As a youth, I liked nothing better than cruising around in cars with my mates — usually other people’s cars back then, as we didn’t have the means to buy our own. Very rarely, one mate in particular would get a loan of his dad’s Holden Calais. With its flash stereo, plush leather seats and rorty V6, we couldn’t believe our luck each time we managed to scavenge the keys. Except the Calais could bite — hard as it happened — and it’s still a mystery to me how this particular car didn’t end up on its roof following our misguided attempts at power-induced oversteer… but that’s another story.
The thing I remember most about the Calais was that it was honest. People admired your success rather than making crude remarks about you as you went by. And 20 years on, climbing behind the wheel of Holden’s 2014 model Calais, I can’t help but feel a little wistful. We had some good times in that car, and now that GM has announced the demise of local Australian vehicle production by 2017, the time of the large Holden is all but up. It seems our collective passion for SUVs does have a cost, in more ways than one.
But times, as they say, are changing, and despite its imminent end, no one can accuse Holden of sitting on its hands. The new VF model range is more evolution than revolution, both inside and out, but it looks good — it’s perhaps the best iteration so far, to be frank. Even with a smart new front end and especially nicely sculptured rear, it’s sufficiently familiar to be clearly a Holden, but pleasingly modern and upmarket.
The Calais comes with two model options and two engine choices — V6 or V8. My test car was the higher-spec ‘V’ model, with the standard V6. At $66,490, it commands an $8k premium over its entry-level sibling, but even so, there’s a fair bit on offer for the money, especially when you compare it to similar-sized Euro offerings with comparable specs.
The VF’s interior is also heavily revised, managing to be both functional and a little bit special through the use of two-tone fabrics — leather and velour — offset by chrome inserts. Surfaces feel soft to the touch, and it’s less funereal than some German offerings. The multi-media interface works well, while all the secondary controls you might need are immediately to hand.
Under the bonnet, the 3.6‑litre V6 is familiar from the last VE series car, but it has been tweaked to keep it competitive. Producing 210kW and 350Nm, it can spirit the Calais from standstill to 100km/h in under seven seconds — not exactly a blistering performance, but still meaningful in real world situations.
The driving experience is quite simply old school. But that’s no bad thing necessarily — more something to get used to. It has that traditional big rear-wheel-drive feel to it, which initially feels too soft and overly lethargic. But after a day or two behind the wheel, I came to really appreciate the plushness of the Calais’s ride, while also finding its turn-in, road-holding and performance all vastly better than first impressions might have suggested. The steering’s a little light — as you would expect for this target market — but there is still feel when it counts, and it’s not a bad steer even in the twisty stuff.
But it’s the creature comforts that set this Calais apart from its predecessors. Standard kit includes a heads-up display, lane departure warning, satnav, Bose stereo and heated leather seats. The forward collision alert is well intentioned, but its frantic warnings are more likely to cause an accident than prevent one.
It’s hard to call the Calais a true luxury car, as it has a few too many rough edges for that. But with its large wheels and redesign, it looks the business. And while it might not offer quite the precision of some of its (much) more expensive rivals, it does a pretty convincing imitation. Call me sentimental, but it’s a car I could quite happily experience a few more road trips in.[warning]
Model reviewed: Holden VF Calais ‘V’
Fuel economy: 9.0 litres/100km (manufacturer’s figures)
Overall: If you don’t do flashy, this is the car for you: big, comfortable and with plenty of kit for the money. And how many of us really need 4WD anyway?[/warning]