Holden’s most com­pelling de­but in years is a seven-seater SUV amped to rock a packed house. But will a trio of tal­ented sup­port acts blow it off stage?


Im­pres­sive Lion new­comer has seven-seat supremacy in the crosshairs

SEVENTY years ago, to the very day this is­sue hit the stands, a ner­vous Gen­eral Mo­tors un­veiled the first Holden, a cream 48/215 sedan. Based on a re­jected wartime Chevro­let pro­posal out of Detroit, it was ex­actly what our car-starved na­tion craved.

Of course, the ‘FX’ and ev­ery one of its 31 lo­cally man­u­fac­tured suc­ces­sors have since wo­ven them­selves into our so­cial fab­ric, but to­day, post fac­tory shut­down with only im­ports from Thai­land, Ger­many, Poland, Eng­land, Mex­ico and Ko­rea to rely upon, ‘Aus­tralia’s Own’ is stum­bling and our car-sat­u­rated coun­try no longer cares.

Now, with the past a cross for the brand to bear, a wor­ried Holden is once more look­ing to the US to find its way, with what many may be sur­prised to learn is the com­pany’s first-ever full-sized seven-seater SUV.

Is the Acadia from Ten­nessee the crossover that the brand must bear to sur­vive? Can Amer­ica make Holden great again?

To find out, we’re field­ing the $67,490 flag­ship LTZ-V all-wheel drive against a trio of its sim­i­larly mono­co­que­bod­ied AWD ad­ver­saries – in as­cend­ing or­der of pop­u­lar­ity, the Hyundai Santa Fe, Mazda CX-9 and Toy­ota Kluger.

We’re talk­ing proper range-top­pers across all four, too, with leather, sun­roof (dual panel in Acadia and panoramic in Santa Fe), elec­tric tail­gate, pow­ered, heated and ven­ti­lated front seats with driver’s mem­ory, sur­round-view cam­eras, tri-zone cli­mate con­trol, key­less en­try/start, sat­nav, dig­i­tal ra­dio, pre­mium au­dio and driver-as­sist safety tech in­clud­ing AEB, alerts for col­li­sion, lane-de­par­ture, blind spots and rear cross-traf­fic sce­nar­ios, adap­tive cruise and auto high beams all in­cluded.

Metal­lic paint and – in the Hyundai – fancy beige/brown in­te­rior hues are the only op­tions on test. Lit­tle won­der Holden reck­ons dis­en­fran­chised States­man/caprice and Ford Ter­ri­tory fans are in its mar­keters’ crosshairs.

Be­sides tough, bluff, GMC pick-up truck-like blokey good looks, the Acadia LTZ-V is unique with the very car-like in­clu­sion of adap­tive dampers, paired with the stan­dard 20-inch al­loys, a trailer-hitch cam­era view, hap­tic seat vi­bra­tion alerts when dan­ger en­croaches and a nine-speed auto for its LGX High Fea­ture 3.6-litre V6, while shar­ing with Santa Fe in­duc­tive smart­phone charg­ing and a pre-exit re­minder to the driver to check the rear seats for kids.

The Hyundai, rep­re­sented by the $60,500 High­lander CRDI, is the cheapest on test, high­light­ing value pric­ing that helped it score a slim vic­tory in our re­cent stoush against three other diesel-pow­ered seven-seaters. Huh? Diesel? Frus­trat­ingly, a petrol-six al­ter­na­tive is not of­fered in high-end vari­ants, so the trusty, torquey old 2.2-litre four­cylin­der turbo oil-burner it is, mated to a brand-spanking in-house eight-speed auto. This prob­a­bly partly ex­plains why this com­pletely re­designed TM se­ries out of Ko­rea hasn’t yet blitzed the sales charts since land­ing in July, though heavy-handed styling af­ter the hand­somely slick DM pre­de­ces­sor may also be to blame.

Alone with an ‘Auto Link Pre­mium’ app that – among other things – brings re­mote-con­trolled en­gine-start/stop, lock­ing, haz­ards, horn, cli­mate and de­froster to the driver’s fin­ger­tips, the High­lander also matches the Toy­ota and Mazda by bran­dish­ing side win­dow blinds, and the lat­ter

‘Aus­tralia's Own’ is stum­bling: Can Amer­ica make Holden great again?

brand with a head-up dis­play and heated wheel/out­board rear seat­ing. Swish!

Re­leased in Septem­ber, the re­vised MY19 CX-9 – in glitzy Azami LE guise from $66,490 – is more than just the brand’s long-over­due Ap­ple Carplay/an­droid Auto de­but (BT-50 aside), with im­proved (fixed-rate) dampers, beefier steer­ing com­po­nents, stur­dier en­gine mounts and a thicker head­lin­ing, join­ing Audi-es­que frame­less in­te­rior mir­rors, an over­head stor­age con­sole and handfin­ished leather, wood and alu­minium in­serts. Lush. It’s the sec­ond up­date the Coty-win­ning TC se­ries has re­ceived since ar­riv­ing from Ja­pan in July 2016.

Older still is this quar­tet’s best­seller, the Kluger. A mover-’n’-shaker across both sides of the Pa­cific (where, con­fus­ingly, it’s known as the High­lander – a name Hyundai has de­nied Toy­ota Oz per­mis­sion to use for 15 years) ours is the In­di­ana-made Se­ries II makeover, which sur­faced in early 2017 with di­rect-in­jec­tion for the gut­sier 3.5-litre V6, an eight-speed auto and up­dated ac­tive safety.

At nearly $10K per seat, our $69,246 Grande AWD’S only real USPS are a tail­gate with sep­a­rate-open­ing glass hatch (mem­o­ries of Ter­ri­tory right there) and an­ti­quated roof-mounted Blu-ray player (per­fect for watch­ing Find­ing Nemo and The Wire box-set). Oh, and two fewer years of war­ranty, at only three years. Boo!

Still, it’s plain to see why the square-jawed Kluger is such a show­room draw. Im­mense in ev­ery di­men­sion, the Grande grants loads of space for five adults and will hap­pily ac­com­mo­date an ex­tra two in the sim­pleto-ac­cess third row. Op­er­a­tion-friendly con­trols, huge (ana­logue-only) di­als and a hu­mon­gous cen­tral bin fur­ther aid fam­ily-fo­cused travel.

How­ever, ex­tended stints on the fat, flat seats re­veal sup­port short­falls, cheapo mono­tone hues abound and hard plas­tics of­fer nei­ther sur­prise nor de­light in some­thing so ex­pen­sive. And don’t bang your nog­gin on that low-hang­ing DVD player, ei­ther.

If only Toy­ota hired Hyundai’s cabin cu­ra­tors, with their play­ful yet pro­fi­cient de­ploy­ment of colours and tex­tures, which sig­nif­i­cantly lift the High­lander’s am­bi­ence. Tighter phys­i­cal di­men­sions dic­tate there's less space, but third-row ac­cess is bril­liant thanks to a novel one-touch seat fold/slide mech­a­nism. Throw in well­padded pews and the Hyundai’s classy, invit­ing in­te­rior can still ac­com­mo­date seven in com­par­a­tive com­fort.

If you hap­pen to be sat right in the Santa Fe’s rear then vi­sion is ham­pered by the ris­ing win­dow line (though it’s way bet­ter than be­fore) and tall cen­tre-row back­rests, but there’s multi-speed fan con­trol as well as the lights, cuphold­ers and 12-volt out­lets that the oth­ers also pro­vide. Too bad clam­ber­ing in/out is tricky due to nar­row aper­tures. Note that none boast the sat­is­fac­tion of mo­torised push-but­ton sec­ond-row back­rest re­leases.

There’s al­most dull uni­for­mity across all four SUVS as far as mid­dle-row ameni­ties in­clud­ing stor­age, ven­ti­la­tion and USB ac­cess are con­cerned, with vary­ing but over­all more-than-suf­fi­cient leg, knee, head and shoul­der space on of­fer – even in the com­pact High­lander. Peo­ple are sat some­what higher than those up front, es­pe­cially in the sta­dium-es­que Mazda, though el­e­va­tion amounts vary.

Greater dif­fer­ences lurk up front, with the Hyundai clearly gain­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the CX-9 for de­sign and lay­out, if not quite in ex­e­cu­tion. Both de­liver a low cowl, snug driv­ing po­si­tion, wide cen­tre con­sole, promi­nently perched touch­screen, sporty in­stru­men­ta­tion and sup­port­ive seat­ing that pro­vide an in­clu­sive cock­pit ex­pe­ri­ence.

Where the High­lander stum­bles yet the Azami LE soars is in the de­tails; there’s a sheen of lux­ury in the for­mer that is be­trayed by bud­get plas­tics and jar­ringly ir­reg­u­lar graph­ics, while the lat­ter ad­heres to doggedly con­sis­tent, lofty stylised stan­dards through­out. It’s the dif­fer­ence between tacked-on and built-in.

Yes, the CX-9 lacks third-row face-level out­lets, but the mid­dle-row’s vents do ef­fec­tively dis­perse air; seat com­fort re­mains a pri­or­ity through­out, and no cabin is as quiet or classy. At five me­tres, the Mazda is nearly limo­like in length, and so pro­vides the nec­es­sary space and prac­ti­cal­ity, yet does so with moxie and panache. The Azami LE feels its sticker price.

Play­ful colours and tex­tures lift the Santa Fe High­lander's am­bi­ence

If the CX-9 is the mas­sive SUV that doesn’t seem it, the Acadia some­how is the op­po­site, and a pe­cu­liarly, charm­ingly/ir­ri­tat­ingly Amer­i­can take on what con­sti­tutes a seven-seater at that. While the Kluger feels large and util­i­tar­ian, the Santa Fe stylised and spec-laden and the CX-9 cool and cul­ti­vated, the Holden nee-gmc man­ages to meld el­e­ments of all three, in a long, wide and boxy wagon that Cany­onero-driv­ing Marge Simp­son might revel in.

Agree­able seat­ing (es­pe­cially the mid­dle and rear­most rows, which are cushy for hefty der­ri­eres and low-set for larger folk), a chunky (if overly pla­s­ticky and a tad greasy) dash with ZB Com­modore Vxr-like ana­logue/dig­i­tal in­stru­ment com­bos and suave new mul­ti­me­dia in­ter­face, and laugh­ably gen­er­ous stor­age through­out will quickly win friends, but please brace for iffy trim qual­ity, sloppy fin­ishes, clumsy thumb-ac­tu­ated tip-shifter and a vague drive-mode se­lec­tor.

In­fu­ri­at­ingly, the flat-floored Acadia’s re­fresh­ingly airy, roomy cabin comes achingly close to ideal un­til you re­alise that GM didn’t bother switch­ing the mid­dle row for RHD, so kerb-side oc­cu­pants must tip and slide the larger por­tion of the bench to squeeze through. Fail.

De­spite the vo­lu­mi­nos­ity, en­try/egress to the third row is in­ex­pli­ca­bly tight. The Yank is also vo­cal and oc­ca­sion­ally even vibey back there, too.

Some of that noise can be blamed on the brawny Acadia’s 231kw/367nm 3.6-litre V6, which makes the most of its Aussie-tuned nine-speed auto to de­liver rous­ing as well as rapid per­for­mance. Brisk off the line, the LTZ-V is quick­est in ev­ery in­cre­ment, and blitzes the oth­ers in rolling ac­cel­er­a­tion, re­quir­ing just 4.7sec to surge from 80-120km/h – nearly a sec­ond clear of the next-best.

That the hot-rod of the quar­tet also re­turned an im­pres­sive 10.0L/100km re­flects the ef­fi­ciency of the pow­er­train cal­i­bra­tion. That was only a litre adrift of the Santa Fe diesel, which ad­mit­tedly was throt­tled mer­ci­lessly to keep up with the speedy petrol pack. Bat­tling gusts at Heath­cote, the Hyundai fell short of the 9.5sec 0-100km/h we man­aged a few weeks ear­lier. That said, in iso­la­tion, the 147kw/440nm 2.2 CRDI’S re­fine­ment is re­mark­able, and once in the torque band in real-world sce­nar­ios, pro­vides am­ple oomph for ea­ger dis­patch.

As with ev­ery cur­rent Kluger we’ve tested, our Grande’s per­for­mance proved both stri­dent as it strove ef­fort­lessly to 100km/h (in 8.0sec flat) and mus­cu­lar in the mid-range, re­main­ing within half a sec­ond of the hard-charg­ing Acadia in the 400-me­tre sprint at 15.8sec. The re­vised 218kw/350nm 3.5-litre V6 is also sonorously smooth and rea­son­ably par­si­mo­nious to boot, us­ing 10.4L/100km. An­other good show­ing from the Toy­ota in its twi­light years.

The Mazda with its 170kw/420nm 2.5-litre four-pot turbo, mean­while, al­ways felt quick, strong and re­ac­tive to throt­tle in­puts away from the track, de­spite its fail­ure to breach the 8.0sec 0-100km/h mark on our blus­tery drag strip. Across 400m it was just 0.1sec shy of the Kluger, re­veal­ing the rich torque band at low revs, that trans­lates to quite vig­or­ous, lusty re­flexes when called upon.

Again, in its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, those six for­ward ra­tios make the most of the turbo’s out­puts to re­ally push the CX-9 along, while kick­down is in­stan­ta­neous. That the Holden recorded slightly bet­ter fuel econ­omy did shock, how­ever, though the Azami LE did beat our pre­vi­ous ef­forts.

Where the Mazda re­ally slays is in its dy­namic char­ac­ter, with the group’s meati­est and most in­volv­ing steer­ing, which de­liv­ers out­stand­ingly lively and tac­tile han­dling for an SUV of this size and mass, as well as pre­dictable, four-square grip.

The Mazda re­ally slays with its dy­namic char­ac­ter and meaty steer­ing

And it’s not just for the keener driv­ers ei­ther, for even on 20-inch al­loys, the re­cently fet­tled sus­pen­sion’s in­her­ent sup­ple­ness is ob­vi­ous, iron­ing out ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties while still pro­vid­ing suf­fi­cient damp­ing over more se­ri­ous stuff. The ride does err on the firm side, but the com­pro­mise between com­fort, con­trol and quiet­ness puts the Azami LE in a league above most com­peti­tors. At any price point.

Holden re­vealed that, in the LTZ-V, the helm’s feel has been tuned for light­ness but is still weight­ier than the US GMC set-up, and that’s prob­a­bly fine for the vast ma­jor­ity of Acadia buy­ers.

For us, though, even in the heav­ier Sport mode, we wanted more heft, though turn-in is cer­tainly crisp and mea­sured enough, with lev­els of poise and con­trol for a two-tonne SUV that en­thu­si­asts can ac­tu­ally revel in, es­pe­cially when press­ing on. Even more so over gravel, in fact, where the Holden re­ally steps up.

Also on 20s, the Acadia’s elec­tronic dampers make a huge dif­fer­ence, of­fer­ing a soft­ness over larger hits that isn’t matched here. But whether the Holden brings a pal­pa­bly bet­ter ride than the CX-9 is de­bat­able; in com­fort mode the LTZ-V dis­plays less dy­namic dis­ci­pline than the Mazda, while in Sport the busier sus­pen­sion is less ab­sorbent. And it’s also nois­ier over­all. Again, the Hiroshima ma­chine’s honed con­sis­tency pays div­i­dends.

The Santa Fe, too, brings some un­ex­pect­edly sporty dy­nam­ics to the ta­ble, shrink­ing around the driver with the se­ries’ new­found agility, taut­ness and as­sur­ance, backed up by stable and re­laxed gait in most cir­cum­stances.

On the other hand, there’s none of the CX-9’S nat­u­ral driver en­gage­ment from the steer­ing, while the chas­sis can feel too stiffly tuned, with lim­ited wheel travel when roads turn rough, ac­com­pa­nied by dis­cernible lat­eral as well as ver­ti­cal body move­ment over nas­tier bi­tu­men.

Lastly, there’s the Kluger. Ca­pa­ble and even com­mand­ing across a va­ri­ety of con­di­tions, it of­fers up sur­pris­ingly con­tained and sure­footed han­dling and steer­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics, and a wheel that’s also re­as­sur­ingly iso­lated from any kick­back. It's too re­mote for our tastes, though, while the ride never re­ally feels set­tled, tele­graph­ing nig­gling ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties with an­noy­ing reg­u­lar­ity. The Toy­ota is also prone to vi­bra­tion and pitch­ing, which seals it as the least dy­nam­i­cally dis­ci­plined of the four­some.

The Grande, then, is a big, re­li­able, hardy and no-non­sense seven-seater with plenty of poke – those 2017 up­dates weren’t in vain. But it’s also an ex­pen­sive and dated bus that feels out of its depth here.

In iso­la­tion, the High­lander is a mas­sive leap for­ward for the Santa Fe, bring­ing new­found pack­ag­ing and pre­sen­ta­tion ap­peal to go with its han­dling alacrity. There’s no miss­ing that com­par­a­tively low price ei­ther. A de­serv­ing win­ner against other diesel ri­vals, in this com­pany, the Hyundai lacks the con­sis­tency, pol­ish and ap­peal of the CX-9, as well as the char­ac­ter, com­po­sure and com­plete­ness of the Acadia.

Ul­ti­mately, the Mazda CX-9 uses its smarts most ef­fec­tively to out­ma­noeu­vre its ri­vals. Co­he­sive, con­fi­dent and al­lur­ing, the Azami LE feels spe­cial where the oth­ers may merely seem ca­pa­ble. We’re as proud as ever of our 2017 COTY call.

But, boy, we’d not hes­i­tate rec­om­mend­ing the Acadia LTZ-V. At­ti­tude, per­son­al­ity, spec­i­fi­ca­tion, pack­ag­ing, per­for­mance and ef­fi­ciency are high­lights. It’s a strong shot at the top of the class – one that falls just short of snatch­ing vic­tory from the high-fly­ing CX-9.

Unashamedly Amer­i­can as it is, the Acadia could be the model to make Aus­tralians crave a Holden again.

The Acadia LTZ-V is a strong shot at the top of the class ... that just falls short


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