The VT Commodore lifted the bar considerably in terms of sophistication and value for money on its 1997 launch but cost-cutting left a few rough edges. A successful export program and the later VXII facelift made it truly world class. An AU Falcon can never match the VT Commodore's feel good factor but it offers superior ground clearance, fold down back seat, stronger engines and is better for heavy loads and towing. The AUII facelift closed the gap in refinement and styling.
HOLDEN VT/VX COMMODORE (1997- 2002)
It was Holden's first full-size family car since the last HZ Kingswood in 1980 and the company's best car in its 50 year history so the VT Commodore could only be a runaway success. Joe Kenwright now finds it is standing up better than expected as a used car.
The VT Commodore and its AU Falcon rival were a huge leap of faith for Holden and Ford when the Australian market was running at half of what it should have been for almost a decade. The growth performers were cheap Korean cars and Japanese four-wheel drives. Yet both companies embarked on their most ambitious new car programs ever and were ready to meet the turnaround when it came.
Australia's troubled economic state in the early to mid-1990s provides an insight into why neither the VT and AU were as good as they could have been on release as the anticipated return on their investment was tied to an underperforming market.
Holden was also forced to suspend development in some areas after a critical LHD export program involving the US was abandoned after vital funds had already been spent engineering the VT for LHD. This LHD program which was never officially acknowledged would later generate unexpected exports to the Middle East and Brazil and allow the Monaro to be exported relatively easily to the US. The export program has given this ageing Commodore series a second wind as it still dominates the Australian best seller list eight years after its September 1997 launch.
Although Holden is regarded as the definitive Australian car, the VT Commodore is a clever adaptation of overseas GM parts. Various compromises generated by its mixed origins have kept Holden engineers busy since the VT's launch.
The VT Commodore body started life as the compact 1994 Opel Omega with simplified front and rear fascias and cleverly boosted in size to match the Falcon. Body detailing was also minimized as even the side protection strips were deleted. Inside, Holden developed the previous model's cheaper modular firewall and dash which are bonded as a single unit to the vehicle during production. This also makes it easier for LHD production.
Front suspension was a carryover from the previous VS with added refinement and the rear suspension was the independent rear suspension (IRS) from the old European four-cylinder models with longer local driveshafts to cover the VT's extra width. Although this gave the VT Commodore the distinction of being the first Australian rear drive family car with IRS at all levels, the VT's extra weight and powerful engines can expose some handling compromises.
The core engine was an upgraded 147kW version of the Buick 3.8-litre V6 assembled locally for rear drive and coupled to one of GM's basic US four-speed autos. By the VT, both were beyond the problems that afflicted this engine and transmission in earlier models. The five-speed manual transmission was the imported Getrag unit introduced for the VS Series II. The V8 was Holden's own 5.0-litre unit with several important upgrades that boosted power to 179kW until the US Gen III engine arrived in June 1999 with the VT Series II.
Inside, the VT Commodore's seats were outsourced as Holden introduced the first power seat adjustment at entry level. Although comfortable, the new seats adopted the Korean practice of bonding the seat fabric directly to the cushion which can make them hot and sweaty during summer. It also generated costly warranty claims after complete seat cushions had to be replaced when the cloth delaminated from the padding. Second or third owners are now facing these costs.
The VT Commodore was a masterful piece of production engineering when it delivered a large rear drive car with on paper specifications similar to a BMW and Mercedes-Benz that were up to four times the price. Providing you didn't step outside Australia's low speed limits and drove it within 75 per cent of a BMW's or Mercedes-Benz's capabilities, Holden engineered it to feel as though you were driving a much more expensive car. Because the VT Commodore delivered what its ground-hugging, sporty appearance promised even at entry level, it was an immediate winner and still is.
The Buick V6 is unusually economical and fairly quiet providing you drive it within that 75 per cent envelope and the ride and handling over choppy surfaces were also outstanding. Drive the VT outside this envelope and you encounter the limitations but more of that below.
Holden had picked the market shift where commercial buyers decided what they would lease and drive, not the fleet managers. Owners of even the base Executive could relate their car to the sporty models and race cars, a connection enhanced by the special HSV models.
Ford was still dominated by internal thinking that if the Falcon made Australia's best taxi, then it also would make Australia's best private and fleet buy. This didn't allow for the fact that most Australians encounter their first Falcon when it has done over 500,000kms as a taxi with the ambience and odour typical of a confined public space.
The VT Commodore and its Falcon rival were much more evenly matched than the VT's sales domination indicated, as the gap was driven by buyers who would not drive a Falcon at any cost. This can generate unrealistic expectations for the VT Commodore, especially in the used market. The advances in today's VZ can make it seem impossible that the VT is even related let alone shares the same origins.
It would take another four years before Ford realized that the Falcon's domination of the taxi market did more harm than good especially when the taxi market sourced its vehicles from ex-rental fleets and didn't even add to new car sales. As a result, the Falcon would not lose its cold "industrial” feel until the BA arrived in 2002. If you were given a Falcon as a work car, it was like getting a good set of work boots whereas the Commodore made you feel like you were management material.
As a result, Holden enjoyed a dream run as key VT shortfalls didn't need to be fully addressed until the VX Series II facelift in August 2001. However, Holden constantly improved the VT in preparation for exports that started around two years after the VT's September 1997 launch.
THE VT COMMODORE'S IRS - FRIEND OR FOE?
Although the VT Commodore's IRS was a milestone for the local industry in 1997, important parts fitted to its smaller and lighter equivalent in Europe since 1987 were deleted. Even if this didn't impact on the VT family car buyer, it has important implications for young drivers and those who travel heavily laden.
The VT's IRS is called a semi-trailing arm because the swing arm attached to each back wheel is moved to a diagonal position. It behaves more like a swing axle when its offset axis forces the wheel to move in an arc and change its angle relative to the road. It is a simple, effective system that allows each wheel to respond to bumps independently yet has half the parts of a double wishbone system which saves weight and takes up little room under the rear floor. Because its mounting points are filled with rubber bushes, it is also effective in isolating ride shock from the body hence the VT's smooth, quiet ride.
It was used on early Triumphs, BMWs, Mercedes-Benz and the Datsun 180B to name a few yet by 1997, the VT Commodore was one of the very last and certainly the most powerful and heaviest to still do so. The following should come as no surprise to older Holden fans when the VT shares these limitations with the early BMW 5 Series that made the HZ Kingswood look so good when they were compared in the 1970s.
When this IRS system is loaded, the rear wheels splay out and chop out the inside edges of the tyres for short tyre life and reduced grip. As the VT's rear springs settle with age and heavy use, it may do this without a load. This is relatively easy to fix with new springs or a heavier spring if you need to tow or carry heavy loads.
Because there is only one swing arm per wheel and their mounting points are fixed, there is no adjustment if they have been disturbed or the geometry was not perfect when manufactured. This usually causes the outside tyre edge to wear which was not uncommon in early VT examples but there are aftermarket adjustment kits available if it's not too far out.
The other problem is rather more serious but not normally encountered by family drivers. Because the mounting points are not braced against sideways forces, high lateral loads can force the swing arm sideways. Imagine an easel without its third leg and you get the picture. When there is a wheel attached, this toe change can cause the rear of the car to steer independently of the front wheels. Even the best drivers struggle to catch it when this happens.
Normally, you need to be driving fast to make the VT's outside rear wheel steer itself but there are some situations that can bring it on earlier. If the car is heavily loaded and is suddenly thrown on the outside rear wheel by a road camber change or evasive action, this can trigger a toe change and cause the outside rear wheel to steer the rear outwards. Planting the foot hard when the car is on an angle can also do it sometimes. Once the car is in a slide, it takes real skill to get the load off the outside rear wheel and get it pointing in the right direction again.
On standard tyres, the rear wheels usually start to lose their grip and give you plenty of warning before this happens. Young drivers who fit wide tyres then use their extra grip are at risk as they have changed the equation. HSV usually fitted stiffer bushes in the rear mounting points to match a tyre upgrade at the expense of ride quality. Drivers who fit bigger wheels and tyres without upgrading the suspension are tempting fate especially if the standard rear bushes have gone soft with wear or age.
Because the VT will generally outcorner previous live axle Commodores and its AU Falcon rival especially on choppy surfaces, its superior capabilities are not under question. Unlike the AU Falcon which always lets you know that it's loose in the back, it's the lack of warning and rapid transition that can get VT drivers into trouble.
In 1987, Opel added a control link to brace each rear swing arm against sideways forces on all its six cylinder models but it was deleted on the VT hence the empty holes in the rear suspension arms. HSV put them back them for the VTII GTS 300. All standard Commodores but not the ute were fitted with these links from the VX Series II upgrade ready for the Monaro launch. These links also allowed toe adjustment if the tyres wore unevenly.
Unfortunately, the VXII's control links are not easily retrofitted when the special mounting points near the diff were also deleted on previous models.
A VT/VTII/VX will always quietly walk around at the rear over choppy surfaces as the geometry changes but if this progresses to feeling unstable, get it checked out. If ultimate safety and stability in high speed rural driving are important, the extra money for a VX Series II will be money well spent.
KEY VT COMMODORE CHANGES
- Sep 1997: VT stunned buyers and rivals with smooth styling, size boost, security and safety advances, full equipment list at base level and value for money pricing. Only criticism was loss of performance and economy due to weight increase.
- Sep 1998: Holden heads off AU Falcon launch by announcing results of progressive weight reduction program with boosts in fuel economy figures. It also restores performance at base level.
- Jun 1999: VT Series II. Minor cosmetic changes to the base models including clear indicator lenses rear and side mark the end of the Holden V8 option and the arrival of the new Gen III 5.7 V8 engine from the US.
- Oct 2000: Growing exports and improved AUII Falcon prompt VX facelift with new tear drop style headlights, new tail lights with a different look for lower and upper levels, upgraded equipment and an extra 5 kW for the V6 and V8 engines. Base level grille is more aggressive while Berlina and Calais share a different style. Extra rubber couplings in the two-piece tail shaft boosted refinement and front suspension geometry was changed and steering feel increased to reduce twitchiness at speed. Dual fuel option is upgraded. ABS now standard on all levels.
- Aug 2001: After exacting Holden boss Peter Hanenberger shut down the factory to rid the Commodore of any lingering compromises, the VX Series II arrived with a huge boost in detail quality and refinement. Behind minor cosmetic changes, there was all new switchgear, improved cabin feel, better panel fit and detailing and addition of control links to the rear suspension.
KEY VT COMMODORE CHECK POINTS
Correctly serviced, the cast iron V6 can be exceptionally long-lived with 300,000 trouble-free kms common. Listen for rattly lifters on the neglected ones.
The VT's Holden V8 suffered bore distortion on some examples leading to high oil consumption and unusual engine noises. The imported Gen III V8 came with noisy piston slap in some engines accompanied by excessive oil consumption. There were also early oil starvation problems generated by oil pan changes for the VTII installation which in severe cases caused the whole engine to be replaced. Interface problems between the imported engine's electronics and the vehicle electronics left some owners stranded.
The six-speed manual transmission standard with the Gen III engine varied considerably in quality and the shift action was below par. It's a case of assessing if you can live with the shift quality and whether any internal noises and shunt under acceleration/deceleration are acceptable. The Gen III's automatic can vary from car to car and its unexpected changes mid-corner in the wet on some examples are not for the faint-hearted.
Both the V6 and local V8 are prone to oil leaks and must be checked carefully. The V6 is prone to cracking its exhaust manifold on the passenger's side but can be hard to pick as the crack closes up after it has warmed up.
Factory dual fuel option allowed extra petrol to trickle into the engine while running on gas under high load situations. LPG engines without this safeguard or run on an empty petrol tank may be displaying the early signs of cylinder head and fuel pump damage.
The power steering has always been a problem area so check the pump and hoses carefully. Early cars can have odd rattles in the steering but the rack rarely gives problems.
Lack of bodyside protection can leave the side panels pock-marked and dented from opening doors. Bumpers are often scraped on the corners. Blister-style wheelarches also attract side scrapes.
Low body parts will catch out owners used to the clearance of previous Holdens so check underneath for damage, especially the sump area. Rear side panels are susceptible to stone damage if mudflaps are not fitted.
Headlight performance was compromised by styling considerations. Make sure that lenses are free of crazing and stone damage.
Seals and trim around the rear glass may have shrunk. Rear door handles were an early problem area and electric windows can fail.
Windscreens in the first cars cracked repeatedly around the sides until it was found that the locating clips needed to be more flexible.
A faulty contact in the airbag system can play up and cause the airbag warning light to go on. Watch out for those cars where the warning light is disconnected to avoid the repair. The ABS braking system can stop working so again watch for a disabled ABS warning light.
Check all seat trim carefully for bubbles in the cloth where it has separated from the padding. The seat back pockets are easily damaged.
Early fuel consumption readings could vary wildly without warning.
The VT is one of the most popular car theft choices and the standard security system was cracked almost immediately. Leave no stone unturned in verifying its history from new and consider an upgraded security system if it must live on the street.
Suspension and Brakes:
Front strut inserts and rear dampers are standing up well. High mileage examples can be clunky in the front end which can be anything from worn strut pads to sloppy ball joints or worn bushes.
Check rear tyre history carefully including spare in case there is a rear alignment problem. Allow for new springs if the rear wheels obviously splay out at the bottom.
Although the VT's revised brakes stopped better than any previous Holden, they were a nightmare for some owners after they required constant machining to eliminate shudder which then dictated replacement as early as 20,000kms. Check the availability of upgraded pad and rotor combinations if required.
Standard tyre size and tyre were just adequate for a car of this size and performance so any step backwards will make grip marginal.
FORD AU FALCON SERIES I/II/III (1998-2002)
The AU Falcon's failure to take the battle to the 1997 VT Commodore after the market expected it to leapfrog its main rival on its 1998 arrival can distract buyers from its many advantages and value as a used car. Joe Kenwright takes a closer look at what the AU has to offer as the years and kilometres roll on.
Nearly every Australian has a view on why the AU Falcon did not meet expectations and most are valid. How and why Ford missed the mark is not entirely clear but the rapid succession of running changes and special value packs provide a clue as to what the market was saying. Although these upgrades made the AU more appealing, few, if any, were driven by any mechanical shortfalls or problems with the car itself. The earlier, less appealing AU examples can provide bargain family transport as a result.
Ford Australia's biggest mistake was to miss the transition from bulk fleet purchases, usually determined on low price, low running costs and longevity, to employees choosing their own work car and funding it themselves on novated leases and salary sacrifice arrangements.
As the VT Commodore rapidly became the feel-good reward for its drivers, the AU Falcon initially looked and felt like a work tool. Its almost unanimous choice as a taxi says it all. It was the ultimate fleet car when a new group of buyers wanted a taste of BMW or Mercedes-Benz sophistication at Australian prices.
In a bid to replicate the Hyundai Excel's amazing price-driven success in the light car market, Ford priced the AU well below the Commodore. At this level, it tended to highlight the Falcon as the cheaper, less desirable choice, a stigma the AU could never shake.
As well as missing this market shift, Ford also overshot the mark in trying to make the AU look a generation ahead. In hindsight, it was ahead of its time but the AU looked out of place on early post-recession roads still dominated by old bangers in 1998. There was also an internal drive at Ford to make the AU more appealing to women by making it look smaller than it was. This robbed the AU of the Falcon's traditional big car look of safety and substance. It also lost valuable boot width and its airy cabin with ease of entry and exit, qualities that Holden improved dramatically for the VT Commodore.
Ford managed to alienate its traditional buyers and the new user chooser buyer simultaneously with the AU. Almost immediately after its September 1998 launch, the race was on to win them back but there was no budget for major sheet metal changes. The rectification process was not complete until the launch of the BA in 2002.
As the years roll on, the market is discovering that the AU was not so bad after all and the taxi industry especially is finding that the AU's relative simplicity and ease of repairs is proving to be a better long term proposition than the more complex BA and other rivals.
Once you get your head around owning one, it is then a case of identifying which AU upgrades matter most and how much you are prepared to pay.
AU FALCON MODEL HISTORY
- Sept 1998: The AU Falcon was launched with a 17.5 per cent increase in body stiffness, 14mm decrease in front overhang, 35 kg reduced weight, 8 per cent improvement in fuel consumption, huge reduction in crash repair costs and 54 per cent reduction in exhaust emissions. There was a big boost in crash safety with much stronger structural rails and two massive cross members which supported a more sophisticated front suspension. The new aero body boasted an impressive 0.295 coefficient of drag with triple weatherstrip door sealing and big headlights that increased output by 30 per cent without the shadows and hot spots of smaller lights.
The standard 4.0-litre six was re-engineered with a stiffer engine block, rigid cross-bolted alloy sump, internal stiffening brace and new low friction internals including the new head that was launched in the last of the EL series from January 1998. It delivered 157kW in standard tune, 164kW in the XR6, 168kW in the Ghia and 172kW in the XR6 VCT. The imported Windsor V8 was the final version re-engineered for the US Explorer and initially delivered 175kW as a Falcon option or 185kW in the XR8.
The rear suspension was a development of the previous model's Watts link live axle while a class leading double wishbone independent rear suspension, based on the Mustang Cobra, was available as an option on sedans where it wasn't standard.
To Ford's dismay, these expensive changes meant little when the car felt much the same as the previous EL to drive. Buyers didn't like the confronting styling especially the fan-like grille of the base Forte, the equivalent of the previous GLi. Its high rider look on skinny small wheels was a huge contrast to the sleek, ground hugging stance of the VT Commodore.
Inside, the early Forte's grey interior was bleak with a strange centre control panel that reminded buyers of the Taurus. One journalist described it as a "monkey's bum", a compelling and lasting image. In fact, the AU's resemblance to the Taurus, under Ford's discredited global Ford 2000 plan, was a serious drawback when that model was so despised by local Ford fans as an ugly and unwanted front drive family car.
br>After a brief moment of euphoria at the AU launch, Ford employees soon found themselves in the trenches trying to reverse a sales slide that could easily have been terminal.
- Mar 1999: Front electric windows were now standard on Forte, the medium graphite interior trim was darkened and the upper level warm charcoal trim was made available on special order to Forte buyers. The cloth trim combinations were also altered and the ride height was dropped by 12mm after the initial spring specification didn't settle as expected.
- Sept 1999: After desperate dealers painted the ute's chunkier egg crate grille and fitted it to the Forte, Ford was forced to offer the Classic with the ute's grille, dual airbags, ABS, cruise control, extra paint, alloy wheels and rear spoiler to win back private buyers. Seat belt height adjustment and driver's vanity mirror was now standard on Forte. All wagons were given cargo blinds.
- Apr 2000: The AU Series II added Fairmont styling to base models, dual airbags across the board and big 16-inch wheels and styling tweaks to make the AU look more substantial and less cost-stripped. Standard interior colour was now the classier warm charcoal with dark graphite as an option. The ugly centre control panel was toned down and base seats lost their vinyl backs. Wagons gained a three point centre seat belt. Major mechanical upgrades include revised front suspension to support a big boost in brake size and retuned rear suspensions in a bid to match the Commodore's luxury ride. Most important of all was a dual thickness laminated firewall and hydraulic engine mounts on all models which transformed interior refinement. XR8 was boosted to 200kW.
- Jul 2000: Limited edition 75th Anniversary Falcon Futura was classiest base AUII and worth finding for its special feature list and colours.
- May 2001: XR8 was upgraded with 220kW T-series engine. XR6 VCT gained XR8 wheels and tyres.
- Nov 2001: AU III facelift added body-coloured side mirrors and side protection strips, clear side repeater lights and ABS across the range. The Ford Racing styling kit, previously offered in the limited edition XR8 Rebel, was offered in mainstream XR8 models.
- Mar 2002: Falcon SR limited edition. Falcon XR6 VCT ST limited edition with XR8 Rebel body kit and T-series 18-inch wheels.
- Sept 2002: BA announced. AUIII stocks still being cleared.
The new median price point is $10,000 for the base models with the last AU Series III examples fetching up to 50 per cent more and tired AU Series I Forte examples now well below. The real bargains are the upmarket Fairmont and Ghia models with their exclusive dash design and smarter appearance for only a modest premium over base models. The auto Fairmont Ghia with IRS was one of the most capable cars of its era and great buying under $20,000.
CHECK IT OUT
Most AU Falcons are prized for their higher clearance and go-anywhere ability compared to other family cars which means that some have sustained damage underneath. Check for damaged cross-members, cat converters, fuel tanks and other parts. The sedan's fold down back seat is more often used with the smaller AU boot so check the backs of the front seats and rear door trim for damage from a shifting load.
Front door hinges were not as substantial as they could have been so check for deterioration and dropped doors following a crash or hard usage. Front seats also sag with usage and will quickly make a lie of any false low mileage claims. The early interior trim marked and discoloured easily making it hard to disguise hard working examples.
During these desperate times, Ford resorted to painting some AU engine bays in matt black, hugely expensive to rectify. The side window seals on some early cars went a yellowy colour which should have been fixed under warranty.
AU Falcon software for the engine management computer is constantly upgraded for improved performance, economy and engine refinement. The latest upgrades should be added as a matter of course during service but if an AU has not seen a Ford service bay for several years, it may not have them. Consider a pre-purchase inspection at a Ford dealer when ECU upgrades and recalls can also be checked. Because any late model Falcon is a prime theft target, a check against Ford dealer records may also reveal inconsistencies in the vehicle's history not picked up by a registration check.
On LPG cars, look for a brand name or official Tickford LPG conversion carefully patched into the engine's EFI system otherwise excessive gas consumption will result. Check that the petrol system still works on dual fuel cars. A factory LPG-only option was announced in July 2001. All AU Falcon engines were developed for high mileages on LPG.
Do not ignore a noisy engine drive-belt tensioner as it will seize up and break the main drive belt which cuts out the power steering, alternator and water pump.
The auto was improved for AU and regarded as the best Falcon auto after ten years of refinement backed by cheap servicing and local parts. While it is long lived, it needs to be serviced and checked regularly.
Although the T5 manual was upgraded for the AU, it was not a successful match to early six cylinder models when it highlighted driveline lash and harshness. The last 220kW XR8 with the T5 manual is a highly desirable and sweet drive.
Even if the AU's big boost in engine rigidity reduced vibration and head gasket failure, a compression test is a must as the Series II switch to the latest aluminium radiator core with resin header tanks generated a string of radiator failures. Most should have been fixed by now under warranty.
The imported V8 was subject to lapses in quality, exacerbated by stockpiling after Windsor production ended. Check for rattly lifters, dropped valves and bore distortion and premature oil-burning. In later XR8 and T-series models, the V8 also suffered chronic fuel starvation under hard acceleration for which there now should be a fix.
Limited slip differentials were subject to a recall to counter a chatter. Check that this has been completed. The IRS is so grippy on XR8 and XR6 VCT models that diff failure is common after regular burnouts so walk away from any examples with rubber sprayed over the rear suspension components or excessive clunks in the driveline.
Suspension and brakes:
The AU's standard live axle rear suspension is more durable and suitable for heavy towing than its VT Commodore rival. Although it doesn't provide the same levels of grip over choppy surfaces, it doesn't suffer alignment or tyre wear problems. Front and rear shockers are the main wear point.
An AU wagon with its extended Fairlane wheelbase and tough leaf spring rear end is now recognised as an ideal tow car. The sedan-only independent rear suspension standard on the Ghia and certain XR models, optional on others, doesn't match the Commodore's plush ride as expected but its extra weight and superior geometry tie down the rear end like no Falcon before it. Its upper shocker mounts chop out over time.
The light live axle rear end and extra power of standard AU Falcons like live axle Commodores dictate higher quality tyres than required in a smaller front drive model. Even a modest tyre upgrade on the standard rims can deliver a big improvement in grip and ride.
Early AU brakes were marginal for the size and performance and pad and rotor wear can be high under stop-go suburban driving.
The AU was subject to several front suspension recalls generated by faulty parts from outside suppliers, not design faults. Ford dealers have concise records of which cars were affected so check that any example has not slipped through the system.
Technical data confirmed by Etheridge Ford service (03) 9298 3890