Holden Commodore SS V Redline Sportwagon v Volkswagen Golf R Wagon Comparison

At CarAdvice, we argue about cars. A lot. On almost a daily basis, protagonists will stake claims, draw battle lines, spit dummies, and grudge matches play out around the office with rarely any resolution reached. It’s not the imbalanced bravado and colourful language that makes such conflict unfit for publication, it just doesn’t really fit the largely objective mould of critical review.

Thing is, passion, pride and prejudice can and do play large roles in bridging the divide between which car one should buy against which car one actually would. Allowing all three to wildfire uncontained can be, at times, quite entertaining and occasionally funny - at least to those involved – regardless of how fruitless the outcome.

Then the age-old debate of who, Australia or Europe, produces the better performance bang for your buck blew up - stakes hammered deep enough, the claims overtly bold enough – that hypotheses wouldn’t cut it. It demanded a result, in turn demanding a test. And to make beans count, we’d have to try bottling conflict’s energy for wider consumption than merely the protagonists’ egos…

So here it is: Car Wars – a working title (alternative suggestions welcome in the commentary below…).

Specifically, the Volkswagen Golf R Wagon Wolfsburg Edition versus Holden Commodore VFII SS V Redline Sportwagon.

The impetus? Matt Campbell, foot soldier for local motoring pride, contends that nothing else out there under $60K can touch Holden’s SS V Redline breed. I counter that he has rocks in his head, that Europe – namely Germany – can counter Aussie brawn with brains to produce superior pace, be it on racetrack or drag strip. And a small station wagon from the 'people's car' of Deutschland might suitably slap the Australian across its big, chromed grille.

Combining the result of both forums, it was decided, constituted something a balanced playfield, while the $60K price cap brought parity. Still, there was one issue to resolve in balancing this match-up…

The big Aussie has many fans at CarAdvice, where there’s a near unanimous viewpoint that it’s the most potent and capable Holden ever built. The numbers stack up: at $54,490, the 304kW (and 570Nm) 6.2-litre V8-powered sedan represents a formidable $180-per-kilowatt value. Sure, there’s a regular SS manual four-door, with the same engine but at a $10K discount, that only asks $148 for every kilowatt of power, but it lacks the degree of specification that makes the Redline such a potent all-round performer.

The Redline’s premium, then, adds 19-inch wheels with larger, staggered 245mm front/275mm rear rubber; Brembo brakes; FE3 sports suspension, and more.

The Volkswagen Golf R Wolfsburg Edition couldn’t be more different in function, but the sticking point is form: there’s no Golf R sedan. But both are offered in wagon form, a situation that, gamesmanship wise, plays into the German’s hand…

At the time of lining this pair up, the SS V Redline Sportwagon automatic was, at $58,190 (plus on-roads), only $800 cheaper than the R Wagon, which comes as a self-shifting dual-clutch only. Since filming, though, a $500 price hike has narrowed the Sportwagon’s price advantage to a scant $300 (if ignoring our Redline’s $1500-optional 20-inch wheels).

The R Wagon makes nothing like the Redline’s outputs. It gets worse. At just 206kW – a ‘soft’ Australian engine tune some 15kW down on European versions – and 380Nm, the Golf represents a far pricier $286-odd per kilowatt. That the Commodore boasts 50 per cent more power and torque underpinned Matt’s confidence in his chosen steed.

My counter is that the Redline was never going to be 50 per cent quicker because of it. Not even close.

The Sportwagon tips the scales at a portly 1867kg kerb weight – it’s easily the portliest of the Redline range. Volkswagen quotes 1509kg tare for the R Wagon, and even allowing for brimmed fuel tank the Wolfsburg’s kerb is still short of 1600kg. Then there’s the Golf’s all-wheel drive. And launch control. In a straight line, at least, the Commodore would need all its extra herbs to counteract inertia. The Aussie is a notoriously fickle mistress to get off the line, though this particular Redline would prove more cooperative than Mother Nature herself…

Marulan Driver Training Centre’s circuit looked The Great Unknown even when protagonists and chosen steeds arrived under clear and sunny skies. Its tight nature throughout much of the circuit would likely favour the Golf. The uphill main straight would favour the Commodore’s superior energy. Better, it was agreed that its tight and lumpy nature is more akin to typical Aussie back-roads than it is your typical, billiard table-smooth race circuit condition. Ideal, then, because the German could leverage its more inherently nimble chassis, while the Aussie could ply a handling package so deftly tuned not for track work, but for rough and tumble local roads, without the inherent dangers of public road conditions.

This issue, though, was that Marulan is too narrow properly race on. The format, then, was ‘touge’, a sort of follow-the-leader racing that came into petrolhead notoriety from illegal mountain racing in Japan decades ago. Essentially, in our tame interpretation, one car chases the bumper of the other: if the lead car pulls a four-car gap, it wins the round; if the trailing car stays within a four-car gap, it’s the round victor. Then you swap and repeat.

The Redline lead first, and by the end of round one, relative performances were equally predictable and surprising. In the first, tighter half of the track, the Golf indeed demonstrated a more nimble chassis squirting between the hairpins, but it didn’t have as much outright corner grip as expected. It did have enough pace, though, to comfortably keep in the tyre tracks of the Redline, which struggled in the hairpins but had impressive corner exit drive once Matt kept its wagging, wheel-spinning tail in check.

As soon as the track opened up through the second-half of the lap, the Commodore displayed excellent drive out of corners and, with those Brembos, could brake incredibly late into corners. Out of the crucial last sweeping bend, even before entering the straight, the Redline’s torque and drive from its rear end helped it pull a few car lengths.

And so the concertina repeated for the four-lap round: the Redline pulling the requisite four-car gap in places, but the Golf reeling it back in comfortably through the tighter first half of the course.

Round two: Golf leads. This time, though, the Volkswagen pulls a decent four-car gap in the tight stuff through to the back straight sweepers, holding the advantage, more or less lap after lap, until the final corner, where the Redline’s combination of grip, poise and corner-exit drive put it right back onto the Golf’s rear bumper. And where it would hold close station until the tight left-right switchback of turns two and three half-a-lap later.

The surprises? The Redline could be grippier and quicker than expected through the tight stuff, but it was short-lived pace because it was killing its tyres and grip would drop off after a couple of laps. Conversely, the Golf had better consistency of grip, but simply not as much outright as anticipated, somewhat hampering its single-lap pace. So the status quo was very much even, right until the rain came…

Of course, the game was up for the Commodore, right? Truth be told, that’s what both Matt and I presumed. However…

The Commodore’s pace dropped in the tight stuff, but so did the Golf’s. All-wheel drive wasn’t paying any dividends in actual corner speed. And it was struggling with wheelspin climbing out of apexes. Turned out, too, that the Redline had better drive off the corners than either protagonist expected, where it was using its huge torque advantage to full effect. Upshot? The Golf was still only a little quicker in the tight stuff, and hadn’t found a sudden wet weather advantage in acceleration.

Result? Again, regardless of which machine was charged with leading the touge, neither car could pull a four-car advantage it could hold for an entire lap.

Testers then swapped cars for non-competitive hot laps, then swapped notes. The consensus for the Golf was that you run it at ten-tenths and eventually find it wanting: for output power acceleration and braking, and it’d want for cornering grip, too. The Commodore had more to give, but you had to be more circumspect with it: you let it explode in energy, but spend much of the time then reeling it in. So two very different characters, but neither any quicker than the other.

The situation heated up significantly, and literally, once the sub-$60K heroes hit Sydney Dragway, wet and mild conditions turning into near 40-degree heatwave running, conditions that would play more favourably towards the Commodore.

That excess heat can rob a turbocharged engine of performance is no secret, though without opportunity to compare the Golf’s heatwave prowess – or lack thereof – with that of running in cooler conditions, how much performance is lost is a big, fat question mark.

The R Wagon’s arsenal, however, includes launch control – superfluous, you think, given all-wheel-driven traction, but it allows clutch-dropping marches off the line instead of the usual, quite lazy default driveline programming that engages clutch take-up at low-rpm as a measure of mechanical sympathy.

No such heat-related power penalty for the Holden’s big, naturally aspirated V8. However, the automatic version, while featuring a Competitive drive mode tuned to sharpen up its reflexes, isn’t fitted with launch control functionality that comes packaged into manual variants.

Further, the hefty rear-driver can be a notoriously tricky-to-launch, wheel-spin monster in less-than-ideal conditions. Conditions were made suddenly quite favourable with a generous application of liquid traction compound on the drag strip surface minutes before our best-of-three straight-line shootout. (For the record, Volkswagen claims a 0-100km/h best of 5.2sec for the R Wagon. Meanwhile, Holden quotes 4.9sec as the most favourable number for its 6.2L V8-powered VFII breed, though is cagey about which exact variant that is...)

Pass one. Matt rips a burnout, the rival vehicles stage, the Christmas tree lights drop to green and the Commodore squats, grips, fires off towards the horizon in a manic roar…leaving the Golf to saunter off the line, eventually find its steam and tripping the 400m timing beam, with much embarrassment, many car lengths in arrears.

Turn out that, to the uninitiated – that'd be me – at least, unlocking launch control is tougher than cracking the Da Vinci code. Instead of a simple one-press button, it requires four different driver actions for activation. Worse, according to user’s manual, there are a couple of different methods (why?), and it’s not clear as to whether the whole process of launch control requires re-inputting should you (or I) stuff it up. And there’s no in-dash notification of whether the system is engaged or not…

Pass two. The cars stage, I plunge the Golf’s throttle under full braking and…nothing. Instead of holding the revs at 4000rpm peak torque, I get the usual 1200rpm. And in a panic of pride over protocol, I jump the start by a long mark, leaving the Commodore to make chase. Which does, its heady torque clawing back the gap in the first 100 metres or so, its superior horsepower drawing the Commodore alongside right at top of the 400m run. It’s close, but as I’d blown the start, Matt again takes the win.

Pass three. I turn the Golf R off, restart, re-input the convoluted launch control process and cross fingers. We stage, I plunge the right foot, 4000rpm snaps up onto the tacho – hallelujah! – and right on the green the Volkswagen finally high-tails it down the drag strip. It clocks a legitimate 13.2sec on Sydney Dragway’s official timing system, beating the Commodore by a commanding half-second (13.7sec).

Now, before each brand’s faithful defenders come at us with pitchforks, either time perhaps isn’t representative of each vehicle’s ultimate performance. Nor are they meant to be in this grudge match ‘car wars’ format.

Instead, what was really on the line was the pride of the two big-mouthed protagonists, the result being what happened on the day when you ‘run what you brung’ however the situation and conditions play out. The same could be said for the result, however ambiguous the science, around Marulan.

In the wash came unified agreement with the big mouths. The relative pace between the SS-V Redline Sportwagon and Golf R Wagon Wolfsburg Edition was much closer than either colleague had genuinely predicted.

If there’s any objective advice produced from this shootout it’s that, when cross-shopping the two purely as performance-laden, bang-for-buck fun machines, go with whichever flavour you prefer. If your heart lies in big V8s and rear-driven fun, you’d almost be crazy to go the turbo-four all-wheel drive route in search of a swifter device – because the alternative most certainly isn’t, on balance, any swifter. And, of course, the shoe fits equally on the other foot.

We wonder how many other odd-couple motoring match-ups are out there that might be well served in this car wars format. Suggestions most welcome in the comments section below.

Click the Photos tab above for more images by Mitchell Oke and Glen Sullivan.

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