When we drove the previous model Holden Commodore wagon - a VX Berlina - we were impressed. In fact, "The Commodore VX Series II wagon is a car that dynamically is safe and secure, with good fuel economy for its performance and size, excellent interior space and - of course - a parts and service support probably second to none in Australia," we said. So how could this newer model - complete with updated dashboard and a new nose job - have made a far worse impression? It's not so much the model to model changes that caused us concern, but the equipment and specifications of the car as provided - this was a LPG-equipped, Executive wagon.
First impressions aren't good - no, not the driving impressions. People buy wagons for all the space out back... but in the LPG-equipped wagon, this is compromised significantly. The instant realisation that the (huge) spare wheel is mounted vertically within the load area is startling... followed by an immediate question: what's now in the spare wheel recess? Eyes drop to the floor of the wagon, only to make another discovery. The wagon floor is elevated by a good 75mm. Except it's not 'good' - and not even flat now either. Instead, it's kind of a rectangular hump, standing proud in the cargo space. You tentatively reach forward to lift the lid, to find resident in the former spare wheel well a donut-shaped LPG tank. Ahhhh, it's starting to become clear. This is like aftermarket can't-fit-it-in-anywhere-else meets factory-LPG-option. The underside of the afterthought lid on the test car had a spare piece of foam padding floating around, and it doesn't look finished to anywhere near factory levels.
This isn't to say that the Commodore wagon load area becomes cramped - there's still a lot of room there, but it's way, way down in usefulness over the non-LPG-equipped car. (But we will come back to the LPG option in a moment - other aspects of the conversion are more positive.)
Cast your eyes another metre forward and you'll see something which is completely and utterly unforgivable. Holden love trumpeting their safety credentials - and this press car came with the (optional) side and passenger airbags and (optional) ABS. But there are no rear head restraints! Any adults sitting in the back seat can expect - no, be sure of - severe whiplash injuries if the car is subjected to a rear-end collision. How on earth can this cost-cutting be justified?
Then there's active safety. This car - which has lots of mass placed rearwards, uses rear-wheel drive, and has an engine that develops bulk torque down low in the rev range - has no traction control. And none is available on the Executive, even as an option. You get as standard a trip computer, CD radio, remote locking - but you can't get traction control.
So despite the optional airbags and optional ABS, and despite the rhetoric ("Concealed front and rear window-seat belt sash guides protect head with cover over belt anchor mechanism, front lap/sash seat belts have webbing clamps and pyrotechnic pre-tensioners, buckle mounted to seat for consistent fit when seat moved forward or back, strengthened upper B pillar to reduce side impact velocity to head, neck and chest"), this is not a car that can hold its head high in the area of safety equipment.
No rear head restraints - incredible!
So before we go any further, it is our strong suggestion that if you are buying a Commodore wagon, you either look at lifting your sights to a current model Acclaim wagon (standard it comes with rear head restraints, four airbags, ABS and traction control and costs $39,430), or buy an earlier model (eg the Series II VX Acclaim or Berlina wagon) in secondhand form and by doing so get yourself a car that already comes with the safety equipment you need, at the price of the current model Executive.
But what if you've taken those safety and LPG points on board - and either want to know what the generic dual-fuel VY Wagon drives like, or don't care one whit about missing rear head restraints and a compromised load area?
Now we can cover the good news! The new dash works well (better than we said it did in the VY SS Ute - which came with ghastly green instruments) and has a range of useful features. The steering is increasingly heavy - and for some people it might even be classed as too heavy - and its alterations in around-centre feel don't attract from us the praise that others seem to find in the increasingly large 'sneeze factor' that's now present. But the (dry road) handling is superbly sorted, with the spring/damping combination excellent over pretty well any road you can throw at it. Through our bumpy, high-speed test corner - where the suspension becomes compressed even before the bumps are met - the Commodore is very, very good. And that's in absolute terms, not just in comparison to similarly-priced wagons.
While it's obvious that the Commodore - 1585kg in wagon form - has a fair amount of mass to change in direction, its communication and progressiveness are really exemplary. Wearing 205/65 Bridgestone RE92s on 15 x 6 steel rims, it's not a vehicle with huge outright grip levels - but it makes the absolute most of what it has. In dry road conditions this really is a car in which having a single vehicle 'lose' would be quite hard to do, and for enthusiasts it can actually be hustled from point to point indecently quickly. When going fast it needs more driver input than the other models boasting lower profile tyres, but push it hard and the car stays with you. In wet conditions? Well, see above re the missing traction control - and remember that the tyre tread depth of a brand new car is only going to get smaller as the kilometres pass...
The cabin is also a comfortable and spacious place. You'll find the excellent new trip computer and user-programmable body module (more on this in a moment), a Blaupunkt single CD radio, very comfortable and supportive seats, and remote central locking - which includes the tailgate. It's only when you dig further that you realise that air con is an option - the test Executive was optioned with passenger and side airbags, LPG, air con and ABS, significantly raising its base price.
There's also an in-cabin quality look and feel. The doors shut very well, for example, and the new auto gear lever looks good and works well - it's much better to use now that 4-3-2 gears selection is available without pushing the locking release button. The central LCD gear position readout is also effective; in fact, all of the controls and readouts are now better than before.
But back to the gas. Besides the amateurish way in which the gas tank has been added, the LPG installation - although technically pretty basic with its traditional vapour-filled intake manifold - is well integrated. Switching from petrol to LPG is handled by a centre console button, and at light throttle openings there is just a slight jerk on changeover. At big throttle openings, well... don't swap from one fuel to the other in those conditions unless you like to really feel that the fuel change has occurred! The fuel gauge shows the level of whatever fuel you're using, while the trip computer also swaps seamlessly across. In addition, an 'LPG' insignia appears on the LCD screen when you're using that fuel.
Starting is achieved on whatever fuel is selected (ie the car doesn't always start on petrol and then swap to gas afterwards) although the starting is a touch lumpier on gas. We also noticed that nailing it off the line when on LPG caused a brief hesitation that wasn't there on petrol, and torque seemed a little lower on gas than petrol, but in general the engine behaved identically on either fuel.
The instruments - new for this model - work very well, and we just love how Holden allows users to program the body control module to suit their preferences.
It's now easy to change all of these little things which drive you mad - whether both doors or just the driver's door open with the first push of the remote button, how long the interior light stays on when the door is shut, whether the horn beeps when arming or disarming the car, and so on. All of these personal preferences can be set just as you want - there are even 'help' menus built into the digital display!
The old pushrod V6 engine (152kW at 5200 rpm and 305Nm at 3600 rpm) has some minor alterations for the model - longer oil change intervals (although not on this LPG-fuelled version) and altered engine to transmission braces designed to give a slight improvement in engine smoothness. We can't say that we noticed the latter; the engine still gets noisy and harsh at anything over 3000 rpm. (Recently we read a web newsgroup comment to the effect that the writer had just gone for a ride in a VY V6 - and what were these journalists talking about, suggesting it was an engine with bad NVH? The car they were in was fine... The point is, the engine needn't exceed 3000 rpm in normal driving, and below these revs it is relatively smooth. But if you observe even a 3600 rpm redline, that means that you're driving around with just 115kW!)
The Commodore is not as quiet as its Falcon and Magna competitors, with engine noise intrusive at high revs and the cabin having a low frequency resonant boom. The for-this-model alteration in the panel in front of the windscreen and the shape of the mirrors has a claimed aerodynamic noise benefit, but you'd have to drive this and the previous model back to back to spot the difference.
So is the VY wagon a poorer vehicle than the previous model VX Series II that we drove? Not at all - so long as both are specified identically. But in this optioned-up dual-fuel Executive, we were unimpressed by the missing rear head restraints, and astonished at the way the gas tank is (not) integrated into the car. And in this day and age we think that not having traction control on a car like this is pretty borderline from a safety perspective. The steel rims and hubcaps? - no problem The twirl 'em yourself window winders? Fine. The lack of cruise control? - sure. It's not the equipment level per se that concerns us, but how the mix leaves out some essentials...
So pick the right trim level model - and if you want gas in a wagon be aware of the rear space trade-offs - and the Commodore wagon will likely satisfy many a family's requirements for a capacious and capable family car.