holden’s new Sportwagon is really a stellar family car. The increase of head room and radical styling will ensure it sings the right tune with the public. It won’t be long before every man and his dog gets their hands on a Sportwagon. In fact, even boss Mark Reuss has ordered a Sportwagon for his family – his wife wasn’t a big fan of the out-there Atomic colour though!