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Holden WK Statesman/Caprice (2003-2004)

words - Glenn Butler
Holden's Statesman and Caprice luxury duo under the microscope

What we liked
>> Loads of room
>> Unbeatable value for money
>> V8 engine's a winner

Not so much
>> V6 engine's outdated
>> Rough auto gearbox
>> Too many buttons

Safer, faster, better equipped than ever before; Holden decks out the long wheelbase Statesman and sporty Caprice trying to stay ahead of Ford's three-pronged prestige attack. The General's big cars have a lot to live up to. Australia's best selling luxury sedan duo went on sale locally in May before beginning exports to 10 countries.

Big news, apart from the 'angles and curves' styling, is the more powerful V8 engine and raft of high tech safety features and gizmos on the large luxury pair. Statesman is the first locally built car with active head restraints, to which Caprice adds seatback DVD players for rear passengers.

Statesman and Caprice are based on the VY Commodore platform, and share V6 and V8 engines and transmissions, and the basic look. Styling is what Holden calls "expressive and purposeful", with bolder front-end treatment and a sharper rear-end with lower trim heights.

Holden says it has deliberately tried to increase model differentiation in its long-wheelbase siblings, creating "an individual Euro sports character for Caprice". Conservative Statesman plays the more formal role to Caprice's luxury sports tourer.

To this end, Caprice gets a more powerful 245kW version of the Gen III alloy V8 engine along with a stainless steel dual exhaust system said to deliver that trademark V8 burble. Suspension modifications, steering changes and lower profile tyres further differentiate the Caprice's "more sporting driving dynamic".

Techno wizardry abounds on the General's biggest, from rear parking sensors to automatic headlights. Electric wing mirrors are heated to reduce fogging, and the passenger side mirror automatically dips when reversing to reduce the chance of 'kerbing' your alloy wheels.

Cruise control, electric windows, remote central locking, multi-stack CD player; the luxury duo has everything expected of prestige cars, though not to the level of European models. Rain-sensing wipers are not offered, neither is Bluetooth mobile phone integration, though the Caprice does get dual rear headrest DVD screens. Headphones and remote control hide in the centre rear armrest. Should shut the kids up on longer journeys.

Holden Assist is standard. They'll even notify you if the car's battery starts running low - too much DVD watching while stationary perhaps?

Interior for WK Statesman and Caprice is entirely new, at the same time reflecting a similar design move with VY Commodore and adding more exclusivity to the long-wheelbase cars. The instrument panel, centre fascia and steering wheel are entirely new.

Holden says "all controls are updated, the layout is simplified and logical". From the pictures, CarPoint counts no less than 47 buttons and knobs on the central instrument panel alone, not to mention window controls and door-mounted buttons. And this, despite having a menu-driven digital display which houses information on driving data, climate control and on-board entertainment systems.

Statesman and Caprice get all-new front seats incorporating active head restraints, along with plenty of bolstering and support. Seat fabric is velour and suede on the Statesman and leather on Caprice, though cowhide is optional on the Statesman. Seats on both models are electrically adjustable for height, tilt, slide and rake.

The General's luxury twins will debut a couple of locally built firsts, including the active head restraints first seen on Saab 9-5 and 93, and more recently on Holden Vectra. Active front head restraints are said to reduce the risk of neck injury or 'whiplash' in low-speed rear impacts.

Both models get dual front airbags, front side airbags and pyrotechnic seatbelt pretensioners. The seatbelts now also limit the force applied to the chest in an impact. Additionally, the B-pillar has been strengthened to reduce side impact intrusion.

Active safety features include switchable traction control and antilock brakes. No stability control, brake assist or brakeforce distribution yet.

Holden WK Statesman and Caprice are built on the VY Commodore platform, stretched by just over 200mm to 5193mm, which makes WK 44mm shorter than the previous model. Wheelbase remains unchanged at 2939mm, as does the car's overall width (1847mm). Ground clearance is down 12mm, while a slightly taller body overall means the vehicle's height drops only 5mm to 1444mm. Caprice's sporting suspension is a further 8mm lower than Statesman.

The WK Statesman will be offered with three engines: 3.8-litre V6 with 152kW and 305Nm; a supercharged 3.8-litre V6 -- now with Dampolator -- producing 171kW and 375Nm on premium unleaded; and the Gen III 5.7-litre V8 with 235kW and 460Nm.

Caprice is available with the naturally aspirated V6 or the more powerful 245kW V8. All WK models are equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission as standard. Holden's biggest sedans weigh between 1691kg (Statesman V6) and 1780kg (Caprice V8), and ride on 16 and 17-inch alloy wheel and tyre combinations respectively.

Direct competition for the Holden Statesman and Caprice come from Ford's long wheelbase BA Fairlane and LTD. On price and performance it's hard to split the two companies' offerings, though the sales charts suggest Holden finds more favour than Ford.

Secondary competition comes from European prestige brands like BMW and Mercedes, though price competitive cars -- like the 3 Series and C-Class -- are much smaller, and size equivalent models -- like the 7 Series and S-Class -- are much more expensive and far better equipped.

Holden claims significant improvements in vehicle dynamics because of "improvements to aerodynamics, body structure, build precision, chassis dynamics and powertrain". Our quick first drive of the Statesman and Caprice at the launch was inconclusive. It's clear they're both extremely capable cars and represent fantastic value for money based on their size, power and equipment. It's also clear that there's more to these beasts than can be comfortably assimilated in one quick sitting.

First impressions? The V8 Caprice is a real eye opener. Sporting prowess more in-line with a Grand Tourer than a street carver, plenty of V8 power to burn and a lovely, rorty exhaust note for accompaniment. It's lowered suspension doesn't give away much in comfort to the Statesman, but gains plenty in ability. We'd happily live with this setup on both models.

The Statesman, which we drove in both V6 and supercharged V6 trim, is perhaps better value for money than the Caprice, as it's equipped with everything you could need and none of the questionable 'feelgood' items. The supercharged version is far better than the 152kW V6, which doesn't seem to have the power suitable to an effortless luxury car. Both six-cylinder models get up and boogie, the blown version just seems to sit better with the image. The V8 Statesman, which we didn't drive, would be that much better again.

It's clear, however, that the V6 engine and particularly the four-speed automatic gearbox are the real letdowns. Neither operate in a way that says luxury car. Neither can be accused of being well refined, smooth or seamless. Both are headed for the bin as new versions surface in 2004. And that's good news.



Model tested: Holden Caprice V8
Date tested: June 20 - 30, 2003
RRP: $72,990
Price as tested: $72,990
Road tester: Glenn Butler
Distance covered: 435km

BOTTOM LINE: Australia's best for opulence and luxury wants only for a better automatic transmission.

The Caprice's 245kW V8 engine delivers power by the bucket-load, and though it's not as smooth revving as a European V8, still has more than enough punch for any situation. Its power delivery is a little soft at low revs, but picks up markedly around 3000rpm, walloping through to 6000rpm before it becomes harsh and hairy.

This abundance of power highlights the transmission's weak points, and it's particularly thumpy on full throttle up-changes. It's also relatively easy to catch out the trannie with a quick on-off throttle application. Under normal driving conditions the gearbox is no gem but does the job capably enough. Good news is Holden is believed to be working on a new automatic transmission for release late in 2004.

The Caprice's lowered ride is said to be sporty which usually means firm and bumpy. Not so this time around. Firm yes, compliant also, as capable of handling spirited sprinting as composed chauffeuring. It's sharp initially, and could be accused of fidgeting the smaller bumps but soaks up bigger bumps without rustling the cabin.

Steering has never been a particularly strong point with Holden products, though Caprice's tiller is firmly weighted and very progressive with its mid-corner build-up. On centre feel it is markedly better than previous models, as is its turn-in consistency.

Comfort is no issue whatsoever with the Caprice. There is ample rear leg and headroom, and anyone who complains should join the LA Lakers. Leather front seats provide adequate lateral grip and occupant support, and were plenty comfortable over longer journeys.

CD-based Satellite navigation, as fitted to our test car, is a Holden By Design option - and is placed in a ridiculous spot down low on the centre console, behind the gear lever.

Fuel economy was an issue during our time in the Caprice, mostly because of that addictive V8 burble that encourages throttle applications. Trip computer reporting seemed to swing between 10litres/100km on the highway and 17litres/100km in city driving. Overall the car averaged 14.5litres/100km over our 400km test.


Model tested: Holden Statesman V6
Date tested: June 13 - 20, 2003
RRP: $53,490
Price as tested: $53,490
Road tester: Glenn Butler
Distance covered: 319km

BOTTOM LINE: Gearbox and V6 engine the weakest link in Holden's best value luxury sedan.

For a car with such obvious luxury pretences, the Statesman is sadly let down by its V6 engine. Holden's ageing 152kW V6 is ill-paired with the 1691kg prestige car. The engine's inelegance and rough demeanour intrude on what should be an otherwise effortless, relaxed atmosphere. Straight-line performance is adequate enough in isolation, sub-par when compared with the opposition.

Perhaps it's a combination of engine and antiquated four-speed automatic gearbox; perhaps it's also the steps Ford's Falcon has taken with a much nicer 182kW six-cylinder engine. Holden will address this issue with what should be a significantly better V6 engine from its new engine plant in late 2004. Word is a new five-speed automatic gearbox will appear at the same time.

In all other areas the Statesman represents astounding value for money, equalled only by Ford Fairlane. Statesman's $52k asking price would barely get a 2.0-litre BMW 318i on the road, and then without much of the performance and equipment of the larger local.

Room inside is cavernous and comfortable, and occupant ride quality is good over Australia's disgraceful road surfaces. Holden's new front seats provide plenty of support and are quite comfy for long periods of time. The drivers' seat is easily adjustable, and the steering wheel tilts and telescopes for a perfect driving position.

Statesman is impressively well equipped. All the regular mod-cons are present and accounted for, including remote central locking, electric windows and mirrors, CD stacker and cruise control. Rear park assist came in very handy on the 5.1m long car; the automatic headlight function, however, is neither good nor bad -- just another level of responsibility removed from the driver. Headlight performance is very good, though, and much appreciated in night-time country driving.

Overall it's hard to argue against the Statesman, even though its drive-train lacks refinement. On a value for money and space equation, only the Fairlane is a capable of matching the big Australian's abilities -- abilities that make more expensive European cars look like a waste of money.




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Published : Friday, 1 August 2003

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