Editor's note: This review has been updated to correct information about engine specifications.
Behind the wheel of a Holden Calais-V Sportwagon, the road twists through deep green foliage, and I think this would be a perfect time to test the car's handling. But no, I keep it under 50 kilometers per hour because a sign warns about kangaroos bounding across the road.
If it isn't clear from the previous, I'm driving in Australia, taking the top end of the Holden Commodore model line on a drive from Sydney to Melbourne.
Australia's native automaker, Holden's history goes back more than a century, as long as any of the other big, global automakers. However, GM absorbed Holden in 1931, making the division its face in Australia and some Asian markets. Some models branded as Chevrolets in the US, such as the Spark and Captiva, show up in Australia with the Holden badge, while Holden's Commodore has come to the US in various forms, most recently the Chevrolet SS.
The Commodore can be had in a multitude of variants, including sedan, wagon and ute, with an equally expansive number of model names. For this drive, Holden loaned me a Calais-V Sportwagon, not the most powerful Commodore available, but one well-equipped with all the bells and whistles.
With a near-Cadillac level of luxury in the cabin, the Sportwagon version of the Calais-V proves more than ample for my luggage and a mate who joined me for part of the trip. And while a wagon might be a rarity on US roads, this one finds its twins all over Australian roads. A touchscreen, featuring a full infotainment system sits in the dashboard, and I quickly find myself in familiar territory, as it is the Holden analog of the Chevy MyLink system. And the navigation feature proves vital on this foreign adventure.
Less familiar to me are the driving controls, situated on the right-hand side of the car. Yes, even after a week I would still occasionally turn on the wipers when I wanted to signal for a turn, but I quickly adjusted to shifting and pedalwork.
Under the hood, this model comes with a 3.6-liter V-6, using direct injection to produce 282 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, those numbers converted from the 210 kilowatts and 355 newton-meters listed on the spec sheet. That may be a little short of the 362 horsepower from the six-liter V-8 in other Commodore models, but I never found the Calais-V Sportwagon wanting for power and appreciated anything to bring up the fuel economy, considering the high price of petrol. Other Commodore models can be had with a three-liter direct injection engine.
The scenic route from Sydney to Melbourne mostly follows the Princes Highway, which meanders along the coast. While views of the ocean from the road are largely obscured by dense foliage, roads head out to beaches and rocky points along the way. As a Holden representative I talked to said, these cars were made to handle the rough roads often found in this continent nation, I tested this hypothesis on a dirt track called Pebbly Beach Road. Kicking up a dust cloud in the wagon's wake, I dodged the bigger potholes and was pleased by the comfortable and solid ride character. And at the end of the road were kangaroos, hanging out on a beach -- seriously.
Another comfortable stretch of driving further down the coast, a spot called Mystery Bay caught my attention just for the name. A narrow stretch of asphalt lead down to yet another wide, sandy beach and with the sun low to the west, I expected great photographs with the car catching the final rays and the ocean in the background. But what looked like packed sand at the end of that asphalt, complete with shallow tire tracks, turned out to be soft enough that the rear drive wheels sunk in. A few efforts to rock it back and forth merely dug it in, and with the body resting on sand I had no choice but to call a tow truck. The Calais-V Sportwagon may be tough enough for Australian roads, but at this moment I wanted ground clearance.
In Melbourne city traffic, the navigation system was invaluable, although its routing suffered the same problem as others I've tested, namely prioritizing main roads. As such, I ended up on a road sharing space with a slow-moving tram for a number of kilometers. That said, the navigation system took traffic into account, warning me of slowdowns ahead and automatically rerouting if necessary.
Taking two days to drive down the coast allowed for much sightseeing, but on the drive back I got to experience the kind of long haul that inhabitants of this large nation do on a regular basis. The inland route from Melbourne to Sydney on the Hume Highway covers about 545 miles. I managed it in 9 hours of relentless driving, taking advantage of the 110-kilometer-per-hour speed limits (68 mph) and occasionally stymied by road construction, which appears to be Australia's favorite pastime.
The Calais-V Sportwagon's tech features helped me out on this run, with a lane-departure system sounding off with an audible warning whenever I drifted over a lane line. Not as attention-getting as GM's safety seat, which buzzes your butt, but it worked. I relied heavily on cruise control for the duration, but the Calais-V Sportwagon lacked adaptive cruise control, which would have been a more helpful assist. The car did have a forward-facing camera as part of a collision-prevention system, which flashed a warning on the windshield whenever it felt I was too close to traffic ahead.
Of more general driving use was the head-up display, projecting my speed and the speed limit on the windshield in front of me. Driving in metric territory, with traffic rules different to which I'm accustomed, the head-up display made it easier for me to keep my eyes on the road.
The car's six-speed automatic transmission worked seamlessly with the 3.6-liter V-6, and the 282 horsepower proved all I needed for passing maneuvers and dodging the tractor-trailer rigs that dominate Australia's highways. However, my overall fuel economy for the excursion came in at only 9.9-liters per 100 kilometers, according to the car's trip computer, which translates to 23.8 mpg. Not terrible, but in a land where petrol costs well over US$5 a gallon, long road trips bite into the budget.
Despite the only average fuel economy and my wish for a little more ground clearance, the Holden Calais-V Sportwagon proved a comfortable and solid car for the long Australian highways. In the more contentious environs of the cities, the car's easy driving character aided me in transitioning to a right-hand drive world, while navigation and driver-assist functions helped me get around safely. I was also pleased with the universal character of audio interfaces, letting me plug a drive full of MP3 tracks into the car's USB port.
And while trains and planes make for painless and quick transportation in foreign lands, a car gives you the freedom to explore places you might not otherwise see.