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New Car Test - Holden VY SS Commodore

An awesome performance sedan marred only by price and fuel consumption...

By Michael Knowling

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With the availability of twin-cam turbo fours and sixes that are every bit as quick as the new Holden VY Commodore SS, it's easy to dismiss its pushrod 5.7-litre V8 approach to performance as 'boofy' - all brawn and no brains. Once you're out on the road, though, any of these preconceptions quickly evaporate as the SS shows flying colours in every situation. It's equally satisfying being flung through the occasional urban roundabout, caning down your favourite winding country road and conforming in the Monday-to-Friday bumper-to-bumper crawl.

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Aussie performance car aficionados know the bit that 'makes' a SS Commodore has always been a V8 engine - in the case of the VY SS, it's the familiar LS1 5.7 from the 'States. Despite its massive cube count, however, the VY SS won't pin your head back from idle revs. Instead, you really need around 1600 rpm before the engine starts to flex some muscle and, from there, you'll enjoy strong performance to about 5500 rpm. Torque builds beautifully progressively and, throughout the rev range, you'll find sharp throttle response.

Looking at the raw numbers, Holden has managed to extract 235kW (an extra 10kW) at 5200 rpm and 465Nm (an extra 5Nm) at 4400 rpm by simply improving exhaust flow and, presumably, remapping the management to suit. That's the only significant driveline change from the previous VXII model - as before, there's a 6-speed manual 'box offered as standard or an optional 4-speed auto.

The VY SS is a vehicle that deceives with its speed; it never really feel oh-my-god-this-is-awesome, but every time you check the speedo after a WOT blat there's a pleasant surprise. For the 0 to 100 km/h sprint the VY SS is easily into the 6-second bracket - and that's without a launch that'll attract police from ten kays away. It's a truly effortless performer.

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Unfortunately - and this is by far the worst aspect of the car - that bent eight donk drinks fuel like dog slurps water out of a bowl. Sure, you might be able to forgive 17-odd litres per 100km consumption while you're fanging it, but - even during light-footed urban saunters - you won't get better than 16.5-litres per 100 clicks. With consumption like that, you really need to keep some spare money for fuel in your back pocket. One good thing, however, is the SS-spec engine (despite its 10.0:1 compression ratio) doesn't require expensive premium unleaded - plain 'ol unleaded will save a considerable amount of cash when it's time to fill that 75-litre tank.

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Holden has done a very good job sorting out the VY SS's ride and handling. Over typical sealed roads, there's excellent bump absorption - it's only when you drive over a sharp irregularity (such as a train line) you notice some thump through to the cabin. The uprated version of the standard Commodore suspension arrangement - MacPherson struts at the front and a control-link semi-trailing arm independent rear - gives the 1590kg SS great poise on the road. Turn-in is quite sharp but, depending how hard you're pushing, it will understeer slightly towards the apex of a corner. Once there's a clear line away from the apex, you can mash the throttle pedal to the floor confident the rear-end won't break loose - the traction control kicks you back though the accelerator pedal and effectively quells torque delivery to suit the available traction (even if it is a little on the heavy-handed side). Dare to switch the traction control off - using the centre console button - the standard rear LSD and Bridgestone Potenza RE040s 235/45 18s do a surprisingly good job getting the power down. In dry conditions, anyhow...

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The SS doesn't have razor sharp steering - no car in this class does - but it does offer enough precision to let you trace an accurate cornering line. Driver feel at the straight-ahead position is also quite decent, as the boofhead sneeze factor isn't too huge. Braking is left to four wheel discs (ventilated at the front) with 4-channel ABS control. Pedal feel is quite good and stopping power is strong, but - regardless - we'd like to see the option for a monster brake package on a car like this.

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Although it's something we don't usually harp on about, the VY SS has an astonishing ability to turn heads - it's almost embarrassing. Certainly, it's a top looking vehicle that - as mentioned by one admiring 300kW GTS owner - doesn't leave mush scope for HSV to make any real visual improvements. In addition to the newly revised VY sheet metal, the SS gets its horn look from a Holden by Design rear spoiler, side skirts and sports front bumper (with fog lights), darkened tail lights, twin chrome exhaust tips and standard 18-inch 5-spoke alloys. You know the stylists have done a good job when everyone from 12-year-old kids on skateboards to the guys in the bottle-o drive-through take time out to stare..

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From an aesthetic perspective, the VY updated SS interior offers impact while not being too gaudy. Unfortunately, though, much of the controls suffer poor tactility - the hard steering wheel spokes feel uncomfortable when gripped with the soft-rimmed steering wheel, plus there's strange plasticy bits slapped on the handbrake lever and gear knob. Other than that, the rest of the interior is very comfortable. The seats are big and cosy (our test car featuring the optional leather trimming) and it's easy to find the right driving position using the angle and reach adjustable steering column and electric adjustment of driver's seat height and tilt. Both the front passenger's and driver's seat feature manual lumbar adjustment.

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Of course, being a full size sedan, there's absolutely abundant space front and rear - headroom is a bit marginal for 183cm-plus rear passengers, however. The boot is cavernous, with a ski-port through to the cabin and an 18-inch spare wheel beneath the flush floor.

The list of standard features includes power windows, aerial and mirrors, road speed dependant intermittent wipers, auto lights off, dual front airbags, front height adjustable seatbelts with pre-tensioners, retractable belts all 'round as well as rear air conditioning vents. A rolling code remote control activates the central locking, while an alarm/immobilser system provides means of security - and you'd need it. The centre console is huge and boasts twin cup holders, a small removable tray and even a power socket dedicated to changing mobile phones 'on the go'. The only things missing are climate control and cruise control (which is available as an option). You can also specify a power sunroof and Holden's rear Park Assist - certainly the high rear waistline makes it difficult to predict how close you're reversing to the car parked behind. Just wait for the crunch...

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The SS's colour-coded instrumentation is well laid out comprising a 260 km/h speedo, 5500-6000 redlined tacho, fuel level and water temp gauges. Also incorporated in the gauge cluster is the LCD trip meter, which has been relocated from the VXII. This system displays all the usual trip computer data plus a stop watch, audible and visual speed alert, sound system settings and, of course, the odometer. The LCD display is also wired to the VY's body computer to allow adjustment of convenience items such as interior light delay.

The VY SS's sound system is a major improvement over the Maestro unit in the previous model. Made by Blaupunkt, this security-coded head unit comprises an AM/FM tuner and a single CD player (an in-dash 6-stacker is available as an option). One nicety is that controls for the sound system are built into the steering wheel - these are very convenient to use, but lack a quality feel. The cabin's six speakers punch out good sound up to a fairly high volume, but it's likely you won't want to drown out the glorious bellow from the standard performance exhaust anyhow.

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As an overall package the VY SS stands on its feet exceptionally well (other than its insatiable thirst for fuel). When compared to other vehicles in the marketplace, however, the SS's $49,490 baseline RRP (for manual or auto) takes some breeze out of its sails. As tested - with Bermuda leather trim - the SS kicks off at a substantial $51,470. Hmmm. You can buy a new Ford XR6 Turbo BA Falcon (with slightly more performance and similar packaging) and come away with more than $5500 in spare change. Of course, Subaru will also offer you an Imprza WRX or STi for $41,490 and $55,130 respectively, but - other than being 4-door performance cars - these are cars are poles apart from the SS.

Breakdown; the VY SS offers strong straight-line go, enjoyable and safe handling (thanks to its standard traction control), a relatively comfortable ride, plenty of acreage and oodles of charisma. If Holden knocked between two and five grand off its asking price you'd be looking at an absolute performance bargain (and you could put that money towards keeping up with the 5.7's thirst for fuel)...

Why You Would...

  • Plenty of usable grunt
  • Deceptively quick
  • Good ride and handling
  • Added safety of traction control
  • Fantastic looks
  • Practical

Why You Wouldn't...

  • Woeful fuel consumption
  • Relatively high price
  • Theft/vandalism appeal

The VY Commodore SS was provided for this test by Holden Australia.

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