Sunday, June 24, 2018

Loflyt Review: Holden Calais Turbo Diesel Liftback


Mick McWilliams

21 June 2018

There's no question that the most difficult phase of Holdens transition to a full imported line up, is the replacement for the locally built Commodore. Not only has the Commodore been the star top seller for the brand, and the stalwart defender of the traditional Aussie performance car. It has also been the perceived ball and chain around their ankle, tying the brand to bogan culture. So, do they break the shackles, or feed the animal?

In case you don't know me, here are my credentials: 3-on-the-tree 202 HQ Kingswood, 3.8 VNII Commodore Executive sedan, 3.8 VPII Executive wagon, 3.8 VXII Executive sedan, 3.6 VZ Executive wagon, 3.6 VEII SV6 Sportwagon, 3.6 VFII SV6 Sportwagon.

I've been driving big Holdens since I first got my learners permit in the early 90's. I'm not even from a Holden family (My parents have owned everything from a combi to a Kia). Something about a 6-cylinder rwd Australian just felt right. Does a quarter of a century on the road, in the drivers seat (and owners seat) of each major platform since 1989, place me in good stead to ordain this new car as a worthy replacement?


I can only tell you if it does what I want it to do... 


The very strength of the Commodore brand is the diversity of it's capability. The sheer scope of configurations, in any other country, would have been broad enough to feed an entire brand. A work ute, a long wheel base Corvette you can sleep in the back of, a fleet favoured wagon geared towards field service support, a high powered mile eater, a first responder and a family car are just some of the general definitions of the shrunken final iteration of the Commodore family.  Prior to that, there was the one-tonner, the styleside dual cab, the AWD V8 SUV and more.

Did I mention the Caprice? A long wheel based version that was the darling of the livery/limo fleet including duty as the commonwealth car of choice. And let's not delve into the history of HDT and HSV, or we'll be here all day.

The dominance remained local, but the reputation was international. In America, claims of an affordable M5 in the Pontiac G8 (and aborted G8ST), and Chevrolet SS were loud enough to warrant adoption in NASCAR. Though it was merely a cosmetic honour, how many other foreign made cars have ever worn that badge? 

Paradoxically in the middle east, even though the V8 Supercar series raced there as Chevrolets, the bowtie is debadged and replaced with the Lion and Stone by local enthusiasts.

That's a pretty comprehensive list, backed up by on and off decades of leading the sales charts in Australia. This all adds up to hundreds of thousands of precedents creating different expectations over the life of a pretty remarkable reign. 

Great Expectations

So let's see what is on offer here. A diesel, front wheel drive lift back... It doesn't exactly pluck at the heart strings. None of those characteristics have even appeared in the aforementioned history (aside from the SSX VY concept liftback but that doesn't really count) Visually, it's a nice looking car but not particularly dramatic or polarising. There's no muscular stance or overt character. Instead there is a balance of form which uses sleek lines to shade the truth that this Commodore drives backwards. It is fine enough in details to evoke a European vibe, mainly due to the Koreans and Japanese becoming more adventurous. 

Looking from the front, the grille provides some family continuity with the Euro Astra (unsurprisingly as it hails from the same GM German arm). The Calais looks like the more grown up sibling and the conservative wheel design is similarly mature in aesthetic.

It looks as much like a VFII as the VE looked like the VZ, only this time, the successor looks slimmer than the superseded. But it doesn't look like a Commodore.

The Road to Success

The Calais arrived to fill impossibly big shoes, but it doesn't shy away from it's duty. While it can't possibly beat it's chest like a roaring LS3, the 125kW 2.0 turbo diesel does deliver a healthy dose of toque. Eight-speeds dealing out 400nm at 1750-2500RPM is just what the doctor ordered for hauling ass across our wide brown land. Not only did I enjoy the oomph, but with a sub 5L/100km (49 USMPG) performance in the economy stakes, I could disappear into the hills for a lot longer. And when I got there, the ride and handling all of a sudden started to feel a lot more like home. Only better.

Driving a Commodore has always been a challenge. Depending on the platform, there are always considerations that need to be made, like the touch throttle response of the VN in the rain, or the wallowy body roll of the early VTs (actually most of them). One common thread they had is the ability to steer with the throttle. Make no mistake. That quality is gone. 

For better or for worse, the ability for things to go pear shaped has been significantly reduced. The result is a concise and swift cornering experience, sans threat of imminent death.   

It's an upgrade in safety, but a downgrade in character. The achieved level of satisfaction? Well, that's down to your own expectations. I rate it as more competent, but less thrilling. 

Practical Makes Perfect

The family car aspect of the Commodore has always been important to me since, well, when I had a family. Each new kid has been picked up in a new Commodore. Each one has enabled the carrying of every manner of contraption, from the bouncer thingies to the double decker jogging prams. Since owning the VZ, we have been able to fit three baby seats wide, and 75 nappies deep. The Calais lift back loses a few points here as the roof line in the second row is a little cramped. It's contemporary in its width when compared to mid $40k SUVs but being lower, access is not as easy. 

It does get a win, however, as soon as you open the liftback. One issue with wagons is that you can't reach whatever you pack in first, which is invariably the my little pony colouring book that you need. This new configuration allows you to reach the entire luggage area with ease, and a huge area it is too. Loading it up is easy.

Sizeable Matters

Being in the top 95th percentile of largeness, I consider accommodation to be of pretty high importance. I fit into the Calais like a hotdog fits in a bun: comfortable but snug. The high centre console gives a cockpit type feel and the design of the dash adds to the cosseting. Jumping from my own VFII into the ZB it almost felt invasive, claiming space that was previously mine. After a few days though it felt more like the cabin controls and form were complimentary. Familiarity meant that closeness provided easier access to controls. The seat needed more girth (or I needed less), but ergonomically everything functioned logically, aside from the upside down wiper controls. It's on the correct side, but you push down for a single swipe, up for intermittent and variable speeds.

The only other notable size problem is where to stick your phone. My Xperia XZ Premium is too big to sit in the console when you plug in the usb cable for Android Auto (a must to use Google Maps for reliable navigation). There's no plan B for phone storage despite a purpose built wireless charging slot which is too scrawny if you use a phone cover. Similarly, if there are two people in the car with a phone...

Technically Correct

The Calais packs a decent feature pack, including the AEB collision alert and lane keeping assist. The MyLink setup is the fancier red and black "premium" version which looks far more attractive than the base model blue and grey. GPS is included but frustratingly doesn't respond to traffic conditions, giving false indications of arrival times when you are up to your eyeballs in the morning grind. Halogen lights let down the team from an aesthetic perspective but performance wise are decently bright. 

Multi function options are well managed through the steering controls, and easily observed on the central display. There are quite a number of personalisations available for lights, and alerts that are worth exploring. 

Auto parking is as good as ever and possibly more important because the view out of the liftback is pretty ordinary. Nonetheless it's deceptively easy to park, though maybe that's because I have been parking behemoths since day dot.

Of course remote start is a valuable feature, particularly as we head into winter. Nothing beats getting the car toasty warm before you arrive.

What's In A Name

This a bit of a cop out, but I can't tell you if they should have used the Commodore name on this rebadged Opel Insignia or not. The balance of what it does versus what it doesn't depends on the value you place on each capability. It's not a brash bellowing battleship, nor a drag strip warrior. It's not a work ute, or a skid pig. But it is a good value family car that provides enough space an comfort to conquer the shopping centre or the red centre. 

Just to make sure I wasn't dazzled by the shiny badge in my biased eyes, I put my father in law in the drivers seat. When you can put a smile on a farmers face, you're doing alright.

Finally, after decades of local dominance, the Commodore must, and can, compete on merit alone. A vegemite sandwich made with gruyere and Roggenmischbrot, it tastes familiar but it's no Hanenburger. Only you can decide if you like the taste. Just don't be afraid to take a bite because it's not your fathers/mothers/aunts/grand mothers/sisters/brothers Commodore.

The Hits:
Diesel economy is outstanding
$44k price tag is good value
Holden has matched industry best 7 Year unlimited KM warranty
Corners like I hoped it would
Classier than the VF
Family friendly second row

The Misses:
It drives backwards
Space saver spare
Roofline in second row is too low and too narrow

Of course this isn't the end of the story. We've barely scratched the surface of Holdens new tac. But we will. Stay tuned.

Find out what Holden has to offer for the EOFY sales. 7 Year Warranty is a pretty damn fine carrot! HOLDEN.COM.AU/offers


No comments:

Post a Comment