Holden VF Commodore SSV Redline Tech Review: Brawn Meets (Some) Brains

Can an updated styling pack and a fancy computer system save the age-old Holden Commodore from slipping into irrelevance? That’s what the Aussie car-maker is hoping with the release of the VF Commodore Redline sedan.

What Is It?

The four-door VF Commodore SSV Redline isn’t your Dad’s Holden. Under the hood is a 6-litre V8 producing 270-screaming-kW of power and 530Nm of torque. To bring that all to a stop, it has electronic stability control and Performance Brembo brakes.

It’s a manual-only vehicle (if you want to do it properly), but it packs plenty of other toys inside the cabin. In the vehicle we tested, we found a built-in heads-up display, MyLink entertainment system software with app support, two USB charging points for driver and passenger, navigation, steering wheel controls and leather interior to match the optional “prestige paint” exterior. The VF Commodore Evoke (base-model) starts at $34,990. The price as-tested for the VF SSV Redline manual sedan is $56,743.

What’s Good?

When you think Holden Commodore, your brain doesn’t exactly conjure up a style-icon. Commodores of old have been blocky, boxy beasts designed for large, uncivilised Australian roads. Big cars for big roads, paired with an ugly plastic interior built on the cheap for families.

Let’s be clear: none of this describes the VF Commodore, especially the SSV Redline. Sure, the DNA has been preserved in the places for the new VF model, but it’s now a great-looking car by comparison to the old models.

On the outside, it’s loaded with shiny objects for you to gawk at. Daylight-running LED strips on the bumper, a new front grille design and new scoops and lines on the body to make it more aerodynamic (or at least look like it is).

There’s a sporty body kit with pretty skirts and a giant spoiler on the model we tested to keep the fishy tail pressed down on the road at speed. There’s also these beautiful Jaguar-inspired grilles on the side that drop down into a subtle line along the car, which almost serves to draw a line under the whole identity of the Commodores of old. This is the new-generation.

The design isn’t just about looks, though: the engineers have worked to make it more fuel efficient in every way possible. Holden re-engineered the bodywork on the Commodore to make it lighter for the VF. That lighter, stronger aluminium, paired with the more aerodynamic design makes the car faster and more fuel efficient. It’s smart and sexy.

That fuel efficiency really shows, too. You expect to be filling a big, thirsty V8 constantly, but we were able to get 460km from our VF test car with some very “spirited” driving out of a 71L tank.

On the inside, the VF is luxurious and sporty. Wide leather seats cushion you through the bends; a heads-up display guides you, tells you how fast you’re going, tracks the lateral G-forces generated or lets you know how high the revs are on your monster of an engine. A giant 5-inch tablet touchscreen in the centre of the dash tells you what’s playing, where you’re going, who you’re talking to and much more thanks to integration with Pandora for lean-back internet radio and Stitcher for podcasts.

The instrument panel underneath the MyLink touchscreen was redesigned so that gear like the infotainment system, climate control settings and other car controls would be merged into the one area for ease of access, much like on Holden’s electric sedan, the Volt. All this new tech — as well as the holders and storage nooks — are lit up with soft blue lights like a funky cocktail bar.

It’s great to see a car manufacturer taking advantage of larger screens in their vehicles, unlike Ford which insists on sticking the frankly excellent Sync software from Microsoft on a tiny smartphone display atop the button-laden Sony stereo stack. If only Holden’s MyLink was as smart as Sync, though. We’ll get to that soon.

The VF Commodore knows where it is on the road this time around, thanks to lasers all over the car which constantly scan the environment. It’s like having parking sensors on steroids.

This spatial awareness is deployed in a few different features. The wing mirrors, for example, constantly scan the VF’s rear blind spots to detect when a car moves out of the driver’s field of vision. When it detects a car in the blind spot, a small alert is displayed on the wing mirror to alert the driver that there is a car they can’t spot. A feature called Reverse Traffic Alert lets you know when another car is reversing out of a car space behind you.

Other safety features include features you’d find on the Holden Cruze sedan like Forward Collision Alert that lets you know if you’re likely to hit the car in front in the event of a sudden stop, as well as Lane Departure Warning which lets you know when you’re straying away from where you should be on the road.

The Best Part

Every single car needs a smart, heads-up display like the one in the VF Commodore. It shouldn’t just be reserved for sports sedans, European luxury saloons or insane hypercars: it’s a safety thing.

The HUD in the Holden VF Commodore is perfectly visible on even the brightest of days, and it has several configurations so you can see what’s contextually important to you in different circumstances.

The most useful of these configurations is a simple speed indicator. Over public holiday periods like Australia Day, having motorists constantly taking their eyes off the road to glance at their speed in a tricky Double Demerit point area is dangerous. By putting the speed just under your eye-line in a transparent little display is perfect. No more taking your eyes off the road to look at what the GPS is telling you. No more glancing at the stereo to see if the song you like is playing yet. No more wondering if you’re going over the speed limit. It’s perfect, and every car should have one.

What’s Bad?

When you hear the words “next-generation” you expect it to be transcendent when it comes to technology. You expect this thing to be able to pretty much drive itself with laser-guided cruise control, collision detection, lane-departure warnings and auto-parking features, but all of this feels a bit half-baked on the VF Commodore. It’s not “next-gen” enough.

The MyLink system also feels like it’s constantly fighting you when you start to colour outside the lines. Feel like plugging in your iPhone and listening to music on anything but the default Music app? Tough. It’s what will start playing automatically, regardless of what you had paused in another app before you plugged your device in.

Feel like using an app like PocketCasts or the official Podcasts app for listening to your radio shows? MyLink will pitch a fit and constantly switch back to your default Music player. Bugs also exist when you want to use something like Spotify or Rdio instead of Pandora for internet music: the steering wheel controls won’t let you control your play, pause and skip commands. There are plenty of bugs in need of squashing when it comes to the infotainment systems.

The best way to get your phone working with the VF Commodore, either on Android or iOS, is to connect it via Bluetooth or use it as an Aux 3.5mm input. That way it just plays as the phone intends it to, rather than trying to interfere with its own “smart” software. MyLink might have a bigger screen compared to Sync, but Sync feels much smarter with integration into features like Emergency Assist, Play Similar (which actually works) and decent voice control.

Even the Navigation is a bit of a mess: it doesn’t understand altitude from the looks of things, which means that when you’re on the Harbour Bridge or the ANZAC Bridge in Sydney, the car will be telling you where to turn on the streets underneath you rather than on the road you’re actually using.

When you think about it, none of this is really a huge issue though: the people buying this car are likely to be 35-60-year old men that aren’t buying a car for the technology on it. Those buyers will use perhaps one or two of the technology features on the car, while ignoring the rest. Designing each tech feature to be used independently of another is a smart idea for a customer who doesn’t know or care about the technology on his car first and foremost. If you’re a hardcore gadget lover and still want a big Holden, try the Volt instead. If you’re a speed demon who likes a bit of style and tech, give the VF a look.

The Worst Part

Every car should have some sort of parking assistance, or at least sensors to tell you where you are and what’s around you. The VF Commodore has these, but they’re so goddamn obnoxious. Every time you go to reverse your car out of the driveway or pull out of a space, it screeches at you endlessly, with no context as to what you’re about to collide with or if there’s anything there to begin with. If you have a safety feature which people would rather turn off than use, that’s something you need to look at.

Should You Buy It?

This car is the equivalent of putting a footballer in a suit. On the field he’s a weaponised brute with power to burn and a score to settle. In the suit, he’s the same man, but more refined and buttoned down. That’s the VF Commodore: fancy new styling accents subtly hide the fact that this thing will bite your hand off if you show it some food.

A quick dose of boot can easily have the tail flicking out and the engine roaring, but when you pull onto the street of your kid’s school you’ll still feel the civilised gentleman. It’s a car for the closet hoon in all of us.

The problems arise when you start to pair that brawn with a brain and try to make the visceral experience of driving an incredibly powerful V8 sedan a smart one, too.

The MyLink system is leaps and bounds ahead of anything Holden has put into a car before, and paired with bumper sensors, rear cameras, eyes-free Siri and app integration, it should be a slam dunk, but it just isn’t. It still feels like a 1.0 version of software.

The navigation app fights for supremacy against the volume of your music; the approved apps fight with your choice of apps; the steering wheel controls often don’t respond depending on the input you’re using; the sensors scream at you non-stop and the UX of the MyLink dashboard feels completely wrong.

In terms of smarts, the new VF Commodore feels more like a mad scientist than a dapper braniac: it’s smart, but could be smarter.

MyLink is the way to go for the future of Holden’s infotainment. We’re not suggesting they scrap it and start again. We just hope the bugs are ironed out for future models so that you can enjoy driving a car that straddles connected with crazy to drive. [Holden]

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