As the end of Holden's local production program closes in, Paul takes a first drive in the next-generation Commodore, imported from Europe.
Don't worry, you don't need to get your eyes checked. You read it right, we've just driven the 2018 Holden Commodore, in prototype form - and it's a cracker.
The next-generation Commodore will be based entirely on the Opel Insignia. In fact, it won't receive any panel or body changes, aside from Holden badges. But, don't think that means Holden's Australian engineers won't have anything to do with it.
As it does with many General Motors cars, Holden has been involved with the next Commodore (Opel Insignia) for the past six years. Holden's involvement stretches from design all the way through to engineering, with the vehicle's potent performance engine driven into the program by Holden.
While the 2018 Commodore will launch in Australia with two four-cylinder, front-wheel drive engines — a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol and a 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel — it's the six-cylinder engine that has us excited, and it's the one we drove at Holden's private Lang Lang proving ground.
Powered by a 3.6-litre naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine, it's mated to a nine-speed automatic gearbox and a dual-clutch all-wheel drive system with torque vectoring.
Holden's crack team of engineers received these two prototype vehicles in August this year. They are both brand-spanking new, clocking less than 2000km since their build in Russelsheim, Germany, in July this year.
Motoring journalists have never been let into a development program this early. With the next-generation Commodore not due until February 2018 and these prototypes only 65 per cent complete, Holden's vehicle development manager Jeremy Tassone told CarAdvice that he was suddenly terrified when the public relations team asked him to invite us in this early.
"We've never had journalists through prototypes this early on. It's unprecedented. We've barely had time to drive these cars and they literally have none of our local calibrations on them yet," Tassone said.
What exactly is a 65 per cent prototype? During the development program, prototypes are assigned progress percentages depending on where they sit within the schedule. At 63 per cent, when vehicles come out of labs and internal bench testing, it's at this point they get bumped up to '65 per cent' status and are safe to drive on the road for further development. So they are, in effect, brand-new, with no form of local calibration.
The development drive was prefaced with a background session at Holden's Port Melbourne headquarters in early October, where CarAdvice was shown the full breakdown of specifications for the 2018 Commodore, along with final designs and clay models of the product.
While there's some things we can't talk about yet, we were given free rein to two V6 all-wheel drive vehicles at Lang Lang and even taken on a terrifying hot lap of the proving ground's gnarly gravel road loop with Holden's lead dynamics engineer Rob Trubiani and General Motors Europe technical integration engineer Andreas Liljekvist.
The two vehicles you see are both fitted with the fourth generation of Holden's 3.6-litre V6 engine seen in the current Commodore SV6. Both are 'liftbacks', which is what the final Commodore design will be. One is a straight liftback, while the other is actual a station wagon simulator. It has 10kg of lead fitted to its rear window and around 70kg fitted within the spare wheel cavity. The precise location of these weights are designed to simulate a station wagon.
While the engineering team here will eventually end up with around 10 vehicles to calibrate and tune, a V6 wagon wasn't available when these two vehicles were built.
Codenamed LGX, the six-cylinder engine is the fourth generation successor to the LLT and LFX. The LLT and LFX engines were used in Series I VE and Series II VE/Series I VF Commodores respectively.
The fourth-generation LGX picks up things like cylinder deactivation, stop-start, high flow cylinder heads and an acoustic engine cover, amongst others.
Both are also fitted with an all-wheel drive developed by German company GKN. The 'Twinster' all-wheel drive system uses a dual-clutch arrangement with no differential. It allows the vehicle to perform torque vectoring without the use of traction control of speed limiters, which can often slow a vehicle down, as opposed to improving cornering. The Twinster all-wheel drive system is also used in the Ford Focus RS, which allows the vehicle to aggressively send torque to the rear, allowing the car to drift on demand.
Liljekvist explained to CarAdvice that the Insignia can send up to 50 per cent of torque to the rear axle with a number of onboard controllers taking vehicle input measurements at a frequency of 100Hz (100 times per second). The system can deliver up to 2500Nm of torque to the rear axle and up to 1500Nm to each wheel.
A Sport mode, which was driven into the program by Holden, has also been created to allow more aggressive torque vectoring that allows the system to drive more torque to the rear. Another cool feature is an ability for the vehicle to split torque during engine braking.
During regular driving, the system drives the front wheels, but with such a high input frequency, it can activate the rear axle in a fraction of a second — even before the engine generates torque to send to the rear, meaning starts from a stationary position occur with all four wheels hooking up immediately, as opposed to some torque-on-demand systems that delay rear axle activation until wheel slip is detected.
In addition to this, the vehicle only has traction control on the front axle. The rear axle is purely controlled by means of torque vectoring. As demonstrated by Liljekvist, when the stability control system is turned off, the car can aggressively send torque to the rear to allow fairly epic power slides on the gravel. But, if the driver panics and inputs steering at a fast rate and hits the brakes, the stability control system will intervene immediately.
It's the perfect balance between control over the drive and safety.
Let's talk performance. Holden's target for the V6 engine is 230kW of power and 370Nm of torque. The cars we drove are currently well down on that figure. Mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive, Holden expects to achieve 0-100km/h performance figures of around six seconds, making it slower than the brand's current flagship, the V8 powered Commodore SS.
As we've previously revealed, Holden won't do a V8 Commodore anymore, so this will be the brand's performance flagship. Does it live up to the Commodore name? We hit the track to find out.
Our first stint was on Holden's high speed circular bowl where we were permitted to drive up to 160km/h and perform dynamic straight-line speed variations.
We simulated a full-throttle standing start, a 60-100km/h, an 80-120km/h overtake, an 80-160km/h overtake and a 0-160km/h run.
First up, stop/start. The new engine now comes with this feature and it works well. It's smooth and eliminates any shudder through the cabin as it switches off and on.
With the throttle pinned to the floor from a standing start, there was a small amount of wheel slip from the front wheels before it hooked up and started moving. Until around 4000-4500rpm the engine feels a little underdone (the torque hole is something we've mentioned previously in our reviews of the Commodore SV6), but once it hits that 4000-4500rpm mark it feels like it has a second life. What does it sound like? It's very much like the current V6 Commodore, just slightly more sonorous at the top end.
Gearshifts are very quick — in fact they're almost dual-clutch gearbox quick, despite it not being a dual-clutch transmission — and piling on speed feels effortless. It's also worth mentioning that we had a car with four well-fed people in it.
Our next test was to simulate overtakes. This was where the engine and transmission really began to shine. While sitting in its highest gear, the gearbox quickly kicked down to allow rapid overtaking in all the brackets we tested — even up to 160km/h.
At 160km/h the car felt very stable and Commodore-like in the way it held the road. At around 200-300kg lighter than the current Commodore, and around 170kg lighter than the current Insignia, Opel's engineering team has done a sensational job in developing the package.
Throttle response is good and the gearbox is always ready to shift down into the gear it needs to accelerate as effortlessly as possible. One of the vehicles we tested also had paddle shifters fitted to the steering wheel, which we expect to make it to the final product.
In terms of road and wind noise, this was hard to gauge because the vehicles were covered in camouflage, which would in turn cause wind noise.
Following on from the high speed circular bowl, we did a couple of flying laps of Holden's ride and handling track. The brilliant track includes a number of slow and high speed corners, tram tracks and sections of road that cause continuous undulations that max out suspension travel.
The final version of this car will be fitted with adaptive suspension, but these prototypes didn't have this fitted. They had a five-link rear suspension setup that was yet to be tuned by Holden. While the car felt great through both low and high speed corners, it did bounce around a bit on the softer suspension tune.
We expect this to become much firmer and more compliant as Holden begins working on ride and handling in the coming months. On a tighter section of track with wet and dry sections, we tested out the all-wheel drive system.
Again, as a 65 per cent prototype, this vehicle didn't have torque vectoring active. Despite this, we were impressed with how nimble and agile the steering and body was. With throttle inputs mid-turn, the car tucks in nicely without a hint of understeer. This will only get better when torque vectoring is dialled into the rear axle, allowing the car to increase torque on outer and inner rear wheels to help the car track.
The final test was in the passenger seat where we saddled up with Holden's gun driver Rob Trubiani and a guy deeply entrenched in Insignia from General Motors Europe, Andreas Liljekvist. They took us for several laps of Holden's gravel track in the centre of the proving ground.
With 80 per cent of our time spent sideways around the track, the rest was spent demonstrating the impressive straight line ride performance, nudging 180km/h on a straight section of rough gravel.
We were collectively blown away with how dynamic the car was through this course that offered a mix of tight corners and sweeping bends. Without the use of a handbrake, the guys were able to sit the cars out sideways only to have them slip back into line and then power on. Certainly something you can't do in a current Commodore.
How about the interior? The driving position feels excellent. You sit low in the seat and the steering wheel fits nicely in hand. The seats are very comfortable and all the controls are well within arm's reach. The mirrors are bigger too with added visibility of the road around the driver.
While the rear seats are comfortable, it immediately feels smaller than the current Commodore. We were also left disappointed with the size of the glove box and centre console — both are very small and limit storage within the cabin. As we mentioned in our full specification breakdown of the 2018 Holden Commodore, here are the internal and external dimensions in comparison to the current product.
2018 Holden Commodore dimensions (compared to current Commodore):
Length: 4899mm (-74mm shorter)
Width: 1863mm (-36mm narrower)
2829mm (-86mm shorter)
Identical to current Commodore
Head room: 952mm (-13mm less)
1444mm (-58mm less)
1410mm (-44mm less)
Undisclosed, but expected to be larger due to hatch
Centreline: 375mm (-18mm less)
In terms of in-car technology, it's loaded to the hilt. Again, there are some things we can't talk about, but the things we can mention are quite impressive.
The car will feature an 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (not confirmed if this is a wireless implementation), next-generation heads up display and a central LCD display in the tachometer binnacle.
We had a play with the infotainment system and it's quick and easy to use. It's near identical to the unit fitted to the 2017 Holden Colorado in the way the navigation menus are presented.
The heads-up display is huge and looks fantastic. We weren't able to configure the display in any great level of detail, but it had a rev counter similar to the current Commodore and an active speed display. It's expected to also display navigation and safety information in addition to vehicle warnings.
It will also pick up feature next-generation matrix LED headlights with 32 inner LED modules that offer up to 400 metres of range. This technology allows the car to sense other cars on the road and adjust the high beam to ensure they are not dazzled on approach or if you are following another vehicle. It's the same technology used in high end models from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, amongst others.
While this is the Buick LaCrosse pictured, the instrument cluster is identical to the 2018 Holden Commodore and 2017 Opel Insignia.
The boot volume is yet to be disclosed, but it's huge. When the liftback tailgate is lifted it exposes a cavernous boot. It's fitted with a cargo blind and we had a peek under the floor, where a tyre inflation kit was located. The cavity was big enough for a full size spare tyre, but it's yet to be confirmed by Holden what type of package we'll receive.
Our artist's impressions show what we expect the Commodore liftback and station wagon to look like. While it's yet to be confirmed, we also expect that the Insignia will be built in an Alltrack-esque shape sitting higher than the regular station wagon. The current Insignia is sold in Europe with a high riding version called the Country Tourer. It'd be a great addition to the Holden range in Australia for punters not wanting a conventional SUV.
So there it is, our first drive of the 2018 Holden Commodore and 2017 Opel Insignia. While it's too early to cast judgement — you have to remember these are just 65 per cent prototypes — what we have seen is impressive.
Does it live up to the Commodore name? We'll reserve judgement for the moment until we drive some further developed vehicles.
What we do know is that Holden has a huge task ahead of it. They need to nail this car because it has a big following and it needs to be a proper contender before it can proudly wear the Commodore badge.
While there is still some information we can't reveal — what do you think of the preliminary information on the 2018 Holden Commodore?
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