Will the VE Commodore prove me wrong?

Posted on September 26th, 2007 in Driving Emotion,Economy,Holden,Makes & Models,Opinion,Power,Reviews by Julian Edgar

ve-commodore.bmpMost of our Australian readers won’t be old enough to remember the release of the 1978 VB Commodore – and to be honest, at the time I wasn’t taking much notice of cars myself. However, it was common contemporary lore that the VB represented the new, small and modern family Holden while Ford, with the XD Falcon, persisted with the larger, outmoded type of traditional family car.

With the increasing price of fuel, it appeared that Holden was onto a winner with the Commodore.

But in fact they weren’t onto a winner at all: the VN model of a decade later went to a larger – especially wider – body, initially perched on the narrow track of the previous series.

Most pundits would have thought – and in fact did think – that Holden was heading in the right direction with their smaller original Commodore. It seemed the correct car for the times and in comparison, the face-lifted XC that became the XD looked like a big mistake. (In fact, a few years after this, I can remember looking at an open XD wagon and wondering who on earth needed a load area so enormous.)

But new car buyers didn’t agree with the smaller VB-VL Commodore strategy – Holden would have sold more Commodores if they’d stuck with the larger body all the way through.

I am mindful of this history when I pour scorn on the current VE Commodore. In summary, my thoughts about the VE are these:

With a radically increasing awareness of greenhouse gas emissions, and the changed world security environment of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, people will want lower fuel consumption for environmental reasons and car companies should provide cars with lower fuel consumption because of the potentially greater instability of oil supplies.

Smaller, lighter cars allow reduced fuel consumption to be achieved without decreasing performance. Modern design, including tailor-welded blanks, hydro-forming, high tensile steels, airbags and full computer design allow safer cars to be made without increasing weight or size.

Therefore, cars like the VE Commodore should be externally a maximum of VN sized and powered by frugal engines that develop the good bottom-end torque that Australian drivers enjoy, the most obvious driveline candidates being a turbo diesel (eg a 3 litre V6) or a hybrid petrol/electric.

And I don’t think it is correct to suggest that these ideas do not take into account local manufacturing lead times. Toyota first produced the hybrid Prius in 1998 (yep, ten years ago!!) and the HDi diesel of the Peugeot 406 (getting on for eight years ago) showed the writing was on the wall for the worth of passenger car diesels. If I, a humble and ill-resourced motoring writer, could immediately recognise the significance of these cars (and write it at the time!), why couldn’t a car company like Holden see the same writing?

However, if I was a practising motoring writer in 1978, perhaps I would have been saying just the same stuff about the XD Falcon – and (erroneously) writing how the VB Commodore was the car of the future!

Time will tell…

14 Responses to 'Will the VE Commodore prove me wrong?'

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  1. James McIntosh said,

    on September 26th, 2007 at 7:20 am

    Disclaimer – I worked for Holden for a little while, so please take this into account.

    It it pretty amazing to watch a brand new Commodore roll off the assembly line every 80 seconds, and know that a new Falcon is rolling of another line every 120, and a new Camry/Aurion every 60 (I think?). Oh, and fifteen 380’s a day as well. And then there’s all the imported cars….

    Even though the Australian vehicle fleet is increasing somewhat, it means that somewhere, a car is being destroyed at about the same rate. It boggles my mind the sheer scale of the activity of buying and selling new cars.

    Then my mind turns to who actually does that buying? In the case of Commodores and Falcons, a significant majority is fleet, novated lease and other work cars. Many of us are like me, where we can choose from four cars: Commodore, Falcon, Camry (or Aurion) or 380. Since it makes no direct difference to my hip pocket if I buy a land yacht – in fact I have no choice – I might as well choose the maximum vehicle/engine size. Therefore the direct hip pocket pressure for cost effectiveness is not there. I justify my need for a VE commodore based on my two kids, but I was one of two kids in a VB and we survived just fine.

    Then there’s the private buyer. Now, buying a brand new car is not a rational decision. Not in the slightest. If it were, the vast majority of us would buy small efficient and utilitarian town cars, run them for as long as possible and hire utility vehicles like vans and 4wd’s as we needed them. Paying an extra $20,000 for European styling is not rational. Paying an extra $50,000 for the badge is not rational. Sticking to the same brand because you’ve had a good experience (rather than doing your research) is not completely rational. I know there are other positives to these cars, but many buyers of them consider only the points above.

    These point combined (work car and irrationality) means we buy cars because we Want, not because we Need. And we want size. We want power. We want presence. We pay what we think we can afford.

    I would be fascinated to see a correlation between car size and feelings of “wealth”. The US industrial boom of the 50s and 60s resulted in enormous American vehicles. Somewhat struggling England produced a number of effective small and medium cars.

    The 70’s and early 80s we a time of economic upheaval, and small effective Japanese cars came to Australia and America.

    Now we’re in absolute boom times, and people are feeling wealthier than ever before. Therefore our cars are larger than ever before.

    Witness the paradox in new vehicle sales – large bodied large engined car sales are declining, blamed on environmental and petrol concerns, but even larger four wheel drive sales are accelerating. There is growth in small and medium car segments, but as Julian has pointed out, their size is no longer small or medium, they are the large cars of the VB era.

    Technology, fuel prices and environmental concerns alone aren’t going to reduce the size of the cars we buy. The wider economic environment controls the size of cars.

  2. Leon said,

    on September 26th, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Very interesting insights James.

    Irony is that our wonderful sense of wealth and associated rampant consumption are going to lead to a situation in the future where these large cars will be entirely useless. Global warming and peak oil (via the market of course) will force buyers to consume less and in the context of cars if things don’t get changing pretty quickly we’ll be back to bicycles and motorcycles in 30-40 years.

  3. Leon said,

    on September 26th, 2007 at 2:00 pm

    So the wider economic environment will be looking pretty dim, if people don’t start changing to more frugal everything including cars. Human society cannot sustain the kind of energy levels it currently has without fossil fuels, specifically oil. Things will change, get prepared.

  4. Philip Armbruster said,

    on September 26th, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    Ah the irony.
    I was Distribution Manager for Ford at that time in 1979-80. I remember having 12,000 XDs in the back yard, and The MD and Edsel Ford coming into my office and asking when I was going to shift them.
    6 months later they were all gone and Holden had Commodores in the back yard.
    Its bloody difficult trying to separate the bull from reality. The correspondent above obviously believes the “Al Gore line”, but when your business in 5 years depends on picking it right, its a different matter.
    I would also say that US Pontiac requirements and Middle East market needs weighed heavily on the decision. They like em big and their volume probably makes or breaks the whole business case..

    Funny, I was talking to a VT 5litre Statesman owner yesterday who was considering a 6 litre . His point was that he only did 12K per year, and a lot was on the open road where the 6 litre gets about 10L per 100Km so fuel cost is no big deal.
    I am one who believes technolgy will alleviate the situation. It is really breathtaking how quickly the USA has adopted ethanol for example.
    Regards Philip A

  5. Mick said,

    on September 26th, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    The correlation of size being necessary is reflected in housing as well. Separate bedrooms for every occupant, plus one; two, three or four living areas, plus outdoor living. Look at TV’s for another example!

    My parents took my two sisters and I on camping holidays (five people plus ALL the gear) in the late sixties early seventies in a 1965 VW beetle. Bewildering. I struggle to fit my own family of 5 in a VR Statesman for a family picnic!!

    While our voracious appetite for “better” means “bigger” continues unabated, opinions such as Julian’s will continue to receive a knowing acknowledgement from the mainstream that doesn’t convert to action.

  6. trackdaze said,

    on September 26th, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    The reason XD-XF got the leap on the VB-VK was one size & despite downsizing the VB commodore the engine was hopelessly thirsty. Ford with the torque laden alloy headed crossflow motor proved you needn’t downsize to use less fuel.

    Guess what? their proving now too with the Big effortless falcon motor using less than the inadequate & rough alloytec.

  7. Gordon Drennan said,

    on September 27th, 2007 at 11:55 am

    When you talk about “Australian new car buyers” you need to remember there are two completely separate groups of them. There are the people who are spending other peoples’ money who are predominantly buying big vehicles, and the people who are spending their own money who are predominantly buying much smaller cars. Fleet buyers don’t care about cost, as long as business is going well, which it most definitely is in Australia under the conservatives, and providing competitors are doing the same as they are, which the tax system means does happen. Take out the government and business fleet markets that are propping up the big cars and their sales would collapse. A CO2 based tax regime for fleet vehicles is something any government genuinely wanting to do something about global warming should do, but none would dare because of its impact on the American-owned car manufacturers.

  8. Philip Armbruster said,

    on September 27th, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    “When you talk about “Australian new car buyers” you need to remember there are two completely separate groups of them.”
    I totally agree.One study some years ago found that 70% of cars on the Harbour briudge each morning were company cars with one occupant.
    Australia is one of the only countries in the world that encourages car use by giving tax breaks. Discontinue tax breaks for cars as opposed to trucks, and a lot of congestion will also go away.
    BUT who has the guts to do it?
    Regards Philip A

  9. Ben said,

    on September 28th, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    Who has the guts? No pollitician who both recognises that Joe Bloggs cares more about money now than the environment later and wants to stay in office will do it. Despite what people say about saving the environment, not many are prepared to support it if that means that a measurable amount of money gets taken away from them (one-off $50 donations aren’t measureable in this example).

    I support Julians comment about fuel prices doubling, if the money gets spent useful things (ie not pocket lining) like roads and green technology.

  10. Marty said,

    on October 5th, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    Sorry that this is a week late, but just want to say to James that your post was among the best blog posts, on any subject, that I have ever read. Well done.

  11. Julian Edgar said,

    on November 19th, 2007 at 10:26 am


  12. James McIntosh said,

    on November 20th, 2007 at 6:36 am

    Interesting article… although it seems like the author went a little overboard to make it sound ocker, and therefore unlike other articles written under their byline, hey Julian? 🙂

    My initial gut feel was to reprise my role as an old world apologist, and respond with a recollection of previous Taurus/Mondeo models and their failure in the market, but before I did that I scooted over to the Ford website and took a peek at the pictures of the Mondeo. Lucky I did, it actually looks good!

    Then my other preconception is against diesel and fuel economy gains. This has been ingrained in me through years of people who drive gutless diesels blathering on about how fuel efficient they are compared to petrols. What they really meant was a 75 kW engine uses about half the fuel of a 150 kW engine.

    They’re the ones you follow all the way to work who dawdle away from the lights at a leisurely pace… Then they jump in the work Commodore/Falcon, use every ounce of the available power away from the lights to shoot miles ahead of the traffic. On their return they vow there’s no difference. Aaargh!

    Vehicles that drove a lot of kilometres and specified equivalent power outputs (e.g. Trucks, earthmovers, power generators) have always used diesels, because the 10-20% fuel economy benefit is obvious, real, and important.

    Common rail injection has essentially fixed the power:displacement ratio and the lack of a rev range; now that diesels of comparable power are being fitted, lo and behold the fuel economy is also much closer.

    For example, the cars mentioned: Mondeo petrol 118 kW, ADR 9.5 L/100 Km. Mondeo Diesel 96 kW, 7.3 L/100 Km. Down 2.2 litres in fuel consumption (~25%), but down ~20% in peak power.

    Hyundai i30 Petrol (2 litres): 105 kw, 7.2 L/100 Km. Hyunda i30 Diesel (1.6 litres): 85 kW, 4.7 L/100 Km. Down 2.5 litres in fuel consumption (~35% !), but down ~20% in peak power.

    I can’t find performance figures for the Mondeo or the i30, but it’s believable that the higher torque over a wider range might make the driving experience in city traffic equivalent, whether driving petrol or diesel.

    If that’s the case, then the only difference remains is economic. That is, how much do I have to invest in the more solidly built and more expensive diesel engine to gain this fuel consumption benefit?

    One of the interesting points in the Carsales article is the lack of diesels from the Japanese, but the long history in Europe thanks to fuel pricing. This gives the Europeans history, scale, and an established market.

    The base Mondeo diesel is $8000 more than the base petrol. (Yes it’s higher specced, but I argue that this is to help pay for the diesel.) It’s $3,000 more than the equivalent petrol model, the Zetec Mondeo. At these rates, it takes more than 260,000 km to pay for the diesel over the base model, or more than 135,000 over the Zetec. The economic viability of choosing the diesel option depends entirely on resale values.

    However, the diesel i30 is only $500 more than the petrol, or a bit over 20,000 km! It’s the one whose fuel economy gain is 35%, compared to a power loss of 20%, remember? And this from the Asian car maker, without the diesel history of the Europeans.

    Perhaps this is why Julian hinted he was quite excited about it? It does seem to finally make buying a diesel a rational decision….

  13. James McIntosh said,

    on November 20th, 2007 at 6:41 am

    Separately, do the LPG Falcon and (injected!) LPG Commodore versions fill the cost, emissions and economy niche that diesel versions would?

  14. Julian Edgar said,

    on May 19th, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    Commodore hybrid (etc) tipped: