Four hours, 50 minutes, 388.8km traversing New Zealand’s South Island is what it took to make my mind up about the 2018 Holden Commodore. There are some ups and downs, I drove six variants and I’m going to be blatantly honest about the most controversial car that has launched in Australian History.

Over a couple of days, I scored a drive in the LT Diesel, RS-V Liftback, LT Sportwagon, Calais-V Tourer and the VXR. A combination of body styles, engines, drivetrains and equipment levels. I also learnt many of the finer details of how this car came to be, in fact I spent a quality two-hour drive session with Australia’s Lead Development Engineer David Johnson. He’d have to be one of the most passionate Holden men around. The time he’s spent on the car is immense, his knowledge unprecedented. The role he played was acting as the main contact between Holden and Opel, if the Australian arm had a complaint he’d let them know how to fix it. The project was also lead by Holden’s Rob Trubiani, the Lead Dynamics Engineer.

In fact, if he had his way, along with the rest of the Holden team, the car would have been built in Elizabeth, South Australia. The current ‘Opel Insignia’ has been in the works for six or so years, it’s not suddenly something that had to be rushed in to replace the defunct GM VE / VF Zeta platform. Even Mr Johnson admits for many years, Holden has been receiving cars not worthy of the badge. Think Captiva or even the Colorado, although once the Aussie teams get their hands on the imported products, the incremental improvements are purely a local and worthwhile effort.

Which brings us to the 2018 ZB Holden Commodore, yes, I know many don’t think it deserves the name. But that’s the name on the back, just as the word Insignia and Regal are in Europe and the US markets. To bring the imported Commodore up to our driving expectations the 300 strong Port Elizabeth team has essentially become GM’s development team for RHD vehicles, trust me it shows.

The four-cylinder 2.0-litre models showcased at the New Zealand launch however did not benefit from Mr Johnson and his team’s experience. They will as full production cars flood the New Zealand market, but these cars are known as MVB vehicles. These early build units are a way of testing the product before full production commences. So much so, one wagon had the wrong exhaust fitted, the bumper paid a hefty price for that.

But driving these without the Australian tuned suspension and steering response, exposes some glaring deficiencies. For example, hurtling along in a base LT Sportswagon on some of New Zealand’s, if not the best roads in the world, reveal somewhat of an ungainly experience. Mid-corner bumps unsettle the car, the steering just doesn’t feel right, and the ride is overly harsh.

But then I jumped into the RS-V V6 Liftback, one of the V6 models that scored the Aussie input. The transformation was remarkable. This is how a Commodore should feel, with very secure steering that’s lighter than ever before. The balance and composure are close to perfect and the drive, even from an absolute purist’s view, becomes bloody fun.

I can’t say the 3.6L V6 with 235kW / 381Nm has the most inspiring engine note, but really, it’s no different from the previous SV6 models in terms of noise. The Twinster AWD system, the same found in a Ford Focus RS is really a must have. The absence of RWD is made up for by a setup that basically delivers unshakable road holding abilities. Irrespective of the conditions, the AWD Commodores are the best handling ever.

The 2.0-litre turbo 191kW / 350Nm units found in the LT, RS, and Calais variants are really a surprise packet. Yes, they are FWD and yes there are times when that’s more than evident, hard cornering and changes in camber will lead to torque steer. But again, the Aussie magic wand had not been waved across the New Zealand 2.0-litre press cars. The engine however is a top performer, eclipsing the previous 3.0-litre V6 found in the Evoke. It’s more responsive and as much as I hate to say it, brings the Commodore into the real world. Small capacity turbo engines can be great, particularly Euro sourced units. Fuel economy varies from body style and variant with a combined figure of 7.4L/100km for the Liftback LT, 7.6 (RS, Calais). For the wagon the figures sit at 7.7L/100km for the LT and 7.9 for the RS. Although any form of spirited driving will blow these figures right out, typical for any turbo-petrol engine really.

Then there’s the 2.0-turbo diesel LT Liftback. I took this car on a very scenic drive, in fact at one stage up the world’s steepest residential street in Dunedin, Baldwin Street. Look if you want efficiency and the first diesel Commodore, this is for you, for a $3000 premium. The claimed fuel economy figure of 5.6L/100km seems achievable, I averaged in the mid 7’s. The 125kW and 400Nm makes the car a relatively sharp performer. In fact, the nine-speed auto across the range had to be dumped for an eight-speed to accommodate those extra Nm’s. But look, it’s clearly a diesel from the moment you start the car. A twin-turbo diesel available overseas was deemed too expensive and personally I don’t think I could bring myself to own one.

The Tourer range is tantamount to reviving the Adventra AWD wagon range sold from 2005. Think of this as Holden’s answer to the Subaru Outback. A high ride version of the Sportswagon, with the plastic protective mud flares to accentuate its more lifestyle-orientated intentions. Available in Calais and Calais-V trim the car is positioned to be a high-end wagon clearly aimed at the burgeoning SUV market. There’s a little more body-roll over the Sportswagon models, with an elevated 20mm ride height. But it drives with almost the same vigour and sharpness at the other V6 models in the range. This may well be the hot seller.

Then we come to the VXR, the only version of the V6 that produces a prominent exhaust note personality. Just blip the throttle inside a tunnel and people will divert their attention. This performance model is no quicker than any of the six-cylinder range but does come equipped with some unique sports modes, adaptive dampers, front Brembo brakes and performance leather seats. Aside from a ‘Sports’ mode there’s also a VXR mode that adds extra unique oomph for suspension settings, throttle settings and steering inputs. This is the car I really prefer, because like many of you I miss the V8 SS model. It’s about as close to filling the void anytime soon. Being a full second or so slower than the V8 is certainly a disappointment, but the VXR corners like a knife. I’d tip if you put the former and current model through the twisty stuff the VXR may well come out a winner.

Liftback and Sportwagon

  • 2.0-litre turbo engine, 9-speed automatic transmission, 17-inch alloy wheels,
  • Auto headlamps with LED Daytime Running Lights
  • LED tail lights
  • Passive Entry and Push-button Start
  • Remote Start
  • Holden Eye Forward Facing Camera
  • Autonomous Emergency Braking
  • Lane Keep Assist
  • Lane Departure Warning
  • Following Distance Indicator
  • Forward Collision Alert with Head-Up Warning
  • Advanced Park Assist (semi-automatic parking)
  • Rear View Camera. Front and Rear Park Assist
  • Rain Sensing Wipers
  • Holden MyLink Infotainment System with 7-inch high-resolution colour touch-screen display
  • Apple CarPlay® and Android® Auto phone projection
  • Full iPod® integration including Siri Eyes Free
  • Cruise Control
  • Leather Steering Wheel
  • 8-way Power Driver Seat
  • 60/40 split-folding rear seats

RS-V features over RS: Liftback and Sportwagon

  • 3.6-litre V6 AWD engine
  • 9-speed automatic transmission
  • Adaptive AWD with electric LSD
  • Hi Per Strut Suspension
  • Rear Sports Fascia
  • Wireless phone charging
  • Ambient Lighting
  • Holden MyLink Infotainment System with 8-inch high-resolution colour touch-screen display
  • Apple CarPlay® and Android® Auto phone projection
  • Full iPod® integration including Siri Eyes Free
  • Embedded Satellite Navigation o DAB+
  • 8-inch colour cluster screen
  • Colour Head-up display
  • Leather appointed seat trim
  • Heated front seats
  • Sports steering wheel with paddle shifters
  • Spacesaver spare wheel
  • Diesel engine option alloy pedals

VXR features over RS-V: Liftback only

  • 20-inch alloy wheels
  • Selectable mode Continuous Damping Control (CDC) suspension
  • Brembo brakes (front)
  • Electric Sunroof
  • VXR floor mats & sill plates
  • Adaptive LED Matrix Headlights
  • 360-degree camera
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Performance leather sports seats
  • Ventilated front seats
  • Heated rear seats
  • Driver & Passenger seat power side bolsters

Full pricing.

  • Liftback (sedan) LT 2.0-litre turbo * $33,690
  • Calais 2.0-litre turbo * $40,990
  • Calais-V V6 AWD $51,990
  • RS 2.0-litre turbo $37,290
  • RS V6 AWD $40,790
  • RS-V V6 AWD $46,990
  • VXR V6 AWD $55,990
  • Sportwagon LT 2.0-litre turbo *$35,890
  • RS 2.0-litre turbo $39,490
  • RS-V V6 AWD $49,190 Tourer (high-ride)
  • Calais Tourer V6 AWD $45,990
  • Calais-V Tourer V6 AWD $53,990

* diesel available – $3,000 premium (eight-speed automatic)

Driveway pricing

  • Liftback (sedan) LT 2.0-litre turbo $35,990
  • RS 2.0-litre turbo $38,990
  • RS V6 AWD $42,490 Tourer (high-ride)
  • Calais Tourer V6 AWD $47,99

In conclusion the 2018 Holden Commodore is simply a better car overall than the VF / VE series. There were a couple of rattles throughout the cabin on some roads, and coarse chip roads do produce a tad more road noise than I’d like, but mainly on the 2.0-litre models. Higher-end variants score noise cancelling speakers above the front door handles that may help. The interior is a leap up, if a little dark.

But considering the local input, right down to even changing the radio tuner because the European version struggled in Australian conditions, the result is a very nice car indeed. I look forward to driving the car in Australian conditions, but overall there’s nothing to really fret about the German made 2018 ZB Holden Commodore, unless you hate the shape. So, go and check it out.