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by Daniel DeGasperi

It’s comparison round three for the new Holden Commodore. After proving superior to its six-cylinder arch rival in round one, and in V8 specification just beating a top-notch hot-hatch in round two, the Commodore now battles off with one of the best load-luggers in the business.

The Holden Commodore Evoke Sportwagon kicks off at $36,990, or $2000 more than the sedan. In addition to competing with the plethora of SUV models around that price point, the Commodore must also attempt to woo family car buyers out of medium-sized wagons, the best of which is the Mazda 6 wagon.

The closest match for the entry-level Commodore Evoke Sportwagon is the Mazda 6 Touring wagon, priced at $38,800. Being medium-sized, the Mazda is obviously less roomy and it uses a smaller four-cylinder engine – but can it prove a smarter option than the more-metal-for-the-money Commodore?

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First, some statistics.

The Holden Commodore Evoke Sportwagon, at 1717kg, is a full 223kg heavier than the Mazda 6. Its 3.0-litre petrol V6 engine produces 185kW of power and 290Nm of torque. To put those figures into a comparable state with the Mazda, per 1000kg of weight the Evoke Sportwagon has 108kW and 169Nm.

The Mazda 6 Touring wagon uses a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine producing 138kW and 250Nm. The 1494kg Mazda therefore has 92kW and 167Nm to pull per tonne.

Although these two rivals are quite close for relative torque output, fuel consumption claims place a wedge between them – the Holden claims 8.6L/100km and the Mazda just 6.6L/100km.

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The Mazda 6 also has a greater level of standard equipment to match its higher level of fit and finish.

Being a middle-grade specification level, the 6 Touring wagon gets full leather trim and eight-way electrically adjustable front seats. Both the driver’s seat itself and the driving position beat the Holden’s. The Evoke only gets electric adjustment for height, while the backrest moves via a lever, not the infinitely adjustable wheel that Commodores have always used.

The Mazda 6 Touring also gets satellite navigation, though its colour screen is smaller and lower resolution than that in the Commodore. The Holden also trumps the Mazda for touchscreen ergonomics and technology. Its Bluetooth operation is easier, and the ability to stream music via mobile phone internet is unique.

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Both get a reversing camera and parking sensors but only the larger Holden can find a parking spot then steer itself into it…

Despite the extra equipment, there are cheaper and sometimes ill-fitting plastics to be found in the Commodore Evoke, and the cloth trim still feels downmarket.

The Mazda 6, by contrast, feels genuinely premium with its soft touch, consistently matched plastics and tight panel gaps.

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Of course, you are getting a whole lot more car with the Holden. Compared with the Mazda it is 119mm longer and 54mm wider, though its roofline is 6mm lower.

Those figures translate to substantially more rear legroom in the Commodore Sportwagon. If all three seats need to be occupied in the rear, the Holden is also plainly superior, with much less shoulder-rubbing for back-seat passengers.

The Mazda 6 matches the Commodore for head space, and both score rear-seat air vents, but the Touring’s rear seat is also flatter and less deeply supportive than its bigger rival’s.

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Further back in the cabin, the Commodore Sportwagon can carry 895 litres in its boot, or with the rear seat folded flat, a massive 2000L.

The 6 Touring wagon can only manage 451L, or 1593L with the back seat folded.

But the Mazda includes a luggage cover and an adjustable luggage net that protects rear passengers from items in the boot entering the cabin. The Commodore gets neither.

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The Mazda 6 has long been the finest-driving car in the medium segment, and this new model – launched late last year – doesn’t mess with the status quo.

Its 2.5-litre engine is one of the strongest performers around, and the six-speed automatic is both fluent around town and decisive when driving harder.

The steering is slick and consistent, the ride quality hugely improved compared with the previous generation, and the handling remains wonderfully agile and composed.

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The larger, heavier Commodore isn’t completely outclassed here. The comfort level delivered by the Evoke is superb, the finest in the entire Holden Commodore range. Its sensible 16-inch tyres help it drift over every type of road irregularity – cat’s eyes, expansion joins, larger pot holes – without transferring anything to the cabin. Yet on a bumpy country road at speed the suspension itself never allows the body to float and wallow. It is a brilliant blend.

By contrast, the Mazda 6 always feels slightly firmer; still comfortable and absorbent, but not quite as stillwater and calm as the almost majestic Holden.

The Holden’s steering is better, too, although the Evoke in particular has more on-centre freeplay than other models in the Commodore range, possibly as a result of its softer-sidewalled tyres. The electro-mechanical steering in both cars here is terrific, although it’s when trying to pin an apex that the Mazda’s proves fractionally less direct, and also introduces a slightly heavier weighting when winding on lock. The Commodore’s is consistently light, and the better for it.

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Both the 6 Touring and Commodore Evoke also have similarly excellent handling. Each lack outright tyre grip, particularly in the wet, yet the front-wheel-drive Mazda proves more agile and sharp, where the Holden is more about delicate rear-wheel-drive balance, of which there is plenty.

It’s down to the engines to really separate them, and it’s here where the Mazda’s 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine not only feels quicker during outright acceleration – despite less power and torque – but it sounds sweeter when revving and is more relaxed at low speeds.

The 3.0-litre V6 in the Commodore Evoke feels hugely improved compared with the previous-generation model, but the improvement is largely down to greater noise insulation and a recalibrated automatic. The V6 is much quieter than before, although the slower movement of the tachometer needle when floored confirms that the engine still struggles with weight.

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Likewise the new six-speed automatic is far quicker and keener to pick up lower gears on light throttle to try and hide the torque deficit by keeping the engine working harder. That’s fine for driveability, but it doesn’t solve the real-world economy issues that plagued the old VE.

Holden wanted to limbo the Commodore Evoke sedan under 200 grams per kilometre of CO2 – the threshold for many fleet purchases – which works out to 8.3L/100km combined. But the heavier Sportwagon claims 8.6L/100km, and still misses that figure by miles.

Over a test loop split evenly between urban, freeway and country road driving, the Commodore Evoke Sportwagon used 14.5L/100km – about the same as what we’ve previously recorded in a VE Omega sedan in similar conditions. It is also the same as we recorded in a VF Calais a week later, proving that the bigger 3.6-litre, because it doesn’t need to work as hard, doesn’t actually use more fuel than the 3.0-litre Evoke in the real world.

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In the same conditions, at similar speed, the Mazda 6 Touring delivered 9.4L/100km. It should be noted that both accept 91RON unleaded, which at the time of writing was priced at $1.40 per litre in the Sydney metropolitan area. Based on that price and our figures, calculated over the 15,000km Australians travel on average each year, a Holden Commodore Evoke would cost $3045 to fill versus $1974 for the Mazda 6 Touring – a $1071 saving.

A capped price servicing program allows the Holden to claw back that ground. The four services the Commodore Evoke Sportwagon requires to three years or 60,000km cost $185 each, for a total of $740. By comparison, according to a major Sydney dealership, the 6 Touring will cost $1889 in genuine servicing – a difference of $1149.

In terms of long-term ownership there’s little between the two wagons, though the Mazda 6 is recognised as a stronger performer come resale time.

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What the Holden Commodore Evoke Sportwagon really needed to do in this test is prove that it can match a talented Japanese wagon for finish and driveability, then seal the win with more space. Ultimately, if three passengers need to be seated in the rear and lots of luggage stored, it is the only choice.

The 3.0-litre V6, however, continues to have some shortcomings, and the interior finish and dynamic cohesion don’t substantially better the Mazda 6 Touring. Had the 3.6-litre SV6 or Calais Sportwagon been selected for this comparison the outcome may be different, but neither are available for less than $40,000.

Although smaller, the Mazda is beautifully finished, comprehensively equipped, a dynamic drive, and an eager performer yet also economical. It’s a rare case of the thinking man’s family car doubling as the thinking enthusiast’s sporty drive.

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Mazda 6 Touring wagon
Price: $38,800
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 138kW at 5700rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 3250rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel consumption: 6.6L/100km (9.4L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 155g/km

Holden Commodore Evoke Sportwagon
Price: $36,990
Engine: 3.0-litre V6 petrol
Power: 180kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 290Nm at 2600rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel consumption: 8.6L/100km (14.5L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 206g/km