Holden has moved the goalposts when it comes to the family wagon.
A lot is riding on the new-age Commodore wagon. The VE Sportwagon is a fresh new look but, far more importantly, an all-new direction for GM Holden's family favourite.
It has to fight against the surging tide of family four-wheel drives and win ordinary Aussies back to a more-traditional local purchase.
It also must add an essential sales boost that has been missing from Team Red since the loss of the VZ Commodore wagon.
But things are very different with the Sportwagon. Fleet companies bought up to 90 per cent of VZ wagons, but Holden believes the future is all about people buying for themselves.
Holden believes drivers want something versatile, not just a family van for kids and dogs.
They are going in hard with the Sportwagon, pegging the price of every model at $1000 above the equivalent VE sedan. It knows there will be some substitution with the sedan, but still expects to sell 800-900 wagons a month.
That means a starting-money Omega Sportwagon comes in at $37,790, down $440 from its VZ Executive equivalent. Among its key features are a multi-function steering wheel, 16-inch alloys, cruise control, trip computer, rear parking radar, a single-CD sound system and automatic headlights.
But bargain buyers looking for an LPG hook-up for a V6 or V8 will have to wait. The Sportwagon's tail space — already smaller than the VZ wagon — will be compromised by the addition of an LPG tank.
Still, Holden says it is responding to petrol pressures, even if nothing is coming until the next update of the whole VE line.
“Rapidly rising fuel prices are a challenge for all manufacturers. Holden is responding by looking at a range of alternative technologies and fuels to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” GM Holden sales, marketing and aftersales executive director Alan Batey says.
“You can expect to see dedicated LPG, ethanol and diesel engines, more fuel-efficient internal combustion engines and hybrids. We're not just betting on one type.”
The VE Sportwagon goes on sale later this month and should give Holden an edge over Ford, which is still working on its wagon plans. Nothing is firm yet on an FG-based successor to the original Territory.
The Sportwagon weighs 91kg more than the VE sedan, but has a good-looking back end that Holden says maintains the car's 50:50 weight balance.
The wagons have 72 unique body panels and, for safety, retain the front, side and curtain airbags and stability control of the sedan.
All Sportwagons get a 17-inch steel spare as standard. A full-sized wheel is a $250 option.
The wagon sits on a slightly shorter wheelbase than its VZ predecessor (down 24mm) and is shorter overall by 36mm, cutting load space from 1402 litres to 895 litres with the seats up. Fold them flat and the VE takes 2000 litres, still less than the VZ's 2752 litres.
Holden's engineering team says the sedan platform was chosen for the wagon because the long-wheelbase Statesman would not have increased the load area, just the rear legroom.
The bodyshell is stiffer and stronger, and Holden says it reduces booming and road noise from the tail.
The front multi-link suspension is largely a carryover, apart from a slight increase (1mm) in the stabiliser bar (the sports suspension spring rate is up 23 per cent), but the rear multi-link suspension has an upgraded spring rate and a stabiliser bar that has shed 4mm to a 12mm-diameter.
The rear end has also been tweaked with three cross-axis ball joints (up from two).
Inside, it's familiar VE in the front, but the rear seat has had the expected alterations, though anyone looking for a seven-seater will have to think about a Captiva.
The 60:40 rear seat can fold nearly flat. There's a two-position cargo blind, four load hooks on the floor, an extra four hooks, two retractable shopping bag hooks, a storage bin, a 12V power outlet and a low-mounted light in the load area. Rear headroom is unchanged from the sedan's.
Regarding cost, the Berlina is $38,240 — $5600 below the VZ equivalent — and gets 17-inch alloys, front fog lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth, six-stack CD sound, power-adjustment for the driver's seat and dual-zone climate control as extras.
The SV6 starts the sports range at $42,290 with sports suspension, 18-inch alloys, a body kit, dual exhausts and a sports interior.
The SS V8 six-speed manual costs from $46,290, and the six-speed auto $48,290 with a limited-slip differential. The SS V costs from $53,790 as a manual or $55,790 with automatic transmission.
The Calais is $46,790 and gets a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear selector, and electric seats with leather bolsters.
The Calais V V6 starts at $55,290 for the five-speed automatic and the V8 six-speed automatic is $60,290. It's equipped with 18-inch alloys, a leather-wrapped sports steering wheel, front and rear park assist, rain-sensing wipers, a rear DVD player, power-adjustable leather seats and the option of the six-speed automatic transmission.
Wheel time in the Sportwagon is much the same as in a VE sedan. It feels a bit heavier and the base model tends to lean a bit more in the corners, but there are few compromises for the extra space.
That's not surprising — the Sportwagon is now built off the same base as the Commodore sedan, not the long-wheelbase Statesman.
It feels like a sports car compared with the rival Ford Falcon wagon, but has a lot less space. And the load space is also less than that of the old VZ wagon, though the effect of the change depends on what it will be asked to do.
Company drivers carrying a lot of gear might struggle, but it will be more than enough for most families.
And, finally, someone who wants to carry a bike or weekend toys can have a Commodore, because the Sportwagon seats — unlike the sedan's — fold flat. There is enough space, Holden says, to sleep in the tail.
We like small touches such as shopping-bag hooks on each side of the cargo area and the fact the boot can open in tight areas, which will be handy in car parks.
The design and engineering of the Sportwagon mean a lot of families could be lured to the new Holden as an alternative to their big four-wheel-drives. It handles a lot better, has comparably better fuel economy and looks dead sexy, especially as an SS.
So what's not to like? The basic V6 engine in the Omega and Berlina still lacks torque and is thrashy when you try to push it. The four-speed automatic is totally out of date, is ponderous when downshifting and slurs away when the torque converter locks up.
This auto is worse than the antique four-speed in the Falcon wagon and a big weak point.
The premium Calais and SV6 engine is better, as is the automatic, but it is not as smooth or torquey as an FG Falcon engine.
If you can afford the fuel, the SS is a ripper. Like the sedan it has great performance and sounds fantastic with a rorty note.
The Sportwagon interior is the same as the sedan's, which means it generally looks cheap and is already starting to date. The A-pillar is too chunky and obscures vision quite badly, a big safety shortcoming.
So the VE Sportwagon is not perfect, but Holden's brave new move is a serious alternative to a four-wheel-drive. It looks great and, in most cases, drives very well.