Holden Calais VZ V8

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Keywords: Holden Calais VZ V8
Description: Most car manufacturers would push and prod an ageing model across the line in its last six months of production with minimal changes but not Holden. Instead, the company has made the VZ Commodore

Most car manufacturers would push and prod an ageing model across the line in its last six months of production with minimal changes but not Holden. Instead, the company has made the VZ Commodore the first application in the world of the new L76 version of the Generation IV V8 engine. In the process, Holden has created not only the best factory Commodore model since the nameplate’s 1978 introduction, but possibly the best V8 family car ever produced in Australia.

The secret is the L76 6.0-litre alloy V8 engine that delivers 260kW/5600 and 510Nm/4400rpm (using 98 RON PULP). Say six as the New Zealanders would and you get a better idea of what the new engine adds to a range that should (at this stage in its life) normally be out for the count.

It spells the end of Holden’s Gen III V8 range. Gone too is the nonsense of three different outputs depending on which Commodore variation you were buying. The new engine is available across the board in the same 260kW spec from the entry SV8 model through the commercials and up to the top shelf long wheelbase Caprice.

Because the new V8 generates its own unique sports exhaust and transmission combinations plus a new Performance brake specification for the SS, Holden no longer offers a V8 option as such but offers the same high performance V8 in a range of standard and long wheelbase settings to suit most applications and budgets. Indeed, price rises are minimal, around $500, with equipment upgrades and the new engine more than compensating.

Entry pricing is $44,490 for the SV8 or around $7000 under Ford’s XR8 which must make it a serious ‘Bang for your Bucks’ contender. Models available with the new V8 include the SV8 and SS sedans, Berlina sedan and wagon, Calais sedan, Statesman International, Caprice, SS Ute, Crewman SS and Crewman Cross 8.

The revised range marks the end of a rocky road for the poor-selling V8 Adventra. Holden has also used the new V8’s arrival to announce the end of the One-Tonner cab-chassis in all variations. After defining the genre over 30 years ago with the icon HQ One-Tonner, Holden returned to this market only to find Ford had claimed it as its own.

Simplifying the number of Commodore variations is the official reason for the One-Tonner’s demise but sales of just over 4000 last year reveal all. The reality is that Holden’s cab-chassis wasn’t the leap forward it needed to be and the Rodeo cab-chassis which has just gained the same Alloytec V6 engine does much the same job.

This pruning and last minute enhancement of the VZ range allows all Holden V8 models to leap-frog the Ford competitio — even the premium XR8 model with its unique Boss 260 engine that delivers 260kW/5250rpm and 500Nm/4000. Ford’s other V8 engines deliver 220 or 230kW depending on whether they are fitted to commercials or passenger cars. The L76 versions of Holden’s top shelf models have suddenly made it no contest in the performance stakes.

Although Ford offers its superior six-speed auto or close-ratio six-speed manual on some of its eights, Holden’s new V8 with its more linear torque delivery always feels the stronger engine and should be able to outrun even the XR8. Holden took the opportunity to improve its manual and automatic transmissions but stopped short of replacing them.

Our bet is that the imminent all new VE Commodore will be heavier and new transmissions will be used to hide any performance loss.

The new engine adds only an extra 2kg, not enough for any suspension changes and leaving the VZ Commodore V8’s superior handling balance intact.

The flagging SS sedan, boosted last year with the limited SSZ, gains important new features to give it some breathing space over the SV8. These include the CV8’s 18 inch alloy wheels from the now defunct VZ Monaro, Performance brakes, leather seat trim and silver grey accent stitching on the steering wheel, gear knob and handbrake lever.

Its price starts at $51,790, about $400 more than the XR8 but the leather trim gives it a $2000 headstart. Holden can only hope that HSV can quickly clear its 2005 ClubSport stocks which are currently carrying clearance pricing almost lineball with the SS.

The SV8 sells for $44,490 and continues with lower spec wheels and tyres, interior and brakes. The V8-equipped Berlina sedan is $48,590 and wagon $51,590, both auto only and getting up there for family buyers who need the extra grunt.

The Calais at $58,590 struggles against a better-equipped and better-differentiated Statesman International that costs only $3100 more. The Calais is the dark horse in this company and Holden has been remiss in not giving it a special badge or identity. It could carry a Calais LS (Luxury Sport) badge with pride, or even Calais International, as the new engine transforms it.

The SS Ute picks up Devil Yellow as a colour choice and is priced from $41,490. The Crewman SS costs $47,690 and the Crewman Cross 8 at $52,290 will become Australia’s hottest all-wheel drive twin-cab as HSV’s Avalanche XUV is withdrawn. As the Gen IV Cross 8 now beats the Gen III Avalanche in torque for $16,000 less, there was nowhere else for it to go.

The Statesman International becomes the new base level Statesman V8 with 17-inch alloys, rear boot lip spoiler, sunroof, sports grille and sports headlights all for $61,690. The full house Caprice sells for $75,390.

Production starts in February 2006 with automatic variants hitting the showrooms in March while manual deliveries won’t surface until April.

With L76 VZ production sandwiched so tightly between release and start-up production for the all new VE due some time between August and October, there is never going to be many sedans and that could make them desirable in years to come. However, the VZ ute and wagon will stay in production after the VE launch as their replacements are not due until well into 2007.

Holden’s V8 profile and sales reveal why this new engine was a must-have — even at this late stage.

The Commodore’s sales lead over the Falcon is almost entirely won in extra V8 sales (17,721 Holden V8s versus 6541 Ford V8s) which account for a staggering 15 per cent of Commodores, 49 per cent Statesman and Caprice, 36 per cent utes and 28 per cent Crewman models.

Instead of flagging during rising fuel prices last year, sales of some V8 models actually increased. They are driven mainly by male enthusiasts who are married and love driving — it seems if you have to drive a family car then a Holden V8 is compensation.

Holden has taken no risks with fuel consumption. The fuel figure for the SS automatic rises from 13.9 to 14lt/100km while the manual’s fuel consumption drops from 14.8 to 14.6lt/100km. This is no mean achievement when the new engine also had to comply with strict new ADR79/01 emissions requirements which are Australia’s ‘Euro III’ equivalent.

The new L76 Gen IV engine has a wealth of new features, many of which are not utilized in this application — for instance Holden neither had the time nor resources to re-calibrate the engine’s cylinder deactivation functionality for the local market. It is nonetheless a preview of what is to come when the L76 can be programmed like the HEMI V8 in the Chrysler 300C to shut down a number of cylinders depending on demand.

The big news is an all new block that features a 101.6mm bore compared to the previous 99mm, and a 92mm stroke for a capacity of 5967cc. At this point the engine deviates considerably from the special high performance LS2 engine fitted to HSV models and export Pontiac GTO versions of the Monaro.

Compared to the Gen III block, the L76 has special oil galleries, external knock sensors and a relocated cam sensor to ensure that those cylinders that are shut down are not damaged if the deactivation feature is specified.

Contrary to some predictions, the block is aluminium with cast-in-place iron bore liners. High flow cylinder-heads boost efficiency with 55mm inlet and 40.4mm exhaust valves, both an increase over the Gen III. Flat-top pistons are specified, compression ratio is raised from 10.1 to 10.4:1 and a larger 90mm throttle body and a deep breathing sports exhaust system on all models ensure that none of this extra efficiency goes to waste.

In the process, the engine delivers a much sportier feel and response from the driver’s seat even if the exhaust note is muted.

The under-bonnet presentation is more purposeful when you can see more of the engine — the plastic “Ninja Turtle” engine cover of the Gen III has gone.

For the automatic version, Holden has switched to the proven 4L65-E four-speed auto transmission, the same one that transformed the VZ Monaro. It has further been improved with the addition of an input shaft speed sensor which according to Holden “noticeably improves shift quality and consistency under varied conditions, particularly low throttle.”

Previously, a theoretical program told the transmission when to change except it didn’t always get it right with sudden and unwanted downshifts when they were not wanted.

Drivers who would prefer a manual are not so lucky. Holden has withheld the transformed M12 six-speed introduced in the VZ Monaro and HSV models with its improved shift and close ratios that are all useable. Instead, the new engine makes do with the old MM6 version of the T56 with its tall first, gaps between gears and a sixth gear that you would use cruising to the moon. The cars do get the LS2’s revised clutch and pressure plate to handle the extra torque.

The Performance brake package standard on SS sedan and ute are also upgraded to match the 2004 VZ Monaro upgrade. Front discs are 320X32mm vented compared to the earlier 296X28mm rotors and the rears are now 286 x 18mm vented compared to the earlier 286 x 16mm solids.

Holden launched the new V8 range with an identical program to the VZ Monaro CV8, probably intentionally, when the new SS has to fill the shoes of this much loved but now departed Monaro model.

The drive program highlighted the achievements of the new L76 range while also reviving memories of the superiority of the Monaro’s M12 manual transmission. The VZ Monaro CV8 launch was a 2004 highlight when the normally soft and forgettable Gen III V8 and its dreadful manual and auto boxes were brought alive by US Pontiac requirements and new transmissions that did what they were told.

The L76 by comparison represents three steps forward and two back. The superior torque and flexibility are immediately apparent and even though the latest noise requirements to lose another two decibels have made it seem more remote, this engine is a pearler in the way it responds.

Holden was anxious to demonstrate how much difference the fatter torque-curve makes at lower speeds, especially for towing and other low speed applications, and encouraged testers to find the most effective launch strategy using the SS manual.

Unlike the Gen III in the previous SS which has to be revved hard followed by much burning of clutch or tyres to deliver its best, driving the L76 was a case of feeding the power through the clutch with minimal slip and a slight chirp of the tyres and letting the sheer grunt do the rest.

It had a nice strong feel that only the sad old six-speed manual could ruin as the baulky change and gap in ratios swallowed up any advantage over the VZ Monaro’s drivetrain. What should be a significant advance over the VZ Monaro CV8 in manual specification barely holds the line despite the superior engine. Indeed, Holden has shortchanged its enthusiast drivers by not fitting the Monaro’s M12 manual transmission, a variation of which Ford also uses. Would it have brought the new engine too close to HSV’s range?

Yet the new four-speed auto shared with the last Monaro represents a major step forward despite being at least one ratio short.

The new engine has the torque to cover any gaps and its clean, decisive shifts are a welcome change. The tendency to hunt for a gear or downshift without warning in the middle of a corner is missing too. Sure, it doesn’t have the smoothness and intuitiveness of Ford’s amazing six-speed auto but it has its own appeal, not the least of which is you can feel what is going on.

While it revitalizes the giant Statesman International, there is just too much bulk for enthusiast drivers. Value for money, the SV8 is as good as it gets. The SS? It’s worth having for the brakes and better grip but there have been too many Commodore body kits since the VT’s 1997 release for this one to turn heads any more. Its standard leather interior adds new class only to have it removed by fussy gimmickry thrown around the rest of the cabin.

It’s the new VZ Calais that is the standout package. Interestingly, this was the model that journalists had to constantly pry out of the hands of the factory drivers. They too were seduced by this model’s subtle sportiness, classy leather interior, sports suspension and refinement with serious grunt.

The VZ Calais has the credentials to be a true factory Falcon GT or HZ GTS, before both of these iconic badges were placed in the hands of outside suppliers.

In other words, the VZ Calais L76 has enough going for it to survive any new model, always a worry when buying a new car this late in the cycle.

Whether it’s worth $60,000 on the road is another issue but if you can haggle yourself into one at the right price and come to grips with the initial depreciation, you could well end up with a future benchmark as the best and last of its kind.

It’s just a pity that Holden didn’t give it a special name and identification to separate it from all the other ex-fleet VZ Calais examples, an oversight that probably applies to all the L76-equipped VZ models.



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