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Few new cars have launched in Australia with as much impact as the ZB Holden Commodore and its Calais derivative. That’s because few cars are so different to their direct predecessor.
But we’ve no wish for VFII-shaped baggage, so we will judge this car on its merits as a mid-sized liftback from Germany with a sprightly turbocharged four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive.
At $40,990 before on-road costs, the Calais’s chief competitors in a segment packed with strong contenders are the Ford Mondeo, Mazda 6 and Volkswagen Passat, as well as the much improved new Toyota Camry.
The good news for Holden is that this offering, based on the Opel Insignia – now produced by France’s PSA Group, which comprises Peugeot and Citroen, rather than Holden’s US parent General Motors – has a lot going for it.
It would be unrealistic to expect sales to come anywhere close to older Commodores from a different epoch, but for Holden this new model is still a potential volume-driver, albeit one that must take a seat to the top-selling Colorado in the pecking order.
First question: what does your money get you? Standard on the outside are 18-inch alloy wheels with a temporary speed-limited spare in the boot, LED tail-lights and daytime running lights, rain-sensing wipers and proximity key access.
Inside the cabin you get leather seat trim (heated for driver and front passenger), climate control, an 8.0-inch infotainment screen, Bluetooth/USB, satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, a wireless smartphone charging pad, and DAB+.
On the safety front, there are six airbags and a five-star 2017 ANCAP crash score, plus tech such as autonomous emergency braking, flashing collision alert, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, reversing cross-traffic alert, park assist, front and rear parking sensors, and a rear camera.
There are a few features missing that we’d prefer to see, however, namely active cruise control and LED headlights. The yellow halogen units really do look passé, given they sit below crisp white LED daytime running lights.
If you want these features alongside others such as a sunroof, ventilated massaging driver’s seat and a head-up display, you’ll need to opt for the $51,990 Calais V specification grade with its V6 engine and active all-wheel drive.
Of course, equipment isn’t everything. The Calais has the most contemporary and appealing interior design of any Holden at the minute, even though it lacks the polish and craftsmanship found in a Passat or Mazda 6.
We really like the simple layout, the driver-centric dash design that wraps around front occupants by morphing into the doors, the crisp touchscreen with app integration, and the leather steering wheel with idiot-proof buttons to control all sorts of functions.
There’s plenty of storage such as door bins, a deep cubby ahead of the closing console, two front cupholders and a sunglasses holder in the roof. There’s also an acceptable amount of steering column and seat adjustment, though only the driver gets electric movement.
Downsides: the instruments are ringed by flimsy silver-coloured plastic, this being one example of how the general solidity, fit/finish and tactility of many interior materials don’t feel as expensive and long lasting as, say, the Camry’s.
Another example is the way the clipped-on plastic part surrounding the inside hatch door handle was already falling away on our 11,000km press car. Yes, these are small gremlins, but better to point them out now than later.
The front seats are also heated and have a decent breadth of adjustment, however they’re not the wide buckets found in the old Australian-made car. With that said, I did a 600km road trip and my back was left unscathed.
Given the new Commodore is about 86mm shorter between the wheels, a reduction in back seat space is to be expected. Yet there’s a heap of leg room for my 194cm frame behind my preferred seating position, so it’s hardly small.
It’s also 35mm narrower than the VFII Commodore, but shoulder room isn’t bad at all. Less impressive are the foot room (under the seats) and the head room, which is reduced by the sloping roof line. Amenities include LED reading lights, vents and two USB inputs.
One area where the Calais gets plaudits is its boot. The Euro-style liftback design gives you a much wider opening than a conventional sedan, and if you slip the back seats down (easily done), the Holden is vaguely akin to a wagon/crossover.
What’s under the bonnet? The Calais as tested uses a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine making 191kW of peak power at 5500rpm and 350Nm of peak torque between 3000 and 4000rpm. Outputs are sent to the front wheels via a standard nine-speed automatic transmission.
This compares favourably to many rivals, though the Mazda’s new 2.5-litre turbo option makes a meatier 420Nm of maximum torque.
Claimed fuel use on the combined cycle is 7.6L/100km, which we actually managed to match on our long test drive. Highly impressive, as those are numbers almost comparable with a diesel. It’ll also tow 1800kg with trailer braking.
On that note, you can also buy a 125kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbo-diesel option that reduces fuel consumption by about 25 per cent, while the Calais V and the sportier RS-V and VXR grades get that 235kW/381Nm V6 mentioned earlier, and variable AWD.
The GM 2.0-litre engine is actually fantastic, and all the average buyer will need – though the option of AWD with this unit would be preferable! It’s got a strong mid-range for overtaking, and plenty of oomph just off idle sufficient to chirp the front tyres.
The 9AT has one too many ratios for Australia, because you’ll not be doing autobahn speeds legally here, but it’s generally pretty unobtrusive. The fact we matched the fuel-use claim is hugely impressive, and after 600km we still had plenty left in the 61L tank.
Reassuringly, while the ZB Commodore and Calais aren’t made in Australia, the suspension and such are still engineered locally at Holden’s Victorian proving ground by engineers who know the roads you’ll be driving back-to-front.
We're pleased that the ZB maintains the old VFII's familiar long-legged, loping road feel as well as its agility and responsiveness to steering inputs. For those keen to do long drives, both also ate up corrugated gravel without a fuss.
From an ownership perspective, Holden offers a standard five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, while service intervals are 12 months/12,000km, with the first five visits presently advertised at a maximum of $259, $299, $259, $359 and $359. In other words, it’s got a long warranty and is relatively cheap to run.
So, to the verdict. This isn’t your dad’s old Calais, but what it does offer is a high-standard Euro liftback that holds its own against the familiar competition – though anyone after something with a more dynamic focus should get the Commodore RS.
There’s room for improvement, of course. For instance, we think its equipment list could be a bit longer to really set it apart, its cabin quality could be higher, and AWD could feature with this engine.
But after a week behind the wheel and many hundreds of kilometres driven in the city and the bush, it’s clear that the new-world Commodore is a fundamentally decent offering that goes toe-to-toe with key rivals, none of which are low-hanging fruit.