9 / 10
Luxury for less is the Holden VF Calais and Calais V pitch and that’s exactly how it translates.
The Holden VF Calais is priced from $39,990 – a reduction of $8000. As with the entry-level Evoke it includes front and rear parking sensors, a reverse camera and auto-park capability. It also adds 18-inch alloy wheels, fog and daytime running lights, blind spot and reverse traffic alerts, keyless auto-entry with push-button start, luggage nets in the boot, an eight-way electrically adjustable driver’s seat, andleather-wrapped steering wheel, gearshifter and seats.
The only item missing from that list is integrated satellite navigation, and it’s optional for just $750.
Spec-spotters will pick the Calais V-Series models – priced from $46,990 with a V6 and $52,990 with a 6.0-litre V8, down by $9000 and $9800 respectively – by their larger 19-inch wheels, chrome door handles, and black projector headlight bezels.
Rounding out the equipment additions are a sports-profile steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, satellite navigation, nine-speaker Bose audio, heated front seats, driver’s seat memory, and an electric sunroof.
It is difficult to think of a more premium new-car interior available for less than $40K.
Okay, some of the dash-top plastics are hard, the lower plastics around the transmission surround are slightly scratchy and the dash applique between the climate controls and audio screen looks a bit chintzy – this is no German-rivalling cabin in terms of quality.
The door handles are shared with the Opel Insignia, the indicator and wiper stalks with the Holden Cruze and others.
But the leather and suede dash inserts, the brilliantly intuitive and high-resolution touchscreen interface, and soft cocktail-blue lighting on the climate controls create a truly inviting and semi-premium ambience.
Even class-leading mid-sized imports like the Mazda 6 and Volkswagen Passat struggle to match it, at least in sub-$40K specification.
Then there are the traditional Commodore virtues, like supremely comfortable seats and plenty of rear legroom, that those aforementioned size-smaller price-point rivals definitely cannot match.
The 495-litre boot can still only be expanded via a centre ski port, however.
The Calais now weighs 1702kg thanks primarily to the addition of aluminium bootlid, bonnet, and suspension components.
Keeping the theme of offering full-size luxury for less, the Calais weighs just 23kg more than the smaller Passat with the same-size V6 engine (though the VW gets all-wheel-drive). The Calais V adds another 28kg, while the optional V8 engine puts a further 48kg on the nose.
Compared with the original VE Calais V6, kerb weight falls by 47kg with the VF Calais V6.
Although both the 3.6-litre V6 and 6.0-litre V8 engines carry over virtually unchanged, each benefits hugely from an overhauled six-speed automatic transmission calibration and increased firewall sound deadening.
Holden claims that engine noise is reduced thanks to a new acoustic instrument panel with a thicker, more expansive yet lightweight dash insulator, steel engine bay parts replacing plastic, and improved auto and engine insulators.
While the Calais doesn’t feel premium in terms of its road noise, which is higher than expected, especially in terms of wind noise around the tops of the doors, the V6 engine in particular is far more muted than before.
In fact, it’s the V6 drivetrain that feels most transformed. The 3.6-litre produces the same 210kW as before, but now at 6700rpm instead of 6400rpm, and 350Nm at 2800rpm down from 2900rpm.
It has never been a great-sounding engine, but the grainy acoustics are now pushed further into the engine bay and away from the ears of occupants. It feels quicker to rev and fills the holes of the 3.0-litre in the lower torque curve.
Even better, the new Sport transmission mode is a beauty. It detects harder driving almost immediately, holding onto lower gears longer and downchanging more aggressively than in normal mode.
The same is true for the 6.0-litre V8, which now produces its 260kW at 5600rpm instead of 5700rpm, though its 517Nm is made at an unchanged 4400rpm.
But although the V8 – driven in Calais V Sportwagon spec – also benefits from greater transmission smarts, the wonderful acoustics of the bent-eight have been muted to almost sound anonymous. The win for the V6 is a loss for the V8.
More than with standing start acceleration, overtaking manoeuvres is where the V8 really dusts off the V6. It feels burly and breezy, not rev-hungry and a bit desperate to reel in bitumen.
When the VE launched in 2006, the Calais grade ran sports suspension dubbed FE2, which was criticised for being too firm for a luxury model. Holden responded by creating an FE1.5 tune – a mid-way setup between the soft FE1 for Omega and FE2 for SV6 and SS.
Both the Calais and Calais V now get the standard FE1 suspension shared with the Evoke, which is dubbed ‘Touring’ for the brochures. The standard setup is, however, firmer than before “for a more sporting flavour against contemporary European imports” according to Holden.
The new electro-mechanical power steering also gets a Touring tune, which is lighter than the sports models, although all VF grades share the same rack ratio and sharper on-centre reactivity compared with the VE’s hydraulic-mechanical setup.
First, the steering – it’s absolutely superb. The increased on-centre reactivity makes the VF Commodore feel sharp on turn in, yet there’s still a progressiveness there that never makes it feel nervous or overly sensitive to small inputs. The light weight is no barrier to the wonderful consistency and directness of this completely natural-feeling electric system.
Holden allowed us to drive a VE Calais, then swap into a VF Calais, and the difference was dramatic. There’s much less rack rattle over mid-corner bumps in the VF. The new system also exposes a slight laziness on centre in the otherwise still-excellent VE system.
It is one of the few cases that an electro-mechanical steering system beats a hydraulic setup, and an excellent one at that. The VF Commodore now boasts better steering than a BMW 5 Series – it’s as simple as that.
Another area where the VF Calais trumps its VE Calais predecessor is with body control.
At 130km/h over successive undulations, the VE got bouncy, slapping into its bump stops. Even travelling 10km/h faster, the VF Calais felt absolutely secure. It delivers substantially better body control than before.
Despite this, however, some of the irks of the original VE Calais suspension return with the VF, particularly with regard to country-road compliance.
The Calais V, which rides on aggressive 40-aspect 19-inch wheels, is very sensitive to small road irregularities. The damping of the suspension is excellent, but together with a decent amount of road rumble, the slightly too-firm ride lowers the ‘premium’ image and is a reminder that VF is a major overhaul not an entirely new car.
Swapping into the standard Calais, which rolls on 50-aspect 18-inch wheels, proves enlightening. It rounds off sharper edges better than the Calais V does, and picks up less of the small stuff that annoyingly intrudes with its more expensive sibling.
The ride quality is excellent, but it’s the base Evoke that still provides the best balance of ride and handling in the non-sports VF range.
In handling terms, as with the VE, the VF Calais is mainly separated by which engine is under the bonnet.
The V8 feels noticeably less keen to turn in than the V6, being heavier at the front end. The firmer suspension of the Commodore SS seems to help with containing front end mass better, enhancing turn in, but the combination of softer suspension and a heavy engine makes the Calais V V8 not as rewarding to drive as the regular Calais V6.
The entry Calais feels more like the Evoke, which is a good thing. It allows a bit of front-end wash in tight bends, at which point the driver can lift the throttle as you would with a front-wheel-drive car, and the nose tucks back in. But because the VF is rear-wheel drive, it’s possible to then get back on the throttle and balance a touch of power oversteer, with the stability control – again, better than a BMW’s – keeping a subtle eye over proceedings.
All of which makes the sub-$40K Calais V6 a brilliant sweet spot of the Calais range, and one of best models in the entire VF Commodore line-up.
Benchmark value, quieter and keener to rev than before, with a sporting transmission and superb handling, it is difficult to think of a more appealing car for the price.
Price: from $39,990 (sedan); $41,990 (wagon)
Engine: 3.6-litre V6
Power: 210kW at 6700rpm
Torque: 350Nm at 2800rpm
Transmission: 6-speed auto
0-100km/h: not available
Fuel consumption: 9.0L/100km
Weight: 1702-1730kg (1798-1808kg wagon)
Holden Calais V8
Price: from $52,990 (sedan); $54,990 (wagon)
Engine: 6.0-litre V8
Power: 260kW at 5600rpm
Torque: 517Nm at 4400rpm
Transmission: 6-speed auto
0-100km/h: not available
Fuel consumption: 11.5 to 11.8L/100km
Weight: 1778kg (1866kg wagon)