SIDI and the City don't really mix
- 2009 Holden Sportwagon Berlina; 3.0-litre V6 petrol; six-speed automatic; four door station wagon - $45,490
- None fitted
You're a sales rep, so you need something with a little more load-carrying capacity. You don't want a ute, though - your wares being exposed to the elements won't help to shift them, and you've got to carry the family on the weekends. So, a station wagon it is. With Holden's 3.0-litre SIDI V6 now available in Sportwagon guise, you also have the benefit of lower fuel consumption to help you with your weekly cross-city deliveries and appointments. At least on paper, anyway.
The new Spark Ignition Direct Injection (SIDI) engines produce more power, use less fuel and are said to offer a smoother drive than the previous Commodore engines. And while this is true when you look at the figures, in practise it's a different story.
This week's test car came in Holden Berlina specification, meaning it's one rung up from the Omega base model. Larger wheels (17-inch rather than 16-inch), front fog lamps, leather-wrapped steering wheel, six-disc MP3 CD stacker, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth and a larger display screen for the centre console are what you pay the extra for. The drivetrain, however, is the same.
A 3.0-litre V6, producing a respectable 190kW but a rather limp 290Nm, coupled with a six-speed automatic is what motivates the Sportwagon. Of course, everyone is raving about how little fuel this new engine is using. Some are even trying to squeeze as many kilometres as possible out of a single tank by doing long country drives, but I'm not sure how this is going to help. The previous larger engine (3.6-litre Alloytec) lacked direct injection, had two fewer speeds in its gearbox and yet delivered almost identical long-run economy.
The SIDI engine has its 'extra urban' economy listed at 7.6 litres/100km. The Alloytec engine with four-speed gearbox was 7.9L/100km. With a usable tank capacity of, say, 70 litres, this equates to a range of 920km with the new engine and 885km with the old. That's just a 35km difference. Not much, if you're honest. But where the real difference between the old and the new lies is in torque. The Alloytec had 330Nm, plus it came in at a lower 2600rpm.
The SIDI engine's 40 fewer Newton-metres definitely affects its driveability. For example, when exiting a corner, you'll find yourself putting your foot down to begin accelerating. The engine's less torque means it can't sustain a higher gear to power out of the corner. So it drops a gear. But that's still not enough. So it drops back another gear. Sometimes that's also not enough and so it goes down again. By this stage you start getting a staccato effect from the engine as the gearbox hunts for the right ratio.
The same effect happens if you're sitting on a constant speed and you need to get in front of someone. It drops down again...and again...and again, and then decides to change back up. It really is a gamble when you put your foot down - you never know what gear you'll end up with. It's rather annoying too, especially knowing that with more torque it could just ride the torque-curve and gently accelerate away. With all its hunting and indecision, you have to wonder if it's really helping fuel economy at all.
Sure, it may do fairly well in the country, but with day-to-day city driving, it's not all it's cracked up to be. Have a look at the photo above and how much range there is on three quarters of a tank. We ended up with an average of 14.1 litres/100km for the test. There were no special long trips, no max-pressure tyres. Just normal city traffic and driving style.
Don't forget, this is a very heavy car. At almost 1.8 tonnes, with only 290Nm to move it, you can see why it's fuel hungry. The engine itself is quite smooth, and only if really revved does it get thrashy. The automatic's shifts won't ever compete with ZF's brilliant six-speed, though.
It doesn't get much better inside, either. With cheap silver and hard dark plastics, the quality is not the greatest. The door trims are covered in fabric that feels like it's on sale at Spotlight, and the A-pillars are dangerously large enough to block your view of a motorbike when entering a roundabout.
On the plus side, the seats are extremely comfortable, especially for larger-built people, though more bolstering would be nice. The space is also very good, like the rest of the VE range. The steering has plenty of feedback, although on smaller-wheeled models, it can get a little woolly. The Sportwagon Berlina also strikes an excellent balance between decent handling and a nice ride.
However the best feature of the Sportwagon is something that might not strike you at first. The rear parking sensors. Let me explain.
If you're reversing up to a wall, or a roller door, you'll still want to be able to open the tailgate. If you rely on the parking sensors you'll get it perfect every single time. While there's repeated beeping you've still got room. But as soon as you hear a solid tone from the sensors, you've gone too far. If you listen out for the shortest gaps between the beeps, that's as close as you can get to an object while still being able to open the rear. Brilliant.
The Sportwagon Berlina is a car that will fill a niche. Since it's not a poverty-pack model, you can feel good about the equipment level on offer for the money, it's got plenty of space and it drives fairly well. Being a station wagon it's very practical, too. Holden has also endowed it with enough safety gear to have ANCAP award it five stars. However, its uninspiring interior, confused automatic and disappointing fuel economy really lets it down. In fact, with in excess of 20 per cent more torque the 3.6-litre SIDI V6, offered from Calais upwards in the Sportwagon range, offers a better drive without incurring a significant fuel economy penalty.
Let's hope whoever buys this car has deep pockets if they're running around the city. The fuel card is going to get a real workout.
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