To drive a Holden Commodore in Australia means learning about a comfortable and welcoming culture as well as witnessing the end of a nostalgic era some Americans still dream about.
This is a story about a car that is both familiar and unfamiliar, as well as an experience in a foreign country that in many ways is not foreign at all.
We traveled to Sydney, Australia, on a vacation trip and the folks at Holden loaned us a new Commodore — the last of a popular and endearing model that dates back to 1978. The company, which is part of General Motors, has stopped production in Australia and will switch to importing cars from Opel in Germany, and SUVs and trucks built in Thailand and South Korea.
The Commodore is the type of car many Americans embraced back as far as the end of World War II in the last century. Here it would be described as a full-size four-door sedan with rear-wheel drive and eight-cylinder power.
It is 16 feet four inches long with 107 cubic feet of space for passengers and a trunk of 19 cubic feet. Power is delivered by a 415-horsepower, 6.2-liter pushrod V8 engine with 415 pound-feet of torque—a configuration used by many General Motors, Ford and Chrysler models over decades, even recently in the Chevrolet Corvette sports car. The transmission is a silky six-speed automatic.
This Australian car has been — and is — sold in the U.S. At various times in recent years, it has appeared as a Pontiac GTO, Pontiac G8 and, currently, Chevrolet SS. To see a near clone of the Holden Commodore, check out an SS at your Chevy store.
Driving comfortably in a foreign country requires an understanding of the people and the culture. The driver needs to have a knowledge not only of the rules of the road but also a feel for the mindset of other drivers and how they react in different circumstances. There are countries—India is one example—where even very experienced drivers should not drive without a long and careful learning curve.
That is not the case in Australia. Though it follows the mother country of Great Britain in driving on the left (or correct side, as some say), there are no surprises for Americans except for adapting to the mirror image on turns and roundabouts. The rules of the road, traffic signs, motoring courtesy and highway markings are all familiar. As in Canada, the speed limits and distances are in kilometers, not miles.
Canada, it is safe to say, is the country most familiar to U.S. Americans, and Australia and New Zealand are a close second. However, you do have to get used to the local accents, which can be charming if sometimes unfathomable.
We drove the Holden on a trip south from Sydney toward places with names that included Wollongong, Austinmer and Stanwell Tops. It included terrific views of the Tasman Sea and a long stretch through the scenic forestland of the Royal National Park. Comfort and visibility were outstanding, especially in the back seat.
The Commodore was as competent as any big sedan in negotiating the park’s twisting road — not unlike driving in Vermont. It cornered flat, with little body lean, and delivered generous power for passing and brakes that, as the old saying goes, would stop the car on a dime and give you nine cents change. However, the road did make an enthusiast pine for a Mazda Miata two-seater.
We stopped for beers at Ryans Hotel in Thirroul, New South Wales —appropriate because my traveling companions were Richard and Dorothy Ryan of Rockville, MD, along with wife Sharlene. After a turnaround in Bulli we headed back to Sydney by an inland route.
Overall, the experience reminded me of a more innocent and less divisive time in the U.S., where we drove big cars with big engines and Americans were like Australians are today—folks who go out of their way to help, and where cab drivers, waitresses and other service people amazingly refuse tips because they just don’t do things that way.
It’s where, in a city with a metro population of five million, you can buy a transportation pass for $10 and ride the ferries, trains and buses all day Sunday, essentially for free, and end up with $7 on the card to be used another time.
In today’s confrontational political climate, some Americans have vowed to move to Australia or New Zealand. They’d be happy.
- Model: Holden Commodore SS four-door sedan.
- Engine:2-liter V8, 415 hp and 415 lb-ft torque.
- Transmission: Six-speed automatic with rear-wheel drive.
- Overall length: 16 feet 4 inches.
- Passenger/trunk volume: 107/19 cubic feet.
- Weight: 4,000 pounds.
- Fuel consumption: Estimated 18 mpg combined city/highway.
- Price as tested: $47,190 (Australian dollars), $36,250 (U.S.)
Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.
Photos (c) General Motors