To learn more about the imported 2018 Holden Commodore’s worthiness, we talk with the veteran Commodore engineers and testers that are standing behind it.
When official details of the new European-built 2018 Holden Commodore first started to come through, the response from fans of the badge was, well, predictable.
When we published our first pre-production drive of the new imported car, the feedback from our readers here and on social media brought more of the same.
It was no surprise, then, that those themes carried through to our latest coverage of the replacement for Holden’s iconic large car: indignation and resentment at what many have taken as unjust and poorly considered decision, tacking their beloved Commodore badge on Europe’s Opel Insignia.
Scathing comments have ranged from the repurposed name, to the car’s styling – which, for now, are all that most people have to go on with the new Commodore, given it’s not yet available to the public.
Of course, those topics are subjective. When it comes to the legend of the name and the styling of this new model, it’s largely ‘each to their own’. There’s one thing that can be measured a little more objectively, though, and that’s the way it drives.
If your image of a Commodore is just one of a rear-wheel drive sedan and all the magic you feel that imbues, this new car won’t appeal to you. Obviously. But if you know the Commodore more as a big car capable of tackling all roads from country roads to gravel, it’s on par.
There was a misconception around this just being a rebadged Opel, which couldn’t be further from the truth. And while it’s fair to criticise Holden for naming and design, there’s no use being critical of the drivetrain until you’ve driven it.
So we set out to understand how Holden thinks it can get away with calling this imported, front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder liftback… a Commodore.
At Holden’s latest event to show its work to Australia’s automotive press, CarAdvice sat down with two blokes that have been instrumental in making the VFII Commodore – the one built here, the one you can still buy right now – the best Australian car we’ve ever driven.
These guys, Dan Pinnuck and Rob Trubiani, are leaders among those in Holden’s team that pushed the boundaries to make the VFII noisy, make it drift and, best of all, make it handle like a world-beater.
Little do most people know, though, that the same team behind that exercise have also been responsible for a massive chunk of the next-generation Commodore.
To put it another way: These two car nuts know your beloved Commodore inside and out, and they stuck around to make sure this new Commodore would be up to the task of carrying the name.
Just what do they do at Holden?
Dan is Lead Development Engineer for the VFII Commodore program and has spent the past 10 years working on the Zeta platform, focusing on drive quality, fuel consumption and performance. He also worked on VE/WM, Pontiac G8/GXP, Camaro, Chevrolet PPV, VF/WN and Chevrolet SS.
Rob is Holden’s Vehicle Dynamics Engineer, instrumental in making every Commodore since the VT handle as well as they do. Rob also set a world record at the Nurburgring in 2013 with the SS-V Redline Ute, thrusting it into the global spotlight.
As if that weren’t enough, he’s the guy responsible for tuning the ride and handling of new Holden models like the Spark, Astra and Astra Sedan, along with the new Acadia and Equinox SUVs. Best of all, he rips a mean power slide.
Holden’s involvement with the next-generation Commodore – known in Europe as the Insignia – started over four years ago, and the Australian team were responsible for design input from a style point of view, along with an internal measurement standpoint.
Holden was also responsible for getting a V6 into the Insignia program, exclusively for the Australian market, which was then expanded to the US market and China.
To get a better understanding of what Holden is doing to make this next-generation feel like a Commodore, we did a Q&A with Dan and Rob.
CarAdvice: When you guys started on this project, what was the brief from your seniors?
DP: I guess the first thing was, once we decided to call it Commodore, you had to really have those Commodore attributes. It had to drive like a Commodore. So it had to be fun to drive and had to ride, handle, and steer like a Commodore.
That’s what Rob is taking care of, the ride and handling. In terms of the driving, it had to have that drive quality, as well. And then, also, we wanted to stretch Commodore further than we have in terms of technology and in terms of refinement as well, with what we put into the car…so wind noise, road noise, that sort of stuff.
And how early on in the process were you guys involved with Insignia? When did you get a tap on the shoulder saying, all right, we’re not going be doing an Australian Commodore, we’re gonna start doing this. When did that discussion start happening?
DP: Four years ago, probably? It’s a long time. (Read our story.)
It’s really when the car’s on paper so it’s a long time to voice any physical qualities, and getting in that early allows us to make changes, like, for example… if we get in late in the program, the car doesn’t have the V6 in it, so… to get in early, get those architectural changes, is really important.
What was the reaction like when you guys first pitched the concept that a V6 is what this car needs for it to gel? How did Opel take it?
RT: It’s always a challenge, right, because big changes add complexity to the plans, complexity to the program, but I think what also helped was: Buick North America said, well we’ll take a V6 engine as well… so that helps the argument, too. Once you’ve got two camps saying, yeah, we think it makes sense for the vehicle, so, that helps.
In terms of an engineering standpoint, has the chassis that you guys were given, is it conducive to the V6? Does it sit well with that car?
DP: Yeah, absolutely. The five-link rear suspension, fuel and drive system, they integrate so well together. Yeah, no problem. The powertrain delivers the objectives that we want it to, and that was for it to be like a Commodore.
How has it been working on an all-wheel drive Commodore? Outside of Adventra and GTO, there hasn’t really been much in terms of an all-wheel drive offering from Commodore.
DP: Not a challenge, it’s been enjoyable, because it’s given us a new dimension to the car. So the traction that it delivers is incredible. It’s not a challenge, but a new dimension.
Have you been surprised with the power and torque on offer from the 2.0-litre?
RT: Yeah, absolutely. The LTG engine is an absolute rocket ship… we’ve been joking recently that we think it’s one of GM’s best engines… the performance it delivers for two-wheel drive is outstanding.
Mated with a nine-speed, it’s always in the right range concerning torque.. .so the nine-speed is really good, in terms of being seamless, in terms of shift quality.
The flexibility it gives you in terms of having the engine at the right speed all the time really helps it too. You know, it’s a strong performance, 350 Newton metres and 191 kilowatts.
What do you guys have to say to the hundreds of commenters on the internet that claim this isn’t a real Commodore?
DP: Yeah, drive one. That’s the main thing. Once you get in it, I think you’ll appreciate certainly the performance that it’s got. The powertrain delivers the performance in spades.
RT: And the ergonomics, to sit in the car… a lot of people have always said the Commodores, you know, they have a great sitting position in terms of sitting nice and low, right?
This is even lower. So you get out of the new Commodore, you can feel like you’re sitting on a milk crate, you feel it, you’re up nice and high. So that’s something, that you’d have to sit in the car, and get a feel for it.
Final question — what attributes will someone who loves an SS now get out of driving an all-wheel drive next-generation Commodore?
RT: “They’re still very much a driver’s car. In terms of the traction that it delivers, the country road that we were just on, right there…winding roads, challenging roads, but yet the car is delivering. It’s still a fun car. It’s an engaging car to drive, and it really still carries that great to drive mantra that the Commodore has forever been known for.”
CarAdvice: While we’re not convinced that Commodore is the right name for Holden’s next-generation car, we do know that it’ll compete directly against some of Europe’s best cars and we can’t wait to see how it stacks up early next year.