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Owner Review

1996 Holden Berlina review

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A blast from the past…

The 1996 Holden Commodore VS Series 2, V8 Berlina Sedan.

What could be interesting to read about a near standard Australian built bent eight sedan from the 90's? What makes this car special you might ask.

For starters, this model car itself represented a turning point for Holden in the 1990's. The body shape was at the end of its prime and was the last iteration of the VN-sized shell. Prior to this was the smaller VB-VL series that represented the first generation of Commodores upon our shores.

The VR-VS Commodore was a hit with Australians at its launch. It was a more cohesive design when compared to the VN-VP series, as these cars had an awkward wheel track to body ratio when sporting the factory narrow wheel/tyre combinations on offer. It was a case of old running gear being draped over a new body that exacerbated the condition.

Modifiers like myself took advantage of these gaps and fitted wheels with larger offsets (and wider tyres) to bridge the distance and fill the wheel wells with more appealing options. I had an old VP SS gifted to me, andto sort the anaemic visual dilemma, I bolted up some BMW M3 staggered 18-inch wheels and managed to get 275 rear tyres under the guards with minor lipping of the body work. Suffice to say it looked amazing when done in conjunction with appropriate ride height adjustment.

Back to the VS. Starting from the rear (hold back the prison jokes), this car has excellent boot space, a full-size spare wheel, centre port through the rear seat, and styling cues that were not hard on the eye. In profile, the VS was relatively sleek. Being a Berlina, chrome trim around the windows added some class to the panther black paintwork. The low window sills and generous glass areas provide an abundance of light and visibility which is a revelation when compared to the 'port holes' called windows on modern cars.

The front end treatment was also clean, and somewhat aerodynamic for its era. Overall, the styling lifted the profile of the Commodore to keep pace with its smooth-looking rival, the EL Falcon; both were hot sellers at that time. Ford then handed the sales race to Holden when the AU Falcon appeared a few years later. The Michael Simcoe penned VT-VZ series Commodores simply dominated the sales charts securing Holden's economic future for years to come.

Moving forward, our VS Berlina is powered by the trusty injected 304 cubic inch cast-iron V8 engine, backed up with a 4-speed auto transmission and an open rear differential. This car came with IRS, ABS and an airbag housed inside a large and very plastic steering wheel that would not look out of place on the Wiggles pirate ship.

Despite its age, driving the old 'Free-O-four' (VB-VH were 308's) is actually a good thing. It used to have a marketed 165kW, which felt quick in its day. Today it can be rounded up by our Nissan X-Trail if you are not watching. Despite this, the old beast has something many cars of today lack, its called character. That lump of metal gracing the chassis rails emits a bellow and roar that can transport me back in time. As I flatten the pedal to round up the odd 'eco-hatch' in traffic, I savour in its deep, rich and throbby exhaust note. As a kid watching the 'Great Race' at Bathurst, I'd turn up the TV volume to surround myself with the sound of Brocky's race car as he kissed the limiter up the mountain. Headonistic stuff for a young boy born into a working class family.

The visceral rumble of a cacophony of moving bits of metal that harked back to a time when the world lacked WiFi was enigmatic. CSV, HDT, HSV, APV, STA, Ian Tate, COME Racing, Street Commodores, Street Machine magazine… my head was awash with Holden magic in the eighties and nineties. The magazines and Holden's success at racing had me believing that a modified V8 Commodore could take on the world.
As a naïve and simple young man, I could not resist the temptation to explore the abundant aftermarket offerings for many of the Commodores I owned over the years. It started with some extractors, then a big cam, compression, stroker, bigger fuel pump, converter, toughed auto, diff gears, etc. It never ended and I was happy to keep spending like a fool. After all, my car was getting closer in sound and performance to that of Brocky's beast – the ultimate seduction.

Years later, children, priorities and the development of some common sense made me realise that in many ways, I had made my cars worse than factory. Lowering the car on tight springs with strong shocks and a tight rear diff made the ride insanely terse and effortless to slide unexpectedly - not fun on a wet road when entering the freeway crossed up.

Bumping up the engine power significantly meant you had a car that operated best at high rpm. At low engine speeds (below 2500rpm), my cammed up V8 had less 'bottom end' than a Thai lady boy. Despite sounding tough at idle, and having real push from 3500rpm onwards, it was hard work in traffic because the car was so out of sync for street use.

Fortunately, our family VS V8 has survived for years in our household without being touched, it is literally a one owner family car that is not molested or abused, making it special for a V8 Commo' living in the burbs.
One of my friends who hated Australian built cars hit upon an interesting realisation that almost ended in blows. He had an epiphany, a moment of clarity, and proclaimed that I did not love the Holden Commodore. Instead, I was in love with the idea of what I could do with it. And there it was, the truth smacking me sensible. He was right. At that time of my life I'd rather have walked than 'put up' with a standard Commodore, clearly I was from the Paris end of Dandenong.

By not modifying our VS V8 Berlina it has remained special, as I always have the option to make it more than the sum of its parts. As always, our Berlina still serves its purpose and it gets used for some daily duties. The old girl often returns 9-10 litres per 100 kilometres on a freeway run, but gets a bit thirsty around town managing a somewhat disappointing 15.5L/100km around town. She can tow effortlessly, and carry five passengers in comfort. Heating and AC work - in fact, our AC has never been re-gassed! All the electric windows work too. The car drives straight, does not squeak, but it is a little noisy (I could not help myself – it has a big bore exhaust), the FE2 suspension pack that it came with is still crashy over bumps too.

The steering feels heavy compared to our modern cars, but the car turns in well at about six-tenths - when you get excited and pump up the cornering speeds, things can get a little out of shape. The front end appears out of sync with the rear. I have learnt that the IRS in this era of Commodore is not complex - under duress, wheel angles can do odd things and the car can feel like the rear end has a mind of its own and is not following the front. Camber kits, bush changes and wheel alignments have helped, but it was not until the VX Commodore that these issues with the IRS were looked at and sorted to some degree. The fitment of control links were added to keep things under wraps and reduce the tendency for rear end steer under load. My solution for our VS is simple… drive slower.

The power steering pump on our car often moans at low speeds (and has done so since new) despite fluid changes and belt adjustments. It quietens up once the car is warm and although being inconsistent in resistance as you turn the wheel, the steering is easy to manage and provides a stable, planted feel on the road.

Braking is good at suburban road speeds. Ask more from the factory stoppers and you will be greeted with a soft pedal, lots of fade and lack of retardation - unlike the demographic of some outer Melbourne suburbs. If you are really pushing, you can easily cause them to smoke too (*not recommended).

Behind the wheel, forward vision over the long bonnet is good. You have the option to manually adjust your seat height and tilt the steering up and down to get a comfy seating position. Ergonomics are more than acceptable, switch gear and buttons are easy to access. Dashboard dials, fonts and lighting at night are relatively pleasant and inoffensive, harbouring a green glow designed by Bruce Banner. The foot well ambient lighting is also a nice touch. The speed alert is a novelty; when I was much younger, I use to set it too 200km/h to freak out my dad. The trip computer is useful, and for the most part, accurate.

Service and maintenance is a mixed bag. General oil and filter changes are a breeze. Changing the distributor cap and rotor button is down-right horrible compared to the old carby fed VB-VL's. Who's idea was it to bury these serviceable items under that whopping bunch of bananas manifold?

After 252,000km I can report on the following mechanical dramas…

The AC and heating still work perfectly… although the choice of where this hot/cold air goes was not available for a long time (I cannot remember when this function died). It was windscreen and feet for years despite pushing a button on the climate control panel requesting for air at my face. It was not until I was sweating like a pig one summer day (despite the AC being at full blast) that I decided enough was enough and I started dismantling the dashboard to find out the cause.

Hours and hours later, looking like a box of LEGO had exploded around me, I found the issue. The little vacuum hoses that control the flappy things to move air around that were attached to some box deep into the dash had simply popped off. Being thorough, I zip tied them back on, reassembled the dash/console/radio area and presto… choice in air flow was restored. I'm not a mechanic, but I bet that exercise would have been expensive in a workshop and down-right prohibitive at the local Holden dealer. Thank God these cars were simple.

Another time, maybe 15 years ago, the fan that pushes the air to power the climate control unit just decided to never switch off. Even with the key removed it kept blowing. My dad was furious: "this bloody fan is going to drain my battery". Angrily, he drove straight to the dealer and was told it would be around $2000 to sort out. Unimpressed, I decided to swing past my local wrecker as I knew they might know how to solve this problem. Sure enough, these blokes knew of the issue and I was promptly handed a little black box. I was also given instructions on how to replace it. At less than a hundred bucks later, in the wreckers' carpark, the car was sorted then and there. So much for dealer support. Are you listening Holden?

After learning about the wisdom that existed in these blokes we never visited a dealer again.

Other issues included the odd suspension bush, wheel bearings, differential bearings, an alternator, a starter motor, 3 radiators, a saggy hood lining, one electric window runner, and a host of consumable items common to all cars. These were minor issues in my eyes as this car was used relentlessly for decades and always got us home. The recent big ticket item was a set of new heads at around the 248,000km mark - LPG is not kind to valves.

23 years later, I do not consider these character building moments when something 'fails' an issue. An old car can be forgiven when something lets go as it has done its due diligence and moved our butts everywhere, in this case, since last century. It would be great to repaint her and freshen the driveline up, but I am afraid I might fall victim to going overboard – as I have in the past.

Regardless, this VS V8 Commodore is the type of car you can enjoy just bopping along. It allows you a chance to ponder what it could be, and it provides an experiential journey every time it bellows into life. Old Commodores are like old athletes… the older they get, they better they were. Thank you for getting this far.

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