Choosing a new car for the family is never an easy decision. SUVs may be the current trend, but with a tight budget and value for money being high on the list, many used SUVs just don’t stack up. We needed a car that had plenty of room for a growing family, as the hatchback in the driveway was just way too small.
An engine that isn't completely lacklustre would be nice; one with the ability to tow a loaded trailer or camper without any drama. The fit-out was still important, as a tight budget and nice interior aren't always associated with each other, but a few neat touches inside would be nice. Finally, when buying in the used car space, reliability and maintenance costs of owning the car were other large factors.
So when the decision was finally made, we settled on an Australian icon, a 2011 Holden Commodore VE-II Berlina Sportswagon.
Underneath the Berlina is a 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine producing 190kW and 290Nm, with a six-speed automatic gearbox and rear-wheel-drive. It's not the most inspiring engine, instead just quietly going about its business getting the job done. In and around town it's a planted and stable ride, comfortable sitting on the speed limit, and feels like it's engineered with the gearbox ratios to do so.
I'm not sure what the claimed fuel usage was at the time of release back in 2011, but in the real world the V6 averages about 11L/100km around the ’burbs and 9.5L/100km if you're out cruising the freeways to work everyday like I am.
Out on the open road, it's more of a 'cruisy-feeling' car than anything else. It's got enough power to get the job done, but doesn't really have a whole lot of excitement to it. If you bury the right foot, however, the V6 has a bit more life about it, and you’ll need to keep it higher in the RPM range to keep that power coming. Road noise is a little bit on the high side when you're over 90km/h, but it's not terrible.
As I mentioned earlier, towing ability was of some importance, and I’m happy to say that the Commodore tows my motorcycle trailer pretty easily to the usual spots. It has also been up to the simple task of towing the box trailer with a few loads of sand and gravel, making easy work of my DIY landscaping missions.
We purchased the car with around 75,000km on the clock, and after a few years that’s now up to 130,000km. As far as maintenance and reliability are concerned, the Holden has been fantastic. We have maintained a full service history as per the logbook, and the costs at my local mechanic have been more than reasonable. Much cheaper than some European cars I have owned in the past.
Being a passenger car, not SUV, the lower ride height has made things easy with getting kids in and out of the car, as well as for me being in a wheelchair while recovering from a sporting incident.
Inside the Commodore is as you would expect from a large family car – spacious in all the right places, plenty of leg room in both the front and rear, and suitable for passengers of all shapes and sizes. It's built tough enough to withstand a few hits from the kids, prams and more recently my wheelchair. Speaking of prams and chairs, the boot space in the Commodore is plenty big enough for anything we have needed it for, and can even fit both my wheelchair and the kiddo's pram at the same time. Not bad!
The Berlina offers a step up in comfort levels from the standard-level Omega, with a few additions such as leather seats, reading/map lights in the front row, front exterior fog lights and some extra touches to the audio system. The audio system is by no means ahead of its time as far as technology goes, however it does everything quite well and is simple and easy to use. The Bluetooth system works without any glitches, it connects properly every time, and makes and receives calls without any hassle using the controls provided. Sat-nav and Apple CarPlay would be great, but hey, for a 2011-model car you can't expect it all.
The reverse camera is about all there is to speak of in the safety-tech area. It's a must-have for a family wagon and certainly makes life easier in those tight shopping centre carparks. More safety tech would have been nice, and the newer Commodores have it, however at the time of purchase the budget could only be stretched so far.
The addition of leather seats is a really nice touch – they’re comfortable, tough and durable, and as you would expect, the anchor points for child seats are in all the right places. The front-row seats do have one complaint from me, though: why is there a winding-style knob to adjust the recline position? It’s really annoying having to wind up or down the old-school knob if you would like to lay down the seat. A lever would have been much better in my opinion.
As a package, the Commodore has been a great car, ticking all the boxes we needed it to for the family. It's been friendly on the back pocket, reliable and comfortable. Fuel economy isn’t great, but it's not that bad either, being somewhere around 10L/100km when you mix in a bit of both highway and city kilometres. Tyre wear is above average, and we’ve been through a few sets of rubber and seem to be getting around 35,000km out of a set of tyres with regular wheel rotation.
While the 3.0-litre V6 works well, an engine with more excitement and more torque – especially for towing – would have been more ideal. Stepping up to either the SV6 3.6-litre V6 or SS V8 would have provided that. With the rapidly evolving space that is safety tech in vehicles of today, we will certainly look for more features in the next family wagon, but as I mentioned earlier, for a 2011-model car you can't expect to have what we see in today's market.
It's easy to look past passenger cars in today’s SUV-dominated market, but if you take a good look at the value-for-money prospect many of the recent Holden Commodore models present, it's easy to see why it was one of Australia’s most popular family cars for the past 40-odd years.
Would I buy one again? Absolutely!