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Holden Calais 2004 review

IT'S easy to be cynical about Australia's biggest-selling car. The life cycle of models is inherently swift and in between there is at least one facelift.

They come along with monotonous regularity. So when a new model arrives it is easy to adopt a deadpan reaction.

Not this time.

Holden's VZ Commodore is essentially an upgrade from the VYII of last year and the VY a year before that. But, boy, what an upgrade! Look at the VZ and you may well wonder what all the fuss is about. Drive it and you probably will be totally consumed by the leap in quality, refinement and safety.

The jump is so big the VZ may as well have come straight out of Germany.

The difference starts at the heart of the car, a 3.6-litre all-aluminium 60-degree V6 being badged as Alloytec, that comes out of its global engine plant in Port Melbourne.

They already have been delivered to partner GM in the US in the last few months to be included in its Buick range.

The worm has turned as the engine it replaces and which has served the Commodore line-up since 1988, the 3.8-litre Ecotec job, came from Buick. This new engine with continuously variable cam phasing has a bigger brain than the old Ecotec. For starters, the micro engine control unit with 32-bit capacity can calculate more than 7000 variables whereas the Ecotec was capable of 1350.

The bottom line is the inclusion of the Alloytec is the catalyst engineers needed in order to adopt new transmissions and add a host of electronic safety systems that were once off-limits.

Cable linkages have disappeared with electronic throttle controls giving the new Commodores drive-by-wire feel.

These Commodores are a totally different driving experience. Once clanging and banging and huffing and puffing, the four-speed auto has been revised for the current line-up and communicates better with the new engine, is quicker and softer.

EC Cubing hardware has helped give it a better brain to cope with the interpretations of what the engine is doing.

On the Executive you can knock it back to third and it responds instantly and smoothly. It doesn't take a deep breath and lunge back a cog as it did during its less-than-happy marriage with the 3.8-litre Ecotec.

Although the funny thing is that the refinement has quelled any feeling of the added power of the VZ which has sprung from 152kW to 175kW.

You don't get that same kickback through the throttle, the eradication of the cable link for electronic control has given the Commodore an A-plus in road manners.

For the Calais, leather is now standard, and the 190kW naturally aspirated engine is silky smooth compared with the 171kW supercharged six in VYII configuration. It also gains the 5-speed automatic, a breakthrough for Holden transmissions.

It incorporates an Active Select button near the gear shifter which, once activated, enables the driver to use the steering wheel-mounted paddles (left-hand-side for downshifting, right for upchanging).

Holden could have gone for the tipshift function on the gear shifter like the sequential sports shift on the BA Falcon, however, they thought paddles gave a better image of performance. The V6 Calais also benefits from ESP (Electronic Stability Program), an active safety mechanism that is standard. It is not available on V8-optioned Holdens.

ESP essentially is a crash avoidance system where brakes are applied to wheels individually and engine torque is controlled to help put a wayward car back on track.

This system has been calibrated to operate at a high threshold and cannot be turned off. Engineers are of the opinion that if this were the case there would be no point in having it in the first place. Steering on the base cars seems light and more lively off-centre.

While the Commodore has grown more power and torque the move to electronics has somewhat numbed the feeling of extra grunt. Ultimately this expression of quality is a good thing but, then again, many Commodore lovers will miss the feeling of rawness.

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(base) 3.8L, PULP, 4 SP AUTO $3,800 – 9,990 2004 Holden Calais 2004 (base) Pricing and Specs
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