Keep the whanau smiling

By David Linklater

I hereby declare the Holden Commodore Sportwagon Calais V to be a near-perfect family vehicle for the car enthusiast. It's not just because it looks really cool but is also unpretentious (but it is).

It's not just because it's as enjoyable to drive as the highly acclaimed sedan it's based on (it is). And it's not just because it's really quite practical despite the lithe looks, and can swallow 2m long loads (it can).

No, it's because in Calais V specification, the Sportwagon features a roof-mounted DVD player that's fully integrated into the car's audio system, which is sufficient to keep kids fully entertained for several hours with Bee Movie and Surf's Up on high-rotate.

So the kids enjoy spending time in the Sportwagon, which is the main thing.

True, they'd enjoy it just as much in a Calais V sedan, but there's not as much room for bikes, prams and whatever other items of junior citizen detritus make their way into the family vehicle over the course of a week.

Of secondary concern, but still important, is the knowledge that grown-ups enjoy it too. It beats the VE Commodore four-door hands down for styling _ it's more elongated hatchback than sensible holdall.

That follows through into the driving experience. You'd be surprised how much has changed in the mechanical set-up compared with a sedan _ everything from suspension settings to the design of the exhaust _ but it's all in aid of keeping the ride and handling unsullied from the extra weight and slightly different weight distribution of the Sportwagon. And it works.

The five-door gives nothing away to the sedan in spirited road driving.

It would carry more if it was taller; load capacity is nearly 700 litres less than the previous Commodore wagon, which was huge but ungainly and sloppy on the road. And the Sportwagon is a handy thing, with 2m of load length and a moveable cargo cover that can be clipped at different heights to cover taller loads. The tailgate is hinged well into the roof so you can open it with little space behind the car.

All good, although there are some annoyances. The rear seats fold almost flat but the very slight incline is enough to irk if you're sliding something large into the car.

And I never did seem to get the hang of latching the tailgate without slamming it _ any less and I drove away with the "door open" warning blaring, meaning a quick stop to close the fifth door. Again.

So the Sportwagon is the near-perfect family vehicle. What would make it perfect? A different engine.

Holden has always made great claims for the the performance and efficiency of the Australian-made Alloytec 3.6-litre V6 engine fitted to our test car, but there's really nothing about it that gets you buzzing. Except perhaps the noise, vibration and harshness at high revs.

You can also have the Calais with a 6.0-litre V8 and that's pretty cool. A lot thirstier than the V6, for sure, but the pay-off is muscle-car performance and a great noise.

If you could get V6 economy with V8 performance, that would indeed be perfect. If rumours of General Motors' new 2.9-litre turbo diesel making it into Commodore late next year are true, the Sportwagon will be a perfectly balanced version of the VE.

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