High-rider Commodore wagon the new king of the hill

Bathurst bravura will still power the Commodore, but the brand believes it’ll take a different kind of mountain-conquering approach to keep this car relevant in New Zealand from next year.
Wednesday September 20, 2017

By Richard Bosselman

HIGH-riding all-wheel-drive V6 wagon with all the fruit – that’s the new ‘hero’ configuration for Commodore in its incoming ZB generation.

Whereas the kingpins of every past range have been performance models with a Bathurst bovver boy big horsepower gene, Commodore going forward will have to heft a new role and entirely different persona to remain market relevant, Holden’s boss in New Zealand has outlined.

Kristian Aquilina’s ambition is to climb a new mountain – quite literally, with the almost all-terrain edition of the flagship 230kW/270Nm petrol V6 variant that uses a nine-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive.

While Holden has yet to provide an official glimpse of how its Sportwagon Tourer will look – for now, there are just two computer-generated impressions (see below) showing it racing up a snowy slope – but it clearly delivers a highly common look (and, presumably, technical aspect) as the donor Opel in the Insignia Country Tourer format revealed last week at the Frankfurt motor show and pictured today.

Intention is for the Tourer to take on territory that is presently dominated by the Subaru Outback, which is the Japanese brand’s top-selling model, achieving around 50 percent of its volume and riding high enough on the SUV craze wave that it has already this year outsold the 1266-unit count cited for the whole of 2016.

Initially, the Tourer alternate – which conceivably will also go up against high-stepping Euros such as the Volkswagen Passat Alltrack and Skoda Octavia Scout – will start out “more an image leader, but I think that eventually it could be sales leader as well.

“We may not yet be at that point of convergence where the larger high-ride wagon surpasses traditional sedan just yet, but the trend is pointing to that. There will be a crossover point at some stage.

“The format of a low-riding sedan type of vehicle is diminishing, that’s reality. If that becomes a niche offering in the future, we’re okay with that. We’ve got a range of other vehicles they can easily transition to.

“I think we have the product there to be able to do it. I think it is a great way to think about Commodore very, very differently.”

Commodore has tried to win that buyer type before, striving – and failing – to break ground with the Adventra edition that came out in the early 2000s.

However, in comment offered to MotoringNetwork at last night’s brand preview event for another SUV, the Equinox, Aquilina cited confidence that the Tourer - which has 20mm more ground clearance than the standard Commodore Sportwagon and is 20mm longer - can achieve the success that eluded its spiritual forebear.

The market condition is far different now with car-based SUVs being much hotter property.

The Tourer pitch is going to be quite different to the strategy that Holden Australia will play out for the first front- and all-wheel drive car to carry the nameplate when it rolls into New Zealand dealerships in February next year, Aquilina says. But our markets are now quite different.

“There’s probably a lot more depth to the sedan and liftback market in Australia, so that’s where they will lead. Over here it is a different scenario.”

He’s not ignoring the car’s performance push.

Holden is working hard to win ongoing interest from the local petrolhead crowd who are currently fuelling demand for the outgoing VF, whose monthly sales average of 120 units is mainly fed by fans snapping up the V8 cars that are not replicated in the incoming ZB format at a rate not experienced for years.

Even though the hottest new gen Commodore will be a lot tamer than the Chevrolet-engined SS and SS Redlines that become extinct when VF production in Australia concludes at the end of next month, Holden is still trying to keep the performance dream alive.

The ZB range will include a performance V6 four-door format whose look will be replicated in the V8 Supercar field from next season.

While Aquilina certainly doesn’t doubt this VXR-badged road car will do well on our side of the Tasman, his manner suggests this specific model could well be a sideshow here.

He suggests that, with SUVs now achieving more than 50 percent of car sales, it is simply more sensible to give top billing to the Sportwagon Tourer.

The strength of his conviction about the high-rider being the way to go is reflected in thought about the RB range as a whole.

While it’s likely almost all the full gambit of models offered to Australians will also be showroom fare here, it is likely our neighbour’s choice will not be wholly replicated.

Also, there’s potential that the lineup that will start to arrive from the end of December, but only full launches in February, will not be permanent.

Right from day one, this will be a popularity contest with Aquilina’s team paying close attention to customer preference trends: There’s going to be little sympathy for sales stragglers within a range that encompasses V6 all-wheel-drive and four-cylinder front-wheel-drive, the latter in 2.0-litre petrol and diesel formats.

Those that struggle might only find themselves on a short tour of duty or, at least, become order-only models.

“We will commit to a range that we think this market will bear,” he said. “We will try to keep things very targeted to what Kiwis want. We may stay broader, but Kiwis will decide which models they favour and which they can do without.

“We will follow them. Customers rule here and we are not going to be pushing stuff on people that they don’t want.”

Decisions about what variants won’t land have yet to be finalised, but they’re not far away.

It’s not a matter of culling from the bottom, though. “We’ve definitely got a range of front-drive four-cylinder cars, both in petrol and in diesel, and we have a four-wheel-drive V6 format in sedan and wagon.

“It’s such a broad range … we’re actually spoiled for choice.”

More about the range and model names will be announced in early 2018. “At that time I’ll be quite happy to be quite candid about which ones we will leave on the table and which ones we will bring in to New Zealand.”

One obvious influence going forward is the factor that has kept Commodore looking reasonably good within a sedan sector that has been diminishing massively over the past five years: Its role as the favoured police patrol car.

Holden will continue to hold a contract that guarantees hundreds of sales per annum for the next five years. The deal is so crucial that it is likely the first ZB cars here will be in police livery.

Asked if the contract meant Holden here would maintain commitment to the four-door regardless how well it sells as a private vehicle, Aquilina said: “Yeah, I think there’s still a role for sedan, with police as well as other customers.

“If you look at Commodore sedan sales today, what’s obviously giving it a little bit of a lift in its final year of Australian production is popularity of V8s. There’s been a lift in large, rear-drive vehicles. That is a niche offering (for Holden) in the future.

“I think what we will do with this new Commodore is invite new people into it … those who we possibly disregarded in the past because our engines were thought (by them) to be too large and there was a perception around thirstiness.

“This (ZB) gives a reason to look at Commodore again … but the market is telling us, and customers are telling us, that trends are changing and there’s a bigger role to be played for the (Tourer) configuration in setting the image, the perception and potentially the future volume for that car line.”

Interestingly, Aquilina doesn’t hold much hope of past Commodore buyers who have abdicated to other vehicle types – particularly large SUVs like the Trailblazer or the conjoined Colorado ute – coming back to the car, even in its market-tasty Tourer form.

“It’s unlikely. I’d say there will be other externalities that will influence that … the trends that we see is that, once they are in a high-riding SUV, they tend to stay there.

“The path to a high-riding wagon is out of a passenger car. It could be a smaller one, or a larger one, or a used vehicle, but it will be a sedan buyer.”

The Tourer leverages a number of new technologies found on the Insignia range, including an advanced twin-clutch torque vectoring system and switchable drive modes with a Sport and off-road optimised option.

It’s a relatively big wagon, able to swallow up to 1640 litres with the 40/20/40 split rear seats tucked away.

The Tourer also wears unique off-road body cladding that is denoted by a revised lower front fascia, black-coloured wheel arch protectors and rugged rear diffuser treatment, as well as sharing the Sportwagon’s design flourishes of a roof-mounted spoiler and roof rails.

Specification levels seem set to mirror those for a V6 Sportwagon. Thus the Tourer will provision a power tailgate, heated seats front and rear, cooled front seats and active noise cancellation, along with a suite of safety features such as autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, forward collision alert and rear cross-traffic alert. 

Meantime, VF supply is expected to last until at least the end of the year, but the count of specific models – including all the V8 derivatives – is running low, with fewer than 200 left. Out of these, just a handful are Redlines.