Meet Mr. Com­modore

Rob Tru­biani is Holden’s lead chas­sis en­gi­neer and he’s here to tell you why you’ll want to drive the new ZB Com­modore

Motor (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by SCOTT NEW­MAN pics NATHAN JA­COBS

Holden’s lead dy­nam­ics en­gi­neer, Rob Tru­biani, ex­plains why you’ll want to drive the new ZB Com­modore, then we have a turn

MEET Rob Tru­biani. Like many en­gi­neers he toils tire­lessly in the back­ground, of­ten years ahead of a car’s re­lease, but we’re thrust­ing him into the spot­light as he is largely re­spon­si­ble for the next Com­modore feel­ing like, well, a Com­modore. Tru­biani is Holden’s lead ve­hi­cle dy­nam­ics en­gi­neer and as such is tasked with giv­ing a front- or all-wheel drive Euro­pean hatch a driv­ing feel fa­mil­iar to Aussies raised on decades of rear-wheel drive sedans.

It’s a tough gig, yet one he rel­ishes and is em­i­nently qual­i­fied for. Tru­biani fol­lowed his father’s foot­steps and joined Holden as a fresh-faced en­gi­neer­ing grad­u­ate in 1996 to work on the VT Com­modore. Since then his fin­ger­prints have been present on ev­ery Com­modore, cul­mi­nat­ing in the VF II SS-V Red­line. It’s this car that has given the MO­TOR crew op­ti­mism re­gard­ing the new Com­modore and led to this meet­ing. We’re unashamed fans of the VF II Com­modore and par­tic­u­larly the Red­line; to drive it is to re­alise Tru­biani has a clear un­der­stand­ing of what makes a good driv­ers’ car.

But mak­ing a 6.2-litre V8-pow­ered rear-driver en­ter­tain­ing is one thing, achiev­ing the same goal with a V6 and all­wheel drive – or a 2.0-litre turbo front-wheel drive in the case of the base ZB Com­modore – is an­other en­tirely. None­the­less, Tru­biani is adamant the new Com­modore will re­ward keen driv­ers, par­tic­u­larly the sportier vari­ants. “I have a very clear idea of how a Com­modore should feel,” Tru­biani tells MO­TOR.

“We al­ways aim to make our cars in­spire con­fi­dence; they have to be good driv­ers’ cars. For the per­son who is en­thu­si­as­tic and likes to drive spirit­edly we like to make sure the car re­wards them, but for your reg­u­lar punter who’s just look­ing for A-to-B trans­port it’s about get­ting the car to al­ways give them the con­fi­dence no mat­ter what they’re do­ing.”

Hap­pily, we don’t have to take Tru­biani’s word for it, as we’re able to sam­ple his work thanks to the V6 AWD pro­to­type ac­com­pa­ny­ing him to­day. It’s an early pro­to­type, hand-built in Ger­many for chas­sis de­vel­op­ment, its value re­in­forced by Tru­biani’s mul­ti­ple ner­vous re­minders dur­ing my time at the wheel that he still has a lot of work to com­plete in it. De­spite its in­com­plete in­te­rior and heav­ily cam­ou­flaged ex­te­rior, it’s loaded with the lat­est (and likely fi­nal) pow­er­train, steer­ing and sus­pen­sion cal­i­bra­tions so should pro­vide a fairly ac­cu­rate pre­view of how the ZB Com­modore will drive.

The ex­act model line-up is still a closely-guarded se­cret, how­ever, in terms of the V6 it ap­pears there will be at least a lux­ury Calais and as-yetun­named sports model pow­ered by a 230kW/370Nm

3.6-litre V6, the lat­ter roughly rep­re­sented by this pro­to­type, while top­ping the range will be a VXR boast­ing 235kW/381Nm, adap­tive dampers, Brembo brakes and 20-inch rims with sportier tyres, pos­si­bly Con­ti­nen­tal Con­tiS­portCon­tact 6s, though there will be three dif­fer­ent tyres ac­cord­ing to Tru­biani.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, any­one used to the cur­rent thump­ing LS3 V8 will find the new V6’s ac­cel­er­a­tion un­der­whelm­ing; equally un­sur­pris­ingly, given the similarities in en­gine out­put and kerb weight, the ZB Com­modore feels very sim­i­lar in ac­cel­er­a­tion to a V6 VF II. Holden claims the ZB will be the quick­est V6 Com­modore ever, how­ever, the seat of the pants im­pres­sion sug­gests any im­prove­ment against the clock is likely the re­sult of the ex­tra trac­tion of the all-wheel drive sys­tem and the nine-speed auto mak­ing bet­ter use of the avail­able power than any ex­tra out­put.

None­the­less, it’s a will­ing en­gine, revving hap­pily to its 6500rpm red­line with a note that’s sur­pris­ingly rorty, though this pro­to­type is far from the fin­ished ar­ti­cle in terms of NVH in­su­la­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Tru­biani, the VXR will come with a sportier ex­haust. The nine­speed auto is a con­ven­tional torque con­verter unit; it shifts smoothly, is rea­son­ably obe­di­ent on down­shifts and won’t au­to­mat­i­cally up­shift at the limit, but it does lack the crisp­ness of the lat­est eight-speed ’boxes from ZF and the like. As you’d ex­pect, the ra­tios are ex­tremely closely stacked, which helps keep the V6 in its sweet spot, the tacho only shed­ding around 1000rpm on each up­shift, bar third and fourth which seem to be vir­tu­ally the same ra­tio.

The pow­er­train is not Tru­biani’s de­part­ment, how­ever, what is his de­part­ment is the all-wheel drive sys­tem that gets the power to the ground. The ZB Com­modore fea­tures a ‘Twin­ster’ sys­tem, a term that rose to promi­nence with the re­lease of the Ford Fo­cus RS, though its pro­duc­tion de­but was in the Range Rover Evoque. In­stead of a tra­di­tional Haldex (Golf R) or three-diff (WRX STI) all­wheel drive setup, Twin­ster saves weight by us­ing a front power trans­fer unit to send torque to the rear wheels, a max­i­mum of 50 per cent in the case of the Com­modore. A pair of elec­tron­i­cally-con­trolled clutches at the rear axle is then able to ap­por­tion up to 100 per cent of that torque to ei­ther rear wheel and de­liver true torque vec­tor­ing to help ro­tate the car.

Tru­biani is a big fan: “Has [all-wheel drive] de­tracted from be­ing a Com­modore? No, not at all. For me this adds a new di­men­sion. It’s fairly new tech­nol­ogy…for us it was im­por­tant to know how it in­ter­acted with the rest of the car, its ef­fect for in­stance on steer­ing feel as it’s shuf­fling torque fore-aft or side-to-side, so it was a mat­ter of learn­ing all of those things. It’s had a lot of testing in Europe on ice, so it’s been heav­ily tuned to cope with low-fric­tion sur­faces and it does that very well, then we had to make sure it worked well on gravel and also on a wet as­phalt road.”

Key to the Twin­ster sys­tem’s ef­fec­tive­ness is its abil­ity to be pre-emp­tive. It’s a slightly mis­lead­ing term as any sys­tem can only re­act to in­put, how­ever, it ef­fec­tively means the Twin­ster’s brain is faster than the other sys­tems in the car. In the mil­lisec­onds it takes for the car to recog­nise a throt­tle and/or steer­ing in­put, the all-wheel drive sys­tem has al­ready cal­cu­lated how it’s go­ing to shuf­fle power in re­sponse.

Un­like the Fo­cus RS, the ZB Com­modore doesn’t ‘over­speed’ the rear axle to in­duce over­steer, so you can for­get any thoughts of pow­er­slide hero­ics, but the Twin­ster does have a tan­gi­ble, if subtle, ef­fect on cor­ner­ing at­ti­tude. Whereas a Haldex sys­tem in par­tic­u­lar can still feel largely front-led, the ZB Com­modore’s throt­tle can be pinned at the apex with con­fi­dence, se­cure in the knowl­edge that the out­side rear wheel will help drive the car to­wards cor­ner exit. De­spite the slip­pery con­di­tions to­day trac­tion is never a prob­lem, though the overly con­ser­va­tive ESP still nib­bles away on cor­ner exit as the pace is upped slightly; the fi­nal cars will have a Sports mode that will loosen the reins and ESP can also be com­pletely de­ac­ti­vated, an im­por­tant fea­ture to Tru­biani.

“I think Holden does sta­bil­ity con­trol in­cred­i­bly well and I think hav­ing the safety sys­tem there is great,” he says. “[But] I do ba­si­cally all my de­vel­op­ment work with the sys­tem off to make sure the car has fun­da­men­tal sta­bil­ity, and then the safety sys­tems are re­ally just there in case some­thing goes wrong.” Aside from the odd flash un­der hard ac­cel­er­a­tion the ESP lays dor­mant, as the Com­modore’s 245/45 ZR18 Con­ti­nen­tal Con­tiS­portCon­tact 5s work well in the wet and judging grip lev­els is made eas­ier by the high­light of this ini­tial Com­modore en­counter: its steer­ing.

The weight­ing is spot-on, as is its gear­ing at about 2.6 turns lock-to-lock. Even more im­pres­sive is the lack of any on-cen­tre dead spot – a tra­di­tional bug­bear with elec­tri­cally-as­sisted sys­tems – and the

nat­u­ral, pro­gres­sive feel as lock is ap­plied. It’s a verdict that brings a smile to Tru­biani’s face, as he ad­mits he has spent “hun­dreds of hours on it”, con­stantly re­fin­ing the ones and ze­ros in or­der to pro­vide the best feed­back pos­si­ble. It doesn’t have the same tex­tu­ral feel as, say, a Toyota 86, but as pas­sen­ger cars go it’s ex­cel­lent, with a great wheel that feels slightly smaller than that in the VF II.

Ini­tial im­pres­sions of the ride are that it’s sur­pris­ingly firm; there’s quite a lot of road in­for­ma­tion trans­mit­ted through the seat. For a Calais or base model it’s prob­a­bly too bi­ased to­wards con­trol over com­fort, how­ever Tru­biani ex­plains “this is one of the sporty vari­ants, but not VXR”. The VXR will run its own tune thanks to its adap­tive dampers and 20-inch rims; hope­fully its Sports damp­ing mode will of­fer a sim­i­lar level of con­trol to this pro­to­type – the way it re­cov­ers from bumps on a typ­i­cal Aus­tralian coun­try road is im­pres­sive – while of­fer­ing a softer ‘Com­fort’ mode for scarred city streets and the like.

Strik­ing the right bal­ance is tricky ac­cord­ing to Tru­biani: “If you’re too ag­gres­sive the car can be un­com­fort­able or choppy; on the lux­ury mod­els we let the car use more of its sus­pen­sion travel but we never want the car to os­cil­late or feel like it’s strug­gling to stay in con­trol. There’s many mil­lions of damper com­bi­na­tions so you’ve got to add the con­trol in where you need it with­out im­pact­ing other things.”

Me­chan­i­cally, the new ZB Com­modore feels like a very pol­ished prod­uct. It has great steer­ing, tidy han­dling, a well-con­trolled ride and enough pace from the V6 to en­ter­tain, but a nag­ging ques­tion re­mains in the back of my head: is it a per­for­mance car? I put the ques­tion to Tru­biani, with the cri­te­rion be­ing that a per­for­mance car will make you want to search out a great road for the hell of it, while a good sporty car will en­ter­tain on a great road with­out mak­ing you want to go to that ex­tra ef­fort.

Tru­biani an­swers with­out hes­i­ta­tion: “Based on that cri­te­rion I would say yes, it’s a very good driv­ers’ car.” Based on this ini­tial ex­po­sure – ad­mit­tedly a fairly short drive in a valu­able pro­to­type with non-switch­able ESP – I’m not to­tally con­vinced. Holden’s prod­uct com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager Mark Flintoft re­veals they re­cently had a num­ber of cur­rent cus­tomers, in­clud­ing Red­line-own­ing mo­tor­sport fans, be­hind the wheel and ap­par­ently all came away im­pressed, but swap­ping into a Red­line sedan at day’s end il­lus­trates the VXR is go­ing to have to be quite spe­cial to match its pre­de­ces­sor’s level of pure driv­ing ap­peal. It’s not just about that awe­some V8, but also the way the Red­line can be driven right at the ragged edge with con­fi­dence and ac­cu­racy. Hope­fully the VXR’s brake, sus­pen­sion and all-wheel drive up­grades can bridge that gap.

How­ever, for the roughly 80 per cent of Com­modore buy­ers who choose a V6 the new ZB is a more tantalising propo­si­tion. It’s just as quick, more tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced, safer, more eco­nom­i­cal and more ca­pa­ble across a wider ar­ray of con­di­tions thanks to its all-wheel drive sys­tem. From Holden’s point of view, they just want you to try it. Flintoft: “We know there’s scep­ti­cism re­gard­ing the ve­hi­cle and the de­ci­sion to keep the Com­modore name­plate, but it’s prob­a­bly best for peo­ple to hold any judge­ment un­til they’ve ac­tu­ally driven the car. If cus­tomers are cur­rently driv­ing a V6 or are open to driv­ing a car that feels great with­out fo­cus­ing on cylin­der count, I’m sure they’ll en­joy the new Com­modore.”

There are still many ques­tions to be an­swered re­gard­ing the ZB Com­modore, in­clud­ing ex­act vari­ants, equip­ment lev­els and, most im­por­tant, price. How­ever, on driv­ing dy­nam­ics alone we’d agree with Flintoft’s as­sess­ment: if you’re cur­rently driv­ing an Evoke, SV6 or Calais, the ZB Com­modore will be fa­mil­iar yet an im­por­tant step for­ward in key ar­eas, in no small part thanks to the ef­fort of Tru­biani and the rest of Holden’s lo­cal en­gi­neer­ing team. For the V8 die-hards? Well, there’s al­ways the new HSV-con­verted Ca­maro.

Our test ZB V6 AWD was an early hand-built pro­to­type but with the lat­est cal­i­bra­tions for pow­er­train and sus­pen­sion. Emer­gency stop but­ton shuts the car down im­me­di­ately should things go awry

Tru­biani has worked on ev­ery Com­modore since VT as well as the fifth-gen­er­a­tion Ca­maro, how­ever he is also re­spon­si­ble for lo­cal tun­ing of Holden’s en­tire range in­clud­ing As­tra, Ba­rina and Colorado

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