We drive the 2018 Holden Commodore

Your new Commodore is ready... almost. So-called 'IV' cars are 65 per cent finished.
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Your new Commodore is ready... almost. So-called 'IV' cars are 65 per cent finished.

 

So when is a Commodore not a Commodore? Some would say when it's not built in Australia, when it's not rear-wheel drive and when it has only four cylinders. But are they right?

Holden certainly doesn't think so. Not any more at least, judging by the prototype next-generation Commodore that we've just driven.

While Holden looked at a number of alternatives when it came to replacing the Aussie-built Commodore, the decision to use the all-new E2 architecture that underpins the forthcoming European Opel Insignia was really the only reasonable path to take.

Cars came from factory in disguise - even Holden's engineers haven't seen underneath.
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Cars came from factory in disguise - even Holden's engineers haven't seen underneath.

And in what is no doubt an effort to get us all used to the idea of such a radically different Commodore, Holden has taken the rather extraordinary step of giving journalists access to the car at a remarkably early stage of its development.

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NG Commodore is up to 300kg lighter than VF - and you really notice it.
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NG Commodore is up to 300kg lighter than VF - and you really notice it.

A trip to Holden's proving grounds at Lang Lang outside Melbourne put us in two pre-production "integration vehicles", or IVs as they are known.

Heavily disguised and straight from the factory in Russelsheim, Germany (where the final production cars will be built), the two cars were both 3.6-litre V6-powered AWD liftbacks. One had 80kg of extra weight strategically added to specific spots at the rear to simulate the wagon version.

The two cars are hand-built prototypes that will be used by Holden to develop local steering and chassis tuning for the AWD V6 variant in both wagon and liftback form.

Every body panel wears a plastic cover to disguise its shape.
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Every body panel wears a plastic cover to disguise its shape.

As such, they are referred to as "65 per cent" cars, meaning that the development is basically 65 per cent of the way through. To give you an idea of exactly how early in the process these cars are, 63 per cent is actually the first time it exists as a car, as opposed to a collection of parts, plans and ideas.

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As no suspension adjustments have been made on the IV cars yet, the ride has a distinctly European feel, with a controlled firmness that gives the Next Generation (NG) Commodore a confident, planted feel. While it's firm, it never felt flustered or harsh over the sometimes savage surfaces on Lang Lang's ride and handling circuit. This also goes for the steering which is beautifully weighted, nicely sharp and accurate.

Holden has been involved with the development of the car from the start, with the V6 AWD version being developed specifically at the Australian company's request (although other markets have since put their hands up for it). So it makes sense that the IV cars arrived fairly well sorted for local conditions.

Lang Lang, land of Holden development. And scene of our NG Commodore drive.
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Lang Lang, land of Holden development. And scene of our NG Commodore drive.

Being based on the European Insignia, the next Commodore is slightly smaller than the current VF Commodore and this is most noticeable in the back seats, with rear shoulder room being generous, but not as good as the VF.

Legroom is impressive, but rear headroom is restricted by the liftback body shape; Holden says this is due to the rear seats not being final-specification.

One other downside at the rear is access, with the doors not opening wide enough to make getting in and out truly easy. Up front, however, the new Commodore certainly feels like it has as much space as the existing car, with shoulder room being particularly impressive.

Because the NG Commodore will be slightly smaller than the VF, it is also considerably lighter, with a weight saving of 200-300kg depending on the model. This reduction is immediately obvious when driving the NG, which feels like a far more lively and responsive thing to chuck into a corner.

While Holden engineers have achieved power and torque figures of 230kW and 370Nm on the dyno, they admit that the IV cars aren't up to those levels yet.

Holden's vehicle development manager, Jeremy Tassone, says that the V6 Commodore will have a 0-100kmh time of around six seconds and while the cars we drove didn't feel quite that quick, they were still brisk.

The V6 engine is a development of the VF Commodore's 3.6-litre unit, with the addition of the Active Fuel Management (AFM) cylinder deactivation system previously seen on the Commodore's V8.

This allows the engine to shut down two cylinders when cruising to save fuel. It's a seamless system - so much so that even Holden's engineers admit they had to hook up a diagnostic computer to see when it was activating.

The new nine-speed automatic transmission is a beautifully smooth and fast unit and one that uses all of its ratios at local speeds - as opposed to only slipping into ninth at stratospheric autobahn speeds. This was something that Holden insisted on.

While the IV cars were AWD, they didn't have the clever torque vectoring system that will be fitted to production models, as the software iss still being developed.

While this early peek at the NG Commodore was all about the V6 AWD model, the lower level Commodores will be more controversial: FWD, 2.0-litre turbo, four-cylinder cars.

Holden isn't saying much about those yet, except to confirm that there will be a petrol and a diesel, they will be automatic only and that the petrol version will be "the most powerful base engine ever seen in a Commodore."

For now, the V6 AWD is a genuinely impressive machine. We can't wait to see what the other 35 per cent is like.

 - Stuff

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