There's a lot riding on the 2018 Holden ZB Commodore. Is it worth the wait and, more importantly, is it worthy of the Commodore badge?
The name Commodore means a lot to Australians. It's synonymous with rear-wheel drive, power and Australian manufacturing.
The all-new 2018 ZB Commodore is none of those, relatively speaking. Before you begin a tirade of negative comments about the name and whether this new car is any good, let's consider the facts.
Holden and GM executives made the decision in 2011 that the next-generation Holden Commodore wouldn't be built on a bespoke platform like the VE and VF Commodores were. While the Zeta platform was a massive success from an engineering point of view, it was a business failure.
If local manufacturing were to have remained viable for the Australian car industry, the car you're looking at here is the exact vehicle that would have been built in Adelaide for the Australian market. Holden was told by GM in 2011 that it would have input into the new platform, but that input would need to take into consideration the European, US and Chinese markets.
In Europe, this car is sold as the Opel Insignia, and in China and the USA it's sold as the Buick Regal GS.
With Holden's V8 Commodore sales well and truly trumped by V6 variants – by some three to one – it was never viable for Holden to drive rear-wheel drive or a V8 into the E2 platform that the ZB Commodore is based on. Holden did push the petrol V6 into the program, though, insisting that it needed a sporty model to resonate with Australian buyers.
That's the backstory and the reason why the car you're looking at here isn't available with a V8, nor is it available in rear-wheel-drive trim. Should it be called a Commodore? That's your call. My personal opinion (which is worth as much as yours) is that the Commodore name should have been retired, but like opinions, we all have one.
It's called the Commodore and the name is here to stay, so our job when assessing this car was to evaluate it from the standpoint of it being another entrant to the medium/large car market. We tested it without the Commodore name attached to give you a proper idea of whether it's worth spending your money on.
The Commodore range and specifications
The new Commodore range will launch with the availability of a Liftback, a station wagon called the Sportwagon, and a high-riding station wagon called the Tourer. The range will be offered with a 2.o-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine or a 3.6-litre naturally aspirated V6 petrol engine.
As we published previously, the range will start with the LT 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol that produces 191kW of power and 350Nm of torque, priced from $33,690 before on-road costs. That’s $1800 less than the previous Commodore Evoke, or if you get in on the introductory $35,990 drive-away offer, a handy $3935 less than before. Meanwhile, the LT Sportwagon will kick off from $35,890. Fuel consumption comes in at 7.4 litres of fuel per 100km on the combined cycle.
A turbo-diesel engine is available as a $3000 option on all LT variants. The diesel is a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 125kW of power and 400Nm of torque, consuming just 5.6L/100km on the combined cycle.
Moving to the RS 2.0-litre turbo will cost you $37,290 (Liftback) or $39,490 (Sportwagon). Those who get in early will benefit from an initial $38,990 drive-away price on the RS 2.0-litre Liftback too. The RS can also be ordered with the V6 AWD (235kW/381Nm) powertrain, starting from $40,790 (or $42,490 drive-away as part of the initial sales push) in Liftback guise – no Sportwagon RS V6 AWD will be offered, however.
Sitting above the RS in the ‘sportier’ side of the Commodore line-up is the RS-V, priced from $46,990 as a Liftback or $49,190 in Sportwagon guise. The V6 powertrain is standard, along with more sophisticated HiPer strut suspension and a clever adaptive all-wheel-drive system with an electronic limited-slip differential.
Meanwhile, the luxury-focused Calais starts at $40,990 in 2.0-litre turbo guise or $43,990 with the diesel, while the range-topping car on the more luxurious Calais line is the Calais-V V6 AWD, priced from $51,990. Finally, the hero for the new Commodore range will be the VXR V6 AWD (235kW/381Nm), priced from $55,990, consuming 9.3L/100km on the combined cycle.
You can find the entire list of standard features for each model in our 2018 ZB Commodore pricing and specifications breakdown.
We all know the Commodore as a spacious car capable of carrying four adults in comfort. The new Commodore delivers that, but there are a few compromises.
2018 Holden Commodore Liftback dimensions (compared to VFII Commodore)
Length: 4899mm (74mm shorter)
Width: 1863mm (36mm narrower)
Wheelbase: 2829mm (86mm shorter)
Knee room: Identical to current Commodore
Head room: 952mm (13mm less)
Shoulder room: 1444mm (58mm less)
Hip room: 1410mm (44mm less)
Cargo volume: 490 litres (five litres less, but hatchback seats fold to offer more room)
Centreline: 375mm (18mm less)
Those numbers tell a story. From the outside, the Commodore looks shorter and narrower than the Zeta platform vehicles, and to put that into perspective, it dimensionally sits in between the VT and VE Commodore.
Inside the cabin there's less head room and shoulder room, but it delivers an identical amount of knee room, which is important for the feeling of space and comfort.
Up front, the cabin feels airy with plenty of storage options strewn throughout. Built in Germany, the new Commodore feels well put together and sturdy. Fit and finish are excellent, while the quality of materials throughout the cabin feel upmarket and prestige.
This new Commodore is a huge step forward in terms of technology and features. The model range includes things like a 360-degree camera, heated and cooled massage seats, matrix LED lights, a bigger head-up display, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, and a better infotainment system available in 7.0 or 8.0 inches with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto across the range.
The matrix LED headlights are next level in terms of functionality, offering 32 LED modules that individually switch on and off to offer a constant high-beam without dazzling other drivers.
Wireless phone charging teams with an exceptional infotainment system with a usable and accurate voice-recognition system. Upper models also score a large LCD screen ahead of the driver that displays key vehicle details, and in the VXR model performance measurement tools.
A great feature fitted to Tourer models is a power tailgate. While that's no automotive revolution, an LED light that projects the Holden logo on to the ground offers an accurate positioning tool to open the boot with your foot. It prevents needlessly waving your foot around to find the right spot.
With the driver's seat in my regular driving position (that's quite far back to accommodate my small torso and long legs), there's ample room in the second row for leg, knee and toe room. Head room is good, as is shoulder room with two adults abreast. A centre armrest with two cup holders provides a handy resting place.
While cargo volume is down by five litres with the Liftback to 490L, measuring to the top of the boot allows more to be loaded compared to the VFII sedan at 552L and 1450L with the second row folded flat.
The Sportswagon and Tourer offer even more room with 560L to the top of the seats, 793L to the cargo roof and 1665L with the second row folded flat.
There's a great deal of sophistication across the new Commodore range with quality materials used throughout the cabin of each model. There's plenty of room on offer, and the added versatility of an extra 18mm of ride height on the Tourer will appeal to those buyers that want SUV dimensions without SUV height.
The engineering story
We first had the chance to drive the new Commodore in August 2017 when 65 per cent prototypes arrived in Australia. These heavily camouflaged vehicles were yet to be released in Europe, and the hand-built V6 version we drove was one of only a few V6 prototypes around the world.
Holden's input to this new platform started all the way back in 2011, when it asked for interior dimensions similar to the Commodore and driving characteristics that would be in line with what customers expect.
Holden's engineering team had its work cut out for it, needing to build a package from scratch on a platform it didn't personally work on. That work ran from ride and handling, all the way through to gearbox calibration and chassis control tuning.
For example, the delivered prototypes had limited calibration for gravel road driving and weren't configured for some of the continuous undulations you'll find across the Australian landscape.
Holden's Lang Lang proving ground was home to the tuning efforts for this car, and it features a number of domestic road characteristics from tram tracks through to corrugations and a number of erratic kangaroos and deer.
Engineering work followed through to local tuning of radios, satellite navigation and local noise requirements. It was a big job and required all hands on deck. The same team that worked on the Commodore throughout the VE/VF era was involved in making this a competent package.
The all-new Commodore has been tested across the same roads, and to the same standards as Commodores before it, to ensure it wouldn't be any less competent than the Commodore we all know and love.
We were fortunate enough to drive the original 65 per cent prototypes, a later configuration of the Holden tune in October 2017 back-to-back with the VFII Commodore, and final representative examples a couple of weeks ago as part of Holden's national media launch.
One of the things that stood out to us most about this launch was that Holden didn't have anything to hide by. We have attended some product launches where the first drive is less than 30km before stopping for lunch. It's often a diversion away from a pretty average car. It wasn't the case for the Commodore.
The launch program spanned over two days of driving across a number of highway and country roads around Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula. It culminated with a number of driving activities at Holden's Lang Lang proving ground.
Roads included smooth highways, rugged country roads, gravel roads, a hill climb and even some towing exercises. If there was an average car to show, these two days of testing would have well and truly exposed it.
Our first stint of driving was in a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol Liftback. With 350Nm of torque on offer and an eager gearbox, there's always a chance to lean on the throttle to access that torque band.
While a nine-speed automatic may sound like a fussy way of achieving fuel economy, the gearbox gels beautifully with the engine. It never feels like it's hunting and is always ready to find the right gear and deliver torque.
From a standing start there can be a hint of turbocharger lag, but it's followed with an accommodating rush of torque that's delivered smoothly before it grabs the next gear to run once more.
We were concerned that a front-wheel-drive drivetrain in a car this size could lead to torque steer and tugging at the wheel under hard throttle. We experienced this late last year when we drove some pre-production cars, but it was ironed out in these production examples.
It was most evident when we had access to a hill climb at the proving ground. This challenging course includes sweeping bends and a tight hairpin that would normally unsettle a front-wheel-drive car – especially one this big. We found that we could attack the throttle out of tight corners without any fear of torque steer or negative feedback through the wheel.
A set of chicanes used to control speed on some of the faster sections also highlighted that the ride and handling tune has pleasantly erred on the side of sporty rather than comfort. Behind the wheel it feels like a Commodore in the sense it responds well to fast and sharp steering inputs and its response is predictable.
The four-cylinder offers a pleasing amount of punch and will out-accelerate a VFII V6-powered Commodore, which should give you an idea of the power available on tap.
Steering feel is good, but doesn't feel as resolved as the VFII. That's partly due to a lighter steering tune and less weight over the front wheels. At the end of the day, this is the type of tune a buyer of this car is going to expect.
The ride is absolutely on point. It doesn't float or track along divots in the road, it feels confident and planted. That level of surety is communicated through the wheel when accessing the throttle out of corners. If you push it harder it will start to show its flaws with only a finite amount of traction available from a front-wheel-driven sedan like this.
Buyers wanting more pep from their Commodore are likely to opt for the 3.6-litre naturally aspirated V6, which comes exclusively with all-wheel drive and a nine-speed automatic gearbox.
Producing 235kW of power and 381Nm of torque, the V6 engine doesn't feel or sound all that different to the last V6 when it comes to the way it delivers torque. It's an engine that requires revs to feel motivated with peak power occurring at 6800rpm.
Like the 2.0-litre, the V6 gels nicely with the nine-speed automatic gearbox. It's never really hunting and has been tuned to access the V6's torque band as effectively as possible. Slam down the throttle and it's keen to rev out, providing a pleasing engine note in return.
What's most impressive is the all-wheel-drive system. Using a Twinster rear drive unit, it features a 'real' mechanical torque vectoring system that can apportion up to 100 per cent of available torque to either of the rear wheels. Further, up to 50 per cent of torque can be sent to the rear axle at any given time.
On the gravel that results in a very tail happy, Commodore-esque character trait when the Sport mode is selected. That mode allows the vehicle to send more torque to the rear and offers more aggressive shift patterns and gearbox tune.
The V6 is available in mid-specification RS and exclusively across the Tourer range. It's a great fit to the Liftback, but offers the most satisfying drive in the Tourer. It lumps along nicely with the V6 and feels confident on the road.
Both the Liftback and Tourer with the V6 ride nicely and offer the most rewarding drive as the road dissolves. There's seldom a moment when you feel uneasy or unsure about where it's tracking or how confidently you can dig into the throttle.
It feels sporty at the outer limits, while docile and comfortable when cruising. The V6 feels a little lazier than the 2.0-litre, but the added benefit of all-wheel drive means you can more confidently sink the foot in if required.
Tourer and V6 Liftback models come with a 2100kg braked towing capacity, matching that of the outgoing V8 Commodore. Diesel and turbocharged petrol Commodore models are limited to 1800kg with a braked trailer.
Those wanting a sportier drive will head directly to the VXR. This menacing looking machine uses the same naturally aspirated V6 engine, but steps it up a notch with four-piston Brembo brakes up front that sit on a 345mm rotor, while the rear makes do with a vented single-piston caliper and 315mm rotor.
Wheel size jumps up to 20 inches with 245mm-wide tyres on sticky Michelin Pilot Sport rubber. The theme continues inside with incredible VXR seats that hug you tightly and offer massage, heating and cooling.
From the outside, and certainly the inside, this looks like it's about to rip an SS Commodore a new one. But, it's underwhelming in a straight line. While it was around 40 degrees when we filmed our video, we used the in-car 0–100km/h acceleration timer to clock a quick run in the car.
The first run read 7.0 seconds, while the second 6.9. A Holden engineer claimed to have hit low six seconds, but at 7.0 seconds it's almost a full two seconds slower than a base-model SS Commodore. While a naturally aspirated V6 would never set the world on fire, it's disappointing to see it lack straight-line performance.
But if you can look beyond that, the VXR delivers performance a rear-wheel-drive Commodore never could. The traction on offer from the all-wheel-drive system is next level. It allows the driver to effectively hold the throttle flat out of corners without the risk of the tail end whipping around.
Holden wet down a slalom course for us, and after a few runs we started toying with the all-wheel-drive system around a tight hairpin to see how it would respond. With enough throttle early enough, the VXR will happily kick out sideways and hold it through a wet hairpin.
It's also evidently much more committed in tight hairpins when you get stuck into the throttle. The nose tucks in nicely and the steering offers a pleasing amount of feedback in return as the car dials on revs.
Brake pedal feel is excellent, with the brakes happy to cop a hammering without offering any signs of fade. While HSV has ruled out modifying the ZB Commodore, we'd love to see how this thing performs with a set of turbochargers or a supercharger on board.
You'll notice no mention of the diesel Commodore. This model wasn't available for us to drive as part of the launch – according to Holden vehicles were still arriving into the country from Germany and didn't land in time.
Of the new Commodore range, the entry-level 2.0-litre really took us by surprise, as did the Calais-V Tourer. While the VXR is impressive through corners, it lacks the straight-line appeal that this segment has become accustomed to, ironically a standard originally set by Holden.
The 2018 ZB Commodore is an important car for Holden. Not because Holden is expecting it to reach the lofty heights of Commodores of years gone by, but because it's a model Holden expects to deliver foot traffic to dealerships.
The good news is that the car itself is great. It's excellent to drive, offers the right type of feedback through the chassis, and is roomy enough to consider as a large car.
Holden's only problem now is the established competitors in this segment that already offer feature-packed offerings. We are keen to put the new Commodore up against these very cars in a number of comparisons over the coming months.
Is it good enough to wear the Commodore badge? Yes, absolutely. It's a competent platform that offers a mix of style, design and features. Whether it's enough to strike a chord with buyers remains to be seen.
What do you think of the 2018 ZB Commodore? Are you planning on test-driving one?