The final act
Likely the last Aussie-made Chevy shows the Yanks how to do a muscle car
THIS is the car that could have saved Holden.
As the fate of Holden’s factory was sealed this week, following unprecedented attacks from a federal government that appeared intent on shutting it down, the maker has produced arguably its best car yet.
It’s the latest export version of the home-grown Commodore, returning to the US as a Chevrolet after last being shipped there four years ago as a Pontiac.
When the Pontiac deal was done, the Australian dollar was weaker and the US economy was stronger and the Yanks bought 38,000 Pontiac-badged examples of the Commodore — more than an entire year’s worth of Commodore sales in Australia at current rates.
At the media preview drive in the US, however, it was revealed the annual target is now closer to 4500 sales. That’s still only a decimal point figure in the world’s second biggest car market and barely 5 per cent of Holden’s annual production.
The Government says Holden must export at least 30 per cent of the cars in return for an increase in taxpayer funding. Fat chance.
The high Australian dollar means the Chevrolet SS is priced about $45,000 in the US. That might seem reasonable to buyers here but cars are much cheaper in North America.
Nor does GM want to sell too many SS sedans. The US government has set an average fleet fuel economy target for car brands, so the more V8 sedans are sold the more economy cars GM has to move to balance its corporate average fuel economy.
So with the bad news out of the way, we get behind the wheel of the Chevrolet SS, which also happens to be this year’s Nascar champion. The Chevy has a few subtle but important differences from the Holden Commodore — apart from the Chevrolet “bow tie” badges that will appear on almost every Holden ute before too long.
Under the hood is the Corvette-sourced 6.2-litre V8 (reserved for Holden Special Vehicles), not the regular truck-sourced 6.0-litre V8 found in the Commodore SS.
For us anoraks, it also gets different stitching in the seats and interior panels, shift paddles on the steering wheel (awesome, when do we get these?), a driver’s knee airbag, a “shark fin” aerial for satellite radio (equally awesome, when do we get more than 100 radio channels?), a louder exhaust and a seat cooling fan. Australia, one of the hottest continents on Earth, perversely, gets only a seat heater (why not seat coolers?)
Perhaps the coolest feature is the recalibration of the engine management computer that gives the Chevrolet SS a “blip” of the throttle on start-up, just like German sports sedans. Holden didn’t do this to the Commodore because our noise rules are stricter, and the exhaust is so quiet that apparently you couldn’t tell the difference between a blip and a normal start.
The US exhaust note is arousing. From the outside it sounds like a V8 Supercar; the GM parts catalogue will garner a lot of interest among Australian fans.
The Chevrolet SS has already impressed the locals. Car and Driver magazine described it as the “gifted offspring of a BMW M5 and a
Chevy Camaro SS”. Automobile magazine said it will go “toe-totoe with a $US65,000 BMW 550i” — a car that costs $160,000 in Australia thanks in no small part to the punitive luxury car tax.
The US journalists were impressed with the handling, something we take for granted in Australia.
It must be said, the car I drove was a particularly fine example. It’s the best Commodore I’ve ever driven, and I’ve driven more than a couple of hundred over the years. And I’ve owned four in the past 10 years.
This red one was built tighter than any VF Commodore I’ve driven, too. Most cars used on media previews are specially prepared by engineering departments. GM says some of the cars in this group were regular customer cars diverted because of a shipping delay with the media evaluation vehicles.
There was no way of knowing whether the one I drove was a customer car or one that had gone through a special workshop, but it was brilliant. The steering, body, chassis and brakes all felt tight and precise, unlike any previosuly driven.
It was a revelation. From Palm Springs to Los Angeles — including my obligatory trip to the Hollywood sign every time a Holden gets shipped to North America — the SS feels like a Euro thoroughbred. If only every car that came off the Holden production line was this good — I’ve had a few duds.
It’s with mixed emotions that I hand back the keys to the GM minder before leaving the Chevrolet SS behind. I am so proud that Australia can build a world-class car but saddened that the opportunity no longer exists. At least the Yanks got to see our best work.