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Holden WL Statesman / Caprice

words - Jonathan Hawley
Holden's luxury duo hide major changes beneath a familiar skin

What we liked
>> Refined new V6 drivetrain
>> Even more V8 grunt
>> Strong safety features

Not so much
>> Soft, billowy handling of Statesman
>> Few styling changes over WK
>> Lack of ESP on V8s

It wasn't much more than a year ago that Holden did a total restyle job on its Statesman and Caprice long wheelbase luxury cars, creating the WK range largely by adding a new nose and tail. The two models were also given separate identities with the Caprice receiving a more potent V8 engine and stiffer suspension, while the softer Statesman continued to appeal to a more conservative set.

The big news for the WL upgrade is the introduction of the new 3.6-litre Alloytec V6 that has also gone into the VZ Commodore range. The new engine, along with a smoother five-speed auto, is standard equipment on the 'Statey, and optional on the Caprice that continues to come standard with SS Commodore levels of V8 grunt.

Not much has happened in the styling department, although there has been the addition of some worthwhile safety equipment such as electronic stability control, and a couple of other surprises. While locally-built long wheelbase cars such as these two are struggling a little to keep up with sales of imported prestige cars like the much smaller Honda Accord, it is clear they continue to offer unrivalled levels of space and pace for the price.

Along with Ford Fairlane and LTD, luxury cars like the Statesman and Caprice don't come much bigger than this unless you've got more than 200 grand to spend on a BMW 7-series or Mercedes S-Class. Size is important in this market, and nothing has been done to camouflage the presence of the Holden duo. They're overstated, so the neighbours won't miss one parked in your driveway.

One new feature fitted to both cars are tail lamps that use LEDs instead of conventional bulbs. Not only does this ensure the brake lamps light-up much quicker, but it gives a slightly higher-tech look to the rear.

As with WK, the Statesman has more chrome, while the Caprice has blacked-out treatment to its headlamps and other surrounds which is meant to appeal to younger buyers. That contrasts with the Statesman's chrome headlight surrounds and a new grille with - you guessed it - chrome uprights and complicated-looking nine-spoke alloys.

The Caprice has a new grille with a kind of hexagonal mesh insert, which sits above a much bigger air intake in the restyled bumper/air dam. There's also minimalist rocker skirts, and the inset in the rear of the boot lid has been painted black.

Not a lot has changed with the interior of either long wheelbase car with the notable exception that leather trim is now standard on the Statesman, although velour remains an option to suit regions with stickier climates. There are new instrument graphics, a lighter colour scheme inside, a lidded bin atop the centre console stack, but that's about it.

The thing is, equipment levels were already very high, especially in the Caprice, which continues to carry everything from full leather to climate control air-con, a DVD player with screen mounted in the back of the front head rests, and just about any extra that could be found in the Holden parts bin.

Then, of course, there's the amount of interior room available. The back seat has vast leg room and is a sensational place to travel if you can find someone willing to do driving duties. Up front it is very similar to any Commodore (or Calais, anyway) with simple switchgear that's easy to locate, plenty of adjustability for the driving position and electric seats fitted, in the case of the Caprice, with a memory function.

The WL Statesman has a powerful safety story to tell, much of it brought about by the new electronics that come with the engine management on the Alloytec V6 and the fitment of the latest generation ABS8 anti-lock braking system from Bosch.

That combination has brought about the availability of a new traction control system and also an electronic stability program (ESP) to automatically use the braking to correct skids and slides. There's also electronic brake assist to increase levels of braking and cornering brake control make braking smoother when wheels are rotating at different speed around corners.

The bad news is that while ESP comes as standard equipment on the Statesman, the V8-powered Caprice doesn't get it because of its differing engine software. To partly make up for this, the Caprice is fitted with a couple of other safety related features. Its wheels have tyre-pressure monitors that relay information back to the car, and alert the driver if a tyre is deflating and potentially about to blow. And to avoid minor scrapes and bumps, the Caprice also comes with parking sensors on the front bumper to match those already fitted at the rear.

Otherwise, there are front and side airbags on both Statesman and Caprice (but no curtain airbags as yet), anti-whiplash head restraints and seat belt pre-tensioners adding quite a comprehensive passive safety system to go with the vastly upgraded active safety of the new WL.

As with VZ Commodore, the big news with WL Statesman is the new Alloytec V6. But unlike the Commodore, the Statesman only gets the more powerful 190kW version of the engine that is teamed with the five-speed automatic, and this combo is also optional on the Caprice.

The new engine has dual, chain-driven camshafts driving four valves per-cylinder, 32-bit engine management, electronic throttle control and durability features including a forged steel crankshaft and oil cooling jets under each piston. The cylinder banks are arranged at 60 degrees, doing away with the need for a balance shaft as on the old engine with its 90-degree angle and inherent balance problems.

The Alloytec 190 adds continuously variable phasing for inlet and exhaust valves and a variable length intake manifold and ups the outputs from 175kW to 190kW at 6500rpm and 340Nm at 3200rpm. It is matched to GM's 5L40 five-speed auto to take advantage of the extra grunt.

The 5.7-litre V8 hasn't been forgotten, with the addition of electronic throttle control doing away with a cable, and allowing better mapping of the torque curve. Along with a new exhaust and bigger air intake, it's now good for 250kW at 5600rpm and 470Nm at 4800rpm in Caprice, although the Statesman's optional unit has 245kW. The V8 is still mated to the old four-speed auto, although it has been re-mapped to give smoother and more precise shifts.

Front suspension has been tweaked mildly, with the anti-roll bar pick-up point now fixed by a ball-joint instead of a rubber mount for increased responsiveness. There's also a new power-steering pump for better feel off-centre and, one presumes, better durability. As before, the Caprice gets more aggressive suspension settings -- described as FE1.5, or not quite the Commodore SS's FE2 fit-out -- while the Statesman is tuned for a comfy ride at any cost.

Only Ford's Fairlane and LTD truly compete with the Statesman and Caprice on size, engine capacity and price. By objective measurement any compact BMW, Audi or Mercedes priced between $55,000 and $70,000 won't stack up, although of course prestige and luxury buying is as much about branding and image as practicality.

Interestingly, even before the arrival of the WL, the Holden twins have pretty much had their rivals from Ford on the run. Turning the Caprice from a limo into a kind of whale-sized sports sedan has been a successful move with sales of the WK about double those of the WH, and about seven times what the LTD manages. The Statesman is outsold by smaller 'prestige' cars such as the Accord and Maxima, but it too is doing better than the BA Fairlane in the sales race.

With the arrival of the new V6 that is down on capacity compared with Ford's 4.0-litre six (but still produces more power and comes with a five-speed auto) and further beefing-up of the Caprice's V8, it's difficult to see why Holden's sales advantage shouldn't continue.

Basically, everything good that the new engine and auto has brought to the VZ Commodore range translates to the Statesman. There's more performance made more accessible by the extra gearbox ratio and banished forever is the harshness induced at higher revs in the old 3.8-litre engine. Now there's a smoother spread of power from low in the mid-range to the automatic's change-up point at over 6000rpm and an engaging engine note to go with it.

The Statesman has steering wheel-mounted paddle shifts so the Alloytec can be bounced off the rev limiter if needed, but the adaptive software is so good it is hard to beat. Drive the Statey hard and the five-speed comes to the party, holding onto lower gears on and off the throttle or even popping back a ratio in response to lower road speed, not the traditional throttle-induced kickdown.

Good as the new drivetrain is, the Statesman's softer suspension and relatively billowy handling -- plenty of body movement and not a little understeer -- give no preparation for the much sharper Caprice. The Gen III gives a serious step-up in performance with the extra five kilowatts perhaps not entirely noticeable through most of the rev range, but adding to the V8's powerhouse top-end delivery. The revised four-speed auto now has surprising and quite acceptable shift quality without being especially smooth or prescient to the driver's needs.

The steering changes complement the Caprice's slightly lower and stiffer suspension and lower-profile tyres by adding an extra degree of precision to the front end, even if understeer is still the major handling trait through higher-speed corners, which is perhaps just as well given the lack of ESP in the V8 Caprice.

If anything, the gulf between how the Statesman drives compared with the Caprice has been widened with the WL. The former is much more refined, and the creamy drivetrain suits the soft suspension and laid back attitude. More grunt in the Caprice makes it an unusual but almost addictive high-speed limo. Choosing between the two is up to customer preferences and how much cash they have.



Model tested: Holden Statesman V6
RRP: $55,990
Price as tested: $55,990
Road tester: Chris Fincham
Date tested: August 2004

BOTTOM LINE: Statesman stands tall against those more pricey in the prestige market.

You'd think that a car costing less than a third of a price of another would be light years away in terms of driveability, equipment levels and build-quality. Yet the updated Statesman compares favourably with far more expensive imported stretched sedans like the 7-Series and LS430. While it may lack the hi-tech gadgets, engineering and badge cachet of the $200,000 limos, Holden's biggest V6 is a worthy substitute for those after a 'budget-priced' luxury sedan.

The new 3.6-litre Alloytec V6 is a vast improvement and offers more power (190kW) than the previous 3.8-litre. Although no rocketship the broad spread of torque assists in smoothly hustling the 1700kg Holden flagship around town. While it revs more cleanly to the redline, it still gets noisy at high revs when pushed, somewhat spoiling the car's otherwise relaxed demeanour.

The V6 is also fairly economical with fuel, averaging around 12l/100km around Melbourne. With a 75-litre capacity, the Statesman could almost make the Melbourne-Sydney trip on the one tank.

The new five-speed auto adds to refinement levels, shifting smoothly and confidently, although the alternative steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters seem pointless in a car of this nature. The large turning circle and body size makes slotting into parking spaces a chore, although the rear parking sensors help.

At around 5.2m long, the Statesman comfortably seats five large adults, with plenty of storage spaces and a massive boot for their luggage. Larger-sized drivers will love the fully-adjustable, loungeroom-style front seats, which provide plenty of room for longer legs on those long-distance trips.

The interior styling is a classy mix of black vinyl, chrome and wood veneer (soft velour trim was fitted in our test car). The well laid-out dash now features a big digital readout that's especially useful for keeping speeds in check on Melbourne's well-policed roads.

The Statesman is well-equipped, with climate control air-con, cruise control, trip computer, electrically adjustable front seats, rear parking sensors, and remote-opening boot. The only things missing were sattelite navigation, curtain airbags, front parking sensors, and DVD player -- some of which are available as options.

For the money, the V6 Statesman makes a lot of sense as executive transport or for larger families after something other than a jacked-up wagon. It should have enough grunt for most, but if you need more there's always the $5000 V8 option.

Those who enjoy a punt might be disappointed, though. The super-soft suspension soaks up bumps effectively, but contributes to excessive body roll and understeer around tight corners. For many buyers of upmarket sedans this won't be a problem. If it is, you'll need to budget another $15,000 for the sportier and better equipped Caprice version.




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Published : Sunday, 1 August 2004

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