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Holden Vectra CDXi 2003 review

The VE Commodore won't hit the road until early 2006, but the new Vectra holds all the clues, inside and out, on the direction for Holden's next local hero.

The Vectra has a crisply creased body, dominant headlamps and a dash that's straightforward and down to business.

This Euro look is no surprise, because Opel in Germany did the design work before Holden's engineers tweaked the car for Australia.

As a result, the Vectra, like every other EuroOz contender on the Holden lot, is great to drive and feels quick and competent.

But – a huge but – Holden has changed direction with the Vectra.

It's now pitching it as a medium-sized luxury car, not a family friend, with a price to match.

That means at least $34,990 to put one in the garage, or $49,990 if you want the V6-powered CDXi liftback with all the fruit, including an automatic gearbox.

Holden believes it can win customers with the car, but isn't getting carried away. Its sales prediction for the ZC Vectra is only 4000 cars, well down from more than 7000 last year.

The change takes it away from the $20,000-something mid-sizers into tougher territory, where the Mazda6 made record sales last month. Even the classy local Camry and Magna find it tough to compete.

The Vectra has size on its side. The cabin is now as big as the VL Commodore and the boot is huge and usable.

It also has all the gear you'd expect in a car for this price: four airbags and anti-skid brakes, air-con, CD sound, remote central locking and electric windows and mirrors.

The model range runs from the CD sedan and hatch with 2.2-litre four-cylinder engines to the CDX hatch with a 3.2-litre V6 and automatic gearbox, predicted to be the most popular choice, with V6-powered and fully loaded CDXi hatches at the top of the family.

The Vectra was late arriving in Australia, after early predictions of a 2002 launch date.

It made showrooms in March after delays, and Holden admits it included a "resubmit" to get the suspension tuning where the local engineers wanted it. The engines have also been tweaked for local drivers and fuel, using the Commodore-based "launch feel" benchmark to ensure they step away smartly and have crisp performance up to the local limit at 110km/h.

On the road

The new Vectra is a culture shock. It looks different, has a different philosophy in some important areas, and is aimed at new buyers.

It stands out from the pack – even the latest Mazda6 and the all-new Subaru Liberty – and not just for its styling.

The Vectra is big inside, gets along smartly – with the V6 power in our manual CDXi hatch – and has been tuned nicely for Australian roads.

But it's the little things that make the difference to the way the car drives.

The blinker and wiper switches use a fiddly new one-touch system that takes a while to get used to.

All the buttons in the centre console look the same. You have to flick a switch to choose between the front and rear electric windows, and opening the boot takes a trick.

Why? What's the benefit to the customer?

Holden says owners will adjust to the changes, but we were still making mistakes with the blinkers after a week. And we will never really "like" the dashboard layout.

But the Vectra is a reflection of a new design direction in Germany, and another example of the engineers making changes for the sake of change. And because they can. And because it's new technology.

The BMW 7 Series has taken the same approach and there has been a backlash from customers. We wouldn't be at all surprised if there is something similar in Vectra-land.

But enough, because the Vectra is good to drive, with crisp response to all the controls.

The engine is lively and has good overtaking power, the suspension rides bumps but still gives excellent cornering grip and feel, and the brakes are good.

It's almost a match for the Mazda6 as a driver's car, and our V6 test car had the advantage of mid-range torque to make life a little easier.

The five-speed manual in the test car was a slick gearbox and we've also tried an auto that worked well.

We liked the cabin space and the three-adults back bench, as well as the boot. The Vectra is relatively easy to park, apart from a restricted view through the rear hatch, the headlights are good and it has a noisy horn.

The automatic air-con in the test car also worked well and we liked the computer readout in the centre of the dash, including outside temperature and fuel economy – which ran at 10.6 litres/100km during our test.

There is a lot to like in the new Vectra, but it also has a few really annoying developments.

They could be a slow burn, but Holden is committed. A senior executive told us, "Get used to it. It's the future".

So we will, but new doesn't always mean good and we'd have preferred all the positives of the Vectra with just a little of the old-fashioned stuff. And maybe a slimmer bottom line.

Still, we've already recommended the car to a couple of acquaintances, including one down-shifting out of a Toyota LandCruiser. That says it all.

Pricing Guides

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Range and Specs

CD 2.2L, ULP, 5 SP AUTO $1,498 – 4,999 2003 Holden Vectra 2003 CD Pricing and Specs
CDX 3.2L, PULP, 5 SP AUTO $4,620 – 6,820 2003 Holden Vectra 2003 CDX Pricing and Specs
CDXi 3.2L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $5,060 – 7,480 2003 Holden Vectra 2003 CDXi Pricing and Specs
CD 2.2L, ULP, 5 SP AUTO $1,498 – 4,999 2003 Holden Vectra 2003 CD Pricing and Specs