ROAD TEST: Life after death for Commodore
These are desperate days for Holden. The core appeal and identity of the brand - its Australian engineering and manufacturing heritage - vaporised when the VFII series Commodore ceased production in October.
In March, its market share dropped to 4.8 per cent, its worst ever result. Holden faces a monumental task just to stay alive, let alone reinvent itself, simply because it had so much invested in its "Australianness".
"Let's Go There" is Holden's new slogan. The obvious, but unanswered, question is "Where?"
It's early days but the new ZB Commodore, built by European brand Opel (offloaded by General Motors last year to the French PSA group, which makes Citroen and Peugeot) is selling at less than half the rate of the VFII.
I'm not going to compare the two cars. That's pointless - the homegrown Commodore is dead and there is no afterlife in the car business, only a sad shuffle through used car lots, then a date with the crusher. It's time to drive on.
Drive-away prices for the ZB Commodore kick off at $39,955 for the LT Liftback and $35,990 for the LT Sportwagon. We're in the mid-spec RS Sportwagon, at $43,800.
It's powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo that drives the front wheels via a nine-speed automatic.
In addition to the LT spec, the pseudo-sporty RS has stylish 18-inch alloys and a body kit, plus more supportive, power-adjustable front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and power tailgate with hands-free foot swipe operation.
Starter kit includes a seven-inch screen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, semi-automatic perpendicular and parallel parking, remote starting, keyless entry, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers and automatic headlights.
Holden is trying to give ZB sales a rev up with a seven-year/unlimited kilometre warranty deal. Servicing - for the first three years at least - is cheap but gets more expensive from year four.
So running costs should be low, apart from the 2.0-litre's preference for 95 octane premium fuel. According to industry valuer Redbook, resale values - never a strong point on Commodores - will be low too.
Redbook reckons on the RS Sportwagon pulling just 35 per cent of its new price as a trade-in after three years/60,000km and in average condition.
After five years/100,000km, it's a worst-in-industry rate of 18 per cent - a Mazda6 Touring wagon gets 36 per cent.
The sports driver's seat in the RS, with a firm, extendable cushion and supportive side bolstering, is exceptionally comfortable for tall drivers on a long journey. You sit low, in quite a sporty position, with plenty of room to move in the twin cockpit.
The test car was squeak and rattle free, apart from excessive wind noise around an imperfectly sealed driver's door. Tyre noise on coarse country bitumen was also excessive.
MyLink has limited functionality in the RS. It does without stand-alone voice control, navigation, digital radio, traffic updates and speed limit information.
Rear legroom is vast, headroom is fine and the firm, high bench will suit kids in restraints. Vents and two USB charge ports are provided.
A low, long boot floor easily extends via the 60-40 split-folding rear seat back to a flat two metres, and even in five-seater mode you get greater load capacity than many SUVs.
The LT has autonomous emergency braking, effective lane-keeping assist, distance indicator to the car in front plus audible and visual forward collision alerts. The RS adds blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
Peak torque of 350Nm kicks in at a high (by turbo standards) 3000rpm. This lack of bottom end grunt is effectively masked by tightly packed lower transmission ratios, so responsiveness is reasonable and, in the main, the nine-speed works unobtrusively and efficiently.
The ZB is not a sporty car - despite 191kW of peak power at 5500rpm, the top end is a non-event. All you get is an anguished whine and slurred shifts, almost like a continuously variable transmission. No paddle-shifters are fitted.
Even with automatic stop-start, the 2.0-litre can use up to 14L/100km in city traffic. Average consumption in suburbia is 9-11L/100km. On the highway, where tall gearing keeps revs at an absolute minimum, the RS returns 6-7L/100km.
Holden's local engineering input and the relatively light weight of the four-cylinder models (a trim 1569kg for the RS Sportwagon) show in its rock-solid roadholding, confident, agile handling, light, precise steering and firm, yet compliant and comfortable ride.
It's a lot more enjoyable to drive at speed than any comparably sized SUV.
OK, I know they don't make the Commodore here any more but I've had a few. They've been honest, reliable cars and this one has a lot of 21st-century tech in a good value package.
I'm not sentimental but I know a good car when I see one. I'm tempted to wait a bit for the inevitable drive-away discount deals, though. Holden's pain will surely be my gain.
MAZDA6 TOURING, $40,485 d/a
Outstanding quality and design, with a refined, fuel-efficient 138kW 2.5-litre/six-speed auto. Small (506L) boot and high servicing costs.
SKODA SUPERB 162TSi, $45,390 d/a
The best value wagon on the market. Punchy, frugal 162kW 2.0-litre turbo/six-speed auto, huge (660L) boot, all the safety gear and parent-friendly design throughout.
HOLDEN COMMODORE RS SPORTWAGON
PRICE $39,490 (average)
WARRANTY/SERVICE $817 for 3 years (cheap), 7-yr w'ty (long)
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo, 191kW/350Nm (above average)
SAFETY 5 stars, 6 airbags, AEB, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, lane keep assist (good)
THIRST 7.9L/100km (above average)
SPARE Space-saver (not ideal)
LUGGAGE 560L (average)
Capable, comfortable, spacious and practical, the RS Sportwagon is competitive but hardly compelling.