When looking for an affordable large sedan with a V8 powerplant and a sporty persona the Holden Commodore SS has become the default choice for many. While Ford Falcon fans may disagree, the SS has been a part of the Commodore range for 28 years and has established itself as the benchmark in this niche but hard fought market segment. But times change, and the SS Commodore has found itself fighting against a foe more dangerous than the Falcon. The biggest problem facing large V8 sports sedan like the SS is the increasing price of petrol and a global trend towards buying smaller vehicles. But rather than just fall over and accept extinction Holden’s SS Commodore is evolving by maximising its strengths and addressing its weaknesses all in the name of survival. Car and SUV spent a week studying the highest-spec Commodore SS-V Redline edition to calculate its chances of continued success.
One area the SS hasn’t required wholesale changes is exterior styling with the VE Commodore shape still looking modern even though it first debuted back in 2006. The subtle Series II update has refreshed the SS face with a new front fascia, larger front grille, recessed fog lamps and updated projector headlights. The chunky body kit remains but there’s a new boot spoiler and a huge lower air intake on the front skirt. Being the top dog of the sports Commodore range the SS V-Series Redline gets polished 19-inch alloys that cover four-piston Brembo brakes and 355mm rotors (front only). There’s also some special badging, and at the rear quad chrome exhaust outlets signal sinister intent. Overall, the SS remains true to its roots; it has a bulky, aggressive and athletic aesthetic that will continue to turn buyers’ heads.
Inside, the top-spec SS is a mixture of charcoal plastics, silver trim and gloss black inserts. Switchgear is large and easy to use, but the big news is Holden’s new IQ vehicle entertainment system. It’s a clever media unit that has a 6.5-inch colour touch screen mounted high up on the control stack so it’s easy to reach and to view while driving. The IQ system can connect and integrate with an iPod, USB stick or by Bluetooth to a mobile phone. It can also rip and store up to 15 CDs, has full colour satellite navigation and a handy rear view camera.
The thick leather wrapped steering wheel houses audio and trip computer buttons and a smaller LCD screen located in the instrumentation offers journey and various vehicle information. The SS cockpit is thoughtfully laid out, it’s very easy to learn and would prove effortless using it on a daily basis. The only niggling issue is with the quality of plastics used, while some feel very good, others are hard to the touch and don’t feel as durable. There are also some rough edges and moving parts like the handbrake and glove box can feel a touch flimsy.
Like all models in the Commodore range interior space in the SS Redline is abundant. The two-tone leather front seats look the business, are comfortable and have excellent lateral support regardless of driver’s body shape. The rear bench can easily accommodate three adults with headroom and legroom being a non-issue for all occupants.
The Commodore boot can take a useful 496-litres and while the rear seat back doesn’t fold down to increase capacity there’s a ski port for long items.
Visibility is mixed, there are good lines-of-sight out the sides and directly out the front but thick A-pillars can create blind spots and the boot spoiler can restrict the rear view slightly.
As you’d expect the equipment list on our special edition SS test vehicle was extensive and included gems like rear parking sensors, auto headlights, cruise control, satellite navigation, rear camera, dual zone climate control air con, keyless entry, sports instrumentation and alloy faced pedals.
Having all the gadgets is nice but it’s under the bonnet where the SS has always distanced itself from lesser 6-cylinder siblings and the Redline makes use of Holden’s current V8 mill. The Redline receives no power increase over other Commodores using the same 6.0-litre V8 unit but it’s still a grunt machine putting out 260kW of power and 517Nm of torque. It’s an eager unit that can show real hustle on the street with a deep growl and suitably raspy exhaust note. With masses of torque on tap the SS remains unstressed at most speeds and has prodigious amounts of midrange poke for overtaking. The power is delivered in a smooth and predictable fashion and while the V8 engine doesn’t love stop/start traffic it remains well mannered until it can breathe deeply once again.
To evolve but remain desirable Holden’s V8 engine needed to consume less fuel and this has been achieved by some clever electronics with the AFM (Active Fuel Management) system. This unit shuts down four of the V8’s cylinders while the car is cruising and absolute power isn’t required. It works seamlessly and a quick prod of the gas pedal is all it needs to get eight pots blazing again. The AFM system is effective but only to a point, and the SS is now capable of a 12.3l/100km fuel economy which isn’t bad for a performance vehicle. That said, if you want to really enjoy your V8 it’s going to need feeding and with that economy will suffer.
Putting the power to the rear treads on our test subject is a traditional 6-speed auto transmission. It has well sorted ratios and changes smoothly, but its shifts aren’t rapid and at times it does feel like the gearbox costs the SS a whisker of pace. However, the transmission’s relaxed nature is great when cruising and if a more hands-on approach is desired, manual changes can be accessed through a sequential system on the gearstick. There are no steering wheel paddles or buttons.
Straight-line speed has long been a characteristic of the SS but handling ability has been much improved in the VE Commodore and the Redline edition might be the most dynamically competent SS built so far. How exactly? The Redline upgrades are more than just cosmetic and our tested SS was fitted with a special “track-inspired” sports suspension set-up. The dampers were replaced with firmer kit and stiffer stabiliser bars have been added to the existing MacPherson front struts and multi-link rear arrangement. It’s an effective upgrade and our SS sat nicely flat through the corners keeping its composure right up to a high limit. On the flip side the SS Redline does ride a notch firmer than other SS models but it still has fair compliance on NZ roads. General ride comfort is very good with little road and wind noise disturbing the cabin.
For safety, the Redline is bang on the money with a hard-working stability and traction control system, ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and a six-airbag package. The upgraded Brembo brakes are also a treat and bite in strongly giving the driver even more confidence in the SS-V Redline’s dynamic ability.
After just a few days it was very easy to become comfortable with the Commodore’s size, interior fit-out and driving characteristics. This is a main reason why the Commodore is a vehicle that achieves enviable brand loyalty. The SS-V Redline Edition represents the top tier in the Commodore performance range and is suitably powered and styled. On the open road it’s an engaging drive and does tidy work around town as well. The AFM technology is a step in the right direction but the fuel bills may dissuade the uncommitted. The Redline upgrades come with a $3k premium but they are effective, both visually and mechanically. If you’re a V8 Commodore fan and you have the cash, then the SS-V Redline is the model to get.
Price: from $74,990
What we like:
- Strong and predictable power delivery
- Redline upgrades work well
- Commodore space and practicality
- Top-end handling ability
What we don’t like:
- Thick A-pillars
- Some interior plastics are a little rough
- Still a very thirsty vehicle
Words and Photos: Adam Mamo