BELOW: Fire damage along the Hume Highway west of Sydney
Calais: Reinvented, Rejuvenated and Rejoicing.
Who remembers the ads from 1978? No? Holden built suspense for months teasing us with a commercial voice over saying “Commodore is coming” but nothing else. No one knew who or what the Commodore was. There was no indication that it was a car, or that it was from Holden. It could easily have been an ad for a new drink, or a boat, or even a smart resort. It might also have been where ladies with faces like handbags could gather, dressed in white tee shirts with shiny gold writing. They’d spend their husband’s money like it was water and drink Riesling as Chardonnay was yet to reach our shores. This was Holden’s way of busting out of the Kingswood era which seemed to last an eon. Commodore was so different from the creaking dinosaur it was replacing.
Holden tried the same thing with its bright new VF. There were treasure hunts and teaser shots which were part of a stratospherically expensive campaign created by Gen Y geeks with dime-a-dozen marketing degrees.
Let’s be honest, VE Commodores looked great on the outside but had a disappointing interior. It felt nasty and the audio system sounded like some of the speakers had failed or were made in China. Apart from the sad quality, no design point was worse than the handbrake. The phenomenally stupid form-over-function execution of such a simple device constantly jammed fingers, and other vital organs, in a vice-like pinch as you wrenched the thing into parking position. Why? Didn’t someone notice such a ridiculous mistake? It would seem not.
The top model is the Calais and I was among many who thought the money asked for it should have delivered a better experience. It wasn’t special enough. After all, it was the same slightly shabby base-model interior dressed up with acres of animal hide.
And “lo”, Holden listened:
The VF isn’t merely a major facelift, tummy-tuck, and lipo of the VE, it’s a new model which just happens to share some of the same parts. It’s a revelation.
I could rattle on about the suspension settings, the engine specs and other boring technical stuff, but none will tell you exactly how fabulous the VF is.
The front and rear are completely new. The shape has completely changed with clever rethinking of the lights and bodywork. The rear now has a sinuous organic feel to the lights and upper boot lid lip. The line running down the C Pillar forms a line at the rear which then travels along the boot. The waste line runs just beneath it never quite meeting the boot lip, but instead forming a protruding edge which is the top of the tail lights and lower edge to inbuilt mini spoiler. The affect is deliciously sensual and thoroughly modern.
The silhouette has a premium feel. You get a sense that Holden actively went after the Eurosnobs with the Jaguaresque side vents. They look like they suck vast amounts of air into a finely honed engine built by god himself. The 19” wheels look enormous and fill the wheel arches, giving Calais and muscular and commanding stance. It looks impressive before so much as a button has been pressed. It looks fast and comfortable but here is the kicker, $44,139 (Calais), $51,429 (Calais V V6), $57,729 (Calais V V8) drive away is all you’ll pay. That’s almost ten grand cheaper than the model it replaced. The front has sexy new headlights and LED running lights which add to the drama. The classy exterior looks like it costs far more than it actually does. The premium feeling Holden was so obviously going for has been a complete success. The bonnet, bootlid and some of the suspension is now crafter from lightweight aluminium, another first for and Australian car. 1702kg for the Calais isn’t too bad for a car of this size.
The exterior is gorgeous, but it is the glamorous interior which has seen the most remarkable transformation. The design and execution has propelled Commodore and Caprice into another realm in a single leap. Forgetting the technology for a moment, the interior design had the class level dialled up a notch or ten. The leather-clad steering has a flat bottom, which I find annoying to use, but it’s beautifully made and the switchgear is now standard across the range. The standardised design is intuitive and is easy to use because it feels very familiar. The cabin is common throughout the range, including the Caprice. This means Calais is now really a short wheelbase Caprice, rather like the old days when Statesman De Ville was a stretch Kingswood, albeit with only the boot being the bit that was longer. The wheelbase was the same as the station wagon, but as usual I’ve digressed.
Despite the cabin being common throughout the range, Holden has upped the ante by bringing the quality up to a level that you no longer feel the need to apologise for. My only problem was the hood lining, which although practical, doesn’t feel luxurious. It’s the same “fabric” as one would expect to be found a sports car, and a cheap sports car at that, and it has no place in a posh model. There is perforated leather and a kind of suede on the dash and doors. I have a deep fear that it’s going to need careful attention to stay clean. The “A.D.D.” among us are going to need an on-board kit to manage little accidents. One thing though, those girls who insist on sitting in the passenger’s seats with their feet up on the dashboards should be instantly and rigorously ejected regardless of speed. Not only is it dangerous, but their pongy feet are disgusting, their knees would be forced through their faces in a front end prang, and suede is a bugger to clean.
There is the similar finesse as one might expect in more expensive Europeans, but Calais costs less than half of a similar BMW 5 series or Mercedes E class, and is considerably better looking. Of course the build is cheaper. It would be churlish to suggest otherwise, but the gap in quality is now not so marked. There is still the odd bit of cheap plastic here and there but at this price that can be forgiven. Passat
The leather electric seats are heated to keep your bottom toasty even on the coldest days. Although they are comfy, they are not as soft as I would have liked. Despite this, they feel firm rather than hard, even after several hours in the saddle. The climate control, also standard in all models, is controlled via the console, but some of the functions in a menu in the MY LINK system. You set the default fan speed in the “config” menu while the temperature and other functions are set in the usual way with the usual buttons. Why? I can’t think why an automatic climate control system needs a default fan speed. Doesn’t it manage itself? Won’t it go up and down like a bride’s nighty?
With the same cabin and equipment level as Caprice, mega-geeks with god complexes have lavished Calais with gadget-attention. Nobody talks about the safety stuff under the bonnet anymore because you won’t get 5 star safety ratings from ANCAP without stability control and enough airbags to fill a space shuttle. Besides, it is nowhere near as interesting as the things you can see and touch. “My Link” has a big full colour LCD with far more function than the previous IQ infotainment system.
Among the mind-bogglingly useful inclusions are:
ü blind spot waring when changing lanes
ü crash alert when too close to the bloke in front
ü lane departure warning if you wander too close to an lane line
ü Automatic parking
ü Electric hand brake
ü Fully automatic climate control
ü Auto dipping mirrors for reverse
ü Memory electric seats
ü an alert that warns of oncoming vehicles when you are reversing out of a parking spot and tells you what direction they are coming from
The latter is so useful. How many times have you come out of Bunnings to find a gorgeous hot and sweaty tradie parked either side of you? Their big, manly, butch Toyota Hiluxes are impossible to see round and you want to back out but can’t see a thing. Fear not, Calais can see where you can’t. Select reverse, the mirrors dip, and back you go, slowly. If Calais senses an old lady in a Mini Classic bearing down on you because she has glasses like cock-bottle bottoms and can’t see you, it flashes a warning. A symbol appears in the reversing camera monitor complete with direction indicator of the offending old lady’s Mini. A quick dab of the brakes and disaster is averted.
But that’s not all, the crowning glory is the automated parking system which steers the amply proportioned saloon into either a parallel or 90° car park. All you have to do is man the throttle and brake following the instructions issued via the small LCD which is mounted between the speedo and tacho. It works well, but the 90° manoeuvre feels completely unnecessary to me. If you can’t get a car into a shopping centre car park, you ought to hand in your license. Some queens get into the most awful flap when parking!
Had you told me even a year ago that such marvels would adorn an Australian made car, I’d have laughed, yet here we are. Ford is trying the same thing with the Falcon ujpdate so it remains to be seen if it is the same level of improvement. Falcon’s cabin is even more monk-like than the old Commodore, and the plastics look even cheaper. There are teaser shots of a very sexy front end, which is great because the current Falcon front is as plain as unprinted pyrex.
After a week of nimble city driving, we unleashed the new Calais on the M5 and headed out of Sydney, which meant braving the M5 east tunnel and its inevitable crawl. Once clear of it, we hurtled along the highway in quiet comfort, and it was very very quiet. The steering felt quite delightful and is now electric to facilitate the automatic parking. Little men in long lab coats spent hours coming up with settings for the little men in white overalls to apply to the suspension. The softness took me somewhat by surprise. Modern cars of late have seen fit to tune the damping at a jaunty setting. Even the most gentle of undulations causes your molars to come away and your vital organs move permanently from their original positions. Calais on the other hand does none of these things. It wafts along soaking up bumps like Aladdin’s carpet, but is much less breezy.
Like all Commodores, Calais feels planted at any speed and is particularly at home on a road trip, although handling is not as it is for the uber-sporty SSV. The soft settings are built for everyday comfort not roaring around the racetracks, and your kidneys will thank you for it.
The 3.6 V6 in the base model is my favourite GM engine. It has just the right mix of power, torque, and fuel economy. The 3.6-litre produces the same 210kW as the VE, but at 6700rpm instead of 6400rpm, with 350Nm of torque at 2800rpm down from 2900rpm. On the highway we managed 7.8L/100k which would give you 900k’s (ish) on a tank though I wouldn’t want to push her that far. The auto in sports mode is a belter. It holds gears longer and makes the changes quicker. Sadly, the 3.6 still sounds a bit like a taxi. The brakes feel progressive so there are no nasty surprises but when you bury your loafer into the Axminster, Calais takes over and applies full pressure. Even on a damp section of tarmac, the Holden stops fast and straight with no hint of wayward behaviour. Holden has come so far since those early days when my Kingswood under the same situation would have flown off the road in protest. Not only did we feel very comfortable but also very safe.
The Heads Up Display is a clever idea which projects snippets of info onto the windscreen. You can scroll through to change what’s displayed but most of the time leaving it with current speed will also show the current speed limit. Very handy indeed. As part of the display, you SATNAV will give instructions by temporarily changing what’s on the screen. You can leave the sound muted most of the time because the music is muted each time a direction is given and is very annoying. Should you want the directions again you can repeat them and again they will be flashed onto the HUD.
If I was being uber critical, I might like the climate control given some more thought. It seemed to be too cold or too hot and the vents don’t have a lot in the way of adjustment. Left and right is fine, and down is no problem but they only come up as far 90°. There is no way to point them upward. It seems a silly thing but why fall at the last hurdle. The previous SSV had circular vents so could be twisted to point anywhere you wished so it seems silly to have gone backward in such a basic thing as ventilation.
WOULD I BUY ONE?
Yes, gladly. It’s by far the best current Holden and as Holden suggests, is the best Australian built car ever. It’s a big claim but it’s a big car, and I like it very much. Its classy exterior reflects what’s going on inside and under the bonnet. A smooth diesel option would widen the appeal because all similar sized Euro saloons have the option to burn oil instead. What about a small turbo? The turbo Falcon G6e feels properly quick from a similarly sized engine. But, as it is Calais is a big, long legged tourer that’s also at home round town.
Finally, a home-grown offering that doesn’t make you want to put your head in your hands while muttering “almost, you almost got it”.
Price: from $39,990
Engine: 3.6-litre V6
Transmission: 6-speed auto
Fuel consumption: claimed 9.0L/100km
Holden Calais V8
Price: from $52,990
Engine: 6.0-litre V8
Power: 260kW at 5600rpm
Torque: 517Nm at 4400rpm
Transmission: 6-speed auto
Fuel consumption: 11.5 to 11.8L/100km