Australian families continue to swarm towards SUVs. We find out if the new Holden Commodore wagon is worthy of stopping them in their tracks.
Holden wagons had been ferrying Australian families around long before the term ‘SUV’ emerged in the late 1980s. The traditional, lower-riding body style may be a niche choice on the road these days, but that hasn’t stopped the variant being part of the all-new Holden Commodore range imported from Europe.
In a Commodore line-up comprising three body styles and a total of 14 variants, there are three Sportwagons from which to choose. (There are also two high-riding, Subaru Outback-style Tourer models available.)
We’re testing the mid-spec, $39,490 RS Sportwagon model that sits between the entry-level, $35,890 LT and range-topping, $49,190 RS-V with V6 and all-wheel drive. Wagons, incidentally, carry a premium of between $1900 and $2200 over their sedan equivalent.
The LT and RS share a number of features beyond their 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder. They include: eight-way electrically adjustable driver’s seat, 7.0-inch MyLink touchscreen system with smartphone integration, semi-automatic parking, rear-view camera plus front and rear sensors, and the Holden Eye camera system bringing driver aids such as autonomous emergency braking, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, forward collision alert, and following distance indicator.
RS swaps the LT’s 17-inch alloy wheels for 18s, adds a sports body kit including rear roof spoiler, and introduces sportier front seats and sportier leather steering wheel. A tailgate with hands-free operation is also added, along with extra active safety in the form of blind-spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert.
The sporty approach makes the RS the clear successor to the SV6 despite its smaller engine. (RS4 would have made for a good badge name, if it weren’t for trademark issues!)
The RS misses out on the SV6’s head-up display, integrated navigation and bigger, 8.0-inch touchscreen, though it has a more extensive range of driver aids – and is priced $3000 cheaper.
Extra space is also important to wagon buyers, of course. And while the 4986mm XB Commodore wagon is slightly longer (47mm) than the home-grown VF, boot space shrinks for yet another generation.
A 793-litre cargo capacity – measured up to the roof – is about 11 per cent down on the VF wagon’s 895 litres. The gap expands when the 60/40 rear seats are folded down: 1665L versus the VF’s 2000L.
At least the volumetric reduction is less than when the Statesman-based VZ wagon transformed into the VE in 2006. And there’s a 70-litre advantage for the new wagon over the new sedan, even if just measuring up to the top of the rear seats: 560L v 490L.
The RS Sportwagon’s load bay can still comfortably accommodate a road trip’s worth of luggage as well. You can see from our boot images that we fitted a super-sized suitcase, two large suitcases, a holdall, ski-boot bag, and a stroller.
There is a temporary spare rather than a full-size wheel under the cargo floor, though.
Despite being longer nose to tail, the new Commodore wagon loses a significant chunk of space between the axles – with a 2829mm wheelbase compared with the VF’s 2915mm. However, it doesn’t have the effect on rear-seat space that may have been expected. Our 183cm videographer Glen could sit behind his front-seat position with ample room for his knees and head.
The outer seats are scalloped for extra comfort, there’s a wide armrest with cupholders, well-sized door bins, and tidy-looking flip-down covers for the ISOFIX anchor points (outer seats only). Cabin width has narrowed along with the car, so fitting three adults across the back is 'squeezier' than before.
The rear doors open fairly wide for easy ingress/egress – and the pleasant thunk the doors make when closing reminded us of a Subaru Liberty we tested recently.
Hard cabin plastics are more evident than might have been expected – and more extensive than you would find in a Volkswagen Passat wagon – though there’s a smart use of gloss-black trim that’s applied liberally.
Quality is also generally good, and far more consistent than it is in Holden’s Chevrolet-sourced Equinox mid-sized SUV. Our test car’s centre console cupholder lid wouldn’t shut, though.
The 7.0-inch touchscreen also looks a touch small and is susceptible to bad glare – an oversight you imagine wouldn’t have been missed had the Commodore still been designed by Australians.
The lack of a navigation icon on the home screen is a reminder of a glaring omission for a mid-spec model, even if Apple or Google maps can be introduced via CarPlay and Android Auto. Visually, the Commodore’s MyLink presentation is better executed than it is in the Equinox.
The wagon’s driving position isn’t as high as the SUV’s, of course, but it is great – very natural, comfortable, and quite sporty with its well-judged bolstering. Forward vision is excellent, too. A bonus of the new Commodore design is that the right windscreen pillar doesn’t obscure visibility like it did in the VE/VF.
Turning into corners has a different feel, inevitably. There’s a distinctive feel you get from a rear-drive car, and the front-wheel-drive RS isn’t going to match it, regardless of the input from Holden engineers during the Opel’s development.
Accept that – not easy for many, we acknowledge – and there are superb dynamics to be enjoyed. And potentially class-leading, if you consider the Mazda 6 and Ford Mondeo wagons that are direct rivals in price, if not quite dimensionally.
The RS Sportwagon sheds more than 200kg over the SV6, and it’s impossible not to notice that on the road – particularly in tighter sections where the new Commodore feels a bit nimbler and a little more energetic on turn-in.
There’s plenty of traction, grip, and resistance to understeer. And the Holden-tuned ‘Touring’ suspension expertly straddles the conflicting needs of ride comfort and disciplined control.
We’ve become accustomed to sweet Commodore steering, so it’s a relief to experience the smoothness and accuracy of the RS’s rack. The lightness that aids everyday driving isn’t quite as welcome on a country road, but engaging the car’s Sport mode gives it some all-important weight.
It’s not entirely free of corruption. The steering wheel will tug to the side under hard acceleration, though the torque steer is fairly minor. You could also view it as a positive, as it indicates there’s some decent grunt under the bonnet.
This may not be the first time a four-cylinder has powered a Commodore, but the number of combustion chambers is about the only thing the old VC’s 1.9-litre has in common with today’s turbocharged, direct injection 2.0-litre.
Its 191kW is 19kW down on the SV6’s 3.6-litre V6 but matches its 350Nm. There is a surprise in the specs that, for a turbo engine, maximum torque is produced slightly higher than the normally aspirated six – 3000rpm v 2800rpm – and that it lasts only until 4000rpm.
It’s a more responsive engine at lower revs and a gutsier engine at higher revs than those figures suggest, though.
And the quick-witted new nine-speed auto must take plenty of credit for the drivetrain’s enthusiasm. We haven’t exactly been enamoured with some of the nine-speeders introduced in recent years, particularly from Fiat-Chrysler. This is a self-shifter that deserves to be mentioned (positively) in the same sentence as ZF’s widely used eight-speed. (And there, it just has!)
The auto rarely puts a foot wrong ensuring it has picked the right gear for the right occasion, and the shifts are smooth as well as decisive. Our only complaint is that the Sport mode – engaged via the same button that also changes the steering response – could be more aggressive when the driver has switched themselves into a sporty mode.
The engine and gearbox both deserve paddle-shift levers, but they’re available only on the V6-powered RS-V Sportwagon that asks nearly $10,000 more. It’s true they weren’t standard on the SV6, either, but they are on a $38,590 Mazda 6 Touring wagon.
A lower vehicle mass combines with the new drivetrain to improve fuel consumption by 15 per cent – or from 9.3 to 7.9 litres per 100km. The XB’s smaller tank – 61.7 v 71 litres – means the theoretical range expands only from 763 to 781km.
For those considering towing, the Commodore wagon drops from 2100kg braked capacity to 1800kg.
There are other aspects to miss about the Aussie-made Commodore, such as its extra cabin width, rear-drive layout, lack of a V8 option, and not forgetting the fact it provided plenty of local jobs. Yet there are also several key traits the RS Sportwagon shares with its most immediate predecessors, the VE/VF models that were the most Australian of all Commodores.
It’s still a large car with generous cabin space and a boot capable of swallowing plenty of luggage. There’s satisfaction to be derived from the way it steers and handles. The turbocharged four-cylinder and nine-speed auto provide smooth and strong performance. And importantly for a family wagon, the RS covers long distances with ease thanks to that drivetrain, good rolling refinement, and a supple, well-damped ride.
We just think the Sportwagon range is missing an RS-V spec for the four-cylinder turbo.
While the RS is well equipped for a sub-$40,000 vehicle, an extra trim grade featuring those missing paddle-shifters and integrated navigation, as well as adaptive cruise, would have been a perfect range sweet-spot – still costing thousands less than the V6 AWD range-topper.
There may be an argument for not overcomplicating the line-up. The other view is that the Commodore must appeal to as many needs as possible if the wagon is going to stop buyers considering a practical, family-ferrying vehicle from walking straight over to the SUV section.
Click on the Gallery tab for more images by Sam Venn.