It’s been a long time coming. Holden’s VE Commodore has finally landed and after an arduous wait, I sat my rear end in their performance flagship – the almighty SS. Holden’s advertising campaign claimed that the new VE would leave its competitors in the Stone Age. They’re pretty bold claims, so with an open mind intact, I turned the 6.0-litre V8 over and fled with every intent to test the SS at its limits.
After many hours of testing in various Aussie conditions, the SS is claimed to be the best it has ever been. I was also finally relieved to be steering a manual version of Holden’s 6.0-litre V8. Thus far I had only driven the 6-speed auto Caprice and Senator V8s, and suffice to say, I was keen for some real driving.
The inner –
As with most of the VE range, you have the option of either opting for the regular model or the ‘V’ spec version of that respective model. The SS test vehicle was the ‘base model’ SS – so to speak – and as such, didn’t receive the colour LCD screen or leather seats or a few other ‘V’ features. This could be classed as a bad thing from a luxury standpoint. But, on the other hand, it means that it weights far less than its ‘V’ sibling, which also equates to a better power to weight ratio.
The excitement of leather seats often doesn’t take all that long to wear off. The other downside is that they often cause slippage of the buttock when pounding rubber. As such, the cloth treatment in the SS was fantastic. The pattern on the seats looked just as good as the leather treatment and also meant that there was more chance of staying put when pegging through bends and also less chance of burning a new hole in my trousers on hot days!
Fitted as options to our test vehicle were the red sports steering wheel and sports gear shifter. In my opinion, they give the interior that added flare that is sometimes missing from sports cars. The steering wheel felt fantastic to grab on to and filled the hands nicely – which is an attribute much desired when going hell for leather. The gear shifter was also fantastic, it’s a small stubby thing that is perfectly within reach and makes rowing through cogs extremely easy and enjoyable. So much can’t be said for the handbrake though. The new Saab-esque handbrake lever across the VE range looks silly and awkward. The ejector-seat style grab handle can be annoying to use and somewhat irritating at times.
The driver and passenger seats are totally manually adjustable – aside from electronic front tilt. The only downside to such a setup was the somewhat awkward positioning of the rotary knob used to tilt the seat-back. The seats were prescribed in a way that accommodated mainly for larger drivers. There was a decent gap between the body and the side bolsters, which induced a bit of movement through hard cornering.
Unlike upper model and ‘V’ series vehicles, the SS isn’t fitted with the colour LCD screen. So, everything is controlled manually via the various buttons and knobs on the dashboard. It’s not to say that they were confusing, they were simply fiddly and somewhat time consuming in comparison to the LCD screen style layout. At the top of the dashboard, there was a backlit red dot-matrix style screen that read out radio and CD information. The screen was quite difficult to see when there was strong sunlight imminent. At night time though, the red backlit fascia looked fantastic, really adding to the emotion the SS Commodore provides. The speedometer and tachometer cluster looked fantastic. The cluster was extremely easy to read and looked great at night time also.
Holden finally have a commendable set of steering wheel controls that counter the need for mindless fiddling and fidgeting whilst driving. The steering wheel controls allow the driver to control and modify countless settings from radio volume to the amount of time the headlights stay on after leaving the vehicle. These controls are a breadth of fresh air for the Australian car market. With a bit of luck, Ford will too follow suit and implement a more complex, yet flexible system in upcoming Falcon models.
There were some build quality issues that plagued our test vehicle. Although this vehicle was a pre-production model, thought should have gone into aspects of build around the interior. For example, next to the steering wheel, there is a mould of plastic that sits between the steering wheel and the dashboard. This entire piece of plastic (around 10cm x 15cm) was totally loose. After pulling it backward, wires behind the dashboard were exposed. The handbrake also didn’t sit flush with the centre tunnel when disengaged, and the glove-box didn’t sit flush either, exposing a gap at its furthest end. One last aspect that irked me to no end was the noise when closing a door with an open window. It sounded like the door of an early eighties Camira being shut. When the door hit the body, you could hear the window shaking around in the door panel. All these problems were not indicative of what any person would expect from a $40,000+ car.
The 6-disc in-dash CD player is MP3 compatible and features 7-speakers, totalling 80-watts. The sound system does the job, it’s nothing spectacular, but it’s better than a knock to the head. The rest of the interior was decent enough. There was plenty of leg room in both the front and back seats and the boot was ginormous. Our test vehicle was also fitted with an optional full-size spare tyre.
The outer –
In my opinion, the regular SS doesn’t really look that crash hot. The front end features the same old-school headlights as the Omega and is simply dressed up with a front spoiler. Our test car was different though. The red SS featured a set of ‘track stripes’. The black stripes ran from the front of the vehicle, right through the rear and gave it an extremely dominating stance and presence on the road. The $302.50 option had people looking from all directions. Coupled with the noise billowing from under the bonnet, this SS gained a lot of attention.
The test vehicle was also fitted with optional 19” ‘Supersport’ wheels ($1549 option) that – in my opinion – actually look better than the standard wheels fitted to the SS-V model.
A demeaning presence is held by the SS. The rear end features a set of quad exhaust pipes that signify the existence of a 6.0-litre V8 motor. The faux mesh grille at the bottom of the rear end is a bit of a wank though, the holes are covered up and it serves absolutely no purpose. It would have been nice to see the holes open for additional ventilation. Parking the SS can also be a rather touch-and-go affair. The SS doesn’t come with rear parking sensors as standard. The high boot line isn’t helped by the dominating rear spoiler which makes life even harder. With cars such as the SS, I think parking sensors should be mandatory.
To be honest, if this car wasn’t optioned with the ‘track stripes’, I really wouldn’t think much of it. It looks quite similar to the Omega and really doesn’t grab your attention like a muscle car should. But, with the ‘track stripes’ it’s a whole different story.
On the road –
Let’s be honest. I’ve driven a fair whack of Euro cars and quite often, the Aussie competition is quaffed at when it comes to comparative build quality and performance. The former is certainly true, but the latter…not so much.
‘Twas a gorgeous summer’s day as I set off for the hills. I wasn’t expecting too much from the SS in terms of handling and composure. It wasn’t until I got to the twisty stuff that I was totally blown away. I came into the road test thinking this would be your typical Aussie barge. Holden went on and on about how much time and effort has been poured into the VE – and in particular the sports models – and I honestly thought it was just your typical marketing hype.
Although the SS weighs in at around 1.8-tonnes, manoeuvring the car through the twisties is remarkably easy and confidence inspiring. Long, sweeping bends don’t do the SS any favours though. Through these, there is a vast amount of body roll that sets in and causes the SS to feel like a pre-historic barge. It’s on the tighter sections of road that the SS excels – who would have thought.
The SS’s brakes are very confidence inspiring. They don’t have that initial bite of a HSV’s brakes, but they grab and remain confident, even after a relatively solid flogging. The pedal also retains constant feel, unlike the recent HSV I drove, where the pedal started to sink as the going got tough. The BA (Brake Assist) and EBD (Electronic Brake Distribution) systems work in unity to control braking before a corner. As the car shifts its weight, the EBD and BA systems can alter the braking force delivered to each individual tyre. These systems then in turn work with the ABS to modulate braking pressure to avoid a brake lockup. There was one occasion where I broke quite late and the ABS set in, it remained controlled and seamless, adding to the confidence inspiring nature of the system.
Sharp and snappy turn-in to a corner proved to unsettle the car in no way. Generally such aggressive driving delivers understeer, the SS on the other hand remained quite composed and literate, kicking up little fuss.
One of the most impressive traits was the level of weight centred over the rear tyres. With 270kW on tap, it’s not uncommon to drop the rear end out when aggressively exiting a slow corner. The SS had the amazing ability to simply drill that power into the tarmac and falter in no way. On the one occasion that I did kick into oversteer, the ESC (Electronic Stability Control) jumped in and persuasively set the rear end back in line – more on the ESC later. This style of control and ability is regularly reserved for more expensive sports cars. That’s why I was totally amazed at the SS’s ability to stick to the road. The weight distribution (through sharper corners) was impeccable and really boasted Holden’s commitment to developing the SS as a driver’s car.
As mentioned earlier, the ESC is extremely unobtrusive. There is an altered ESC program in eight-cylinder models, it allows for slightly more free-play before it steps in to fix the situation. When the unfortunate does occur and the system detects slippage, there is no instant power loss and brake shuddering, the system goes about setting the driver back on line in the quickest possible fashion. And it’s commendable to note that it didn’t interrupt hard driving, something which Toyota/Lexus could certainly learn from…
Driving the SS is an easy task. The clutch is quite springy and has a slightly electronic feel to it, the travel of the clutch is medium and the pickup point short, making down/up shifts extremely easy and well executed. The gear lever also makes driving the SS far easier. The short throw between gears is fantastic and the tight nature of the gates makes transitioning through the gears that little bit easier. The pedals also provide enough room for heel-toeing, catering for the more enthusiastic drivers.
The steering is quite direct and lightly weighed. The communication through the wheel could be slightly more responsive, but it wasn’t bad enough to turn the driver off an exhilarating drive.
The engine note from the 6.0-litre V8 is enough to make any car enthusiast aroused. Beyond 2500RPM, a deep and battering note exits the engine bay; it’s simply pure aural delight. The note doesn’t feel as subdued as the one in the HSV range. The exhaust seems more free flowing and raspy, adding to the SS’s sporty nature. At idle, it’s impossible to remain stationary. The V8 literally rumbles the car and makes it shake from side to side, that’s what a real V8 should do. It’s an odd experience, but one that should most certainly be tailored to the design of hard going V8 motors.
As a side note, on one of the mountain runs I did, I was joined by a VE Clubsport. Much to our amazement, the SS had no problems keeping with the Clubby through the bends. As the Clubby has an extra 20Nm and 37kW, it was able to pull away at the straights. But, there’s a $20,000 difference between the two…just imagine what $20k could bring to the SS with little effort.
At the end of the day, the SS left me mighty impressed as a performance car. It held its own through the vigorous testing I did and didn’t manage to leave me disappointed at any point over the drive. Holden have really engineered a driver’s car in the SS, its ability to row through each gear right up to redline left me with a smile from ear to ear. And just like any true Aussie muscle car, it could rip a very mean burnout.
Under the hood –
Flip the bonnet up and you’ll be met with a 6.0-litre Gen IV V8 LS2 engine. As tested on 98RON PULP (Premium Unleaded Petrol), the motor produces 270kW at 5700RPM and makes 530Nm of torque at 4400RPM.
The turning circle is 11.4m, so it’s a bit of a barge to perform a U-turn in, but the 6-speed manual is easy to use, so shifting between reverse and first gear is no problem. There is an optional tow kit available for the SS which can accommodate anywhere from 1200-2100kg loads.
Fuel consumption when pushed is normally in the 20L/100km+ range. But, the official combined figure sits at 14.4L/100km. With around 70% highway driving, I returned the SS with a fuel consumption figure of 12.9L/100km, which isn’t too bad in the grand scheme of things.
Price, options and features –
The Holden Commodore SS comes in two guises, there’s the regular SS and the SS-V. The regular SS is available with either a 6-speed manual transmission or 6-speed automatic transmission; they are priced at $44,990 and $46,990 respectively. The SS-V on the other hand – again, available with either 6-speed manual or 6-speed auto – is available for $51,990 and $53,990 respectively.
Our test vehicle was fitted with ‘track stripes’, sports steering wheel (red), leather gear shifter, full size spare tyre and 19” alloy wheels. These were priced at $302.50, $401.50, $122.10, $250 and $1549 respectively, bringing the total price to $47,615.10.
Standard features included in the SS: Climate controlled air-conditioning; 6-stack MP3 compatible CD player, including 7-speakers, totalling 80-watts; cruise control; power windows; power mirrors; central locking; Bluetooth phone functionality; steering wheel controls; tilt and telescopic steering adjustment; power steering; 4-way electronic adjustment of driver and passenger seat; auto headlights and fog lights.
Safety features include: Dual stage driver and passenger SRS airbags; side impact airbags for driver and passenger; ESC (Electronic Stability Control) with EBD (Electronic Brake Distribution), ABS, BA (Brake Asssit) and TCS (Traction Control System).
Full length curtain airbags are a cost option.
I was left utterly surprised at just how well the SS fared through the vigorous test circuits it was driven through. The interior build quality certainly doesn’t leave its competitor’s in the Stone Age, far from it in fact. That seems to be a trait plaguing most Australian vehicles, which is really sad when you consider the potential available.
When you look at the price though, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would even consider a HSV Clubsport. The SS provides such brilliant elasticity, one minute you could be going along hell for leather and the next; you could easily be pottering around town at low revs attracting little attention.
If I was in the market for a V8 Aussie sedan and a Holden is what I was after, I’d head straight to the SS. Sure, you miss out on some of the creature comforts of the SS-V, but optioned with ‘track stripes’ and the 19” wheels, you will soon forget about not purchasing the SS-V and the main upside is the weight saved with the subtraction of SS-V features.
With all that said, if you can bear to deal with average build quality and half the features of equivalent performing Euros, the SS really is a steal. The SS is one of those cars that you crave to jump in again and again to take for another thrashing; it just has that way about it. That’s why I’d happily recommend the SS to any prospective buyers, the build quality may not be all that crash hot but the thrill of driving the thing most certainly makes up for it.
- Paul Maric