In an Australian world where uncertainty about local car manufacturing reigns supreme, Holden stays true to one traditional element: the station wagon. Of the four manufacturers of recent years, Mitsubishi gave up after the final Magna, Toyota canned it with the change from Camry to Aurion and Ford said the Territory will have to do. Fondly regarded as either a rep-mobile or something to lug Mum, Dad and 2.5 kids about in something that wasn’t a SUV, the station wagon is seen as an anomaly. Overseas it’s called an Estate, Tourer, Sportbrake however Holden has gone with Sportwagon.
The Driven Heart
Holden’s alloy 3.0L V6 is the budget repmobile powerplant for the Evoke. It’s aimed at companies, a fleet purchase style and maybe, just maybe, an entrepreneurial private buyer. It’s not the torqueiest donk around, with 290 metres of Mr Newton’s finest at 2600rpm butting up against max power of 185kW at a high 6700rpm. It’s a lack noticeable off the line compared to the standard 3.6L, but will still get you, thanks to the smooth six speed auto with some smart ratio thinking, to illegal speeds reasonably quickly. It’s relatively unstressed, quiet even as it reaches its top revline, with the transmission mostly holding up. It’s hesitant under low throttle, unsure and has the vehicle stuttering somewhat until a reasonable right foot pressure measurement comes into play. Once in its stride the engine and gearbox work well together, minimally fussed, the lack of punch noticeable but not an issue. It’s rated, economy wise, at 8.6L/100K from the 71L tank but on a seven day test was closer to 11L (combined city and highway), with that lack of torque (and moved slightly higher up the rev range compared to VE) contributing to the extra usage. It will, however, run on unleaded from E85 to E10. The Calais V has the 6.0L V8 with 260kW @5600rpm and twists out 517Nm at 4400 rpm (auto, with the manual gaining 10kW and 13Nm) with the gear rations slightly different to the manual and virtually identical in the higher gears to the Evoke. The extra torque sees less stuttering, a more surefooted approach to acceleration and, naturally, a bigger shove in the back when the go pedal is asked to say yes.
It’s certainly a sweeter looking place inside the cabin for the driver and passenger with Holden’s much vaunted revamp providing better ergonomics but, more importantly, a better electronic architecture. The redesigned dash holds a eight inch touch screen infotainment setup (MyLink) with internet radio applications, available via smartphone connection and for those using Apple phones there’s a Siri EyesFree mode, reverse park camera standard across the range, Bluetooth phone connectivity with voice control, plus a new electric park brake and information shown in monochromatic glory for the driver (Evoke) with the Calais getting a colour screen; info is selected via a button and rotary dial on the indicator stalk. The plastics for the interior still have a touch of old school look and feel, particularly for the seat supports, the key barrel for the Evoke looks tacked on like an afterthought however the Calais V is push button started and the top of the dash console has an uneasy mix of rippled plastic and faux leather covering for the instrument binnacle. A colour coordinated touch is the cloth run as a swathe across from one side to the other, with a dark grey blending with the black plastic on the Evoke however the Calais gets a lighter colour swatch and doesn’t appear to be quite at home. The Evoke’s tiller is a solid, chunky yet comfortable piece with the Calais V sporting a slightly slimmer and leather clad version, complete with a flat curve on the bottom. The seats are comfortable enough, look fine with the black cloth or leather (apart from the same light colour material looking as if it will dirty earlier), there’s memory and heated seats for the V and having an auto box somehow makes it just that much easier to reach the pedals compared to the layout with a manual. The rear seats are a sixty/forty split fold and provide a mammoth cargo space, 895L or 2000L with seats down.
Holden’s spend on the Commodore hasn’t been all wise though; as I’ve previously noted, placing the USB/Aux connections in the centre console bin makes no ergonomic sense at all given that there’s space to use ahead of the gear lever in the rubberised (and tacky looking) storage section and electronically would make sense to have the ports closer to the main part of the system, although it is where HSV place a dial cluster. Also, the chrome surround for the gear lever has a tendency to reflect the sun directly into the drivers eyes.
Naturally there’s a full suite of electronic stuff to play with: the aforementioned Bluetooth and touchscreen with buttons at the bottom that can too easily be rested on by a wrist, dual zone climate control aircon, plenty of airbags, cruise, electric windows all round (oddly however, not auto up on the Evoke), bottom of door mounted exit lights and the reverse parking system that reads the painted lines and car spaces then guides you in but still relies on the pilot to control the throttle. There’s also remote start for the Calais.
Externally, the Sportwagon is identically curved to its VE predecessor from the A pillar rearwards. It’s forward that a visual difference is apparent; from the hawk eye headlight cluster above and framing the chin spoiler and re-profiled grille, to the Jaguar inspired fender vents and bonnet bulge. It has the effect of visually shortening the frontal look, handy with a vehicle just shy of five metres long (4919mm). The Calais has the addition of black chrome to the headlight inserts and LED DRLs (daytime running lights).
On The Road
The Evoke rides on 225/65 Bridgestone Turanza tyres wrapping 16 inch alloys and the Calais V is shod with 245/40/19s. The Calais has the firmer ride, not unexpectedly and a slightly heavier heft to the electrically assisted steering. Both tip into turns nicely, the Turanza tyres will scrabble for grip and squeal with protest on the Evoke but will provide front end grip and a touch of slip to the rear for the Calais; the traction control system is programmed for Aussie conditions, allowing some normal driving latitude before nanny mode cuts in.
There’s a distinct lack of wallowing over bumps, shopping centre entry bumps are dispatched with nary an afterthought and the lower profile rubber on the Calais transmits little in the way of noise and plenty in the way of what the road and car are doing. Steering is largely direct, there is a touch of vagueness on centre but the feel is of a communicative and well weighted setup. It shows some solid and sensible engineering, given the still too porky weight of the cars (including aluminuim bonnet) ranging from 1717kg to a whopping 1866kg for the Calais V.
Holden is Australian. It’s synonymous with our lifestyle, its cars have been developed for our conditions. Holden can also be, somewhat fairly, accused of hubris, in believing it was untouchable. Its big car line, the Commodore, is 35 years old, one of the country’s oldest continuing nameplates yet, at times, never seemed to advance hugely or be priced at a rate commensurate with its market share. It’s history now that Holden has undertaken a significant redevelopment of the aging VE platform and reduced prices in a possibly last ditch effort to stave off what many see as the inevitable. It’s worked, so far, with Commodore sales on a rise since the VF was released. The Evoke retails at $36990 + ORCs while the Calais V is down to $54990 + ORCs. In an environment where the Australian car industry is under threat yet we do make world class vehicles at a pretty decent price, these two stand out and moreso for the fact they’re wagons, a rarity in our overcrowded market and absolutely deserve a re-consideration for your drive.