Commodore VF: Ford reveals shutdown as Holden launches last Aussie design
HOLDEN COMMODORE VF
What exactly is it? The last-ever Australian-designed Holden, destined to see the brand though until late-2016. Compared with VE, over 70% of the VF is new.
Powertrain: 3.0-litre V6 producing 185kW/290Nm (Evoke), 3.6-litre V6 producing 210kW/350Nm (SV6) and 6.0-litre V8 producing 260kW/517Nm. Six-speed automatic, rear-drive. ADR fuel consumption 8.3 litres per 100km (Evoke sedan).
Anything interesting in the equipment list? Every Commodore is fitted with automatic parking, rearview camera, eight-inch colour touch screen with the MyLink system and remote start. More technology comes further up the range: blind spot warning (SV6/SS), reverse traffic alert (SV6/SS/Calais), satellite navigation (SS V/Calais V) and head-up display with lane departure warning and forward collision alert (Calais V). The Redline high-performance package has also returned as an option for SS V, bringing Brembo brakes, special suspension package, a “competition mode” for the powertrain and the head-up display from the Calais V.
Prices: $49,990 (Evoke sedan) to $77,190 (sportwagon SS-V Redline).
It seemed mean-spirited of Ford Australia to announce the closure of its manufacturing operations on the same day Holden launched its VF Commodore.
One carmaker was arguing Australian production is viable, unveiling a new car to prove it. The other was saying it has tried everything, lost $600 million over the past five years and it will close the factory doors in 2016.
It was a strange day. I was there, in the horde surrounding a VF on the side of the road near Canberra on the morning of Tuesday, May 22. At the wheel was Holden Australia chief executive and managing director Mike Devereux, listening to Ford’s announcement on the Commodore’s MyLink infotainment system.
For the record, Ford claimed the timing of its press conference was a coincidence. But it did highlight a major issue Holden faces in launching VF to the press and public: it’s going to struggle to have this car judged purely on its own merits. The VF is too bound up with the troubles of the Australian industry, too bound up with its own planned obsolescence.
Everybody knows that sales of Australian-made large cars are at record lows in the domestic market. Everybody knows that VF will be the last completely Australian-designed Commodore. Everybody knows that the future of Holden’s factories are uncertain beyond the current government subsidies that run until 2022.
How many carmakers start talking publicly about the replacement for a new model before it has even hit the showrooms?
Mr Devereux did just that earlier this year, when he told media that the car to come after VF would indeed be called a Commodore and that Holden was working on styling proposals. The VJ Commodore will definitely not be based on an evolution of the current platform: it will be built on global General Motors architecture. Probably – but not definitely – front-drive.
Now for the news
In the midst of all this, I have to say that I was surprised by just how much of the VF is new. I had originally thought it a comprehensive makeover of VE but no more, especially as the mid-section sheet metal is the same and the engines have been little changed. To put it bluntly, I had been thinking of VF as a three-year runout programme.
In fact, the car is 70% new. It represents the biggest investment in a new model programme after the original VE, even if the company admits it cost substantially less than the car that became known as Holden’s “billion-dollar baby.”
Naturally, much of the attention has gone into making this large car more economical, with weight-saving aluminium (bonnet, some suspension components), electric power steering (EPS), improved aerodynamics and incremental powertrain enhancements.
The entry Evoke (the Omega name is no more) now achieves 8.3 litres per 100km, putting it on a par with some four-cylinder family cars. Much of this comes courtesy of nearly $40 million of Australian government Green Car Innovation Fund money.
Technology also comes to the fore: partly to make the VF a bold cutting-edge statement in troubled times but also to take the hassle (or perceived hassle) out of driving a large car.
Thanks to the use of a worldwide General Motors electrical system called Global A, the VF can park itself, warn you of approaching traffic when you are backing out of a space, alert you when you’re straying across a lane – and so on and so on. It all works brilliantly – especially the self-parking, which can tackle both parallel and perpendicular spaces.
Road to nowhere
Regardless of how good the VJ Commodore turns out to be, I think it’s safe to say we will miss this current model when it’s gone. The VE was always a fine car to drive and the VF builds substantially on that talent base.
Holden engineers swear the move to EPS is win-win, as it not only improves efficiency but has also allowed them to tailor the tiller’s character to different models. There are, in fact, now three different states of steering tune for VF models.
Road noise, powertrain noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) and overall refinement is substantially improved in the VF. This is especially evident in the entry-level Evoke.
Holden has also taken much of the clumsiness out of the Commodore’s interior architecture. What you do notice is some of the old car’s soft-touch plastics have been replaced by harder stock to save costs but Holden has taken a different tack with VF in layering soft materials over the top of key areas to try and give each model its own character.
So there are panels of fabric on the Evoke dashboard, for example, while the Calais gets light-coloured inserts of soft Alcantara.
In order to understand why so much emphasis is placed on VF for the next three and a half years, you have to understand the differences between the New Zealand and Australian markets.
Yes, the market share of large cars has plummeted in Australia. Yet traditional model types still dominate the sales charts. Unlike New Zealand, there are no SUVs in the top 10. At least not yet.
“Even in the last months of its life, Commodore VE was a top-10-selling car,” Mr Devereux says. “The VF is the best car ever made in this country and will also be a top-10-selling car. Cruze was No 4 [in Australia] in April.
“To those who say that we don’t make cars that people want: that is factually inaccurate.”
Holden is geared up to manufacture a V6/V8 large car until 2016, and while nobody expects Commodore to return to the top of the sales charts in such a fragmented market, Holden does hope people will judge the car on its merits and buy VF in viable numbers.
Can we all ignore the background noise and evaluate VF purely as a new model for 2013? I suspect that may be asking too much. Rumours of the demise of the all-Australian Commodore are true, but judging by the fantastic product launched in VF the rate of decline may have been greatly exaggerated.
No illusions about collapsed large-car market
Just as in Australia, the large-car market has collapsed in New Zealand over the past five years: from nearly 13,000 units in 2007 to just over 5000 in 2012.
Unlike Australia, the segment has also stabilised over the past two years and Commodore remains relevant if the sales charts are anything to go by. In 2012 it was No 4 in New Zealand; year-to-date April, in runout, it’s still No 6. Commodore accounts for 55% of all large cars sold here.
Holden New Zealand has no illusions about what VF can achieve, says managing director Jeff Murray: “It would be a pretty brave business decision to expect growth in this segment.”
Nor does Mr Murray intend to follow Holden Australia in slashing thousands of dollars [up to A$9800] off VF prices to try to drive up volume: “It’s a brave move for Australia to move toward transaction pricing [where the retail price more accurately reflects what people actually pay post-discount], which is effectively what they’ve done. In the fleet arena, that’s dangerous because of the competitive set.
“You can’t have transaction pricing on one model and recommended retail on another.”
Fleet customers account for 84% of Commodore sales in New Zealand. Across the Tasman, it’s just 67% and likely to diminish further, with many speculating that Holden Australia intends to chase private buyers much more aggressively with VF.
In the big picture, Holden New Zealand may be about to make history: for the first time, its market share is ahead of Holden Australia’s.
“Currently, we’re 1.2 percentage points ahead,” Mr Murray says. “Things have changed.”