The year is 1995. Air Jordan, grunge rock, OJ Simpson… That’s right. Of course you remember.
It is also the year that Holden introduces the VS Commodore range. Visually almost identical to the preceding VR model, the big changes occurred under the skin. The big ticket item was the smooth new ECOTEC engine, slotted in under the bonnet. This engine was a reworked version of the trusty Buick 3.8L V6, with all new internals and a higher compression ratio. The result was an increase in power to 147 Kilowatts and a 5% improvement in fuel economy. The 4 speed auto was re-engineered, improving responsiveness, smoothness and shift speed. The brakes were also replaced with a new Bosch system, offering improved pedal feel, and stopping performance.
Together these changes transformed the driving experience over the previous model. The VS was a refined, modern driving machine. Which is something I remind myself of these days, whenever I drive my brother’s old banger VS Berlina!
As an historical footnote, the Berlina was an up-spec model, which offered standard climate control, electric windows, ABS brakes and dual airbags over the garden variety Commodore.
Fast forward to twenty fifteen, and this Berlina is still going strong, despite a few battle scars accrued along the way. It is now worth exactly zero dollars, but since it refuses to die, it remains a part of the family. The bro has a work van as his daily drive, so this Berlina has taken on the role of a random floater, being driven by whichever friend or relative needs a second car that week.
In this capacity the Berlina excels. It’s not valuable enough to be stressful for the lender or the borrower, it’s big enough to perform a variety of roles, it’s easy to drive, and cheap to maintain.
Just don’t expect the valet to be impressed, when you roll up to the Queen’s tea party!
The years have not been especially kind to Commodores from this era. If you went back in time (DeLorean or hot tub – your choice), and brought back a brand new ’96 Berlina, and then if you lobbed a grenade through the window, waited for the dust to settle, and jumped in… you would have a pretty good recreation of this car.
Just to rattle off a few things that have broken or fallen off – the glove box, electric aerial and headlining (all are common failures in vintage Commodores), the seat height adjustment, rear power window switch, and various other minor trim items.
And the driver’s seat has lost all of its bounce from the many thousands of backsides it has encountered over the years. I’m sure there is a gag in there somewhere, but moving on…
One thing that has kept its lustre though, is the ECOTEC engine. It really is a cracker. I also had a VR Statesman V6, and it was nothing like this. The improvements to the motor in the VS were good at the time, and are even better now. It really hauls from low rpms, and while it does run out of puff pretty quickly at around 4000 rpms, the motivation off the line is surprising given the numbers, age and weight of the car.
Obviously a new SV6 is quicker and smoother, but for a 20yr old car with no tuning or mods, it certainly holds its own.
Handling is also well sorted, especially if you invest in some good rubber. It can get bouncy at speed, and the steering is a bit loose, but the car gives you decent and regular information about what is happening beneath you . You can throw it at a corner, and be confident that it won’t do anything out of character or surprising.
And who doesn’t love rear wheel drive!
This cheap performance is why older Commodores (and Falcons) are now so popular with P-platers, deros and bogans. Which is no disrespect at all – we have all been there! Just be aware that if you drive a VS, even the highly prestigious Berlina, your fellow motorists will assume that you fall into one or more of these categories.
But if you don’t care about that, then you could do worse. I actually kinda like jumping out of my BMW, and driving the old Bombodore once in a while. It feels strangely liberating and patriotic for some reason.
Ok, so maybe it’s not the Michael Jordan of cars. More like his team mate Luc Longley, this Berlina is a big reliable Aussie, that always gets the job done.