The Holden Commodore is an automobile manufactured by the Holden division of General Motors (GM) in Australia, and, formerly, in New Zealand. In the mid-1970s, Holden established proposals to replace the long-serving Kingswood nameplate with an all-new smaller model. Holden based the Commodore on the Opel Rekord. The German marque continued to provide the basis for future generations until the launch of the fourth generation model in 2006, which came to be Holden's most expensive project yet, deploying an all-Australian design.
Initially introduced as a sedan body style, the range expanded in 1979 to include a station wagon. The line-up expanded for a second time in 1990, when Holden introduced the utility and the long-wheelbase Statesman derivatives. Then in 2001, the third generation architecture provided the foundations for a revived Monaro coupé. Since the beginning, the Commodore has always been offered in more than one specification. However, in 1984, Holden decided to brand the flagship model as simply the Holden Calais, dropping the Commodore identity all together. The Holden Berlina and Holden Ute branched-off from the lineup in 2000, known previously as the Commodore Berlina and Commodore Utility, correspondingly.
To combat increasing sales erosion by rivals and the limitations of Australia's small market, Holden broadened the Commodore's export plans. Commodores are sent abroad as the Chevrolet Lumina, Chevrolet Omega and Pontiac G8, while also having been previously sold as the Toyota Lexcen in Australia. Rivalry has come predominantly from arch-rival Ford's Falcon, however it was not until 1988 when the much larger second generation was launched that the Commodore became a true competitor to the Falcon. Toyota, and previously Mitsubishi Motors, also compete with their mid-size cars.
Introduced in 1978, the Holden VB Commodore development covered an era with the effects of the 1973 oil crisis still being felt. Hence, when Holden decided to replace the successful full-size HZ Kingswood with a new model line, they designed the new car to be smaller and more fuel efficient. Originally, Holden looked at developing a new WA Kingswood, however, this project was later dismissed. With no replacement in development and at the urging of GM headquarters, Holden looked towards Opel for providing the foundations of the VB, basing it loosely on the four-cylinder Rekord E bodyshell with the front grafted on from the Opel Senator. This change was necessary to accommodate the larger Holden six-cylinder and V8 engines. Holden adopted the "Commodore" model name from Opel, which released Opel Commodore models from 1967 to 1982. Opel went on to use Holden’s Rekord-Senator hybrid as a foundation for its Opel Commodore C slotting in between both donor models. Using GM’s rear-wheel drive V-body platform as used by the Rekord and Senator, the VB retained 96 percent of the preceding HZ Kingswood's interior space, despite being 14 percent smaller in overall dimensions. When driven at speed over harsh Australian roads, Holden quickly realised that the Rekord would effectively break in half at the firewall. This forced Holden to rework the entire car for local conditions. These modifications blew development costs beyond expectations—it cost almost as much to rework the Opel as it would been to develop a new model locally. The total figure for the VB development topped AU$110 million. With such a large sum consumed by the VB programme, Holden was left with no money to develop utility, station wagon, and long-wheelbase variants. Desperate measures forced Holden to shape the Commodore front-end to the rear of the Rekord wagon, plaguing the wagon with inevitable component differences from the sedan. Despite these issues, the car was praised for its value for money and sophistication, winning the prestigious Wheels Car of the Year award for 1978.
With the Commodore dropping a full class below the Kingswood and its Ford Falcon competitor, the smaller Commodore was predictably more fuel-efficient. This downsizing was first seen as a major disadvantage for Holden, as they had effectively relinquished the potential of selling Commodores to the fleet and taxi industries. These sales losses were thought to be unrecoverable; however, the 1979 energy crisis saw Australian oil prices rise by 140 percent, putting substantial strain on the automotive industry to collectively downsize. To Holden’s advantage, the change had already been done, thus giving them a forte in the marketplace.
The most significant change to the 1980 VC Commodore was an upgraded Red motor bringing improved efficiency. Now painted blue and thus known as the Blue motor, the changes included a new twelve-port cylinder head among other tweaks on the sixes, and electronic ignition for the V8s. In response to high oil prices, a four-cylinder variant was spawned. This 1.9 litre powerplant, known as the Starfire engine, was effectively Holden's existing straight-six with two cylinders removed. Peak power output is , with a 17.5 second acceleration time from 0-100 kilometres (62 mi). This variant was a compromise due to poor performance and the need to push the engine hard led to fuel consumption similar to the straight-sixes.
Visual changes were limited, such as the relocation of the corporate crest to the centre of the redesigned grille. This coincided with a new entry level variant, given the designation Commodore L. On the premium Commodore SL/E, a unique two-colour "Shadow Tone" exterior paint option became available in a limited range of colours, a feature not seen on a Holden since the days of the FB Special introduced in 1960.
The 1981 VH series ended the Commodore's position as Australia's bestselling car for the first time, despite it being an evolution of the previous model. As the 1979 energy crisis drew to a close, buyers gravitated towards the larger Ford Falcon rival. The Holden's six-cylinder engine, which was carried over from the Kingswood, could trace its roots back to 1963 and was no longer competitive. Continual improvements made to the Falcon meant the Commodore was not significantly more fuel-efficient or better performing despite the smaller size. Holden also had to deal with the influx of their own new Camira, which presented comparable interior room and fuel savings, and for less than the Commodore pricing point.
Moderately updated front bodywork, with new headlights and horizontally-slatted grille dominated the front-end of the VH Commodore, producing a lower yet wider look that was in the interest of aerodynamics. Sedans featured redesigned tail light clusters, the design of which borrowed from Mercedes-Benz models of the day, using a louvered design that prevented the build-up of dirt. The range-topping SL/E featured tail lamp extension reflectors to meet up with the license plate alcove and wrap-around chrome rear bumper extensions to the rear wheel arches.
Mechanical specifications carried over, except for a new five-speed manual transmission, optional on the 1.9 litre four-cylinder and 2.85 litre six-cylinder versions. In a desperate attempt to improve the dwindling sales of the straight-four engine, Holden spent considerable time improving its performance and efficiency. Substantial effort was also poured into the 2.85 litre six, and the powerplants managed to reduce fuel consumption by 12.5 and 14 percent correspondingly. At the same time, the nomenclature of the range was rationalised. The SL was now the base model, the SL/X was the mid-range and as before, SL/E was the top-of-the-line variant, while wagons were restricted to the SL and SL/X variants. In 1982 the SS sports model was introduced, being a Commodore mainstay ever since. The SS was fitted with Holden's 4.2 litre V8. Racing driver Peter Brock's HDT Special Vehicles business produced three upgrade versions, known as Group One, Group Two and Group Three, featuring a choice of 4.2 and 5.0 litre V8 engines. To this day, Brock's modified VH Commodores are highly sought after, attracting high prices at auctions.
Representing the first major change since the VB original, the VK model of 1984 introduced a six-window glasshouse, as opposed to the previous four-window design, to make the Commodore appear larger. The revised design helped stimulate sales, which totalled 135,000 in two years. This did not put an end to Holden’s monetary woes. Sales of the initially popular Camira slumped due to unforeseen quality issues, while the WB series Utility and Statesman were starting to show their age; their 1971 origins compared unfavourably with Ford’s more modern Fairlane.
New names for the trim levels were also introduced, such as Commodore Executive (an SL with air conditioning and automatic transmission), Commodore Berlina (replacing SL/X) and Calais (replacing SL/E). The 3.3 litre Blue straight-6 engine was replaced by the Black specification, gaining computer-controlled ignition system on the carburettor versions and optional electronic fuel injection boosting power output to . The 5.0 litre V8 engine continued to power high specification variants, but was shrunk from 5044 cc to 4987 cc in 1985 due to new Group A racing homologation rules. The new unit cut its predecessor's weight by and models were fitted with an upgraded braking system. As high oil prices being a thing of the past, Holden decided to drop the 2.85 litre six and 4.2 litre V8, while the 1.9 litre four-cylinder was limited to New Zealand.
Marking a high point in terms of sales, the last-of-the-series VL Commodore sold in record numbers, finally managing to outsell the Ford Falcon in the private sector. The 1986 VL represented a substantial makeover of the VK and would be the last of the mid-size Commodores. Designers distanced the Commodore further away from its Opel origins, by smoothing the lines of the outer body and incorporating a subtle tail spoiler. A thorough redesign of the nose saw the Commodore gain sleek, narrow headlamps and a shallower grille, while the Calais specification employed unique partially concealed headlamps.
By this stage, Holden’s 30 year old six-cylinder was thoroughly outmoded and would have been difficult to re-engineer to comply with pending emission standards and the introduction of unleaded fuel. This led Holden to sign a deal with Nissan to import their RB30E engine. This seemed a good idea in 1983 when the Australian dollar was strong; however by 1986 the once viable prospect became rather expensive. The public quickly accepted what was at first a controversial move, as reports emerged of the improvements in refinement, 33 percent gain in power and 15 percent better economy. An optional turbocharger appeared six months later and lifted power output to . In October 1986, an unleaded edition of Holden’s carburettored V8 engine was publicised. Holden had originally planned to discontinue the V8 to spare the engineering expense of converting to unleaded. However, public outcry persuaded them to relent. VLs in New Zealand were also available with the 2.0 litre six-cylinder RB20E engine.
The VL suffered from some common build quality problems, such as poor windshield sealing, that can lead to water leakages and corrosion. Awkward packaging under the low bonnet meant the six-cylinder engine was especially susceptible to cracked cylinder heads, a problem not displayed on the Nissan Skyline with which it shares the RB30 engine. The Used Car Safety Ratings, published in 2007 by the Monash University Accident Research Centre, found that first generation Commodores (VB–VL) provide a "worse than average" level of occupant safety protection in the event of an accident.
The Holden VN Commodore of 1988 and subsequent second generation models took their bodywork from the larger Opel Senator B and new Opel Omega A. However, this time, the floor plan was widened and stretched; now matching the rival Ford Falcon for size. Continuing financial woes at Holden meant the wider VN body was underpinned by narrow, carry-over VL chassis components in a bid to save development costs. The range expanded in 1990 to include a utility variant, given the model designation VG. This was built on a longer-wheelbase platform that it shared with the station wagon and luxury VQ Statesman limousine released earlier in the year. During this time, the rival Ford EA Falcon was plagued with initial quality issues which tarnished its reputation. Buyers embraced the VN Commodore, helping Holden to recover and post an operating profit of AU$157.3 million for 1989. The team at Wheels magazine awarded the VN Car of the Year in 1988: the second Commodore model to receive this award.
Changes in the relative values of the Australian dollar and Japanese yen made it financially impractical to continue with the well-regarded Nissan engine of the VL. Instead, Holden manufactured their own 3.8 litre V6 engine based on a Buick design, adapted from front- to rear-wheel drive. The 5.0 litre V8 remained optional and received a power boost to courtesy of multi-point fuel injection. Although not known for its refinement, the new V6 was nevertheless praised for its performance and fuel efficiency at the time. A 2.0 litre Family II engine was also offered for some export markets including New Zealand and Singapore where it was sold as the Holden Berlina. Accompanying the changes to engines, the VL's four-speed automatic transmission was replaced by the TH700 and a Borg-Warner five-speed manual. A Series II update of the VN appeared in September 1989, featuring a revised V6 engine known internally as the EV6. With the update came a power hike of rising to from .
Under an unsuccessful model sharing arrangement as part of the Hawke Labor government reforms in 1989, Toyota began badge engineering versions of the VN Commodore. These disguised Commodores were sold as the Toyota Lexcen, named after Ben Lexcen, the designer of Australia II yacht which won the 1983 America's Cup. The original VN Lexcen was offered in sedan and station wagon forms in three models: the base, GL and GXL, offered only with Holden's 3.8 litre V6 engine and automatic transmission.
The VP update of 1991 featured mainly cosmetic changes; the same revised 3.8 litre V6 and 5.0 litre V8 engines from the VN were carried over. The 2.0 litre straight-4 previously available in New Zealand was discontinued. Exterior cosmetic changes included a translucent acrylic grille on the base level Executive. Semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension became standard on the Calais and SS, but was made an option on lower-end models in lieu of the live rear axle, improving ride and handling.
A new wider front track was introduced to address issues with the previous carried-over VL chassis components. In August 1992, anti-lock brakes were introduced as an option on the Calais and SS trim levels, later becoming optional on all Series II variants. This January 1993 update also included a colour-coded grille for the Executive and alloy wheels for the Commodore S.
Toyota's pattern of updating their Lexcen model tended to follow Commodore’s model cycle. The VP Lexcen from 1991 pioneered new specification designations: CSi, VXi and Newport. All future updates (VR, T4 (VS) and T5 (VS II) Lexcens) made use of the new naming system until 1997, when the badge engineering scheme ceased. To give further differentiation to the Lexcen from the Commodore, the Lexcens from the VP model onwards had unique front-end styling treatments.
The 1993 VR Commodore represented a major facelift of the second generation architecture leaving only the doors and roof untouched. Approximately 80 percent of car was new in comparison to the preceding model. Exterior changes brought an overall smoother body, semicircular wheel arches and the "twin-kidney" grille—a Commodore styling trait which remained until the VY model of 2002. The rear-end treatment saw raised tail lights, implemented for safety reasons, and a driver's side airbag was introduced as an option: a first for an Australian-built car. Other safety features such as anti-lock brakes and independent rear suspension were only available with the new electronic GM 4L60-E automatic transmission. Along with a driver's airbag and cruise control, these features were packaged into a new Acclaim specification level: a family-oriented safety spec above the entry-level Executive. Holden's strong focus on safety can be seen in the Used Car Safety Ratings. The findings show that in an accident, VN/VP Commodores provide a "worse than average" level of occupant protection. However, the updated VR/VS models were found to provide a "better than average" level of safety protection. Holden issued a Series II revision in September 1994 bringing audible warning chimes for the handbrake and fuel level among other changes.
The latest revision of the Buick 3.8 litre V6 engine was fitted to the VR Commodore, featuring rolling-element bearings in the valve rocker arms and increased compression ratios. These changes combined to deliver an increase in power to and further improvement in Noise, Vibration, and Harshness levels. Wheels magazine awarded the VR Commodore Car of the Year in 1993.
The 1995 Holden VS Commodore served as a mechanical update of the VR, destined to maintain sales momentum before the arrival of an all-new VT model. The extent of exterior changes amounted to little more than a redesigned Holden logo and wheel trims. An overhauled Ecotec (Emissions and Consumption Optimisation through TEChnology) version of the Buick V6 engine coincided with changes to the engine in the United States. The Ecotec engine packed 13 percent more power, an increase of 17 kilowatts (23 hp) over the VR, cut fuel consumption by 5 percent, increased the compression ratio from 9.0:1 to 9.4:1 and dramatically improved on its previous rough characteristics. Holden mated the new engine with a modified version of the GM 4L60-E automatic transmission, improving throttle response and smoothing gear changes. The Series II update of June 1996 included elliptical side turn signals, interior tweaks and the introduction of a supercharged V6 engine for selected trim levels. The new supercharged engine slotted between the existing V6 and V8 engines in the lineup and was officially rated at , just below the V8.
With the VT Commodore of 1997, Holden looked again to Opel in Germany for a donor platform. The proposal was to take the Opel Omega B and broaden the vehicle’s width and mechanical setup for local conditions. In the early days, Holden considered adopting the Omega as is, save for the engines and transmissions, and even investigated reskinning the existing VR/VS architecture. Later on, the VT bodywork spawned a new generation of Statesman and Caprice limousines, and even went as far as resurrecting the iconic Monaro coupé from the 1960s and 1970s.
The VT heralded the fitment of semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension as standard across the range, a significant selling point over the rival Falcon. However, when originally carried over from the Opel, the design was simplified by removing the toe control links, standard equipment on the six-cylinder Omega since 1987. This allowed distortions to the suspension camber angle and toe under heavy load, such as heavy towing or when travelling over undulated surfaces, leading to excessive rear tyre wear. Holden's performance arm HSV re-added the toe control link on the flagship GTS 300 model. The 1999 Series II update replaced the venerable Holden 5.0 litre V8 engine with a new 5.7 litre Generation III V8 sourced from the United States. The V8 was detuned to from the original US version, but would receive incremental power upgrades to throughout its time in the Commodore, before finally being replaced by the related Generation 4 in the VZ. The supercharged V6 was uprated to 171 kilowatts (229 hp) from the VS. Safety wise, side airbags became an option for the Acclaim and higher models, a first for Holden.
From the onset, parent company General Motors was interested in incorporating a left-hand drive Commodore in its Buick lineup, culminating in the unveiling of the Buick XP2000 concept car in 1996. Although this idea was ultimately abandoned, the GM-funded project allowed Holden to enter into a range of left-hand export markets. Thus began the Commodore's rapid expansion into parts of Indochina, the Middle East and South Africa badged as the Chevrolet Lumina, to Brazil as the Chevrolet Omega, and later on with the Monaro to the United States, where it was sold by Pontiac under the GTO nameplate. In its home market, the VT Commodore was awarded its fourth Wheels Car of the Year for 1997. It found ready acceptance in the market as many buyers steered away from the slow selling Ford AU Falcon, becoming the best selling Commodore to date and cementing its place as number one in Australian sales.
The VX update from 2000 advanced Holden's winning formula, featuring a revised headlamp design. The VT's rear tail lamp panel was replaced by two separate light assemblies. Conversely, the luxury-oriented Berlina and Calais sedans continued using a full-width boot-lid panel incorporating the registration plate and tail lamps. In the VX and succeeding models, the Commodore Berlina became known simply as the Berlina. This series also introduced the first Holden Ute, designated VU. Earlier models were instead entitled "Commodore utility". An updated Series II was launched in early 2002, featuring revised rear suspension system now equipped with toe control links to address the VT's issues.
Safety played a substantial role in the development of the VX model. Bosch 5.3 anti-lock brakes were made standard on all variants, a first for an Australian manufactured car; and traction control was made available on vehicles equipped with manual transmission. Extensive research was undertaken to reduce the effects from a side-impact collision through modification of the B-pillars. The risk presented by a side-impact collision in a VX fitted without side airbags is reduced by 50 percent when compared to a similarly specified VT model.
The AU$250 million VY mid-cycle update of 2002 represented the first major styling shift since the 1997 VT. Designers discarded the rounded front and rear styling of the VT and VX models, adopting more aggressive, angular lines. The same approach was applied to the interior, whereby the curvaceous dashboard design was orphaned in favour of an angular, symmetrical design. Satin chrome plastic now dominated the façade of the centre console stack, and high-end models received fold-out cup holders borrowed from fellow GM subsidiary Saab. Holden turned towards German electronics manufacturer Blaupunkt to source audio systems—an arrangement that remains in place today.
Engineering wise, Holden kept the changes low key. A revised steering system and tweaked suspension tuning were among some of the changes to sharpen handling precision. Further improvements were made to the Generation III V8 engine to produce peak power of for sports variants. In a bid to recapture the market for low-cost, high-performance cars, Holden created a new SV8 specification level. Based on the entry-level Executive, the SV8 inherited the V8 mechanical package from the SS but made do without the luxury appointments and was sold at a correspondingly lower price. Holden also experimented by releasing a limited edition wagon version of its high-performance SS variant, of which only 850 were built. The Series II update added a front strut bar as standard to the SS, which was claimed to increase rigidity and hence handling. As became the trend, the update raised V8 power, now up . Amendments in the remaining models were confined to new wheels, trims and decals, however, the Calais has taken on a sports-luxury persona as opposed to the discrete luxury character seen in previous models. This repositioning in turn affected the Berlina’s standing. The once second-tier model now became the sole luxury model, only overshadowed by the more expensive Calais. Coinciding with the VY II models was the first four-door utility model dubbed the Holden Crewman. Crewman’s underpinnings and body structure while somewhat unique, shared a fair amount in common with the Statesman, One tonner and the two-door Ute.
Sensing a new potential market, Holden developed an electronically-controlled all-wheel drive system for the VY platform dubbed Cross Trac at a cost of AU$125 million. Unveiled after the Series II changes in 2003, the first application o the new system was the Holden Adventra, a raised VY wagon crossover. The system was only available in combination with the V8 and automatic transmission. Holden chose not to spend extra engineering resources on adapting the all-wheel drive system to the V6, due to be replaced in the upcoming VZ model. Unfortunately for Holden, the Adventra fell well short of expected sales, despite modest targets.
The final chapter of the third generation series was the VZ Commodore. Debuting in 2004 with a new series of V6 engines known as the Alloytec V6, both and versions of the 3.6 litre engine were offered. These were later upgraded to 180 and 195 kilowatts (241 and 261 hp) respectively in the VE model. When compared to the previous Ecotec engines, the Alloytec benefits from increased power output, responsiveness and fuel efficiency. The new engines were mated to a new five-speed 5L40E automatic transmission on the luxury V6 variants, and a new six-speed Aisin AY6 manual transmission on the six-cylinder SV6 sports variant. However, the long serving four-speed automatic carried on in other variants, albeit with further tweaks in an attempt to address complaints about refinement. A new 6.0 litre Generation 4 V8 engine was added to the range in January 2006 to comply with Euro III emission standards. Compared to the American version, both Active Fuel Management and variable valve timing were removed. The Alloytec V6 was also affected by the new standards, which saw the peak output reduced to 172 kilowatts (231 hp).
Along with the new powertrain, Holden also introduced new safety features such as electronic stability control and brake assist. The Used Car Safety Ratings evaluation found that VT–VZ Commodores provide a "significantly better than average" level of occupant protection in the event of an accident. Interestingly, ANCAP crash test results rate the fourth generation VE lower in the offset frontal impact test than the third generation VY/VZ Commodore. The overall crash score was marginally higher than the outgoing model due to improved side impact protection.
Launched in 2006, the VE is the first Commodore model designed entirely in Australia instead of being based on adapted Opel-sourced platforms. Given this and high public expectations of quality, the budget in developing the car reportedly exceeded AU$1 billion. Underpinned by the new GM Zeta platform, the VE features more sophisticated independent suspension all round and near perfect 50:50 weight distribution, leading to improved handling. Engines and transmissions are largely carried over from the previous VZ model. However, a new six-speed GM 6L80-E automatic transmission was introduced for V8 variants, replacing the old four-speed automatic now relegated to base models. The design of this new model included innovative features to help minimise export costs, such as a symmetrical centre console that houses a flush-fitting hand brake lever to facilitate its conversion to left-hand drive. Internationally, the Commodore is again badge engineered as the Chevrolet Lumina and Chevrolet Omega, along with its new export market in the United States as the Pontiac G8.
Since its release, the VE has garnered critical acclaim, including being awarded the prestigious Wheels Car of the Year, the fifth Commodore model to receive this. Variants by Holden's performance arm, HSV, were released soon after the sedan's debut, followed by the long-wheelbase WM Statesman/Caprice models. The VE Ute did not enter production until 2007 whilst the Sportwagon began production in August 2008.