High-performance Commodores to live on

TOBY HAGON
Last updated 13:28 15/02/2013
Holden VF Commodore SS-V.
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Holden is considering splitting the volume-selling and performance versions of its Commodore large car into two distinct models beyond the life of the just-unveiled new VF Commodore.

Whereas high performance Commodores have always been based on the fleet-focused models – but with a V8 engine and other performance modifications - it's understood Holden is looking at a distinct model line to sell alongside the all-new 2017 Commodore it confirmed last week.

The move is a radical departure from what Holden has done throughout the 35-year life of the Commodore and reflects the shift towards global vehicles rather than a Commodore designed by Australians for those in this part of the world.

But it's a move seen as necessary to make the Commodore more relevant with the fleet buyers who have switched to vehicles such as the Toyota Camry while still appealing to the enthusiasts who continue to flock to V8 performance models. 

Whereas the Commodore has always driven the rear wheels and been powered traditionally by a six- or eight-cylinder engine, the new 2017 model that will be produced locally is expected to shift to front-wheel-drive and have the option of four-cylinder engines, something that will bring significant fuel economy savings.

There is also likely to be a petrol-electric hybrid version of the new 2017 Commodore, something Devereux has hinted at previously.

"We definitely have some ideas around all sorts of different powertrains, be they diesel powertrains ... or e-assist [partially electric] that are pretty popular," he told Drive in 2011.

The shift to two distinct Commodore models – whether such models would both be badged as Commodore remains to be seen - is being forced by the imminent change in the ethos of the next Commodore. It's also seen as a necessary move to meet ever tightening fuel use and emissions targets.

Yet enthusiasts will inevitably demand rear-wheel-drive, which is considered by large car diehards as necessary for towing, superior for driving dynamics and suitable for higher performance applications.

Indeed Holden chairman and managing director Mike Devereux has previously said rear-wheel-drive is crucial to the flavour of the Commodore.

"I think [rear-wheel-drive] it's absolutely critical," Devereux said in 2010. "It's a critical part of the DNA."

The challenge is where to get that rear-drive architecture in a world that has migrated almost entirely to front-wheel-drive (or all-wheel-drive) for most mainstream models.

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While Australians have been the mainstay for affordable rear-drive sedans, the layout is making a renaissance in the US with cars such as the Chrysler 300 and – soon – the Commodore, which will be exported as a Chevrolet SS. Other markets, such as the Middle East, also appreciate rear-drive performance models.

At January's Detroit motor show General Motors' North American boss Mark Reuss hinted that the company was considering a rear-wheel-drive platform for mainstream models, which could presumably include a large performance sedan such as the Commodore.

GM already uses rear-drive on performance models such as the Chevrolet Corvette and Camaro as well as various Cadillacs. Combined – and assuming the Chevrolet SS that will exported to the US from Australia is a success - it could lead to viable global volume for a rear-drive car.

When asked whether GM would build another rear-drive architecture for mainstream models Reuss said: ''Right now we're going to experiment with [Chevrolet] SS as it stands and see what happens.''

"We've got an [Chevrolet] Impala as the bookend on the experiment, which is a car that is roughly in that size category that's front-wheel-drive and the architecture potentially would yield all-wheel-drive as well."

When pushed further he refused to comment.

"I can't really talk about future product in that detail – that's a really big competitive advantage."

Another shorter term and more affordable option is to simply continue with the current VE and VF Commodore architecture, something Devereux has already said is an option to satisfy the still substantial local demand for the Commodore ute – a body style unlikely to continue as part of the 2017 Commodore project – and the police cars Holden exports to the US.

Clearly it's something that has been discussed at high levels, with Reuss also talking about the possibility of continuing with existing Commodore underpinnings.

"It's all paid for, it's all there," said Reuss. "The plant has space. We'll deal with it at a later time. We want to be flexible."

Devereux said the company has the luxury of time on what would be a significant decision for the troubled local manufacturing operations.

"We don't have to make that decision right now - we can gauge what happens with PPV sales," he says. "We have some time on the export potential on VF [Commodore] to figure out what we want to do post its Australian life cycle.

The move would also potentially give Holden's performance partner HSV – or Holden Special Vehicles – more life for its V8 range.

HSV is one of the world's most successful performance offshoots, with high brand recognition – albeit predominantly in Australia and New Zealand – and steady sales.

The Commodore that will be exported to the US is expected to use many components reserved for HSV versions in Australia, including a 6.2-litre V8 engine.

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