This Aussie wagon nearly has the market to itself
A feature of all of them is the easy loading and practicality of having that huge boot, and tons of room for passengers. But if you can't bring yourself to drive the base model Sportwagon, then the step up from there is this week's test car, the Berlina Sportwagon.
The differences between the Omega and the Berlina are simple: Faux-leather bolstering on the seats with a different patterned cloth insert, a new grille with a solid chrome cross bar, ten-spoke 17-inch wheels, different foglamp surrounds and a leather-wrap steering wheel. The VE Series II upgrade also brings with it a smoother front end with reshaped headlights, but the biggest improvement is the new touchscreen infotainment system called Holden iQ.
It allows for USB, iPod and Bluetooth integration all controlled by the one screen, plus an optional sat-nav system. You can even rip and store music on the built in hard-drive. The stereo doesn't have the greatest sound, though. The iQ's menus are extensive, but it's reasonably simple to navigate through, and the sat-nav works well, giving you speed-, red-light-camera and school-zone alerts as well as automatic zoom while navigating.
Good-sized, supportive seats, both front and back. Heaps of head and legroom for all rows. Plenty of width, meaning three full-sized adults can occupy the back seat for long drives without feeling cramped. Unlike the sedan which only has a ski port, the Sportwagon's back seat can be folded down to create a huge open area. And that makes it even more practical than the Commodore Ute.
There's a similar load area to the ute with the seats folded down, it's covered at all times, is taller (by virtue of not having a tonneau cover) but it can be used as a five seater, which the ute cannot. And of course, the Sportwagon has that fabulous VE ride.
No other wagon absorbs the bumps quite like it. And as your speed increases, the ride gets better. It irons out all the tiny imperfections in the road, and even on unsealed surfaces it's never uncomfortable. The suspension is biased toward comfort more than sports-car-like handling, but it still has excellent road-holding. The Commodore's ESC is also brilliant, allowing a degree of slip before bringing you back into line. ABS and ESC calibration on gravel is outstanding.
The steering is excellent too, with good weight and feedback, while braking is also good. The biggest change for the Berlina Sportwagon, though, is under the bonnet.
The 3.0-litre SIDI V6 is now flex-fuel compatible. That means that you can run an ethanol blended fuel up to E85 (85 percent ethanol) or anything in between. It's Holden's way of reducing reliance on fossil fuels, though on the face of it, it's not as rosy as it seems.
Currently there are only 30 service stations stocking E85 Australia-wide. Caltex (the only company currently distributing it en masse) says that the number of stations will increase only if there is a demand for it. In the month straight after the VE Series II was launched, over 3500 Commodores were sold. The casual observer will notice a large number of Sportwagons running around with fleet livery. One particular company has over 100 Sportwagons on fleet and continues to add them. The demand is there, especially when E85 is said to be around 20 cents a litre less than unleaded petrol; people will vote with their wallets.
But some states miss out altogether. The Northern Territory, for example, has no E85 dispensed from service stations. Neither does Western Australia. Because this test was done in Perth, we were unable to report on how the Berlina Sportwagon runs on E85, and what the economy difference is between regular fuel and the ethanol blend.
CarAdvice spoke to Caltex about the situation, and at present there are no plans to bring E85 to WA or the NT. And if there is no significant increase in demand from present, don't expect to have many more servos dishing out E85. As it stands, on regular unleaded, fuel economy is not that special. We averaged 12.8-litres/100km for the week despite the official ADR figure being 9.1L/100km. Don't forget, this is a 1.8-tonne car being motivated by only 290Nm. That means that it's up to the automatic to keep the engine in its sweet spot. That it does, but not without some slow decision making.
While driving and exiting a corner, the auto will often drop down two or three gears depending on your right foot position. The problem is it often does it in succession, or hesitates before selecting the right gear. It can get a little annoying while it pauses to have a think if you're asking it to accelerate hard, but if you're driving calmly, it's quite smooth. The V6 is also fairly smooth, though it can get a little thrashy at the top end. The best way to drive a Berlina Sportwagon is sedately.
But if you're going to drive it like that, then you'll probably be looking for something that's economical, has a good load area and is comfortable. If that's the case, then Skoda's Superb Wagon makes a strong case for itself.
True, it's not as wide, so if you're loading up with five people on a regular basis then the Sportwagon will be the one to pick. But with massive rear leg room, a good sized load area and a better quality interior, the Skoda Superb Wagon also offers a diesel engine, and with it, better fuel economy - 6.6L/100km. Based on the ADR fuel figures, the Skoda also has a greater range - 900km versus 780km.
Then there's the torque. The Holden only makes 290Nm at a relatively high 2900rpm. The Superb Wagon offers 60Nm more at a low 1750rpm - perfect for shifting a load. It's also $1500 cheaper.
Let's be honest: most buyers aren't going to be cross-shopping the Berlina Sportwagon against the Skoda Superb Wagon, but don't write it off. It is much better value than the Berlina Sportwagon - it just doesn't have quite as much room.
It'll be a difficult call, but weigh up how often the car will be fully loaded up. That will be the decider.
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