For the fourth and final round of our new Holden Commodore comparison tests, we've lined up perhaps its toughest contender yet.
In previous tests, the Commodore SV6 has ousted its classic Australian rival, the Commodore SS just beat a price-point French hot hatch, while the Commodore Evoke Sportwagon lost against a Japanese medium wagon competitor.
Both are rear-wheel-drive sedans powered by engines with 350Nm of torque, which can get from 0-100km/h in about seven seconds. Each are similarly sized. Although the Calais V is 71mm longer and 44mm wider than the E250, the Holden is also 50kg heavier – 1730kg plays 1680kg. One is German, the other Australian.
We spent time in the Mercedes-Benz E-Class at its international launch in Spain, where we came away hugely impressed with what is inarguably the best premium large sedan in the market. But we’ve also spent hundreds of kilometres behind the wheel of various Holden VF Commodore models, and found them similarly superb and ideal for our unique conditions.
Can the Holden really cause an upset and challenge a Mercedes of more than twice the price? Conversely, can the E-Class justify its pricetag over a Calais?
From a price and equipment perspective, the sub-$50,000 Holden has an obvious head start.
It gets heated seats, while Mercedes-Benz lists them as a $950 option. The Calais V gets a standard Bose audio system and electric sunroof, where in the E250 a Harman Kardon unit and hole-in-the-roof forms part of an optional ($5500) ‘Vision’ package in our test car, which also includes a digital radio tuner that isn’t available in the Holden. The Mercedes also uniquely gets full LED headlights and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror standard.
Both score 19-inch alloy wheels, keyless auto-entry with starter button, proper leather trim, and driver and passenger electrically adjustable seats.
Each can detect a parking spot – parallel or 90 degrees – and spin the steering wheel to automatically reverse into the spot. Our mini-test revealed the Mercedes parks quicker, but on an angle to the kerb; the Holden lines up straight, but takes an extra turn of the wheel.
Also standard in both are forward collision detection warning, lane keeping and blind spot warnings, and reverse traffic detection.
Only the Mercedes, however, can actually brake when a collision is imminent, even with pedestrians, or steer away from an accident if wandering out of a lane – and it’s all standard on the E250.
While the Holden Commodore has a hugely improved interior compared with previous generations, and other cars for the price, it appears a touch gaudy compared with the more austere Mercedes-Benz.
The E250 relies on solidity of build, clean and classic lines, and superb ergonomics to distance itself from its half-price rival. The difference comes through clearly in the detail – the chunkier thunk of a closing door, tighter shut lines with the glovebox, and plush-lined storage bins. The Calais’ dash top is finished in hard plastic that doesn’t match the soft door trim; the E250 sidesteps plastics altogether for stitched-leather-look surfacing.
The Holden Calais does have a fighting chance in a few areas, however. The soft illumination in the door handles, and on the sides of each door, is a nice touch. Likewise the leather trim feels high quality and the front seats themselves are more supportive than the flatter E-Class pews.
There is also more space in the Holden, at least in the cabin. Rear legroom is much more generous than in the Mercedes-Benz. According to our tape measure, to the driving position of a 176cm driver, the Calais affords an extra 15mm of extra leg space – 275mm versus 260mm. Although the centre transmission tunnel is bulkier and tall riders won’t find as much headroom, the bench itself is plush and supportive.
Further rearward, though, the 495-litre boot of the Calais is eclipsed by the 540L E250, though Holden’s persistence with only a centrally fodable ski port makes it much less practical than the Mercedes-Benz with its split fold arrangement.
Perhaps most surprisingly, there is less road noise in the Holden than the Mercedes-Benz. The E250 is a haven of quiet, mostly, but on the freeway more noise intrudes from the rear of the cabin, penetrating up through what seems to be the rear wheel arches.
For overall engine and wind noise, however, the Calais loses out. Jumping straight into it after the Merc, there’s instantly more wind rustle around the door mirrors. A slippery shape no doubt helps the E-Class, which is much more aerodynamic than the VF Commodore.
The Mercedes-Benz 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine produces 155kW of power at 5500rpm and 350Nm of torque between 1200-4000rpm. It’s that latter figure, in conjunction with a seven-speed automatic transmission, which defines the E250 driving experience at speed.
At the freeway limit – 110km/h – the engine is inaudible, ticking over at just 1400rpm in its tallest seventh gear. Yet, there, peak torque is still being produced so the gearbox never has to go back gears on hills. It is a silent, effortless, efficient performer.
By contrast the Holden 3.6-litre V6 is defined by its strong 210kW at 6700rpm, not its 350Nm at 2800rpm. There is no doubt the Calais feels punchier and quicker in all circumstances than the Mercedes-Benz. Where the E250 claims a 7.4 second 0-100km/h, a Calais will duck comfortably under seven.
But it also more intrusive everywhere in the rev range, despite being substantially quieter than the VE Commodore before it. With only a six-speed automatic – one gear less than the Merc – the Holden V6 is spinning at 1800rpm in its top gear at 110km/h, where it definitely isn’t inaudible. With peak torque not reached for another 1000rpm, the Calais is more susceptible to hunt for a lower gear on hills – where it gets even louder.
It is a clear win to the Mercedes-Benz for overall drivetrain polish, even though it ultimately feels slower. Although the Holden feels less efficient, it actually wasn’t on our test. In an even mix of urban arterials, freeway and hilly enthusiastic driving, the E250 returned 13L/100km – more than double its combined 5.8L/100km claim. The Calais slurped 13.4L/100km, less of a stretch from its 9L/100km official lab-tested figure. Both trip computers claimed around mid-12L/100km, with a close 47km/h average speed in the Mercedes and 51km/h in the Holden.
If the Holden Calais V and Mercedes-Benz E250 feel divergent in their paths to power, and to a lesser degree their interior finish, they come together surprisingly closely in terms of steering, ride and handling.
The electro-mechanical steering systems in both have clearly been engineered by people who understand that light weighting should be no barrier to enjoyable wheel-turning. The Mercedes is slightly heavier, with less of a ‘dead patch’ in the centre position, but the Holden’s feels quicker and is blindingly direct when pinning a line through a long corner.
Equally, the stability control systems in each are superbly calibrated. On one drenched 90-degree corner in the E250, pressing the throttle mid-corner saw it thrust into oversteer; yet being quick with the steering correction meant the ESC stayed silent. It trusts the chassis, allows some entertainment, yet is also quick to react.
The Holden ESC is more subtle when it does react, and although the VF Commodore’s Bosch 9.0 system intrudes more often than the version 8.0 system did with its VE predecessor, it is wonderfully unobtrusive. You see the stability control light flashing, yet you don’t feel it clamping down. In the wet, as with the E250, the Calais permits enough slip to be fun and is always smooth.
Along with its punchier engine, the Holden also has a sharper front end than the E250, being more resistant to initial understeer. There are, however, a few issues particular to the Calais V that allow the E250 to get the jump on it.
Both cars ride on thin-sidewalled 19-inch tyres. Generally, larger wheels can affect the ride quality of a car, but although they do in the Calais V when compared with the Commodore Evoke on 17s and the regular Calais on 18s – both of which run an identical suspension tune – the Mercedes remains perfect.
The Holden has slightly tighter body control than the Mercedes-Benz, but it can be upset by large bumps, and the tyres can thump over large irregularties and snag on sharp-edged potholes, affecting the otherwise brilliantly balanced damping. Quite simply, the cheaper VF Commodore models are more consistent, and the regular Calais may have truly challenged the masterful E250.
No consistency problem with the Mercedes. It remains more comfortable across all surfaces, yet the Continental tyres provide much more grip than the Holden’s Bridgestones, so the E250 is more confidence inspiring, too. That’s particularly the case in the wet.
Across the twisty section of our test loop, the E250 simply felt faster, despite its lesser power output and less focused automatic transmission – the Sport mode in the Merc lacks the intuition of the Holden’s though it is quick to move back gears when the throttle is pressed.
It is a testament to Holden that in terms of drivetrain enthusiasm, steering and stability control finesse, and dynamics, that it genuinely challenges a car of twice the price. The Calais also eclipses the E250 for space and equipment, and gets closer to it in terms of ride quality and refinement than the price tag suggests.
Ulimately, though, the Mercedes-Benz E250 justifies its higher price tag in several, noticeable areas. It is a brilliantly complete premium large sedan for a smidge under six figures.
For just under $50,000, though, the Holden Calais V is arguably a more astounding car. It serves as a reminder that if manufacturing closes in this country, we lose with it the only car left to affordably blend space, dynamics, style and features to near-Merc levels. That would leave the front-drive Honda Accord V6 and Skoda Superb, which can’t compete with that…
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Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Power: 155kW at 5500rpm
Torque: 350Nm at 1200-4000rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Fuel consumption: 5.8L/100km (13L/100km on test)
Holden Calais V
Engine: 3.6-litre V6 petrol
Power: 210kW at 6700rpm
Torque: 350Nm at 2800rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel consumption: 9.0L/100km (13.4L/100km on test)