Taking the most controversial Commodore ever made for a 1000 kilometre trip up the Australian east coast.
We started our journey in Australia’s largest city, the bustling metropolis of Sydney.
Having flown in from interstate on an early morning flight, the team was eager to get going quickly to make the most of the trip, and our car of choice was Holden’s final generation of Commodore. Built by Opel in Germany and carrying the iconic Aussie nameplate, we picked up the RS liftback variant, powered by a General Motors 3.6L High Feature V6 engine mated to a 9-speed all-wheel drive transmission.
With no coffee and no snacks, we loaded our bags into a surprisingly large 490 litre luggage compartment and made our preparations to enter the notorious rush-hour traffic of Sydney’s M1 motorway for the inaugural 175km leg of the thousand kilometre journey.
Before we embarked on our journey, we had to connect to navigation and this involved playing around with the Commodore’s 7.0-inch touchscreen. Holden’s own user interface was far from perfect with the absence of in-built navigation and outdated looking menus, however the inclusion of Android Auto meant that we could still put the display to good use.
After asking Google to navigate us to our lunch destination – the sunny port city of Newcastle, the team finally set off through the busy streets of Sydney’s airport district and onto the congested motorway. It was slow progress, but seeing the odd interesting car kept it entertaining.
After spending a strenuous amount of time navigating through Sydney and its surroundings, the Commodore was finally able to stretch its legs, opening its taps to the 235kW (315hp)/381Nm powerplant, albeit briefly to accelerate quickly and effortlessly up to the highway limit. Having made ourselves comfortable in the cloth sports seats, adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist made for a nice but rather uneventful drive, with the highway becoming our home for the next hour and a half.
Upon arriving in Newcastle, we gave the Commodore a rest and had lunch at a local seafood restaurant, followed by a brief walk up to Nobbys Lighthouse to enjoy the vibrant cityscape. After reflecting on our first impression with the Commodore, we couldn’t really think of any overarching negatives, and with that the team set off for an early night in the tourist town of Nelson Bay – not before finally stocking up on supplies.
Early next morning, we set off towards some nice driving roads out by a few lakes. The 3.6L engine and AWD setup was more than capable of handling anything the trip had thrown the car so far, aka. city roads and highways – but what would it be like out in the countryside?
To saw the least, we were impressed. On the relatively smooth backroads with gentle curves, the steering and firm suspension felt meticulous, and although weighing in at a reasonably heavy 1672kg, the light but precise steering made the Commodore feel rather nimble. It could take sweeping corners with surprising confidence – an unanticipated high level of finesse that we didn’t expect from an affordable saloon marketed towards families.
Rejoining the highway after the detour, the team continued on the second 250 kilometre journey towards the next mapped out destination. A late lunch in the historic town of Taree was followed by a second backroad detour, and then a spectacular evening entry into Port Macquarie – with coastal skies lit up in vibrant shades of yellow and red.
We gazed out into the horizon for a rather extended period of time, before heading down to the town square for a nice outdoor dining experience, but we won’t bore you with the details of that.
As if we weren’t already awestruck from the sunset, the clear night sky steered our schedule away from an early night, as we hastily unpacked camera gear to focus our attention on the clear midnight sky. We were now at least over 400 kilometres away from a concrete jungle in every direction and despite the sizeable towns along the way, it was evident that metropolitan light pollution hadn’t reached the skies over the state’s Mid-North Coast.
Kicking the linear V6 back into action, we set off towards our next planned B road, a twisty mountain pass along Waterfall Way. Leaving the highway after a 150 kilometre stretch from Port Macquarie, we set off along the winding tarmac of waterfall-laden Dorrigo mountain to test the car’s true handling capabilities.
The Commodore had never been known as a great handling car – and although the new Opel built car didn’t share any underpinnings with the older Commodores, we were still skeptical about how well an affordable family car could perform around narrow twists and tight hairpins.
Astonishingly, the car passed our handling test with flying colours.
With 245 tyres on all fours, all-wheel drive grip remained high and firm suspension meant that taking corners felt superb. We were aware that the AWD system itself, the GKN ‘Twinster’ allowed for torque vectoring over the rear axle, driving each rear wheel with a clutch to accurately distribute torque. The system was working its magic out on the damp mountain roads, automatically detecting the road surface and matching the car’s performance to the conditions.
Unlike the previous Commodore however, the handling never evoked drama – and in spite of the fact that the torque converter felt smooth and seamless, the absence of steering-wheel mounted paddles meant that it lacked proper feel during spirited driving (Flappy paddles were however available on higher trims), and managing nine-speeds through the car’s manual mode wasn’t exactly the most enjoyable.
If we may digress a little, we’d like to let you in on a little secret. The ZB Commodore is undeniably one of the fastest cars in Australia.
If you’re familiar with Australia though, it’s no secret that a clean Holden Commodore has always been the nationwide police car of choice – and despite it’s European roots, the latest Commodore has remained a very popular unmarked car for national law enforcement agencies.
What we’re trying to say is that there was a comical difference in the behaviour of other cars when the ZB Commodore was near, resulting in very few overtakes and silly manoevres from other motorists.
The team hunkered down for an early night in a nearby town to get ready for the final day of extensive driving, commencing with a 250 kilometre stretch to the eastern-most point of the Australian continent, Byron Bay.
At this point, the journey was coming close to an end, so we started discussing what the ZB Commodore’s negative image was really about – because after spending three days with the car, we didn’t really have anything overarchingly bad to say. The central seat in the rear was a little small and there were a few creature comforts absent, but at a competitive price of just $40,790 AUD for the V6, it left little room for improvement.
We agreed that the car was never meant to house a V8 and it was never meant to be rear-wheel drive like a Commodore.
It was a European developed Insignia, and engineers didn’t cut corners on its development. The ZB Commodore is a brilliant car – but no matter how good it is, it just isn’t a Commodore.
Ever since the Commodore’s release in 1978, the nameplate had been the symbol of Australia and continued to represent local manufacturing for nearly 40 years. After outsourcing development and production however, Commodore sales hit a record low – with Holden only managing to sell 15,000 units of the ZB before shutting their doors forever.
After a final 100 kilometre drive, the team had finally left New South Wales and entered the sunshine state of Queensland. Once again, back into busy traffic, but this time – Gold Coast traffic.
We had been on a journey to find out what made the ZB Commodore so unpopular, and we discovered that nothing was wrong with the car itself. A sophisticated family car that was more than performance capable, the car was truly brilliant – but bad marketing turned it into the worst mistake in Holden’s history.
A brilliant car, but a PR failure.