Rear-wheel drive and V8 power are gone. So, is there any compensation for keen drivers to be found in the new V6 AWD Holden Commodore VXR that replaces the SS-V as the flagship Holden?
The VXR badge isn’t new to Australia. We’ve seen it on an Astra hot-hatch and an Insignia performance sedan. And, technically, it’s been on a Commodore before. Vauxhall used the VXR8 badge for the HSV Clubsport and GTS models it imported to the UK for a decade until 2017. (Which is fair considering the badge – as the letters suggest – was created by Vauxhall in the first place!)
Yet even a Pom (such as this author) knows the Holden Commodore VXR is an especially controversial model – an all-wheel-drive V6 liftback that essentially replaces a rear-wheel-drive, V8-powered sedan icon called the Commodore SS. Not only is it less powerful and slower than the last SS-V Redline, but it also costs a grand more at $55,990. Talk about rubbing salt into the wound.
For those readers who haven’t abandoned this review in a fit of contemptuous disgust, we reckon it’s still worth finding out whether this flagship of the new, imported Commodore range still stacks up as a family-sized performance sedan.
Starting with performance, the scenario doesn’t look promising on paper. With 235kW and 381Nm, the VXR’s outputs are not only miles behind those of the SS-V and the Kia Stinger GT, but also fall short of the power and torque produced by the turbo V6 Insignia VXR sold not so long ago.
CarAdvice’s timing equipment didn’t paint a more positive picture. The VXR clocked 6.2 seconds for the 0–100km/h sprint. That’s about a second slower than the SS, 1.4 seconds slower than we’ve recorded for a Stinger 330Si, and slower than two VW Group competitors – the Passat 206TSI sedan (5.5sec) and Skoda Superb Sportline (5.8sec).
In terms of driveability, the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo found elsewhere in the Commodore range is also a better everyday engine thanks to its stronger and more energetic mid-range response.
The V6, while more efficient than the SS’s V8, officially gulps 9.3 litres of unleaded every 100km – making it thirstier than the smaller engine as well as its rivals, with the exception of the fish-like Stinger.
It doesn’t help that the VXR is the heaviest in the Commodore range at 1737kg and carrying an extra 200kg burden over the RS and Calais turbo fours, for example.
It’s not all dire news, however. The V6 loves to rev, and particularly once past 4000rpm endows the VXR with a cross-country pace capable of dispersing clouds of doubt hanging over the Commodore’s performance capabilities.
Its classic six-cylinder growl, albeit artificial and enhanced in Sport/VXR modes, is also a superior sound to that offered by either the turbo four or the Stinger’s 3.3-litre V6.
And in normal driving it gels just as well with the General Motors-developed nine-speed auto as effectively as the turbo four. The transmission still needs a more aggressive calibration for its Sport mode, despite the car’s exclusive VXR button that steps up the steering, drivetrain and dampers to another, sportier level dubbed Performance.
VXR mode is a bit slow with its blipped downshifts, forcing the use of the paddle-shifters if you’re driving beyond seven-tenths. And there’s a surprisingly leisurely and slurred action when commanding upshifts. It doesn’t completely spoil the VXR’s flow on a good road, but it does detract slightly from it.
The flipside is that while the nine-speeder is no match for a Passat’s quick-shifting DSG, it is the smoother transmission in everyday driving – and that’s a significant advantage in the daily grind.
And the range-topping Commodore is without doubt a fine driver’s car, especially with the VXR mode engaged to introduce optimal steering weight and the tautest damping.
The superb front Brembos – exclusive to the VXR – are terrific at retarding speed with excellent pedal feel. They encourage deep dives into corners, while the sweetly balanced chassis urges you to push the VXR’s front end harder into the tarmac during cornering before the all-wheel-drive system allows the driver to get on the gas earlier than the front-drive Commodores. No torque steer like those variants, either.
Despite sharing the GKN Twinster AWD technology with the Focus RS, the VXR’s set-up isn’t as rear-biased as the Ford’s – with only a maximum of 50 per cent torque going to the back.
While tail-swinging antics aren’t on tap, the system allows the VXR to be quite neutral at a quick cornering pace as two electronically controlled clutches on the rear axle apportion more torque to the outside wheel – not using brake-dabbing like most torque-vectoring systems.
Continuously Damping Control is only available on this flagship Commodore, though in the default Touring mode the ride isn’t as consistently comfortable as the Touring setting on an RS Commodore. But while it can be jittery, the suspension never crashes rudely onto its bump-stops.
It would have been a nice bonus if the car told you which mode you were in via the digital centre section of the instrument display. You can simply look down to see whether the Sport or VXR buttons have their small light illuminated, or even opt for a Drive Mode screen on the central dashboard’s touchscreen, but – call us picky – it seems a strange omission.
The driver display gives you options for a g-force dial or a 0–100km/h timer (though the latter is possibly not the best idea considering the times we mentioned earlier!).
Backing up the sportiest Commodore experience now available are chunkily bolstered, perforated leather front seats that allow you to tailor the level of body-hugging via electric adjustment. This tester would also dial down the firmness of the seat backrest and cushion if it were possible, though at least there’s a massage function (and ventilation).
The sharp HUD can display a digital rev counter, or alternatively the radio station or nav pointers. It also illuminates the graphic of a car or human if the collision-warning system detects a potential hazard (and beeps and flashes a warning on the central driver display if particularly concerned).
VXR logos feature on the gear lever, mats, tread plates and instrument panel, though not on the ergonomically excellent dimpled-leather sports steering wheel.
The range-topper doesn’t reduce the quantity of hard plastics found in lower-spec Commodores, and a persistent rattle from the right side of the dash pointed to another example of imperfect fit and finish we’ve experienced in the new model. It’s not ideal in more affordable Commodores now trying to compete with Mazda 6s and VW Passats, but seems more glaring in a $56,000 variant.
A sense of build quality, however, is provided by the pleasant thunk heard when you shut one of the Commodore’s doors or its bootlid. And the cheaper plastics don’t entirely overshadow an interior that delivers big ticks for design, infotainment and space.
The 8.0-inch touchscreen may be just an inch bigger than the standard MyLink display, yet it makes a big difference visually. And its layout and graphic presentation looks more sophisticated than the 7.0-inch version.
Taller passengers enjoy generous leg room despite the imported Commodore losing some length – and a fair bit of wheelbase – over the old home-grown model. Six-footers will brush their hair on the roof-lining, though.
The comfortable rear seats include heating and a centre armrest with two cupholders, while the back of the centre console provides vents and USB ports. Rear storage isn’t great. The door bins are moulded primarily to hold bottles, and there are no map pockets on the budget-looking plastic front seatbacks.
A press of the Lion badge on the tailgate is a neat way of accessing the boot, which is long in shape, if not super-wide, and more easily accessible than a boot-lidded sedan. So, while its 490-litre space behind the rear seats trails the Passat’s 586 litres, it overtakes the VW when the seats are folded: 1450 v 1152 litres.
The Commodore records a win and a loss against the rivals that run the Holden closest for dimensions. The Superb liftback sedan holds 625 and 1760 litres, respectively; the Stinger 330Si offers less space, with 406/1114 litres.
Holden has certainly loaded up the VXR with seemingly all the standard equipment it could muster. Its rivals are far from miserly, yet none can match the VXR’s 20-inch alloy wheels, electric sunroof, ventilated front seats, or adaptive LED Matrix headlight system. And only the Stinger can match the Brembo front brakes (while adding them at the rear, too). The VXR also leads on driver-aid count.
If only a turbo or two could have been added to the package. Packaging issues are cited by Holden, and which perhaps explains why HSV is, at this point, making negative noises about creating a faster ZB Commodore (though it’s also figured utes and SUVs are a more profitable way forward).
The VXR’s lack of grunt isn’t ideal, especially considering Australians are already having to contend with a Commodore that is no longer locally built or rear-driven.
And VXR buyers can’t even boast they have an exclusive drivetrain like SS owners. The V6 AWD layout is available in RS, RS-V and Calais trims – and for as low as $40,790 with the RS.
Go even lower – $37,290 – and you’ll find the turbo four, front-drive RS we reckon is the pick of the Commodore range for all-round performance and value. (Though we still think there should be an RS-V spec for the smaller engine.)
For buyers who value the sound of a six-cylinder, the reassurance of all-paw traction, and lots of goodies, there’s still plenty of appeal to be found in the VXR. If it’s lacking as a performance sedan, the VXR’s superb steering and handling at least ensure the Commodore’s reputation as an excellent driver’s car remains intact.
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