Talk about pouring sand in the fuel tank: this month's breaking news that the next-generation Commodore might be the last designed and built by Holden in Australia came at an especially sensitive time for the Aussie maker.
Last week, Holden launched its Australian-designed and built Cruze hatchback to the Aussie and New Zealand media - just days after talks between union officials and Holden revealed that the Aussie maker could not guarantee the future of its manufacturing operations beyond the end of this decade, when the next-generation VF Commodore reaches the end of its life.
Before the Cruze media event got under way in Adelaide, Holden executive director for sales and marketing John Elsworth felt compelled to "close down the noise" generated by the local manufacture issue: "Absolutely, we are committed to designing, engineering and building cars in Australia. Nothing has changed. It's something we'll continue to fight for. Do we have a crystal ball? No."
Elsworth's comments did anything but bring closure to the issue, but you had to feel for the company. The addition of Cruze hatchback to Holden's portfolio gives a major fillip to the company's manufacturing operations, not to mention its burgeoning small-car efforts.
The project is even more impressive when you consider that the Cruze hatch is much more than simply an Aussie small car. Holden styled and engineered the five-door in Australia, and builds the car in Adelaide for the Australasian market - but Cruze is a global car (sold elsewhere as a Chevrolet). So the fact that Holden won General Motors' approval to lead the project is especially significant.
As with the Cruze sedan, the hatch is based on the GM Delta platform also used for the European-market Opel Astra. The new variant was created by Holden in collaboration with the "engineering homeroom" in South Korea. Retuning of Delta underpinnings (especially suspension) was also carried out by Holden.
With both sedan and hatch models on stream, Cruze now accounts for 185 of the 480 vehicles being manufactured every day at Holden Vehicle Operations in Adelaide.
Aside from the slick new styling and fifth door, there are very few differences between sedan and hatch. They are available in the same CD, CDX and SRi/SRi-V specifications. Engine choices comprise 1.8-litre and 1.4-litre turbo petrols, and a 2.0-litre turbo diesel. The sports-focused 1.4 versions get a more sophisticated Watts Link rear suspension (shared with the European Astra).
Hatchbacks are generally less rigid than their sedan counterparts and suffer from more cabin noise, but judging from our preview drive the dynamic differences are hardly discernable and Holden says that extra soundproofing work has actually made the hatch slightly quieter inside than the sedan; work is now under way to incorporate those improvements into the four-door.
The hatch has slightly less boot space than the sedan (413 litres versus 445) but has a larger and more versatile load-through using the 60/40-split rear seats.
The Cruze hatch could prove to be a big player for Holden New Zealand. The local small-car market is heavily biased towards hatches (68 per cent); but even with a strictly sedan range to date, Cruze is fourth-best seller overall in the segment.
No sales projections were forthcoming from Holden New Zealand to media. Only this from managing director Jeff Murray: "There will be some substitution [sedan buyers moving to the hatch]. But we're selling around 150 Cruze sedans per month at the moment and if we didn't think we could increase that number, we shouldn't be adding a second body shape."
The Kiwi hatch/sedan split is expected to be 70/30. Local buyers who opt for the Cruze hatch will have to accept they're subsidising the sedan a little. While Holden Australia has increased prices slightly across the entire range, Holden New Zealand has decided to hold pricing of the sedan and charge a $500 premium for the five-door. "The sedan is well-established and we don't want to lose that momentum," says Holden New Zealand marketing boss Matthew Woodley.
The hatch comes in identical specification to the sedan, although Holden New Zealand has rationalised the four-door range to seven sedan versions, compared with the hatchback's nine.
Entry CD specification is available with all three powertrains, in both body styles. The mid-grade CDX is available as sedan and hatch, but now comes only with the 1.8-litre petrol - no diesel as before. There's an SRi hatchback with the outstanding 1.4-litre turbo but no sedan, although top SRi-V trim is offered in both four and five-door configurations.
Our pick? The 1.8-litre petrol, carried over the first-generation Cruze, might be the cheapest engine option but it's also to be avoided. The extra $2000 for the 1.4-litre mill and Watts Link suspension is easy to justify and turns the Cruze into a quality drive, regardless of the specification.
With the addition of the hatchback to the range, Holden has also corrected a serious omission on the previous Cruze: Bluetooth cellphone connectivity is now standard.
Cruze hatchback opens at $30,400 for the CD 1.8 manual and closes out at $40,400 for the SRi-V 1.4 iTi automatic.