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Holden Commodore 2015 review

Joshua Dowling drives the last Holden Commodore V8 -- the new VF Series II -- from its birthplace in Adelaide to its spiritual home, Bathurst.

There is an eerie silence inside a car factory at the end of a shift. Given the surroundings your mind is expecting to hear the clang of heavy duty machinery, the buzz of robots and the sparks from welding tips.

But right now the only noise is the menacing rumble of Holden’s last V8 Commodore as we ease it onto the end of the production line for the start of our symbolic journey.

We’re taking the flagship of the new Commodore range from its birthplace in Elizabeth, on the north-west outskirts of Adelaide, to its spiritual home Bathurst, in country NSW.

The car wasn’t freshly minted on the day we arrived. As they say in cooking shows, here’s one they made earlier.

Our red rocket is a “pilot” vehicle that’s been built in the lead up to production of customer cars, hence the registration plates from Victoria, Holden’s engineering base.

Holden has such strong demand for its new V8 it understandably didn’t want to push any customer orders down the queue.

V8s now account for more than one in three Commodores sold, the highest ratio in the nameplate’s history.

That demand is expected to grow even more with the arrival of what is known in car shorthand as simply “LS3”. That’s the model code for the 6.2-litre V8 that’s been borrowed from the Chevrolet Corvette.

Holden wanted to make sure the Commodore went out on a high, and so it reclaimed the LS3 that until now was exclusive to Holden Special Vehicles models locally. To make sure there was no ambiguity, Holden proudly put an LS3 badge on the front bumper.

HSV in turn will fit its supercharged “LSA” V8 -- previously reserved for the flagship GTS -- in the Maloo ute and Clubsport range. We drive them next week.

But for now it’s all about the most powerful car to ever wear the Commodore SS badge.

Holden squeezed 304kW out of the LS3 -- that’s less than HSV’s 340kW output, but the torque of 570Nm is the same.

Performance has never come so cheap

The power difference comes down to the HSV’s use of extractors; Holden couldn’t fit them in mass production.

But as enthusiasts will know, it’s torque that gets you moving. The other ace up the new Commodore V8’s sleeve: it has the same diff ratio as the HSV, so it gets off the line like a slingshot.

Make no mistake, this is yesterday’s HSV Clubsport but in the latest Holden Commodore body. We got repeatable 0 to 100km/h times of 5.2 seconds.

Performance has never come so cheap. The regular SS sedan starts at $42,990, the middle of the range SS-V is $46,490 and the flagship Redline edition we have here is $52,490. Add $2200 for a six-speed auto with tap-shifters on the steering wheel.

With the navigation set, we point the nose towards Bathurst and set off on our 1400km trip.

I’m used to long distance driving but it’s next to impossible to do the Adelaide-Sydney run in one stint safely.

Kangaroos are out at dawn, dusk and at night, which limits you to daylight hours if you want to increase your chances of getting the car to your destination in one piece.

We have no idea where we’ll stop. Our mission is to cover as much ground as possible on day one so day two is a short trip into Bathurst.

Kangaroos wouldn’t be the only challenge. By the time we reach the Barossa we realise why there are so many caravans on the road.

Unfortunately, it’s a long weekend so the single lane highway heading north-east is clogged with trailer traffic that can’t reach the 110km/h posted limit.

Fortunately I have a Commodore V8 under my right foot, clear blue skies and long open straights. When the time is right, the Commodore SS makes light work of overtaking.

In fact, at this point I would like to nominate the V8 as a safety device. After all, I spent less time on the wrong side of the road as a result of it.

It wasn’t long before I began enjoying pulling up behind a caravan -- not just to feel the V8’s rapid response, but because of the sound.

Holden engineers have fitted some ducting (called a “sound enhancer”) under the bonnet that sends the V8 induction growl from the air box to the dashboard, right in front of the driver.

Combine that with a two-mode exhaust that crackles and barks -- depending on throttle position -- and you have your very own V8 Supercar experience.

Once we cross the South Australian and Victoria border you start to appreciate just how vast our land is -- and how much it has changed.

Small towns are dotted with derelict motels and vacant petrol stations, presumably driven out of business as cars have become more reliable -- allowing people to travel further between rest stops -- and airfares have become cheaper.

The land is so arid out here the grazing business has largely dried up and the few railway lines you see are mostly grassed over, without an industry to support it.

In many ways, it’s a reflection on just how much Australia has changed since 1948, when General Motors established Holden as a car brand.

For the better part of two decades Holden accounted for more than half of all cars on the road.

That’s why there are Holden dealers in small country towns. Indeed, Holden still has as many dealers as Toyota event though it is currently selling less than half its volume.

Holden plans to change that, though, with 24 new models arriving by 2020, including a next generation Commodore tipped to come from Germany. There won’t be a Commodore V8 after the factory closes in late 2017 but Holden is promising a new kind of performance.

For now, though, collectors are queuing to buy a Commodore V8 for keeps.

Finally in NSW we see our first sign to Bathurst, as we head out of Hay.

With dusk approaching I slow the speed to 80km/h even though 110km/h is allowed. I don’t want a kangaroo to spoil our photos at Bathurst.

Eventually a truck passes, so I stick behind from a safe distance. His 60-tonne rig can clear the road ahead for me as I make it to the next town.

I’ve never heard of Goolgowi before, but I was glad to discover it. Running low on fuel there aren’t any 24-hour super centre petrol stations out here.

Slight catch: no premium unleaded (perhaps the dirt driveway should have been a clue) and there wasn’t any premium in the next town.

So I gave the SS a belly full of regular unleaded (Holden says premium is “preferred”) figuring it won’t hurt it given the engine won’t be working hard at cruising speed.

The Goolgowi petrol station also gave me a chance to sample the best scrambled eggs, beans and toast this side of a hipster café. It’s worth the drive back.

I had breakfast for dinner because dinner wasn’t available. I also avoided sugary treats to keep my energy levels neutral for the rest of the drive into the night.

Sugar might give you a 15 minute boost but I didn’t want the sugar crash -- metaphorically or literally -- afterwards. And no caffeine, only water.

I set off for the next town driving at 80km/h in the dark and within 10 minutes, trouble: a kangaroo stopped in the middle of the road after the crest of a hill.

I slammed the brakes -- now race-bred Brembo calipers front and rear on the Redline -- but had I been going any quicker there would be one less kangaroo and one less Commodore on the road. My caution paid off. 

Eventually a 4WD ute with a massive bulbar passes me at he’s cruising at 110km/h, so I sit a safe distance behind him and, as before, let another vehicle clear the path. His spot lights were brilliant, too, as they lit up either side of the road.

The Commodore's headlights are excellent, and the high beam throws a lot of light down the road, but for this sort of driving you need a broader beam as well.

Looks nice, needs hubcaps though

Eventually I pull the pin in a place called Grenfell about 9:30pm and buzz on the door of the only motel in the centre of town.

The lights are already out but the old dear answers the bell and finds me a room.

She notices the red Commodore -- despite it being almost obscured by bug splatter -- and said “looks nice, needs hubcaps though”, referring to the alloy wheels that Holden has proudly painted gloss paint to give it a stealth look. Clearly not everyone’s a fan.

After 14 hours on the road -- including stopping for photos and fuel -- I planned to sleep as much as possible as it was only a short run into Bathurst in the morning.

I didn’t set an alarm but it turns out I didn’t need to. The sun was up early and so were the birds. So with less rest than I would have liked, I make the final two hour drive into Bathurst, knowing once there I can pass out as soon as I hand over the keys to the local Holden dealer. 

It’s a week out from the Great Race but the track is already in lockdown. With some help from security we do a symbolic lap of Mount Panorama, the sacred ground that helped build the Commodore’s iconic status.

Jim Richards, who with racing legend Peter Brock co-drove the Commodore to its first Bathurst win -- in its Bathurst debut -- has fond memories of the Commodore, even though he’s more famous for giving the race crowd a character reference after winning years later in a Nissan GTR.

“There was a lot of uncertainty around the Commodore at first, after Brock and I had won two Bathursts in a row in the A9X Toranas,” says Richards. “It initially didn’t have the power of the Torana but the Commodore drove better, it had a better footprint on the road and the race track, it was a better balanced car.”

That win made it three in a row for Brock and Richards, and if it weren’t for a pesky Dick Johnson in a Falcon XD winning Bathurst in 1981, there would have been a longer winning streak for Holden.

The Commodore went on to win another three in a row, from 1982 to 1984, the latter in the car that came to be known as “the Big Banger” and which is now part of the Bathurst statue celebrating the late Brock.

There were Ford families and Holden families. But now we’re spoiled for choice

Richards reckons the Commodore’s success on the track “definitely helped it sell in showrooms”.

“I think the Commodore helped keep GMH alive in Australia at various times,” says Richards. “You’ve got to remember there weren’t as many cars on the market back in those days as we have today. There were Ford families and Holden families. But now we’re spoiled for choice.”

Racing legend Mark Skaife still holds the records for the most wins in a Commodore, with 80 of his 90 victories for Holden (the other 10 were in Nissans).

Skaife was just 11 years old when the Commodore came out in 1978.

“There was a Holden dealer just 300m down the road from my dad’s workshop at Wyong, I remember going up there just to look at it and remember being amazed by its futuristic styling,” says Skaife. “You look back on it now and think ‘it was a VB!’,” he laughs.

“I remember as a kid watching Brock and Richards win the first Bathurst in a Commodore and I’m proud to have played a role in the Commodore’s success on the track,” says Skaife.

As with most car enthusiasts, Skaife is devastated about the end of an era.

“It’s a travesty that the Commodore and Falcon are reaching the end of the line,” says Skaife. “They are the best value rear-wheel-drive sedans in the world. But Australians today aren’t buying enough of them. The car market is too congested, there are too many models to choose from. But we won’t realise what we’re missing until they’re gone.”

Do you think the VF Series II is a fitting farewell to the Holden V8? Let us know in the comments below. 

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