A year following its introduction, is the VF generation Holden Calais still a worthy entry-level luxury car?
It has been 21 years since a Holden Calais with a V6 engine has cost less than $40,000. For an even longer period the Calais badge has stood for locally made luxury (since 1984 in fact) yet these days rivals from all corners of the globe are likewise more competitively priced.
It has also been a year since the VF generation of Holden Calais (which has never used the Commodore nameplate on which it’s based) launched, a long enough period to revisit the traditional Australian-made luxury car in its latest form.
The Calais costs $39,990 in sedan form, and $41,990 for the Sportwagon. Both come with a 3.6-litre V6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission, which is also available in the better equipped Calais V-Series for $7500 more. Only the V-Series now gets a 6.0-litre V8, though, meaning eight-cylinder luxury motoring now starts in your Holden dealer from a steep $53,490.
Moving the Calais down in price compared with the outgoing VE generation has meant losing some equipment, such as electric adjustment for the passenger seat, while satellite navigation is available as an option.
The Holden Calais remains handsomely equipped, however, with full leather trim and steering wheel, keyless auto entry, colour instrument display, blind-spot alert, cross-traffic alert, and 18-inch alloy wheels with fog lights and LED daytime lights.
That’s in addition to dual-zone climate control, electrically adjustable driver’s seat, eight-inch colour touchscreen (with app connectivity), reverse-view camera, and front and rear parking sensors with semi-automatic parking technology (that can detect a parallel or perpendicular parking spot and automatically use the steering to reverse into it) standard on every VF Commodore.
By comparison, an identically priced Audi A3 sedan only gets dual-zone climate control, leather trim and rear parking sensors from the above group of equipment, with everything else either an option or not available at all…
There’s also 4.9 metres of length to the broad-shouldered Holden Calais sedan, which may be seen as a negative for some living in urban centres, however it does open the door to the most spacious interior available for within cooee of its price tag.
The front seats are superbly comfortable, if a little too wide for slimmer bodies, and the new, smaller steering wheel feels great in the hands compared with its oversized VE predecessor’s. There’s even real leather, too, where the smaller Audi uses more fake cow-hide on the seats. While the suede trim on the dashboard and door trims (and soft mood lighting inside the chrome door handles) looks good, there are plenty of hard and scratchy dash surfaces around that didn’t appear hard-wearing on our 10,000km-old example.
The Holden MyLink system is one of the most advanced on the market, with the Commodore’s screen of high resolution and quick to react to inputs. Although apps such as Pandora music streaming can only be accessed via USB (in a Mazda 3 it can run through Bluetooth, for example), equally, the voice control system in tandem with Siri on iPhone is among the most clear and concise we’ve used. (By contrast, the A3’s MMI system utilises neither of these features, and requires an Audi-specific cable for iPod/iPhone connections.)
Further rearward, there’s vast acreage for back passengers, a superbly deep and supportive cushion, and rear air vents. There are few cars under $40,000 that would be more comfortable on a long drive, though there are many styles of car that exceed the 495-litre boot of the Calais (and there’s only a ski port, not 60:40 split-fold practicality).
The Calais drive experience matches the sumptuous interior. Holden has managed to refine its once-raucous Melbourne-built V6 engine to the point of being a plaudit rather than a criticism of the car.
The 3.6-litre works effortlessly in the lower rev range, as a big six should, and is now matched by a six-speed automatic transmission that is among the most intuitive on the market. The auto has the uncanny ability to trickle into tall gears (and as low as 1200rpm) to make the engine feel efficient, yet quickly grab then hold lower gears to make the drive seamless and far from frustrating (as the VE sometimes was). It also has a Sport mode and a manual tipshifter facility (though no paddleshifters) that throttle-blip and rev-match on downshifts, perfect for the luxury car driver in a hurry to the country club…
Around town the ride in the Holden Calais is excellent, the 18-inch Bridgestone Turanza tyres being none too thin in their sidewalls, and allowing the firm suspension to round off larger impacts. There’s slight intrusion over successive ripples in a road (which becomes worse in the Calais V on 19s) though mostly the calmness combines with the engine torque to encourage effortless cruising.
The Calais doesn’t demand so, however. Take it for a country drive and it shares the same excellent, rear-wheel-drive balance and tight suspension control as every VF Commodore. The new electro-hydraulic steering is the best of any car from General Motors we’ve tested – light, slick, and enjoyable wherever you’re driving. It helps the Calais shrink around you and, disproving a myth often aimed at it, not feel like a cumbersome large sedan, even when you decide to park for yourself rather than let the car do so.
The other myth that a big six sedan is thirsty was also partially disproved on our test. After a solid week of commuting in heavy traffic the Holden Calais returned 11.6 litres per 100 kilometres – up 29 per cent on its 9.0L/100km, but not bad when many cars through the CarAdvice often often exceed their claims by twice that.
A Mercedes-Benz E-Class with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine tested in a comparison with the Holden Calais V last year returned 13L/100km – double its claim and only 0.4L/100km ahead of the Holden.
The Holden Calais is not only an excellent affordable luxury car, it’s also the sweet spot in the VF Commodore range. It rides more smoothly than the Calais V, yet retains its classy interior for less, and its 3.6-litre V6 offers just enough extra torque to help justify its case over a 3.0-litre Commodore Evoke. Enjoy this car for the next three years while you can, and hope for the sake of the ‘new’ General Motors that executives understand how good the local engineering team are and offer them positions to create future Holdens that won’t be made here…