The last Australian made Commodore was lauded as a ‘world-class’ car. Its big engine/rear-drive layout, its suspension built specifically for Aussie conditions, and its space for the whole family, it was always going to be a tough act to follow.
Much to the disgust of diehard car tragics all over the country, what did follow was a car already made in Germany (Opel Insignia) with a choice of either 4 or 6-cylinder power, in front or all-wheel drive. Then, just to add insult to injury, it was stamped with a Commodore badge.The horror!
So, in turning their definition of the family hauler on its head, have they provided a product that Aussie families can get behind, or will families continue to flock towards SUVs in the search for space and practicality? Let’s find out as we take a look at the Holden ZB Commodore.
Does it look alright?
Well, it’s quite a departure from Commodores of old and, overall, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. While I quite like the daytime running lights that double as indicators, the aggressive front bumper and the low, wide stance, the chrome plastic that flanks the Holden badge and the fake air intakes below the headlights are a bit over the top.
Side on, and it’s time for a trip down memory lane. The already-dated, aftermarket looking 18-inch alloys, the sculpted doors and the rear taillights all scream circa 2000, when the radical new Ford Cougar graced our shores. Having seen a number of the sportier VXR spec cars with larger alloys, things do improve somewhat as you climb the Commodore model tree, but it’s still not the Commodore’s most flattering angle.
It’s the rear of the Commodore that really identifies the car as one of the bottom feeders of the range. It’s a lift back, and there’s a definite European flavour that’s, in part, quite similar to the VW Arteon, but it’s let down by the tiny twin chrome elliptical exhaust tips and their cheap black plastic surrounds.
Is it a true family hauler?
A single click on the key fob (or keyless entry button on the door handle) will grant you entry to the ZB Commodore. Once inside, it’s easy to quickly find a comfortable driving position via the combination of a height and reach adjustable, beautifully tactile, flat-bottomed leather-wrapped steering wheel, and an 8-way powered driver’s seat.
At 6-foot 6, I would probably like a little more knee clearance under the wheel, but the cloth seats were also wide enough for my ‘geographically dispersed’ frame. In short, if you’re a normal-sized human, it’s a comfy place to be.
The front passenger is equally well catered for (albeit with no power adjustment for the pew), with ample legroom and hip room. Even with the seat pushed forward to accommodate a rear-mounted car seat, my ungainly mass fits with plenty of room to spare.
Ahead of the wheel is the typical analogue speedo and tacho, split by a 3.5-inch digital display which covers all manner of information, including a digital speedo, fuel consumption and oil temperatures. There are another two analogue gauges for fuel and engine temperature directly above. The displays are all easy to read at a glance, although flicking through the various menus on the go can be a bit distracting and I found myself generally sticking to the digital speedo as a default.
To the left of the driver is Holden’s MyLink 7-inch colour touchscreen containing controls for the 7-speaker audio system, Bluetooth connectivity for your phone, the dual-zone climate control, along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration - all of which can be adjusted via the audio controls and voice control buttons on the steering wheel. It’s all well laid out, with icons large enough to ensure you hit the right button while you’re on the move.
As someone who loves a good bit of tech, it was a shame that I initially found myself cursing at the Android Auto functionality. After consulting the owner’s manual, the source of this frustration was found to be the fact I was using a third-party cable. This rectified, I found the system flaky on occasion, dropping out for no reason, to the point where I disconnected my phone and let my better half whisper sweet directions in my ear from the back seat.
The overall presentation of the cabin definitely leans more towards function than form, and it’s clear that the Commodore RS has been made to a particular price point. There’s a lot of very scratchy hard plastic all over lower half of the cabin, the indicator and wiper stalks could be better damped, there’s some ‘leather-look’ vinyl on the armrests, and, of course, the requisite piano black/fake aluminium combo around the transmission, which adds nothing to the car other than a multitude of fingerprints.
Moving onto the back seat, my partner is 5-foot 7 and comfortably sat behind me for the entire 10 day trip around Tassie without complaint. This was even when surrounded by a child in a car seat and all the weird and wonderful things that accompany said offspring on a trip like this (think nappy bag, toys, wet wipes, drink bottles).
The only glaring issue I found (pardon the pun) is when turning the car off at night, the interior LED light for the rear seats is incredibly bright. Thankfully, our little one can sleep through a bomb blast if she chooses, but it is something to note if your little one is sensitive to light.
Boot space is another area where the Commodore really ticks the box. While not as Grand Canyon-esque as a Skoda Superb in the luggage-swallowing department, the liftback offers up 490 litres of boot space with the rear seats in place, and with no car seat or rear passengers, the 60/40 split rear seats give you up to 1450 litres when folded.
However, even with the seats up, it’s enough to fit a full-size suitcase and a Baby Jogger GT Mini stroller side by side, along with a port-a-cot with a few more soft bags/backpacks on top before the rear window screams ‘enough’, and the hatch refuses to close.
There are a few slight oversights. There are no quick release switches to fold the rear seats down from the boot space. Also, when in its fully open position, the hatch is quite high, which may make it a stretch for someone more vertically challenged than myself. There’s no electronic tailgate to help you out. It's not exactly a deal-breaker, but they’re features that are commonplace among its direct competitors.
Overall though, the Commodore offers up all the space and tech that you would need to happily lug you and your family down to the shops, on a weekend day trip, or an extended getaway.
Is it safe?
All the space and practicality in the world means nothing at all if you can’t keep your family safe, and thankfully the Commodore delivers here too. It scored a five-star ANCAP rating with an adult occupant protection rating of 35.54 out of 38 and a child occupant protection rating of 41.96 out of 49.
It offers 6 airbags across the two rows of seats, and seatbelt pre-tensioners front and rear. Along with the now ubiquitous ABS, traction and stability control, the Holden also includes Autonomous Emergency Braking, Pedestrian Avoidance, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning (with active lane-keeping assist), forward collision alert, blind-spot monitoring, a reversing camera and front and rear parking sensors, all working seamlessly to keep you informed of your surroundings and keeping your passengers safe.
The only negative to note here is the somewhat bizarre behaviour of the active lane-keeping assist, which quite often veered the car to the left even when in the middle of the lane on a dead straight piece of tarmac.
What’s it like to drive?
As a family chariot, the Commodore conducts itself very well indeed. Around town, the Aussie-tuned suspension is compliant and quiet, soaking up the bumps reasonably well. By no means a small car, the 4.9-metre, 1535kg Holden acquits itself well in parking stakes, due mainly to its light steering, parking sensors and Park Assist system.
The 9-speed auto is happy to tootle along in the high gears, and just as happy to drop a couple of cogs when you need to find that gap in traffic. As a long, front-wheel drive car, it does have a rather large turning circle, which can make a quick U-bolt in suburban streets quite challenging.
Out on the open road, the Commodore is in its element and it’s in this environment that it reminds me most of the last locally produced Holden. While it’s certainly no V8 in terms of torque or outright pace, the 191kW/350Nm, 2-litre 4-cylinder turbo is still pretty punchy and will be more than enough for most families.
In this configuration though, it’s definitely been designed as kilometre killer rather than a hairpin hero, and it’s proven itself as a pretty handy one. After 500km of a mix of somewhat spirited driving through Targa Tasmania country, highway runs and some suburban duties, we’ve averaged about 8.8 litres per 100 kilometres, and have emerged fairly fresh at the end of a day of driving.
That’s not to say it’s going to fall off the road when it sees a corner. While definitely more at home on the highway, the suspension tune and the 245/45/18 tyres all-round really give this thing a planted feel. Combine that with the tactile steering wheel and a set of sweeping corners, and it all adds up to a fairly rewarding drive.
The one extremely disappointing aspect of the car out on the road was the performance of the headlights. Aussie roads and the critters who frequent them at night, mean a decent set of high beams are a must, and these simply don’t cut the mustard.
So, should you buy one?
The ZB Commodore offers a heap of space, all the tech you could need, with decent performance and fuel economy. It’s an effortless highway hauler with plenty of tech and safety, and at about $39000 drive away, it offers decent value for money. It misses out on some of the practical features of some rivals and, to my eye, isn’t the most attractive offering out there.
The sub-par headlights should also be a consideration if you’re planning on regular country driving at night, but as a moderately affordable family hauler, it should definitely be on the shopping list.