HOLDEN ON TO A FLAWED ICON
Buying a used Commodore? JOE KENWRIGHT reviews the best and worst models produced over the years.
The Holden Commodore has been Australia's favourite car for longer than Ford and its fans want to remember.
Commodore's lead in the sales charts has stretched to more than four years, with the upgraded VY version due in September.
The Commodore became Holden's front-line family model in 1978, with a history of stunners, stinkers and sports stars. Its story is marred by compromises for the bottom line but it is still the longest-running nameplate Holden has had.
Which Commodore is best? The answer is surprisingly easy and can be found at any Holden showroom now. It's the latest VXII Executive, the 2002 sales champion, which is crushing the rival Falcon.
For the first time in the car's history, the VXII is a full-sized Commodore produced by the engineers, not the bean-counters.
By any standard, our Commodore is a benchmark car at the price. That's why it is also a best-seller in export countries and has been getting much attention from General Motors' executives in Detroit, US.
Holden is doing a top job, reflected in the factory shutdown last year, which continued until outstanding quality issues were addressed by suppliers and the plant.
Today's VXII facelift reflects huge gains in quality, as well as VY-model engineering advances brought forward by more than a year so the Monaro could deliver on ability as well as looks.
The VXII has rear drive, control-link independent rear suspension, exceptional crash protection, anti-skid brakes, CD sound, airbag, a 152kW V6, Getrag five-speed manual or four-speed auto -- the list goes on -- all for just over $30,000.
It is far in front of any previous Commodore. And the rest?
1994 VRII Acclaim:
A base live-axle VR Commodore Executive, which combined the VR's grippy new front end and 130kW power with the old 1978 rear end, could be a twitchy, dangerous car in the wrong hands and unacceptable, even for 1993.
Experts who showered the VR Acclaim with awards in 1993 separated the then- new Acclaim from the VR range. Its standard IRS, while flawed, transformed rear-end grip and comfort for family drivers and its combination of airbag, ABS and cruise control introduced premium features at a family car price.
It was so successful that even fleets bypassed the Executive for the Acclaim , which has since forced all local manufacturers to offer Acclaim features on today's base models.
The first Acclaims were poorly finished but by the September, 1994, VRII upgrade, Holden's new paint plant and improved quality had made a huge difference.
1999 VTII SS:
For the first time in Commodore history, the VTII got the American Corvette's state-of-the-art V8 for class-leading refinement, performance and long- distance fuel economy.
The SS was the only model that matched it in presentation, wheels, tyres, brakes and -- although the crude IRS was still there -- it was tied down better than in other models.
Its predictable and progressive power delivery also made it far safer than comparable performance cars. Outstanding value, it even humbled previous special vehicle efforts.
Not a great Commodore, yet assembly improvements made it an outstanding contender in 1988 as the local industry hit a deep trough.
It was the first and only Commodore since its 1978 launch that could be taken seriously as a large family car, as Holden engineers cheaply and cleverly added a stretched body to the old floorpan and hid its small-car origins by pinching in the front styling and fitting a wider rear axle.
A Buick V6 hastily lifted from US front-drive models was adapted to rear drive -- crudely at first but progressively improved.
Against the dreadful EA Falcon, a cramped Camry and a Magna that broke engines and transmissions, the VN Commodore was at least long-lived, powerful , economical and relatively reliable once Holden's bean-counters learned cheap parts cost more in warranty claims.
Holden had to import the Nissan Skyline powertrain to replace its antiquated gear. This made up more than a third of the car's build cost after the Aussie dollar was floated, leaving little for anything else.
A plan to fit a bench front seat was dropped at the last minute but six- passenger, heavy-duty springs were locked in, which Holden had to counter with soft shock absorbers, hence floaty VL handling.
Sharp looks and the best six-cylinder engine in Commodore history blinded buyers to its smaller size, appalling build quality, lack of rust protection, dull, lifeless paint and cheap plastics. But it earned enough for the VN and saved Holden.
Raves about early Commodore handling ensure that its pollution engines -- heavily criticised in the Kingswood -- rarely get a mention.
In fact, these early Commodores handled too sharply for the many drivers who left the road.
As the novelty wore off, its narrow back seat and poor economy soon sent buyers to Japanese fours, which offered superior economy at a lower price, or the Falcon, which offered superior economy and extra back-seat room for the same money.
Initially, there was no wagon and -- after it cost Holden its popular Kingswood-based Statesman, one tonner and ute ranges -- the first Commodore series all but bankrupted Holden.
Even worse than the VB
after Holden leaned off its old engines in a futile bid to boost economy, causing them to self-destruct. Its early electronics were unreliable and costly.
Looked good and drove smoothly -- but Holden only got away with the initial poor quality, brake problems and rear-suspension compromises because the EL Falcon was out of date and the AU fizzed.