CAP goes Down Under to look at the large family car sector, where Australian designers are the undisputed experts in the segment
T H E B I G Australian car received a renaissance in August 1997 with the arrival of General Motors' Holden Commodore. Last month, Ford unveiled its counter-attack in the form of the new Falcon, with up-to-the-minute "New Edge" styling. Both are big cars - big in the traditional sense: they are around 1,850 mm wide.
CAP decided to examine the new models as they signal new trends for large-car automotive design.
The cars are significant. Although Australia may be a long way away from many readers, it is the only country in the world which puts such efforts into big cars, more so than the United States.
Australians have developed the cars for such a low cost that GM and Ford bosses have plenty of change from $1 billion.
Above The Holden Commodore, as released through the Holden Special Vehicles division. Even with a body kit and specification enhancements the elegant shape is apparent. Don't be fooled by the photograph: the car is almost 4.9 metres in length and 1.84 metres wide, riding 17-inch wheels. Below Ford's counter-offensive came in the form of the Ford Falcon and Fairmont models on September 3. Here, the big-grille Fairmont Sedan features Ford's "New Edge" styling.
Australia is one of the most competitive big-car markets in the world. Both Commodore and Falcon rank consistently in the top ten in both Australia and New Zealand sales' charts. Because of the competition within a small population, their respective managements have had to distinguish the designs more effectively than their counterparts at, say, BMW or Mercedes-Benz have had to do.
The export potential means, firstly, that they are world-class cars designed to compete with luxury models from the premium German manufacturers, and secondly, both cars will influence the styles of some of their smaller brethren. With global policies in place at both GM and Ford, they also provide clues to the thinking behind the 2000 and 2001 model year automobiles to emerge from American and European factories.
While outside the United States, big cars don't often get longer than five metres, they are wide and roomy Down Under. The wheelbases are usually longer and the cars have less overhang. As a result, the automobiles appear mid-sized in photographs. It is only when you see it in the metal that you realize the bulk: the wheelbase on the station wagons exceed 2,930 mm.
This is the country where the V8 never died, where gas is cheap and the sedan-based pickup is a staple form of transport. Both the Ford and Holden stick to the traditional family car principle: big, rear-wheel-drive and available with nothing less than a V6. There's a stock 180 kW V8 version. You can almost hear American highway patrol officers salivate, for these cars are more advanced than the separate-chassis Ford Crown Victoria. Law enforcement packages in Australia give it better handling, while 17-inch tyres are standard on higher models.
Both Commodore and Falcon are the first all-Australian cars to benefit from computer-aided engineering. Sharing data between designers has enabled both companies to bring their cars to market more quickly than with the models they replace. Additionally, both teams were influenced by the directions of their American and European counterparts.
Holden's design director Mike Simcoe worked on Buick and Cadillacs while in the United States and incorporated some of his experience on concept work in the 1998 Commodore.
Examining the drawings of Holden designers, one finds
some wonderfully creative proposals for radical cars which could have been. However, part of the brief was to provide the cars with a General Motors family look, and, secondly, the 1998 Commodore must have visual connections to its predecessors, dating back to 1978.
Above Some of our favourite, space-age proposals from the GM Design Centre in Australia. While many proposals were developments on the Opel Omega (GM 2800) theme, these two were a departure. The sedan, at top, has some of the flow of the 1972 Kingswood, regarded as one of Holden's most beautiful automobiles. The wagon, bottom, has rear bumper and tailgate in a contrasting colour.
Management clinicked the proposals and decided upon a version which resembles - although no panels are shared - the Opel/Vauxhall Omega/Cadillac Catera on steroids.
The base, small-tyred models look uncomfortable from some angles. Which is not to say that the Commodore isn't handsome - the design job is professional and pleasant, and more contemporary and flowing than the Omega. The cars are not a huge step forward from the Omega, although it would be fair to say they are clean and 'elegant' - the latter adjective applied even by Ian Callum, the designer of the Aston Martin DB7, considered to be one of the most beautiful automobiles in the world.
In contrast to its predecessor, which emphasized glass area, the high waistline on the Commodore gives it a robust appearance - vital not only because of a design trend started by the 1987 Audi 80, but because of an Australian market which demands the appearance of strength, even though 95 per cent of Commodore and Falcon buyers are urban.
What will truly sell the Commodore is quality. Designers can create exciting shapes but the car will not be bought in today's increasingly competitive market if the quality is not present. Holden has ensured that, using the BMW 5-series as a handling and quality benchmark, that its new big car can compete in the luxury sector successfully if exported. It was conceived, at one stage, to be a Buick as well as a Holden, although the United Automobile Workers' union was set against it. If it had not been for this, one could see the Commodore positioned along the lines of the Buick Le Sabre.
Today, it is sold in the Middle East as the Chevrolet Lumina LT and LTZ - and quality-, practicality-, handling- and style-wise, it does greater credit to the badge than the American-designed and built model.
General Motors cannot sit comfortably. It enjoyed a one-year honeymoon between the launch of the Commodore and Ford's new Falcon.
Above The production Holden Commodore Acclaim, the base model. While handsome and elegant, it is not a huge step forward from the æsthetics of the Opel Omega, and the grille is too reminiscent of its predecessor
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