Holden Calais Sportwagon VE series

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Keywords: Holden Calais Sportwagon VE series
Description: Two sides of Holden's Sportwagon coin: affordable fun in the SV6 or all flash and fury in the SS V Redline? In the weeks leading up to Christmas the Carsales Network landed an opportunity to

Two sides of Holden's Sportwagon coin: affordable fun in the SV6 or all flash and fury in the SS V Redline?

In the weeks leading up to Christmas the Carsales Network landed an opportunity to drive two sporty variants of Holden’s Commodore-based Sportwagon, back to back. Following our earlier test of the Berlina Sportwagon and sedan. both powered by the 3.0-litre SIDI V6, it was a chance to see how the 3.6-litre V6-engined SV6 and the V8 SS V Redline compared with the semi-luxury models.

All three Sportwagon variants are aimed primarily at families with a need for more luggage-carrying capacity, but — on paper at least — the Berlina is the bourgeois choice, whereas the SV6 and SS meet the needs of enthusiast drivers. In reality, there’s some overlap between the two types of vehicles: passengers will be quite comfortable in the sporty models; and enthusiastic drivers of the Berlina won’t feel they’ve been sold a pup.

The first of the two sport-oriented wagons to be sampled was the SV6. Finished in a light, bright metallic blue (named Voodoo), the SV6 came with six-speed automatic transmission as standard (there’s no manual transmission offered with the SV6 wagon). You could safely sum up what distinguishes the SV6 from the Berlina as follows: sportier looks, less chrome, firmer suspension, larger capacity engine and different (larger) alloy wheel/tyre combination.

Holden has invested the 3.6-litre engine in the SV6 (basically the same engine also powers the range-topping Calais) with a gruffer engine note than the smaller V6 in the Berlina. Added grunt and ‘sportier’ exhaust note aside, the Berlina’s engine works better for many people. It’s more refined and spools up faster, to deliver respectable performance — if not stunning.

In theory there’s a significant difference in power and torque between the two V6s — one that might be noticed when kicking down at speed or hauling a caravan for a family weekend away. But the Berlina doesn’t feel like it gives much away to the SV6 in a straight line until speed reaches 80km/h or thereabouts. Perhaps because the Berlina came to us with a full tank of E85 fuel, which would close the performance gap between the smaller-engined car and the SV6, which is powered by an engine not yet compatible with flex fuel.

While both engines give their best in the rev range above 3500rpm, the threshold is more apparent in the SV6’s 3.6-litre. Both engines are oversquare (bore and stroke dimensions of 89.0 x 80.3mm for the 3.0-litre, 94.0 x 85.6mm for the 3.6), but the smaller engine feels like it’s on a shallower ramp from the lower rev range up to its power and torque peaks. That might be due to the E85 fuel already mentioned, or the slightly higher compression ratio of the smaller engine — or even the lower mass of the reciprocating internals. The 3.0-litre just seems like the sweeter engine — as long as ultimate performance is not a concern.

If the 3.6-litre V6 doesn’t boast the free-spinning nature of its smaller capacity stablemate, it also lacks the on-tap torque of Ford’s inline six in the Falcon. Nonetheless, the 3.6 is not short of what it takes for a full-bore standing start and strong in-gear acceleration. And once above the 3500rpm ‘hump’, the engine powers on rapidly to the redline with a bellicose roar.

At the other end of the rev range it musters substantial torque even when the engine speed falls below 1500rpm. It will hold higher ratios for optimum fuel economy and the SV6 powerplant doesn’t even begin to exhibit signs of labour until it’s down around 1200rpm. Even then, the vibration is manifested more as a low-pitched drone than the harsher sort of vibration experienced in some V6s. During the week in our possession, the SV6 returned a fuel consumption figure of 14.4L/100km — mostly in around-town commuting with some harder driving on country roads.

Fuel efficiency benefits from the six-speed automatic transmission fitted to the test vehicle, a transmission offering a sequential-shift facility that comes in handy for point-to-point motoring and provides near-immediate response to driver input. While it’s fundamentally a good box, it is not as smooth as the ZF six-speed unit found in Ford’s Falcon range. Changes from Park to Reverse will be occasionally accompanied by a thump, particularly from a cold start, and easing off at the wrong moment between gears will occasionally elicit another dull thud.

Where the aforementioned Berlina rode on 17-inch alloys, the SV6 moves up a size to an 18-inch diameter wheel shod with Yokohama 245/45 R18 tyres. The ride properties of the SV6 are demonstrably firmer than the Berlina’s, partly due to the differing-rate springs and dampers, but also down to the lower-profile Yokies. Yet for a sporty large car like the SV6 to ride as well as it does is commendable.

Although the SV6’s wheel and tyre combination confer better roadholding, there’s little to pick in the handling department from the slightly softer-riding Berlina. In fact, the SV6 musters a higher level of grip, but the Berlina’s OE Goodyears let the driver know relatively sooner as they approach the limits of their adhesion. There’s a little less ‘communication’ with the Yokohamas, although the SV6 is travelling at higher speeds before that poses a problem.

Both cars offer nice steering feedback and rapid turn-in; both handle close to neutral and the rear end is unflustered even when the driver snaps off the throttle mid-turn.

While the SV6 cannot match the Berlina’s noise insulation — plainly a deliberate choice on Holden’s part — the SV6 is not by any means raucous at highway speeds. The engine fades into the background while cruising and the car’s principal sources of NVH at 100km/h are a little rumble from the road and some wind noise.

In packaging terms, the SV6 obviously shares much with its various sportwagon siblings. There are some significant points of divergence between SV6 and Berlina, however.

As noted in our previous review, we found the more conservative look inside the Berlina to be at odds with Holden’s all-singing, all-dancing iQ multimedia infotainment interface. That is less an issue in the SV6, which complements the iQ system with a more colourful dash. To our eyes the SV6’s charcoal trim (for the optional leather), piano-gloss black lacquer and matt-finish aluminium provide more appropriate contrasting with the high-tech LCD read-out than the woodgrain decor of the Berlina.

Speaking of the iQ system, it’s easy enough to use but pairing a Bluetooth phone is not as straightforward as is with similar facilities marketed by other brands. There’s an additional step required in the Holdens: selecting a ‘discoverable’ mode first, before the phone can find the car — and vice versa. It won’t present much of a problem for regular drivers with the same phone.

Holden has been criticised for the ergonomics of its trip computer in the VE models. As with the Bluetooth connectivity through the iQ system, this won’t bother regular drivers once they’re familiar with the idiosyncracies of resetting the computer or scrolling through the different functions. The trip computer remains ultimately less intuitive than the iQ interface, but we’ve certainly sampled worse…

The SV6 also remains hobbled by the usual VE design niggles (handbrake, A pillars, large steering wheel and centrally-positioned power window switchgear), but the seats are a highlight to offset those issues. They’re comfortable and supportive, holding the driver in place very well during harder cornering.

The Sportwagon in this configuration is enormous fun to drive, mostly due to the car’s monster V8, which provides loads of torque from pretty much anywhere in the rev range. But explosively dynamic though it may be, it’s not an especially sporty powerplant in the way that a German V8 would be, although look at the price difference between the two… By way of example the Holden’s prodigious torque doesn’t seem matched by the peak power and the rev limiter cuts in before the tacho needle has reached 6000rpm.

Unlike the AFM-equipped Commodore SS V we drove prior to the introduction of the E85-ready Series II models, the Sportwagon SS V Redline is positively seamless in the way it goes about shifting from four-cylinder mode to V8 mode and back. In the earlier car, listen long enough and you could pick/hear/feel the change as the engine stopped firing on four of the eight cylinders. There are no such tell-tales in the new model.

AFM in the Sportwagon doesn’t drop back to four cylinders as often. We’re not sure whether it’s been recalibrated in the change to Series II, but it wouldn’t run the engine in four-cylinder mode below 50km/h on the flat. In fact, at the slightest uphill grade, the engine immediately reverted to eight-cylinder mode. In the Commodore SS V tested previously the AFM held four-cylinder mode longer and from a lower road speed.

While the engine is a joy, it’s the reserves of grip in the Sportwagon SS V Redline that really impress.

During the week in our possession the car made a few trips in heavy rain. The car would easily wade through deep puddles of standing water without any significant loss of adhesion. There were SUVs left in our wake as we passed by at speed. Roadholding set a standard in the wet that exceeded the writer’s determination to explore the car’s limits. Some of the credit goes to the car’s tyres: Bridgestone Potenza 245/40 R19.

Power oversteer was easy enough to provoke, although brought back into line by the stability control system, which seems to have been finely tuned for the VE Series II application and works in sync with the car’s inherent grip and ‘passive’ dynamic qualities.

When there weren’t streams of water flowing across the bitumen, any waywardness was largely kept in check by the limited slip differential, which could occasionally be heard and felt rumbling away as the car turned and accelerated. The stability control was left in reserve for when the situation called for more moderation.

Finished in Poison Ivy (a medium-shade metallic green), the SS V Redline really stood out from the crowd, being fitted with chromed alloy wheels of the same design worn by the Pontiac G8 GXP in the US market. Inside the car are some nice touches, such as the satin-look bright finish controls for the HVAC, for instance, and the piano-black gloss veneer for the centre fascia.

In the final wash-up, the Berlina — just $300 cheaper than the SV6 — provides 90 or 95 per cent of the driving satisfaction that the SV6 does. It’s not just a loungeroom on wheels, although it will fill that role quite capably. If you prefer more straightline performance, the SS is the ultimate expression of that; the SS V, with the Redline edition’s Brembo brakes and the Potenza tyres complementing the potent performance to the full extent.

Much of the appeal of the SV6 and the SS V Redline lies in their respective looks, although it was the V8-engined model that won us over. Both vehicles are less conservative and arguably more cohesive than the Berlina with its unattractive chrome grille (wonder whether the grille from the original VE Berlina would fit?).

Basically, if you want more ‘Sport’ in your Sportwagon than the Berlina has to offer, the choice then boils down to what you can afford.

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