New power gen­er­a­tion

As the V8 Com­modore bows out, we as­sem­ble the heavy­hit­ting in­her­i­tors of its man­tle

Wheels (Australia) - - Head To Head - WORDS ANDY ENRIGHT PHO­TOS NATHAN JA­COBS

HOSTS. Some­where out here in the grey pre-dawn light are ghosts. An un­bro­ken line of ’em, stretch­ing back nearly four decades who’ve stood at a bowser be­fore, re­fu­elling Aus­tralian­built Com­modores, jot­ting down records, metic­u­lously check­ing tyre pres­sures and fluid lev­els be­fore sub­ject­ing the car to the rigours of a Wheels road test. And I’ll be the last of them.

Book­ing a Com­modore SS-V Redline on the week that lo­cal pro­duc­tion wrapped up was al­ways go­ing to be loaded with poignancy but, truth be told, we’re prob­a­bly not go­ing to tell you a whole lot that you didn’t know about this car al­ready. Its role this time round would be largely con­tex­tual, here to pro­vide a coun­ter­point to two Young Turks that de­liver a de­ci­sively dif­fer­ent skill set.

The Kia Stinger could well be 2017’s most an­tic­i­pated new car here in Oz, of­fer­ing rear-wheel drive, se­ri­ous fire­power and, in this in­stance, a price tag within $200 of the Com­modore. We’re ex­cited about the car largely be­cause we tend to pi­geon­hole it as a Com­modore ri­val. Truth is, Kia hasn’t given the big ol’ Holden a mo­ment’s thought in the ground-up de­vel­op­ment of this car. Think of it as a cut-price al­ter­na­tive to an Audi S5 Sport­back or a BMW 440i Gran Coupe and you’ll be closer to Kia’s as­pi­ra­tion.

While the range-top­ping Stinger GT has at­tracted the lion’s share of press cov­er­age, the mid-spec 330Si could well be the sweet spot in the range. Priced at $55,990, it gets the same 272kw twin-turbo V6, driv­ing through an eight-speed au­to­matic and lim­ited slip diff’ to a set of 19-inch rear wheels, but does with­out the com­plex adap­tive sus­pen­sion sys­tem.

There was al­ways a dan­ger that Volk­swa­gen’s Ar­teon 206 TSI R-line would play third wheel here. How could it not, given that it’s al­most 100kw down on out­right power to the SS-V and about as likely to ap­peal to the Com­modore’s core mar­ket as front row seats for La Bo­hème? It does, how­ever, pro­vide a cere­bral and ex­tremely tal­ented ri­val to the Stinger which, at $65,490, would need to pro­vide a con­vinc­ing case study in do­ing more with less in or­der to jus­tify the price tag.

With on-de­mand all-wheel drive, an adap­tive sus­pen­sion sys­tem of stu­pe­fy­ing band­width, and

It’s worth un­der­lin­ing that this is a Kia that’s vir­tu­ally as quick out of the blocks as a Porsche 996 GT3

A mighty front end and an AWD trac­tion ad­van­tage meant that noth­ing could pull away from the Ar­teon

a mildly de­tuned ver­sion of the Golf R’s four-pot fire­cracker un­der the bon­net, the Ar­teon looks and feels like a busi­ness-class up­grade from the other two and, de­spite the Stinger be­ing fin­ished in reti­nacre­mat­ing Sun­set Yel­low, the lan­tern-jawed Volk­swa­gen turned the most heads. There’s not a bad an­gle on it and some of the de­tail­ing, such as the way the LED head­lamps morph into the grille, the vis­ual ef­fect of power in the haunches, the shape and ten­sion in the flanks, and the sculpted front whee­larches softly bust­ing through the clamshell bon­net line are deftly and con­fi­dently ex­e­cuted.

The Stinger’s noth­ing like as el­e­gantly re­solved. It’s at its best when viewed from front or rear, where it’s pur­pose­fully hun­kered, but move to the side and the lugubri­ous rear end looks overly weighty. Some of the de­tail­ing grates, too, such as the con­spic­u­ously non­func­tional bon­net vents and the way the rear door line ex­tends across the top of the hatch rail, as if Kia has plugged the rear end of an en­tirely dif­fer­ent car onto the back like a gi­ant Lego Tech­nic kit. The Stinger’s not an un­gainly thing per se, but it lacks the front-torear co­he­sion of some of Kia’s bet­ter de­signs such as the Op­tima and the Sorento. Even the lat­est Car­ni­val ex­presses a more lu­cid aes­thetic. It’s not lack­ing in vis­ual punch, though.

To a cer­tain ex­tent, the ag­gro styling and the wellpub­li­cised per­for­mance fig­ures taint your ex­pec­ta­tions of how the Stinger will drive. Thumb the starter but­ton and you ex­pect some­thing tightly wound, leach­ing testos­terone from ev­ery ori­fice but it’s puz­zlingly man­nered. The en­gine note is li­brar­ian meek, the steer­ing a thing of ex­trav­a­gantly lubed slick­ness and the ride about as lumpy as a driz­zle of ex­tra-vir­gin. Look­ing back at my drive notes, there’s a hastily scrib­bled but per­plexed ques­tion. “What is this car?”

Vis­cer­ally quick, that’s what it is. On a give-and-take road, it’s the only one of the trio that has our testers get­ting out, eye­brows raised, blow­ing out their cheeks and shak­ing their heads. It’s worth un­der­lin­ing that this is a Kia that is vir­tu­ally as quick out of the blocks as a Porsche 996 GT3. Launch con­trol makes that re­peat­able too, 100km/h flash­ing by in 4.9s. It’s eerily ef­fec­tive in the way that it smashes down the strip, ladling on great gobs of twin-tur­bocharged torque, the eight-speed trans­mis­sion best left in fire-and-for­get Sport mode. At 2000rpm, it’s mak­ing around 50Nm more than the Com­modore, giv­ing it an ini­tial ad­van­tage the Holden can never claw back.

The Ar­teon al­ways grabs the holeshot, though. Its combo of launch con­trol and all-wheel-drive trac­tion give it a clear nose up un­til around 70km/h or so. Be­yond that, the Stinger’s sheer grunt tells but the Ar­teon is far from dis­graced at the strip, our 5.4-sec­ond sprint to 100km/h bet­ter­ing the man­u­fac­turer num­bers by a cou­ple of tenths and ex­actly match­ing the sprint­ing

per­for­mance – on the day – of the Com­modore. Still think the Ar­teon is out of place in this com­pany?

The Ger­man car also im­pressed on our test route, a com­bi­na­tion of flow­ing, vari­ably sur­faced coun­try roads and a fiendishly nadgery hill route that was de­signed to boot each of these long-wheel­base dread­noughts un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously out of their re­spec­tive com­fort zones. With grav­ity on its side, it had the tal­ent to neuter the two rear-drive power for­wards. A com­bi­na­tion of a mighty front end and a sin­gu­lar trac­tion ad­van­tage out of hair­pins meant that noth­ing could pull away from the Ar­teon. Up the hill, it was a dif­fer­ent mat­ter of course, but in terms of out­right chas­sis ef­fec­tive­ness, the Volk­swa­gen had laid down a clear marker.

Choos­ing how to set up the Ar­teon isn’t the work of a mo­ment. The DCC adap­tive sus­pen­sion sys­tem has no fewer than 14 set­tings to choose from, the ex­tremes book­end­ing the steel-sprung Stinger and Com­modore. Set into Sport, it’s un­de­ni­ably taut, with larger im­per­fec­tions fold­ing you at the so­lar plexus. Body con­trol is im­pe­ri­ous and you tend to drive the Ar­teon like a hatch, lean­ing cab-for­ward on that front con­tact patch and let­ting the rear end fig­ure things out for it­self. The dual-clutch trans­mis­sion bangs through shifts with none of the blur­ri­ness of the torque con­verter au­tos, giv­ing the Volk­swa­gen a wel­come bit of bris­tle and edge. The driv­ing mode switch is ev­i­dence of a half-baked right-hand-drive con­ver­sion, be­ing in­con­ve­niently lo­cated on the far side of the gear lever, this range-top­ping R-line car also car­ry­ing a dead-eyed ar­ray of switch blanks on the driver’s side.

The four-cylin­der lump growls gamely, the sound sym­poser in­ject­ing a sub­tle con­tra­bass un­der­tone into the cabin. Sport mode adds a bit of heft to the wheel, but it re­mains tac­i­turn. The fun is in cov­er­ing ground quickly and with smart mu­ni­tion pre­ci­sion. The neu­tral­ity and aloof­ness built into the chas­sis will ap­peal to those who don’t care to ac­tively man­age dy­namic out­puts. The Ar­teon rarely dic­tates an ac­tion to the driver so there’s lit­tle in the way of re­ceive chan­nel; you just keep the trans­mit but­ton pinned.

Try to drive the Stinger in that fash­ion and you’re rapidly dis­abused of such an in­ten­tion. Its body con­trol isn’t as im­pla­ca­ble, re­quir­ing a more sym­pa­thetic ebb and flow of in­puts as the car breathes along the road. It’s more re­ward­ing to feel the squat, spro­ing and roll of the Stinger’s chas­sis, the gen­tle clench/de­clench of its lim­ited slip diff’, and mod­u­late that almighty tor­rent of torque ac­cord­ingly, but it’s rarely the quick­est way along a scabby snake of bi­tu­men. It nev­er­the­less feels ag­ile and al­though it’s within a few ki­los of the Com­modore’s kerb weight, you’d swear it was 250kg lighter. The Stinger gets up on its toes eas­ily and brings the rear into play early, the Sport set­ting on the sta­bil­ity con­trol softly blend­ing power in and out. Wax on, wax off.

The vari­able-rate steer­ing, so glib and su­per­fi­cially im­pres­sive at city speeds, can take a mo­ment of ac­cli­ma­ti­sa­tion when re­ally frog­marched through a bend. Driver re­as­sur­ance isn’t helped by the fact that the Stinger re­fuses to hold a gear, the trans­mis­sion soft­ware be­ing overly keen to put its cape on and leap to your res­cue when it’s of­ten not re­quired. Switch out all the driver aids and you can then ping a flabby

feel­ing cutout. The sta­bil­ity con­trol sys­tem hood­winks you into think­ing it’s off, but lurks con­stantly, wait­ing for a mo­ment to in­dulge some sup­pressed su­per­hero af­fec­ta­tion if it thinks you’ve re­ally stuffed up.

Like the Ar­teon, the Stinger can cy­cle through en­gine sound set­tings al­though Min­imised, Neu­tral and En­hanced all sound much the same. The driv­ing mode knob also al­ters set­tings for the steer­ing weight­ing and en­gine/trans­mis­sion set­tings. The Smart mode does a rea­son­able job of fig­ur­ing out what you’re try­ing to achieve, but we left it in Sport most of the time which, as an aside, ren­ders the dig­i­tal speedome­ter in italic font. Nope, us nei­ther.

The sheer fe­roc­ity at which the Stinger ac­cu­mu­lates big num­bers, helped by that mal­leable ride, puts a big premium on brak­ing per­for­mance. Ini­tial pedal feel is enor­mously re­as­sur­ing and while it can’t match the Ar­teon or the Com­modore’s out­right stop­ping punch, Kia’s en­gi­neers have done a great job in teas­ing real sub­tlety of re­sponse out of it. That said, it was the first brake pedal to go long, and bet­ter brakes and a con­sid­er­ably more vo­cal ex­haust would be among the first items on our to-do list were we draw­ing up im­prove­ments for the mid-life re­vi­sion. The com­pound of the Con­tisport Con­tact 5P tyres is also pos­si­bly too soft for a car with this much weight and with such a propen­sity to wag its tail. Bud­get ac­cord­ingly.

Both the Ar­teon and the Stinger fea­ture lift­backs, the for­mer’s item be­ing a pow­ered tail­gate with a slick prox­im­ity fea­ture that al­lows you to haul gear out and walk away be­fore it closes it­self. The 563-litre ca­pac­ity of the Ar­teon aces the Stinger’s 406 litres, eclips­ing the Com­modore’s 496-litre boot in the process. The Volk­swa­gen also de­liv­ers eas­ily the most pol­ished ride when set into its soft­est mode. It has other tricks too, of­fer­ing the smartest suite of driver-as­sist func­tions, in­clud­ing an abil­ity to pull the car to the hard shoul­der and stop should it sense the driver is asleep, in­ca­pac­i­tated or an in­quis­i­tive Wheels road tester [see break­out, p89].

With an ad­di­tional 46mm in the wheel­base com­pared to its Pas­sat sib­ling, the Ar­teon rides bet­ter and af­fords acres of space in the back. The R-line seats are sup­port­ive and rear oc­cu­pants get heated pews as well as a 12v socket, USB and even a 230V Euro socket in­verter, but the door win­dows out back lack the dou­ble-glaz­ing of the front glass. The Audi-style vir­tual cock­pit up front can be con­fig­ured to show per­for­mance mon­i­tors and lap­ti­mers but these feel a lit­tle out of char­ac­ter. The Ar­teon does a fairly half­baked Nis­san GT-R im­pres­sion.

Trav­el­ling in the back of the Stinger isn’t a chore ei­ther. Like the Ar­teon, taller pas­sen­gers might feel the pinch due to the arc­ing roofline, but while the Volk­swa­gen has an airy pale head­liner and a low win­dow line, the Stinger’s upticked win­dows and un­remit­tingly black in­te­rior make it feel a lit­tle claus­tro­pho­bic.

Up front, it’s largely well styled, with faux car­bon­fi­bre on the cen­tre con­sole and a trio of vents dom­i­nat­ing the cen­tre of the dash. Upon in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the pas­sen­ger gets the left hand one, the driver the other two. The cheap plas­tic horn push plas­tic is a rare bum note, as are the mean, nar­row door bins. You’ll also need to watch your­self get­ting in and out as the door cant rail is set very low. I’m still nurs­ing a skinned shoul­der. The 330Si gets no blind-spot mon­i­tor­ing and over-shoul­der vis­i­bil­ity is hideous. You could be

The out­go­ing Holden Com­modore’s role this time would be largely con­tex­tual

blind­sided by a Zep­pelin hid­ing be­hind those B-pil­lars.

Nei­ther can match the Com­modore for sheer manspread­ing ca­pac­ity in­side. While the back of the SS-V might be lack­ing in fea­tures, you’ll for­give it that for the head, shoul­der and legroom it af­fords. We love the Holden for the way it rides, even on 20-inch rub­ber. And for its evoca­tive bent-eight fusil­lade. And its steer­ing feel. And throt­tle re­sponse. And the way it’s the only car of the bunch that loves to be driven on the shift pad­dles. And, to be frank, a whole bunch of other things that still re­ally mat­ter to keen Aussie driv­ers.

And therein lies the rub. The Stinger ar­rives stag­ger­ing un­der a cloy­ing weight of ex­pec­ta­tion. Quite il­log­i­cally, we se­cretly want Kia to build a bet­ter Com­modore, de­spite Holden’s 40 years of ex­pe­ri­ence. Name me one trib­ute act that’s bet­ter than the real thing? There’s an ir­re­place­able au­then­tic­ity that cour­ses through the Com­modore but, for bet­ter or for worse, the game has changed. The Stinger and Ar­teon plot di­ver­gent routes.

Those look­ing for big-hearted thud and blun­der will prob­a­bly be dis­ap­pointed by the mute Stinger and the slightly self-con­scious Ar­teon. The VFII Com­modore va­cates that par­tic­u­lar divi­sion as un­de­feated champ and as much as it’s a wrench to hand back the keys, dwelling on what might have been isn’t go­ing to get us far. So which of the other two get the nod? For sheer ca­pa­bil­ity and in­volve­ment, it has to be the Stinger. It’s not per­fect but, if any­thing, it ex­ceeded our ex­pec­ta­tions, Kia hav­ing no right to get so much so right at its first stab at this class.

The Ar­teon 206 TSI R-line emerges far from as­saulted, how­ever. In fact, it’s the sur­prise pack­age of this com­par­i­son, deal­ing both ri­vals bloody noses in sev­eral key head-to-heads. As we brim the cars, record the fi­nal fuel fig­ures and point the nose of the Com­modore back to­wards Port Mel­bourne, it feels as if we’ve fi­nally ex­or­cised a few ghosts. This farewell has lasted long enough. It’s a new game with new rules and a new cast, and the Kia Stinger plays it best.

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