Wheels (Australia) - - Head To Head -

A tac­i­turn en­gine note, equally mute steer­ing and a ridicu­lously high seat­ing po­si­tion un­der­mine the Skoda’s promis­ing dy­namic po­ten­tial. As rapid as it is, it feels un­con­vinc­ingly de­vel­oped as a per­for­mance model, lack­ing much in the way of re­ward to jus­tify the big num­bers that can ap­pear on its clocks.

The Jaguar feels the Skoda’s po­lar op­po­site. Its chas­sis is clearly the fruit of en­gi­neers with a nu­anced un­der­stand­ing of ve­hi­cle dy­nam­ics, its steer­ing rich in feed­back, its power de­liv­ery a case study in do­ing more with less. Even in this com­pany, the en­gine feels sweet and fluid, this low-kay unit free­ing up no­tice­ably over the course of the test. Dy­nam­i­cally, it’s fairly easy to see where your ad­di­tional out­lay is go­ing. It’s not per­fect, though. The sus­pen­sion feels im­pec­ca­ble un­der com­pres­sion, but in re­bound it can be­tray a lack of pol­ish. Like­wise the eight-speed ZF 8HP trans­mis­sion – un­usu­ally for this ’box – can be caught on the hop with sharp throt­tle de­mands, some­times find­ing it­self be­hind the eight-ball and hur­riedly mak­ing amends with­out its nor­mal silky torque-con­verter slur.

In cer­tain dy­namic re­gards the XE feels more like a Holden than the new Com­modore. Its re­laxed gait, the way it melds and flows with our roads, even its steer­ing weight­ing smacks of VE/VF. And the rear three-quar­ter view has el­e­ments of VE about it, a car that Jaguar de­signer Ian Cal­lum – an old work col­league of Mike Sim­coe – has pre­vi­ously pro­fessed his ad­mi­ra­tion for.

The Stinger car­ries noth­ing in the way of his­tor­i­cal bag­gage. For a clean sheet, first-crack de­sign, it’s lit­tle short of amaz­ing. The chas­sis is cer­tainly not the last word in so­phis­ti­ca­tion, be­ing the only one of the quar­tet that pos­si­bly wants for some­thing in terms of tor­sional rigid­ity, but the sheer mus­cu­lar­ity of the 3.3litre twin-turbo V6 buys it all sorts of credit and of­fers the keen driver all man­ner of op­tions. The eight-speed trans­mis­sion doesn’t have a whole lot of head-scratch­ing to do to make the most of a torque ‘curve’ that’s pegged at 510Nm all the way from 1300 to 4500rpm. It’s ef­fort­lessly rapid al­most ev­ery­where, although it can feel a lit­tle un­wieldy when the go­ing gets re­ally twisty, rapid progress be­ing an ex­er­cise in man­ag­ing over­steer.

En­gine aside, the Stinger’s re­ac­tions, even in its sporti­est mode, are never what you’d call quick­sil­ver. Ev­ery­thing has an ele­ment of slack to it. The vari­able-ra­tio steer­ing can oc­ca­sion­ally feel dull-wit­ted, the throt­tle re­sponse is of­ten lax, blithely know­ing what’s in re­serve, while the sus­pen­sion, even in its firmest mode, re­quires you to give the car a mo­ment for its masses to set­tle.

That might sound a fairly fun­da­men­tal crit­i­cism, but giv­ing the Stinger time to com­pose it­self be­fore any sig­nif­i­cant de­vi­a­tion from sta­sis is enough to pro­vide some wel­come re­as­sur­ance. You let the car set­tle into a cor­ner, and grad­u­ally feed throt­tle and steer­ing.

Launch it into a change of di­rec­tion with a big clog and an arm­ful of steer­ing and it can feel clumsy. Be a lit­tle more sym­pa­thetic with it and you can re­ally work into a de­cent flow. For a car with vari­able-ra­tio elec­tric steer­ing, adap­tive dampers, five drive modes and an eight-speed auto that can’t be locked into man­ual mode, the Stinger GT feels agree­ably ana­logue.

That’s one ac­cu­sa­tion you’d never level at the Com­modore. It wears its tech proudly, de­spite be­ing the only car here re­ly­ing on old-school nat­u­ral as­pi­ra­tion. The Twin­ster all-wheel-drive chas­sis with torque-vec­tor­ing diff, con­tin­u­ous damp­ing con­trol sus­pen­sion and GF9 trans­mis­sion are all clever sys­tems in iso­la­tion. The ride qual­ity of the VXR is well-judged and lev­els of ul­ti­mate grip are im­pres­sive, but that feel­ing of the car’s soft­ware never quite be­ing keyed in with your own erodes con­fi­dence. The trans­mis­sion’s strike rate of get­ting en­try, mid-cor­ner and exit cor­rect is de­press­ingly low. Even in racey VXR mode, we found the car up­shift­ing at 3500rpm, well shy of the magic 4300rpm you need on board to make the car feel as if it’s up on its toes. It’s telling that peak torque ar­rives at 5200rpm against 2800rpm for a VFII SV6.

All too of­ten, frus­tra­tion then gets the bet­ter of you and you find your­self try­ing to shift a nine-speed ’box man­u­ally. That re­quires some men­tal ad­just­ment, given this is a ve­hi­cle that’s revving at 3400rpm in or­der to main­tain 100km/h in sixth whereas most cars are barely tick­ing over at that speed. The sus­pi­cion grows that Holden has pushed for this V6 be­cause a Com­modore range com­prised en­tirely of four-cylin­der en­gines would be even more un­palat­able to a scep­ti­cal Aus­tralian pub­lic. Yet the torque-de­fi­cient V6 emerges as a less favourable op­tion – from a driver’s per­spec­tive at least – than a de­cent turbo four; a true in­stance of need­ing to be care­ful what you wish for.

This fairly fun­da­men­tal mis­match be­tween en­gine and trans­mis­sion mars what is other­wise a promis­ing pack­age. The spec sheet of the VXR knocks ev­ery other car here for six, mak­ing the Skoda look es­pe­cially mean. Buy the Su­perb 206 TSI Sport­line and you might well wonder what hap­pened to niceties like a sun­roof, heated rear seats and a head-up dis­play that are stan­dard fit on the Com­modore, let alone the adap­tive LED ma­trix head­lights that do the same trick as top-line Mercedes-benz and Audi units in keep­ing on­com­ing cars in a mov­ing cone of dipped beam while re­tain­ing high-beam in­ten­sity else­where. The there’s the VXR’S Brembo brakes, 20-inch al­loys, adap­tive damp­ing and pre­mium Bose au­dio. Sim­ply clever? The Skoda looks merely sim­ple by com­par­i­son.

De­spite some eye­brow-rais­ing kit omis­sions, the Su­perb coun­ters with the eas­i­est in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem to mas­ter, the big­gest and bright­est screen, and stacks of rear-seat space. The lat­ter ought to be its trump card, but un­for­tu­nately the bean­coun­ters have man­aged to squan­der that in­her­ent ad­van­tage by lum­ber­ing the Su­perb with a rear bench that’s pan flat, overly firm and short in the squab.

The Su­perb’s ef­fort­lessly in­tu­itive in­fo­tain­ment in­stal­la­tion knocks spots off Holden’s Mylink sys­tem, both vis­ually and from a use­abil­ity stand­point. Like­wise, the rest of the Com­modore’s cabin feels bluecol­lar made good. You don’t have to look hard to spot hard wear­ing, work­man­like ma­te­ri­als. The front seats are a stand­out, though, with power side bol­sters, a low hip point for an elec­tri­cally ad­justable chair, heat­ing and cool­ing, as well as plenty of lat­eral sup­port, al­beit bet­ter at hip height than up­per body. Sur­pris­ingly, the Com­modore is the only one of the bunch with­out power as­sis­tance for the boot or tail­gate, although it’s a $900 op­tion on the Jaguar.

Step­ping up in class and down in size, the XE’S snug cabin feels best in­su­lated against ex­te­rior noise. While it’s not our favourite in­te­rior in the com­pact ex­ec­u­tive class, it nev­er­the­less feels as if it’s ac­cus­tomed to bat­ting against higher-qual­ity op­po­si­tion than that which is ar­rayed here. There are some er­gonomic glitches, though. The tiled cen­tre screen isn’t the slick­est, the ro­tat­ing gear se­lec­tor is oc­ca­sion­ally ob­struc­tive and the gi­ant door speak­ers act like cheese graters on your right knee if you’re wear­ing shorts and cor­ner­ing en­thu­si­as­ti­cally.

You ex­pect the rear seat to be tight in the XE but it makes the most of avail­able space, with cut-outs on the backs of the front seats and enough clear­ance to nes­tle your toes un­der the front chairs. The baby Jag is ac­tu­ally 6mm longer in wheel­base than the Com­modore, but Holden has worked the ball of foot to front-wheel ra­tio rather clev­erly, ex­tend­ing the pas­sen­ger cell ac­cord­ingly. Rear head­room in the Jaguar isn’t bad ei­ther, and the XE sur­prises again by be­ing al­most as wide as the Holden and Skoda, de­spite be­ing the short­est of the bunch by over 100mm.

Although you’d swear the Kia was the widest, the long­est and the low­est, it con­cedes over­all length to both the Holden and Skoda. The Stinger’s cabin feels con­spic­u­ously well screwed to­gether and en­dowed with a de­gree of de­sign flair. Yes, it’s fun to play the game

of pick­ing where Kia has cribbed its ‘de­sign in­flu­ences’ from, but it all seems to gel rea­son­ably well. Apart from the coarsely grained steer­ing-wheel boss. That needs to go come facelift time.

The Stinger is gen­er­ously equipped too, to the ex­tent that our test car didn’t have a sin­gle ex­tra-cost op­tion fit­ted to it. Our Mi­cro Blue GT is ex­actly what you’d get if you walked into the dealer, handed over the min­i­mum agreed amount and drove away. And, to be hon­est, you’re not left want­ing.

Ar­riv­ing at a fin­ish­ing or­der for these four isn’t easy, though de­cid­ing on the top two and bot­tom two didn’t tax us for too long. The Skoda washes up an hon­ourable fourth. It’s a gen­uinely rapid ve­hi­cle on al­most any road you could imag­ine but at this price point it’s just too sparsely equipped and an­o­dyne. It never feels ei­ther con­vinc­ingly sporty or par­tic­u­larly good fun, which con­demns it to the wooden-spoon po­si­tion in this quar­tet. It’s spa­cious and easy to live with, but sav­ing $5K and land­ing the non-sport­line ver­sion would bol­ster the Su­perb 206 TSI 4x4’s Q-car cre­den­tials.

The Com­modore VXR fin­ishes third. Its gear­box and en­gine com­bi­na­tion are a dis­ap­point­ment. Fac­tor in fuel con­sump­tion that was markedly the worst on test, un­der­whelm­ing ex­te­rior styling and a cabin that has a lit­tle too much of a toner car­tridge sales rep feel about it and even its clever chas­sis tech, as­ton­ish­ing kit list and gen­er­ous ac­com­mo­da­tion can’t sal­vage its chances. That said, we sus­pect that the VXR is a weak link in the cur­rent Com­modore line-up. Would this po­si­tion have changed with a 250kw torque-rich turbo four be­neath the bon­net? In all like­li­hood, yes.

Split­ting the Jaguar XE 25t Port­fo­lio and the Kia Stinger GT will prob­a­bly come down to whether you value a cer­tain con­sid­ered touch and tac­til­ity, or whether you just want to mash the nu­clear but­ton with your fist. We adored the sub­tlety of the Jaguar, its poise and sweet­ness of re­sponse, but as Mike Tyson once said, ev­ery­one has a plan un­til they get punched in the mouth.

The big hit­ter of the group also has other qual­i­ties aside from its power ad­van­tage. Its seven-year war­ranty can’t be over­looked, and nor can the fact that to spec­ify an XE to any­where near the Kia’s level would prob­a­bly see the fi­nal in­voice run­ning to six fig­ures. So we’re go­ing Stinger. And the Com­modore VXR? It puts in a big ef­fort and of­fers an in­ter­est­ing blend of tal­ents but, in this com­pany at least, feels un­re­solved in its ex­e­cu­tion. Nice try, but it’s a swing and a miss for us.




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