Holden VE Commodore: The road tests

Holden VE Commodore

The marathon test: 5 days. 4 testers. 3 VEs.

First published in the September 2006 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.

Is Holden’s all-new Commodore the great engineering leap we had all hoped for? We found out by taking Omega, Calais V and SS V across 3300km of classic Aussie terrain.

By Peter Robinson

RACEY instantly recognises the VEs as she comes out of the Grand Central Hotel. Parked opposite her pub in High Street, Yea, the trio of red, blue and grey Commodores are impossible to miss, especially for somebody who takes an interest in cars.

Tracey’s words as she opens the door to Daphne’s Bakery, where we are too busy enjoying focaccia and Parma pie for conversation, grab our attention. “The Calais is beautiful, just beautiful inside,” she gushes, explaining to a female friend. “Yes, that’s the grey one.”

A child is dispatched to find Wayne, the chef from the hotel, whose customised FJ also sits outside. Brad arrives from the bakery kitchen. Both admit to being car fanatic, and want to talk about and see the VEs. Wayne drives a WH Statesman; had a VT Clubsport. They already know the new Commodore basics.

Holden -VE-Commodore -CalaisAre they worried about the recent hike in petrol prices?

“Nah … I’m pretty easy with the fuel,” says Wayne, dismissing the question. “You can’t beat a Statesman for comfort; it’s a cruisie.”

Tracey confesses to driving a Nissan Maxima, but has fallen for the Calais, loving its modern styling and interior. We can smell temptation. The boys want to listen to the hero Holden Commdoore SS V.

“You can’t hear it… They’re too quiet,” mutters Brad. We explain that the engineers had deliberately siphoned off the induction noise to the interior, while the level of exhaust is dictated by 74-decibel drive-by rules.

The scene, which will be universally repeated at every stop on our 3300km trek, takes us to the very heart of Commodore Country.

Beyond the capital cities – and especially trendoid Sydney – we discover that mainstream Australians continue to demand roomy, comfortable, big cars powered by at least six cylinders. These country folk are loyal to their Australian cars, and take a special pride in knowing they are built to cope with tough conditions, whether extreme temperatures or outback roads.

Literally, without exception, everybody we meet loves the new Commodore’s styling. If our anecdotal evidence is any guide, the VE is already a winner.

Holden -VE-Commodores -driving -roadWednesday

Lang Lang to Hay, 553km

THE SENSE of nostalgia is palpable. Hope none of the youngsters catches my smile. Dare I own up; can it really be almost 30 years since the Lang Lang magazine press drive for the first Holden Commodore? Easy, do the sums. I remember that day in August 1978 when the VB went beyond all our expectations. Is it possible, I wonder, for the new all-Australian VE to make a similar quantum leap?

The road-test team, as well as editor Bulmer, spent yesterday at the Holden proving ground running the numbers, searching out objective first impressions and snapping the snaps. I’m in Wheels’ B-team, with associate editor John Carey, road-test editor Nathan Ponchard,

and special projects co-ordinator David ‘Macca’ McCarthy. Our assignment is to depart Lang Lang in three disparate VEs for a five-day drive-fest across Australia’s south-eastern corner.

Seeing the VEs on the skidpan, my fond memories are quickly overwhelmed by a desire for wheel time, and I realise, again, that nothing in motoring journalism beats the thrill of driving the next generation of a best-seller. Forget new Ferraris and Lamborghinis; these cars are relevant.

I don’t want to fuel any preconceptions, but can’t help asking: how’s the base car with the ancient four-speed automatic?

Technical editor Mike McCarthy’s non-committal answer, after his Lang Lang drive, only heightens my anticipation.

Holden -VE-Commodores -driving -sideI plan to start with Everyman’s Commodore – the entry-level Omega – because experience has taught me that this is the way these things should be done. Besides, I am desperate to know if the VE’s refinement, and possible world-class potential, is compromised by the four-speed auto that looks to be the only potential weak link in the package. Ponch and photographer Wielecki are assigned the 6.0-litre SS V, Carey and Macca the Calais V. Our VEs are autos: four-, five- and six-speeds, in itself a fascinating contrast, and I momentarily ponder if any other car maker has ever offered such a choice of automatics in one model.

Fuel tanks carefully brimmed, we set off. The Omega cabin is welcoming – contemporary without being complicated, and spacious. With the higher waistline and shallower glasshouse, the VE is more a car you wear, as opposed to the sit-in feel of the previous-generation Commodores. After adjusting the seat – pleased to find electric cushion height adjustment is standard – and wheel, I’m immediately comfortable, though it is obvious both the cushion and seatback are flat and lacking in lateral support. Controls seem intuitive, easy to use, but it’s strange that the wiper stalk works in the opposite direction to previous Commodores. Must be a consequence of the switch to an American electrical system. With but a couple of minor exceptions, quality is impressive. Only the all-plastic steering wheel betrays this as the poverty model. Not sure about the visibility; those A-pillars are thick.

Better to drive? Oh yes. Just a few hundred metres down the road and I’m already in love with the steering. The VE feels far lighter on its feet and more agile – despite the extra 120kg mass. The on-centre dead patch and inconsistent weighting of the VZ – what the Holden engineers call ‘ghost steering’ – has vanished. The steering is now linear in its reactions, offers true feel with exactly the right level of self-centreing, and has an unfailing predictability that inspires confidence. It is also quick without being nervous, yet its inherent stability is also obvious. Hands-off at 110km/h, the VE tracks perfectly over small undulations, the perception of being planted achieved without detracting from a real ability to change direction eagerly.

Holden -VE-Commodores -dirt -roadCarey’s just as keen. At our first photographic stop, deep into the lovely roads of the Great Dividing Range between Cockatoo and Healesville, he jumps out of the Calais V and commands our attention. “Doesn’t it feel wonderfully agile; there’s no glugginess around on-centre.”

Then he pauses, knowing the significance of his next statement. “The steering and ride are as good, or better, than any BMW.”

Nobody argues. Says Ponchard, “Yeah, better than a Bimmer. It feels at least 10 years ahead of the old car.”

Well, it should, of course, but clearly the dynamics engineers have accepted the challenge and exploited the new chassis to the full. The VE’s achievement is to combine this nimbleness and grip with superb ride comfort and excellent body control. The Omega, on the default FE1 suspension and deep 225/60R16 Bridgestone Turanzas, soaks up small bumps with no hint of low-speed impact harshness. Choppy blacktop is absorbed by the suspension, leaving the driver isolated from the reality of the road surface. That first morning, the manner in which the VE loped effortlessly along any road, V6 running quietly at a tad below 2000rpm at 110km/h, car tracking honestly, became my defining memory ofthe Omega.

Time to concentrate on the drivetrain. At idle, the 180kW Alloytec V6 is more civilised than VZ, but tapping gently into the throttle at around 1500-2500rpm, the until-then overwhelming sense of refinement is shattered. A nasty engine wheeze-growl over the next 1000rpm is out of character and at odds with the engine’s responsive performance and smoothness. It is better than in VZ, but disappointing, especially when the ancient 4L60-E four-speeder, upgraded for one last time, isn’t anything like the burden I expected. No more clonks when Drive is engaged, or jerks as it upshifts close to maximum power. The thing actually shifts fluently, the tacho needle’s wide arc on upchanges confirming the broadly spaced ratios. Acceleration is spirited, and it is obvious the re-mapping of the electronic accelerator has notably improved part-throttle performance. Now there is a clear sense that the torque curve is flatter, and the power more accessible.

Silver -Holden -VE-Commodore -rear

After the Yea experience, I trade Omega for Calais. No denying the lift in interior ambience; this is one classy cabin. Threading along the sweeping roads close to the Goulburn River, I’m impressed. For starters, the mid-range rumble barely exists on the twin-exhaust V6, which is happy to sing out to 6800rpm, 700rpm higher than the single-exhaust variant. The engine note is never quite inspired, but it does sound convincing. Gearchanges are faster and even more flowing, and the Calais feels marginally quicker and more responsive.

Just when I’m beginning to believe the Calais drivetrain and chassis represent the VE sweet-spot, the road surface goes from beautifully smooth to a series of small, inconsistent undulations. Ride comfort deteriorates instantly, and I’m aware of bumps the Omega would not have allowed through to the cabin.

Then I remember that the Calais rides on the same FE2 sports suspension as the SS. We can blame two former Holden executives, chairman Peter Hanenberger and designer Mike Simcoe, who apparently insisted the top version of the VE should be aimed squarely at the BMW 530i in ride and handling. Certainly, body control is improved and it feels more sporting, but I wonder if the taut ride is a touch too firm, especially when compared with the lush comfort of the Omega.

In Rochester, while refuelling, we meet Kevin, whose first Holden 47 years ago was a 48-215, which he calls an FX. Apart from three Fords, Kevin has owned 15 Holdens, including his current Jackaroo. Fuel prices are not an issue. Kevin, too, knows the nitty-gritty of the VE, and plans to choose between the Commodore and Toyota’s new Aurion when he next buys new later this year.

North of the Murray River, the roads are arrow-straight and potentially boring. With the SS set at 110km/h on the fussy speedometer, the bent-eight is barely above idle at 1650rpm, and I’m comfortable in the deep buckets. Dip into the throttle and the level of performance catches you unawares. The drivetrain calmly slips down a gear, or two or three, to transform the SS into a thundering muscle car. All-purposeful, blisteringly quick, and capable of scything through sweepers that would have a VZ SS teetering.

Holden -VE-Commodores -HighwayOver dinner, I don’t have to raise the ride issue before Carey is on a new hobby horse. We unanimously agree that Holden needs to look at a suspension tuning mid-way between FE1 and FE2 for the Calais. We do argue about the relative merits of the Omega versus Calais steering. On the Calais, it is slightly heavier and feels quicker. Since there is no change to the valving or rack ratio, we put this down to the thin 245/45R18 tyres and standard FE2 suspension. Omega wins this battle, too. Good day, then, with the prospect of dirt tomorrow.


Hay to Broken Hill, 909km

DESIRABLE doesn’t begin to explain the gorgeous looks. The VE is skilfully resolved and dramatically proportioned, a seemingly simple shape that becomes more complex – for example, the taper of the glasshouse – as you absorb the details and subtle surfacing. What strikes us is the appropriateness in the differentiation between the three contrasting variants: the macho SS V is always first to attract attention, its 19-inch alloys mesmerising in the way they pack the wheel-arches. The Omega is handsome if a little plain, and looks smaller than the more elegant Calais, which inevitably becomes the crowd favourite. “It looks a hundred grand’s worth of car,” says Ernie, who’s owned a series of Commodores, and achieves 30mpg (9.4 litres per 100km) with his VZ’s cruise control set at 112km/h. If there is a slightly awkward angle on VE, it is dead front-on, when the amazingly prominent flares look almost contrived.

Heading north across the Hay Plain at the wheel of the Omega, I reckon it is so flat and featureless I can see the curvature of the earth. The sky is bigger and the Cobb Highway virtually untravelled. Middle-East customers can be assured that directional stability above 200km/h is a revelation compared with the VZ.

Holden -VE-Commodore -road -test

Wielecki insists on more photographs, then it’s time for the Calais. The tauter, crisper character is immediately apparent. In terms of ride and tyre sensitivity to the road texture, it’s much closer to the SS than the softer Omega.

However, I want to experiment with the drivetrain. Is it, as we suspected yesterday, too keen to downchange?

Sit at 110km/h in Drive, nudge the accelerator. Sure enough, and for no obvious reason, after a fleeting moment the transmission slides down to fourth. Lift off and it’s instantly back to fifth.

Part-throttle kickdown is a brilliant feature, but the five-speed-auto Calais is too sensitive to small inputs, especially when the engine’s torque is entirely capable of doing the job. Too often the tranny second-guesses your moves and gets it wrong. Oh, and the leather wheel looks great, but the wrapping exaggerates the size of the already overly large spokes.

Outside Ivanhoe’s Presso Cafe, the VEs serve as an introduction to Paula, who drives a VS. “No way would I change to a small car,” she tells us. Stephen, a shearer, adds, “Everyone’s got money in their pockets out here; there is nowhere to spend it. Petrol prices don’t worry us.”

Rain right through the previous week has closed the Cobb Highway north to Wilcannia. After checking, we elect to take the gravel road south west to Balranald.

It is an inspired choice; even the SS V on 245/40 rubber relishes the mostly smooth, sandy surface. Our trio runs effortlessly, soaking up the cattlegrids, where the body structure feels utterly unbreakable. The ESP tuning, too, might have been set on this road it works so well.

In Broken Hill, Commodore owners Wayne, Troy, Mathew and Gus have been searching all over to find the VEs they’ve heard are in town.

“You from Wheels?” asks Wayne, adding, as if to prove the blue-red divide remains as strong as it ever was, “I’m proud to drive a Holden; it speaks for itself. God made shit and Ford powers it.”

Holden -VE-Commodores -on -asphalt


Broken Hill to Murray Bridge, 709km

PETER, who runs the servo where we fill up, is on the ground under the VE checking the rear suspension. “About time,” he says, splaying his arms outward to form a wide vee. “No more camber changes.”

You can’t come to Broken Hill without a detour to Silverton and the famous Mad Max pub. The road out winds and dips, limiting speed to 100km/h and stretching the suspension to full travel in both directions, but the VEs remain composed.

That, I reflect, is the essence of what the VE makeover brings to the Commodore.

The progress in refinement leaps a decade and impacts on virtually every aspect of the car, from structural rigidity to steering feel to cockpit finish. For long-time Commodore owners there is so much to like here, for, with a couple of exceptions, the rawness of VZ has been eliminated.


Murray Bridge to Heywood, 630km

MUST admit, I predicted the new six-speed auto would transform the SS driveline from uncouth to polished. Mostly, it performs to expectations, slurring from ratio to ratio imperceptibly, but not always. Occasionally, Ponch, Carey and I each have the engine revs flare on second-to-third changes in both manual and auto shifts. A one-off fault? We’ll let you know.

Two months before the WM on-sale date and we come across a new Caprice in Kingston. What are the odds? It wears the same three UAM rego letters as two of our cars.

Rod Keane runs the Elizabeth manufacturing operation and we go for a quick spin in the long-wheelbase version. He’s well informed, already knowing that we snapped the VEs in front of Holden’s Elizabeth assembly plant last night.


Heywood to Fishermans Bend, 499km

I ACCEPT that on the Lang Lang ride and handling circuit employed by the Wheels’ road testers, the Calais and SS, with their superior grip and body control, will be more entertaining and satisfying than the Omega. But in the real world, the Omega’s relaxed manners remind me of the way XJ Jags behaved in their prime. Calm, self-confident, and graceful.

On the Great Ocean Road and across the Otway Ranges, the Omega easily maintains station with the others. Yes, all four brakes smoke profusely after a quick downhill run, but the pedal is always strong. Couldn’t say that about the VZ. Impressive as the Calais and SS are, on this journey it is the entry-level $36,000 Omega that shines as the VE masterwork.

Yes, another quantum leap.

Thunder and Reign: VE Commodore SS-V v Chrysler 300C v FPV Falcon GT

Holden’s new flagship sports sedan isn’t about to be intimidated by the bellow of its much-pricier opposition. But does the SS V really deserve to rule as the muscle-car for the masses?

First published in the October 2006 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.

By Bruce Newton

IT’S LATE in the afternoon on a crisp and clear winter’s day. This back road, just a patched-up, thin-bitumen strip, winds out across open ground, climbs over a brow, then dips away behind another bald hill.

Weak, golden light is washing across the SS V’s sculpted body, polishing its 19-inch alloy wheels. Inside, we’re being lulled by a soothing ride and the 6.0-litre V8’s background burble.

Holden -Commodore -Chrysler -300-and -FPV-GT-parkedThe GT and SRT8 are receding in the mirror. Surprising. We’re only cruising. Aren’t we? No, as it turns out, we’re not. The speedo needle is sitting steady on … well, a lot. Surprise turns to astonishment.

This is the essence of Holden’s Commodore SS V, the sports sedan flagship of the $1 billion VE range. Performance and poise have been melded almost surreptitiously. It’s a combination that can electrify nerve endings one minute, and tranquillise them the next.

It’s this breadth and depth that prompted our last issue’s declaration that SS V sets “a new standard for Aussie muscle cars”. Now it’s time to find out if we were overcome by the moment, or calling it correctly.

The obvious comparison would be with the Falcon XR8, maybe even the Falcon XR6 Turbo. But we’ve set our targets higher. After all, if this car is that good, then let’s test it against the best the opposition has to offer.

Hence, SS V finds itself here up against the FPV Falcon GT, a car with a famous badge and a level of dynamic ability that has been judged superior to anything HSV has previously pitched at it, let alone Holden. 

If the GT is the benchmark, then Chrysler’s 300C SRT8 is the bench-presser. Austrian, not Australian-made, it’s nevertheless been developed by Chrysler’s Street and Race Technology division as if it had Down Under on top of its destination priority list. A 6.1-litre V8 engine feeds 317kW and 568Nm to the 20-inch rear wheels – the biggest set of numbers here on all four counts.

Holden -Commodore -Chrysler -300-and -FPV-GT-trackBut apply the brakes here for a sec. Sure, this all makes sense on technical and performance terms, but not when it comes to pricing. At $53,990, the six-speed automatic version of SS V is nearly $10,000 cheaper than the GT, and a massive $18,000 below the (five-speed, auto-only) SRT8.

So how do we justify that? We don’t. For the purpose of this exercise, the dollar cost is not central to the outcome. For now we’ll concentrate on the driving.

So, that means a visit to Melbourne’s Calder Park, and the first chance to compare the L98 version of the Gen IV V8 with its rivals in a straight line. A close relation of the L76 that debuted with the VZ SS back in January 2006, L98 is denuded of dormant displacement-on-demand hardware. The kilowatt count climbs 10kW to 270kW, and torque is now set at 530Nm, up from 510Nm. Familiar are the vital measurements, all-alloy construction, and pushrods actuating two-valves per-cylinder.

New is GM’s 6L80E six-speed auto, a long overdue replacement for the old four-speed 4L60/65 series that has boat-anchored the back of Holden V8s for years.

On this day, the Calder surface isn’t brilliant. The launch area is slick and we have to set up in the final turn and hope to have grip sorted before arriving on the front-straight skating rink. No worries. With stability control on – that’s right, on – the Commodore hunkers down and spits out a 5.8/13.9 run. It really is as easy as that. Such is the user-friendliness and responsiveness of the drivetrain. It surely can go lower, but today there are other cars to test, so its time to move on.

Holden -Commodore -Chrysler -300-and -FPV-GT-drivingFirst to the Chrysler. The Hemi engine is of the same pushrod genre as the L98, just with plenty more of all the good stuff. Yet the SRT8 is no quicker to 100km/h, or across the 400m, than the Holden. That’s because the time is not quite as easy to extract. Stability control is too intrusive to be left on, yet it’s all too easy to go up in smoke with it off. Good run or bad, this drivetrain still makes a fantastic noise, bellowing through the gears, backfiring majestically on the one-two flat-knacker change. Gotta love it, just gotta love it.

The Chrysler’s immense ability is best shown by its 3.1sec 80-120km/h overtaking figure. By now truly hooked up, it’s 0.4sec faster than the Holden and 0.6 ahead of the GT.

Ah yes, the GT. The Falcon’s 5.4-litre Boss 290 V8 should be right in the hunt in theory. Double overhead cams, four-valves per cylinder, 290kW, 530Nm and the backing of ZF’s marvellous 6HP26 six-speed auto all read a good game. But in the heat of battle, the engine’s capacity disadvantage, narrow rev range and tall gearing have made for some disappointing results in the past.

Not this time. The name’s the same but the identity’s been changed.

This GT feels alive, revving more freely and eagerly than we remember. Even the noise is more athletic and inspiring. It still chops off at 6000rpm, giving up 200rpm to the Holden and 400rpm to the Chrysler, but there’s character and ability here – so much so that the GT cracks the 6.0 barrier (5.98) and just misses going under 14.0 (14.1). That is with traction control off and the ZF handling the shifts in performance mode. With more time quicker runs felt probable, not possible.

Move from track to the open road and the black and white world painted by Calder

Park’s confines becomes more subtly shaded.

FPV-Gt -drifting -front -sideThe SRT8 is still the easiest to understand because its contrasts are so obvious. It looks so bullish and brazen with its trellis grille, bulging fenders and deep sides that it simply banishes the locals from the spotlight. And, for some, that is all that’s needed.

But the SRT8 is less special once you clamber inside. Its steering wheel is too big and not reach adjustable, although its rim is nice and slim; the heavy bolstering of its seat back can’t compensate entirely for the shortness of its squab. The squared-off centre console is big on presence, but less convincing when it comes to fit, finish and trim quality. And, for a car with a 3050mm wheelbase, more rear-seat space is expected.

And yet, despite those massive 245/45ZR20 front and 255/45ZR20 rear Goodyear Eagle F1s, this is the quietest of these three cars. This is, perhaps, less surprising when you consider that the 300C owes much technically to the superseded W210 Mercedes-Benz E-class.

But that magnificent engine beat can never be quelled. It signals that the SRT8’s sheer grunt is unrivalled even with one less gear ratio than its rivals. It could probably survive adequately with three-on-the-tree. Want to punch out of a corner, up a hill or past slower traffic (and most of it will be)? Then the Hemi delivers with forceful, irresistible enthusiasm.

Wheels last drove this very car for the May issue and it’s noticeable how much the engine has freed up with a few thousand more kays. It doesn’t feel much more potent, but certainly more even, delivering from basement to ceiling. This is also reflected in overall fuel consumption on-test that ended at 14.7L/100km. That’s excellent, considering that its claimed average is 14.0L/100km, and that the SRT version misses out on the fuel-saving Multiple Displacement System (MDS).

Chrysler -300-drifting -rear -sideBut the SRT8’s sheen dulls dynamically. Even driving round town is a challenge, given the limited visibility from the driver’s seat, its massive turning circle, its low-hanging front airdam, and very graunchable alloy wheels. A slab to the inventor of parking sensors, please.

Negotiating our chopped up bitumen, the SRT8’s ride quality is too easily disturbed. That massive wheel and tyre combination contributes to this, but it also feels like there’s a shortage of suspension travel, and that the compression-damping in the rear is underdone.

When cornering hard, the SRT8’s steering is too light and vague. There’s plenty of input as the car struggles for body control on surfaces the other two glide straight over, but not a lot that’s helpful. They’re big tyres, but figuring out where they’re pointing is sheer guesswork at times.

They provide massive lateral grip, although understeer eventually emerges in tight corners, and all that torque will inevitably wrench the rear end loose if you try hard enough. Just make sure there’s run-off room if you want to experiment. There’s also a flightiness from the rear end when the big Brembo brakes are applied hard. Cope with that, and the compensation is undoubtedly the best, most consistent and confidence-inspiring stopping ability on this test.

No surprise the GT is faster cross-country than the Chrysler, despite being blitzed in a straight line. This is a well-named car, truly a grand tourer and its firm but thoroughly impressive chassis handles the rough and tough with authority.

Holden -Commodore -Chrysler -300-and -FPV-GT-rearThat’s despite its tall, heavy engine that not only explains the bonnet power bulge, but also why this car feels very much like it is driven on the nose. You can push hard into tighter corners before the front-end gives way, the rear-end is secure and bodyroll is minimal.

The ZF marshalls the engine expertly – something backed up by the best fuel consumption figures on test at 14.0L/100km. This is a figure that actually undercuts the 15.0L/100km official claim. We can only surmise that this is a particularly efficient example of the breed, just as it’s a fast one…

The GT has its issues. On crappier surfaces, it moves around, signalling its stiff set-up. Its 19-inch Dunlops feed a fair amount of road noise into the cabin, its steering is too light for some, and its big Brembo brakes start strong but fade noticeably. And surely stability control should at least be optional for a car with this performance potential.

In essence though, there’s a subtle ability here that makes the GT impressive and confidence-inspiring. Perhaps the real issue is that optional racer stripes aside, the GT looks too much like a regular Falcon. Inside, it’s hardly any more auspicious, although it all works well and comfortably – just like an XT or Fairmont.

No such problems for the Commodore. One of VE’s highlights is the way model streams have been differentiated. That applies not only to design, but driving as well. And that’s where much of the VE’s brilliance comes from, not only designing a quality set of components, but refining and individualising them to suit each model.

Holden -Commodore -Chrysler -300-and -FPV-GT-driving -roadThere’s an acuity to the SS V’s tuning and a delicacy of balance rare in an 1803kg car (67kg lighter than the GT, and 85kg lighter than the SRT8 by the way). It’s never more obvious than when the bonnets of all three cars are opened. The VE’s L98 disappears down and back under the cowl, while the Boss thrusts up as if ready to spring from the engine bay. The Hemi is big, impressive and well forward. It’s not hard to surmise which one has the lowest centre of gravity and best weight balance.

Underpinning it all is the VE’s immensely strong body, whose vital importance becomes obvious when the SS V travels the same roads as the SRT8 and the GT. It is undoubtedly set up softer than the other two, with more give and body roll. Paradoxically, it manages to produce more linear and talkative steering, intimately communicative handling and progressive, impressive grip.

On roads too tight, winding and rough for either of its rivals to enjoy, the SS V hunkers down and lockjaws its sticky Bridgestone Potenza RE050As onto the bitumen. For the driver it’s confidence-inspiring and flattering. Yet, the SS V is still more comfortable than the GT as well as better-handling. The SRT is simply miles behind on both counts.

Of course, the Yank hauls itself back into contention in a straight line, but the Commodore is close enough to be competitive. The L98 is a powerful engine made great by its beautifully calibrated electronic throttle. Response is instant, strong and sweet.

Get over-enthusiastic with the right foot and the subtly tuned Bosch stability control will intervene, but its chassis is good enough to look after most challenges by itself.

Holden -VE-Commodore -driving -sideWhere SS V gives way to both the Chrysler and Ford is in its transmission. The 6L80 is far superior to the old GM four-speed, of course, but sports mode produces an unpredictable sharpness and occasional coarseness that surprises. In manual mode, there’s a plasticky shift that can’t compare with the ZF’s more mechanical change. Holden acknowledges that there is still work to be done, calibrating changes to the 6L80E’s software even as VE goes on sale.

Our SS V also produced the worst fuel consumption figures on test at 15.1L/100km. That compares with the 14.3 official claim and the 12.4 figure Robbo and co achieved, in this same car, over the duration of their 10,000km VE drive (Wheels September). So, there are better results to be had.

The other obvious SS V issue is brakes. Again, these are undoubtedly improved from the old VZ set-up, but still lag behind the Chrysler and Ford. The pedal never offers the same secure feedback or sheer power, and it gets longer as time and stops go by. The hot tip is optioning the police pad apparently, which creates more brake dust, but delivers better performance.

The braking set-up is the one obvious example of the SS V’s cheaper admission price intruding on its drive experience. Other minor quibbles might include the underside of its rear wing being basic black rather than body colour, while inside the battery voltage and oil-pressure digital readouts look amazingly cheap.

Meanwhile, the small numerals in the instrument gauges, carry-over cruise control stalk, lack of rear door grab-handles and relocation of the window and mirror adjusters to the centre console are issues not isolated to the sporty SS V.

But its cabin still makes a positive – if dark – impression. The steering wheel feels just right, its front seats have long squabs that actually fit boofy Aussie blokes, and the carefully crafted centre stack works logically, as does the delivery of information.

Outside, from any angle except front-on, the SS V looks like a great Aussie muscle car should – cut, purposeful, and poised to go, with quad pipes adding more drama. But there’s also an elegance here that says there’s more to this car than you would have traditionally expected.

Of course, the Chrysler has more visual impact and power and the GT is still a fine performance car any Ford fan would love. But there’s no doubt the Commodore SS V now sets the standard. Average brakes and transmission gremlins can’t tarnish the sheer versatility and achievement of this car. There’s now no need for astonishment when rivals disappear rearwards – they’re simply in their rightful place. Trailing the new King.

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