VY/VZ Commodores: too much, too late as market changes forever
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VY/VZ Commodores: too much, too late as market changes forever

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By DrJohnWright - 05 April 2019
 

The VT Commodore, which made its debut in 1997, was such an enormous leap forward in design, technology and value from previous models that its immediate successors tend to get overlooked. Consider this: towards the end of winter ’97 the VT competed with the EL Falcon, itself the final version of a series that began in the first quarter of 1988 with the EA  but the last of the VZ Commodores – in mid-2006 – was up against the BF Falcon, up-spec variants of which were equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission, while all Commodores, Statesman, Caprices and the seemingly countless variants including the Adventra and Cross 8 made do with the antiquated four-speed unit.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the VY and VZ Commodores were superior to the VT, as, of course, one would expect. I well remember at the launch of the VY in October 2002, how irritated designer Mike Simcoe (now the head of GM design worldwide, no less!) was when one journo asked him why the new taillights so closely resembled those fitted to the 1996 Magna. Facelifting a masterpiece like the VT – the car that set Simcoe on what now, with the benefit of hindsight looks to have been an inevitable road to leadership within the GM corporate world – was always going to be a challenge. Perhaps the biggest news was the redesigned dashboard.

The mechanical changes from 1997 to 2006 when the VE arrived make a far more interesting and ultimately disappointing story. By the time the VY range arrived, the 3.8-litre V6 engine had been standard equipment in most Commodore variants since August 1988. With the transition from VR to VS in 1996, a significant upgrade brought the name Ecotec and, no question, this more powerful 147kW unit was smoother, quieter and marginally more economical.

By the time the VY came to market in 2002, the old pushrod V6 was delivering a still competitive 152 kW. But there was to be headline news with the introduction of the VZ in August 2004; nothing less than a completely new 3.6-litre quad camshaft V6 with four valves per cylinder.

Before I deal with this fascinating story, it is important to deal with other major developments that occurred with the VY Commodore. In April 1999 it was announced that Peter Hanenberger, the German engineer who was pivotal in the development of Holden’s Radial Tuned Suspension in the 1976-77 time frame, would be coming to Australia as the new managing director of Holden.

Adventra was a much better vehicle than its sales implied, but represented too little, too late; public much preferred Ford’s Territory.

Hanenberger had a big vision for Holden, which included taking the number of possible Commodore variants to a new max and increasing export opportunities. He drove his executives hard to keep up with his huge plans. First up, he gave the green light to Mike Simcoe’s Commodore coupe, which came to market in late 2001 as the V2 Monaro. It was probably also his idea to offer an SS wagon with VY and VY Series II, but takeup was as slow as it had been for Ford Australia when it briefly offered an XR6 wagon in the EF range

While Holden’s relatively scarce engineering resources had already been stretched to create the first full-sized Holden coupe since the HX LE in 1976, there was much more to come. The first evidence of what was almost a revolution within the company was the Adventra all-wheel-drive wagon in October 2003 as part of the upgraded VY Series II lineup.

The Adventra was nothing short of a revelation. Initially, it was a V8-only proposition (until the much vaunted new V6 became available). In February 2004 I drove one some 5000km on a round trip from the Mornington Peninsula to the Sunshine Coast hinterland. It was unquestionably the finest Holden I had driven up to that time.

Despite its jacked-up ride height, the Adventra felt much like any other V8 Commodore wagon, until conditions deteriorated. The Gen III 5.7-litre V8 delivered a generous 235kW backed by 460Nm. Unfortunately, the lacklustre four-speed auto with its sometimes jerky changes was the sole transmission available. As far as I was concerned the sole significant criticism of the Adventra was its poor fuel economy. Despite trying hard I could not average 12.5 litres per 100km on this substantial adventure.

What, then, was so admirable about the Adventra? Firstly, it was comfortable and spacious. Secondly, it had brilliant overtaking capabilities. But what won me over most of all was the brilliance of its all-wheel drive. Imagine a full-throttle zero to 100km/h acceleration run on a loss gravel road performed with no wheelspin or deviation in line!

Here was a Commodore wagon with previously unheard of stability and huge reserves of in-built primary safety but, sadly, it was the wrong vehicle for its time. It may seem difficult to believe now, but 2003 was only a very short time after the true beginning of what became the SUV revolution. It was no secret that Ford Australia had its E265 (Territory) program well in hand with the vehicle due in 2005. Subaru’s Forester and Outback were already well established and Volvo was also doing quite well.

Hanenberger had instructed his team to produce an SUV by the simple expedient of turning the Commodore wagon into one. But the public wanted a vehicle that looked different from a Telstra wagon; they wanted what Ford Australia would shortly offer them.

Thus, for all its indisputable excellence, the Adventra failed to hit the sweet spot with buyers. Worse was yet to come.

It is difficult indeed to imagine how the Holden engineers coped. Not only did Hanenberger give them the Monaro and Adventra, he also wanted to reimagine the One Tonner with all-wheel drive and to introduce Holden’s first ever crewcab. The One Tonner cab/chassis slipped onto the market in August 2003 as a rear-driver.

For model year 2004, the Commodore range had been effectively doubled from what it was when Peter Hanenberger took the wheel. The Adventra had been joined by long-wheelbase Crewman variants, including the Cross 8 with AWD. There was even a Crewman SS and the One Tonner with drive to all four wheels.

Crewman, too, must have seemed like a good idea at the time, albeit very briefly!

Once again though, the timing was wrong. The big switch from Aussie utes, including sports utes (Falcon XR6 and XR8, Commodore SS) to Japanese machines such as the HiLux and Navara was happening apace. Demand for all the vehicles mentioned in the foregoing paragraphs was, frankly, minimal. Simply, the market had moved elsewhere. Think of the Adventra. It lasted on new car price lists only until January 2006, having been effectively wedged by the Territory on the one hand and the HiLux/Navara/Triton crewcab utes on the other, while those keen to buy a Commodore wagon mostly just bought rear-drive variants.

We also saw the HSV variants of the Adventra and Crewman (Avalanche) and the Coupe 4

But even though the range of Commodore variants had dramatically increased, even more important news was due before the end of 2004, doubtless one of the Holden engineers’ busiest years ever.

It was established as Holden practice as far back as 1963 when the EH heralded the replacement of the ancient grey-painted six-cylinder engine with the new ‘red’ 149 and 179 cubic inch sixes that the company would not introduce a new body and new engine at the same time. The 1988 VN Commodore was the exception to test that rule!

Hindsight now permits me to suggest that the finest six-cylinder engine (in the context of its time) ever to grace a Holden Commodore was not the VZ’s high-tech unit, not the much-loved 179 or its various upgrades, but the Nissan 3.0-litre engine fitted to the VL Commodore. Of course, that should not have been the case, but the all-new Alloytec engine which made its debut beneath the bonnet of the VZ was a major disappointment.

Frankly, I am still having trouble believing how Holden’s engineers could have stuffed up so comprehensively. From the moment I eased away from a standing start in a VZ Commodore, I experienced a sense of anti-climax. In the conference, looking at the slides and listening to the engineers, I was thinking that this might not only be the finest engine in Holden’s history but perhaps one of the world’s greatest ever V6s. Mind you, there’d be come competition from the likes of Alfa Romeo’s operatic V6 best showcased in the GTV6 coupe and Honda’s delectably smooth 2.7 as seen in the 1988 Legend coupe, or, further back, the Ferrari and Fiat V6s. But the new engine sounded quite like the outgoing pushrod Ecotec.

VZ Calais had clean lines and was quite desirable when specified with the V8 engine.

The unfortunate engineer accompanying me on the first leg of the drive program (Holden’s practice was to assign an executive to a single vehicle which the journalists would drive throughout the day) offered the drive-by noise regulations as the explanation for the lack of a sonorous exhaust note. I audibly wondered how other manufacturers and importers managed. In 2004, after all, we had the 290kW FPV BA GT, which sounded great in the best V8 tradition. As I recall, this hapless chap argued that Holden’s system was to be conservative in meeting legislation.

Then in June 2006 came the Alfa Brera with a 3.2-litre version of the same engine, built in the same Melbourne factory. The Brera had a superb sounding engine. How did Alfa Romeo get around the drive-by noise rules? Who could possibly say?

Later in the drive day, chief engineer Tony Hyde was in the passenger seat of ‘his’ car. I was able to point out to him that the tachometer had not been recalibrated to allow for the significant additional rpm of which the Alloytec engine was capable; the same unit as fitted to the VY series II had been carried over: an oversight, he acknowledged; it was easy to surmise how busy that team of engineers was!

VZ SS was a beauty with the six-speed manual gearbox.

Tony Hyde did a fantastic job over many years at Holden and was, in my view, always one of the standout executives. It was Hyde, for example, who insisted that the VT SS  sports sedan would be equipped with 17-inch alloy wheels standard, quite a breakthrough at a time when the rival XR8 rode on 15s with 16s expensively optional! When I asked him how he did it, he said: ‘I just told them that’s what it had to have’. I sensed Hyde must have been disappointed with how the Alloytec worked out by the time it had been run, as it were, through the fine gauze filter of the General Motors bureaucratic machine.

The new engine delivered 175kW and 320Nm in standard form, a significant improvement from the Ecotec’s 152 and 305 respectively. But on the road the gain never felt significant. That was in large part because the old engine was always known for its lowdown and mid-range torque rather than its top-end urge; the Alloytec seemed to miss out both ways.

The greatest paradox was surely that Ford Australia’s painstakingly developed in-line 4.0-litre sixpack, which could trace its evolutionary line all the way back to the first Falcon, the XK released here in September 1960, was more charismatic than the theoretically brilliant new Holden unit. Not only did it sound better and deliver stronger performance, but in many cases it gave superior real world fuel economy. Here, in a sense, was a re-run of the lesson Holden’s executives were taught by their Ford Australia counterparts back in 1979-80.

Torque and gearing play a major role in determining real world fuel economy. When equipped with a manual gearbox and tall final drive, the 3.3-litre XD Falcon (despite a truly appalling coefficient of drag!) required fewer litres per 100 kilometres than its VB Commodore rival.

Ford Australia introduced its twin camshaft version of the venerable straight six in September 2002 with the BA Falcon. This engine gave figures of 182kW and 380Nm. It is the latter figure that is more relevant in this comparison. The huge advantage of an additional near 25-per cent torque over the new Holden engine made itself felt particularly on the open road. Like the Commodore, the Falcon still made do with a four-speed automatic – the highly desirable ZF six-speeder would arrive as standard on up-spec variants the following year – but it spent more of its highway time in fourth than the Holden could manage, especially under heavily laden conditions and when towing.

Opinions differ, but I like this blue leather treatment, available on VZ SS.

The optional 190kW/340Nm version of the Alloytec was much to be preferred to the entry level engine. This unit was fitted as standard equipment to the newly launched SV6, the Calais and the WL Statesman and Caprice.

With VZ, Alloytec variants of the assorted all-wheel drive Commodores came on stream but these made little impact on the sales bottom line. They all went quietly missing early in 2006, never to reappear. The Monaro kept becoming more desirable, largely due to changes demanded by the US market where it was sold as the new Pontiac GTO.

It’s a big ‘apart from’ but apart from the new V6, changes to the VZ Commodores were minimal.  The SS was now equipped with a 250kW/470Nm version of the Gen III V8 and when equipped with the six-speed manual gearbox was a pretty impressive sports sedan or ute.

The supercharged V6 option sank without a trace, but there was an important engine change to be introduced during the life of the VZ range. A new 3.0-litre version of the Alloytec engine arrived in 2006 and I much preferred this unit to the 3.6, which was also revised at the same time. The smaller capacity engine represented Holden’s acknowledgement that big car sales were slowing. The 3.0-litre was smoother, quieter and happier to rev than its 3.6-litre counterpart, but probably not much more economical in real world driving due to a shortfall in torque.

Doubtless, Holden executives were nervous in the VZ time frame as they watched sales of small cars climb while the Commodore struggled. They had an even bigger VE model waiting in the wings…

The year 2006 also saw the introduction of a new 6.0-litre version of the Gen III V8.

In summary, although the VY and VZ Commodores are less memorable than the VT, their currency was during an extremely interesting period for the Australian car market. Had the Alloytec engine been more powerful and refined, who can say whether more buyers would have chosen a Commodore rather than a Corolla or Camry. Had Peter Hanenberger’s desire for new variants not preoccupied so much of Holden’s engineering resources, who can tell how much further the VY/VZ Commodores could have been developed? As it happened the VT represented the last real hurrah for the traditional Aussie sedan, wagon and ute. And nobody could have predicted that before the end of 2017 the rear-wheel drive mainstream Aussie car would be gone forever. As a final note, I still regard the V8 Adventra as the best Holden I have driven.

Limited edition VZ SS-Z, but time was already beginning to wane for traditional Aussie sedans, wagons and utes.