Holden Commodore VN
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 1
Launching the VN Commodore, Holden said the totally new car had been designed to achieve the dramatic market impact reserved only for the most historic and significant Holden models. And so it proved. There were a few VL Commodore components still under the skin, but the new VN had been stretched - in every important dimension.
A major generational change, the 'aero styled' VN returned Holden to the full-sized family car fold. It won all three motor magazine 1988
Car of the Year awards and was also a sales winner right from the start (the Executive model confidently targeted at fleet buyers), taking Holden back to its accustomed position on top of the Australian passenger car market in 1989
Holden designers and engineers took a wind tunnel-influenced Opel Omega design and altered it substantially and ingeniously; widening, re-styling and re-engineering to meet Australian criteria. Interior roominess, torquey performance and chassis dynamics topped the list. Reflecting an emphasis on aerodynamics
as a way of improving performance and fuel consumption, the VN offered such features as flush-fitting side glass, steeply raked windscreen and low-profile headlights.
It also introduced as standard a larger, Buick-sourced 3800 EFI V6
(delivering as much power as the previous carbureted V8
), teamed with locally made five-speed manual or premium imported 4-speed Turbo Hydramatic transmission
. Standard on SS and optional across the range came a fuel-injected 5.0 litre V8 producing 165kW. For the first time, the Commodore wagon was built on a longer wheelbase, and entirely new interiors featured a one-piece dash fascia with wide centre console and binnacle-style controls.
After an absence of nearly seven years, the Holden passenger car derived ute made a comeback in 1990
with an all-new VN-based VG Utility and S Utility. Model range: Commodore SL sedan, Commodore Executive sedan and wagon, Commodore Berlina sedan and wagon, Commodore S sedan and wagon, Commodore SS sedan, Calais sedan. In all, some 215, 180 VN Commodores would be manufactured, including the 5 millionth Holden.
VN V8 Commodore
The V8 version of Holden's storming VN Commodore was, simply put, an amazing car. Very few four door sedans in the world could produce the kind of performance on offer. The last V8 from the General, the VL Commodore, hardly sent the pulse racing, and was very much overshadowed by the VL Commodore Turbo. The twin evils of emission controls and unleaded petrol conspired to make the V8 a rather limp wristed affair with just a token power increase over the Nissan-sourced six that powered 'lesser' Commodores.
While it may have lost plenty in the translation, the five litre bent eight did, however, have a couple of virtues that made it a viable marketing tool. For a start it was smooth (unfortunately for V8 sales, the Nissan six was even silkier) and it delivered its power at bedrock revs in a nice, easy, casual way. It was also ridiculously cheap and was something like a $400 option on a Calais. There were, naturally enough, problems. The engine itself was heavier than the six and because of Holden's traditionally bizarre optioning procedure, the V8 wasn't available with anything other than the rather horrible old Trimatic automatic gearbox. And it was thirsty, the V8 VL having fuel consumption of around 17 litres per 100 km. And that was when you were gentle. Sink the foot and it would dip to beyond 20 litres per 100 km. But there was one thing that set the VL Commodore V8 apart – and that was the fact that Ford didn't have a V8 and hadn't had one since about 1982. This probably would not have mattered in Europe, but here in Australia the fact that there was a V8 in the line-up put Holden at a distinct advantage.
Things changed with the VN. By 1989 the GMH engineers had sorted the V8 woes, addressing all those problems of fuel consumption and an options list obstacle course and, more importantly, built on to its good points. The truth was, the VN five litre V8 beat the hell out of the 'old' V8. It's not really fair to call the engine in the VL the old motor because the two did share much more than just Holden's marketing hopes. Below the deck, the VN five litre was very similar to the unit it replaced. Changes were made to the main bearings (heavier duty material) and the con-rods that caused plenty of controversy at the 1987 Bathurst were fitted. The rods were a much beefier item and were known as A9L rods. The Group A SS engine was the first road-going Holden to use them. In fact there was much in common between the VN's V8 and that used in the Group A. The block gusseting around the head bolts was the same and the only real difference in the respective bottom ends in the use of a two bolt main bearing cap in the VN (The Group A ran a four bolt piece).
Cylinder heads on the VNs V8 also had plenty in common with the Group A. The heads had the same inlet/exhaust
/inlet port sequence with the same 'High port' technology aimed at better breathing. The other impressive aspect of all this technology was the way in which the bent eight could go about its business without draining the 84 litre fuel tank like a pot at a ploughman’s lunch. Highway cruising at slightly above the legal maximum returned figures of around 11 litres per 100km while around the suburbs, that figure would rise to about 13 or 14 litres. Use the available power and the fuel consumption would increase markedly, but such was the price of performance and the real issue at hand was that the V8 could, for once in its life, be driven frugally. The end result was a rousing 165kW at 4400rpm and an equally impressive 385Nm at 3600rpm. More than that, though, the power was delivered smoothly and predictably.
Chassis Changes and Spring Rates
Obviously, the V8
weighed more than the V6
, so the first task was to stiffen up the front end. That was achieved by the use of heavier rate springs while leaving the rear end and the damper rates as they were. The FE2 suspension option went heavier again, firming things right up. Of course, the V8 FE2 option was stiffer than the V6 FE2 pack, but the standard V8 spring rate, interestingly, did not correspond with the six cylinder FE2 rate. What you therefore ended up with was two standard spring rates and two FE2 rates making four in all – and the best for the V8 was the FE2 pack – and some even argued that it was the best for any VN Commodore, regardless of the engine fitted.
The THM700 Automatic Transmission
As mentioned above in this article, all VN Commodores had four wheel disc brakes, but the V8 was equipped a little more seriously with a larger front disc arrangement. The discs were, of course, ventilated and were designed to cope with the V8's extra performance and extra momentum. The THM700 automatic gearbox earned the VN plenty of praise – and was mated to the V8 as well as the V6, proving that an automatic needn't be a performance disadvantage. Holden insiders claimed the auto was very nearly as quick as the five speed. It was strong enough to handle the huge torque of the V8 so all Holden's engineers did was re-jig the shift points for those being fitted to the V8. As such, the gearbox was a little more reluctant to kick down and in fact would hang on to second gear at even low speeds. Of course, with all that grunt on tap, acceleration remained pretty devastating. The torque converter lock-up on top gear remained and did an admirable job of deciding for itself when to allow a little slip in the interests of flexibility.
Another 'mandatory option' fitted to all V8s was the 205/65 tyres
which were HR rated and fitted to 15 inch rims. The Calais had these fitted as standard regardless of which engine was used, making the V8 option particularly good value in the context of a Commodore Executive. On the road, there was no question that this was a car (despite the four doors and automatic transmission) which was capable of obscene point to point times. And, from an engineering perspective, it remained true to the performance car formula - coil-over struts front suspension, independent semi-trailing arm rear end, rear wheel drive. The performance that the driver had - straight from the engine bay - was huge, torquey and, most importantly, useable chunks. Sure, it could tow a big boat or horse float, but the V8 equipped VN went a long, long way towards producing a muscle car in the true sense of the term.
Behind the Wheel
The five litre would fire up first time every time and, thanks to the injection, settle down to a nice, even idle with about 600rpm. Prodding the accelerator produced the usual V8 grumble with better than usual throttle response and an obviously willing nature. Wheel into the traffic and plant the foot hard, and the VN would break traction on the driest of surfaces. Even with the automatic transmission there was sufficient grunt to spin the driving wheels. Provided you were sensible with the power on tap, the V8 proved an even safer car than the stock V6 version – this being readily evident when overtaking. The power was not the liability the politicians and greenies would want you to believe, rather it made the car measurably safer than most everything else on the road.
As well as the surging power there was an element of civility previously unknown to drivers of Holden's five litre. In the Calais this is particularly noticeable thanks to the extra sound deadening but the real bonus was an inherent smoothness that the V6 just could not match. The primary balance of a 90 degree V8 was the key and when combined with the block strengthening and the more accurate fuel metering afforded by multi-point fuel injection, the result was remarkable. The V8 VN was by far the most agile family Commodore ever, but that did not mean there were not a few niggles. The major affliction (and this issue dated back to every Commodore since the VB) was the steering. It was not exactly a case of vagueness or even a proper lack of feel, just something that wasn't quite right about the responses.
Turn in was fine (especially on the V8’s up-spec tyres) but after that things went downhill a little, with the front wheels wanting to “bite” their way around a corner rather than a fluid line through the apex. Road testers from the time, while glowing in praise for the VN, noted the same thing. And there was also a willingness to bottom the front end in some circumstances, perhaps due to the extra weight of the V8 engine. At the other end of the chassis, the picture was not all rosy either. The Calais was prone to roll oversteer in the usual VN proportions, but rear axle steer was slightly more pronounced than the V6 cars. It all happened when the car was cranked over into a corner and suspension travel induced a change, however subtle, in the rear axle geometry. When it happened it would force the car off the chosen line and on to a new, more acute cornering angle.
The problem was at its worst when encountering a series of bumps and lumps mid corner. The solution was to unwind a dab of lock but if anything more than about half of the performance potential was being exploited, this was hardly a satisfactory course of action. So the V8 version was near perfect – but there were a couple of small issues. Not that it would stop you buying one of course. Even though there were a couple of small issues, the VN Commodore had a very capable chassis, and most owners probably never pushed the car to its limits, and therefore never experienced these symptoms at anything like their fullest.
We all know the Calais was a fully loaded Commodore – but that was not such a bad thing. In VN guise that meant standard equipment such as air-conditioning
, velour trim on the doors and roof lining, trip computer, power windows (with a clever delay function that allowed operation for a few seconds after the key has been removed) central locking, cruise control and an upmarket stereo system with four speakers. Throw in the V8 and the Calias became the General’s flagship car – until the arrival of the VQ Statesman. There was no question that the VN, Commodore or upmarket Calais, was a great car. It could handle the worst Australia had to offer and, in V8 guise, was bloody brilliant.
It was in 1984
decided to discontinue the Statesman in favour of the Calais as its top-of-the-line model. Buyers of home grown prestige cars simply weren't interested in something that wasn't big and impressive looking, no matter what other advantages it might have, and GM-H's share of the local luxury market plummeted accordingly. Since then the Calais was to, of course, gain wide acceptance as the 'luxury' Holden, and with the VN version much of the size and space prestige buyers favoured had been regained. But 1989, however, the Calais' days as Holden's flagship were numbered. In the last quarter of 1989 a new long-wheelbase, Statesman-style sedan was introduced, and it was this car that took top billing as GM-H's line leader. While the 'big' Holden was still on the horizon in early 1989, its influence was felt in a subtle repositioning of the VN Calais.
Historically a couple of thousand dollars dearer than the Fairmont Ghia, the Calais was moved into direct competition with Ford's middle management express, and in the process it lost some of its appointments. As a luxury car the VN Calais fell short in many areas with plastic door trims and even without a variable intermittent wiper speed. The VL Calais was, in so far as appointments were concerned, a better car. But there was no doubting that the VN Commodore was a vast improvement over its predecessor, not only in interior space and packaging but in terms of dynamics and performance, and the same held true for the Calais. Roomier, better handling and with the superbly matched V6 engine and four-speed transmission, the Calais possessed all the attributes that made the VN Car Australia's pick of 1988
. It also possessed a number of refinements over the more proletarian models that made it an even nicer car to own and drive.
Externally the Calais differentiated itself from lower-spec Commodores with a different grille and rear panel/tail light treatment, full-length body mouldings which gave it a two-tone appearance, appropriate badges, and a set of alloy wheels and 205/65/HR15 tyres. The cosmetic details made it an attractive package, but from the driver's seat it was the tyres which made the most difference. Running wider rubber the Calais hung on a little better and turned in slightly sharper with no apparent detriment to ride quality. Some of the VL's suspension 'float' and slightly vague steering remained, but it was nothing like as bad as it used to be and most drivers will have hardly noticed it.
What they would have noticed, however, was how quiet the new Calais was. Holden's 3.8-litre V6 wasn't the world's smoothest or most silent engine, but in the Calais additional use of soundproofing has smothered all but the most extreme of its aural emanations. At high revs some engine noise was apparent, but at cruising speeds the cabin was commendably quiet with only subdued wind hiss from around the A pillars (something drowned out by engine and road noise on lower-spec models) apparent. Quiet and comfortable, the Calais' cabin wasn't too far removed from previous models in terms of its understated ambience, though again the VN dash and switch layout (this time with a full complement of 'auxiliaries' including cruise control) was a big improvement.
One real plus was the instrumentation. Instead of the rather garish dials used on 'low spec' Commodores the Calais featured more conventional styling with a speedo and tachometer sharing dash space with supplementary fuel and water gauges and a trio of LCD displays for the trip computer. The latter, incidentally, was worthy of praise, both on the grounds of sensible ergonomics (fingertip operation via binnacle mounted switches) and available information: definitely the best arrangement for a locally produced sedan up until this time. With height, recline, fore-aft movement and lumbar support a good range of driving positions were available behind the Calais' 'soft feel' four-spoke wheel, and the adjustable driver's footrest was a nice touch.
For our money though it would have been a nicer - not to say more prestigious - car if Holden provided some steering wheel adjustment and full fabric door trims (as in the past) rather than just a trim insert and carpet on the kick panel. Leather upholstery was listed as an optional extra, but when it came to creature comforts most people were happy to stick with the standard offerings which included power windows, central locking (with dead-latch), remote control exterior mirrors, a good quality four-speaker AM/FM stereo cassette system and air conditioning. Regrettably automatic climate control isn't available.
Overall the VN Calais was a very pleasant car, but not one that broke any new ground in its level of appointments and luxury. Compared to Ford's Fairmont Ghia the Calais' interior looked somewhat Spartan and this counted against it in the sales race. On the other hand the Calais offered superior dynamics and this made it a more relaxing car, especially if long distance driving was part of the regular routine.