Right Car, Wrong Name?

Australia isn't warming to the ZB Commodore. Would a different name have helped?

The ZB Holden Commodore has been on sale in Australia for a few weeks now. Not that you'd notice. There aren't that many around. It's a significant car, and it's popularity or lack thereof says a lot about Australia's automotive preferences.

There was a time when the Holden Commodore was consistently one of Australia's two biggest selling cars. From its 1978 introduction to 1997, Commodore traded places with the Ford Falcon at the top of the Australian new car sales charts. It then held onto the number one spot until being usurped by the Toyota Corolla in 2009. Large car sales had begun falling in the 1990s. The first nail in the coffin was arguably the Mitsubishi Magna offering a credible four cylinder alternative to a big six for the first time ever. In the late 1990s, Australian families started buying 4WDs instead of station wagons. That was the impetus for Ford to develop the Territory, the first and only Australian SUV. As import tariffs were wound down, medium sedans more interesting than a Camry became affordable to more people. Then the fuel crisis hit and people started downsizing. By the time fuel prices began to fall, the SUV boom was in full swing and the Commodore's days were numbered.

The new Commodore an imported, front- or all wheel drive hatchback with no V8 or manual gearbox option. It's built by Opel, and barring local suspension tuning, is identical to an American Buick Regal. Opel and Vauxhall models don't get the V6. It represents a major departure from the Commodore tradition. Given the Commodore's sales trajectory it shouldn't come as too much suprise that it's no longer an Australian-made RWD V8 sedan. Even if it was still made in the, it was going to be based on GM’s Epsilon II platform. Commodore sales were simply too low to justify a RWD Zeta replacement. Using Epsilon II would have also allowed Holden to produce the Equinox in Australia.

The loss of the old Commodore has left a hole in the market, but it has become a rather small hole. With families now buying SUVs and fleets favouring more efficient four cylinder cars, only enthusiasts were left buying Commodores. As Holden has learned, the enthusiast market alone isn’t enough to prop up an affordable RWD sedan. Exporting it wouldn’t help. Americans have never bought sports sedans in big numbers and European fuel prices aren’t V8 friendly.

Holden admitted that the ZB Commodore won’t sell in the same numbers as the old VF. Competing in the medium market segment with more opposition than previous Commodores faced as a large car, that was never going to happen. However, the Commodore is struggling even relative to other mid-sizers. The cold reception of the ZB raises an important question that Holden should have asked itself. Who is supposed to buy it? The Commodore attracted four main types of buyer; enthusiasts, fleets, more traditionally or anti-SUV minded families and empty-nesters, and bogans. It’s debatable whether or not that last group actually bought many new Commodores.

For the enthusiast whose lifestyle has outgrown a hot hatch or coupe, there are still a number of choices. Choices they might have felt guilty about beforehand. The Kia Stinger springs immediately to mind. It’s not a perfect replacement, but it does a remarkably good job at exactly the right time. It’s certainly more convincing than a Chrysler 300. There's also the BMW 3 Series, Jaguar XE and Alfa Romeo Giulia among others. The Commodore VXR is just one of many options. Enthusiasts will hang on to Commodores bought new, but they won’t have too much trouble buying a new car. Will that car be a VXR? Maybe. Trouble is it ;lacks a USP. It handles terrifically, but so do the Europeans and they come with more badge cred. It’s not nearly as fast as a Stinger either. The rear wheel drive Stinger is also very much the purist’s choice over the VXR.

Australian enthusiasts no longer have to worry about buying Australian

Australian enthusiasts no longer have to worry about buying Australian

Enthusiasts will find somewhere else to go, but bogans may be left with nothing. I’m referring here to people who cannot fathom driving anything not made in Australia. The sort of people who refuse to call the new Commodore a Commodore, when, like it or not, it’s a Commodore. They might settle for something American, but bogans are fiercely (and strangely) loyal to faceless multinational corporations. A GM-affiliated bogan isn't going to buy a Mustang just because it's the only RWD V8 manual car under $100k. They wouldn’t dare buy a Ford. Bogans, often being casual racists and/or cynical of anything new, aren’t going to warm to the Kia Stinger either.

Your more typical working-class bogan has never, and probably will never, buy a new car. Their preferences are irrelevant to car manufacturers, so Holden couldn’t really give a toss that they’ll supposedly never buy an imported or FWD car. Cashed-up bogans could certainly afford a new Commodore, but they won't buy them. They're increasingly buying heavily accessorised dual cab utes. The Holden Colorado SportsCat by HSV is more likely to appeal to them than the new Commodore. With the mining boom all but over, cashed-up bogans are in short supply anyway.

Existing medium car drivers might not go for it either. The bogan Commodore loyalists who couldn't afford a new car were and will remain a hindrance to Commodore sales. The name Commodore has become increasingly associated with the sort of people who wear ugg boots in public. Middle class families will $40k to spend on a new car don't particularly want to tell their friends they own a Commodore. Especially those who might like the new Commodore. Telling people you've bought a Mazda6 is going to earn you more respect these days. A lack of brand awareness is another problem facing the ZB Commodore. Holden very publicly “killed-off” the Commodore last year. There are some people I know who aren’t aware that you can buy a new Commodore. The ZB’s presence in Supercars, Australia’s fourth most watched sport, would help, but they are still probably missing a large part of the ZB’s key market. Combine this with limited awareness of the ZB’s other two predecessors, Malibu and Insignia VXR, and Holden isn’t a name on the minds of mid--size buyers.

This is what the Commodore has come to represent

This is what the Commodore has come to represent

Has Holden shot itself in the foot retaining the Commodore name? They would appear to have a car that appeals to one group of people, with a name that appeals to a completely different group. Both groups, traditional medium buyers and traditional Commodore buyers are getting thin on the ground. Would Holden have been better off reviving the Vectra? It's far more recognisable than Insignia and far more respectable than Camira, Malibu and Epica. Calais might have been a better. Holden’s sales slump will inevitably lead to calls for not just the Commodore, but the entire Holden brand to be dumped in favour of Chevrolet, Buick and GMC. This would only compound the problem. Holden’s public image may fall short of the likes of Mazda, Subaru or even Hyundai, but it’s still better than Chevrolet’s would be. The American brands presently operating in Australia, Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge, aren’t exactly by-words for quality. Making matters worse for Chevrolet in Australia, most people associate it with bogans sticking Chev badges on ancient Commodores.

For what it is, the ZB Commodore is a good car. It could sell as well as any other mid-size car in Australia, as long as Holden can get the marketing right. The Australian public, meanwhile, needs to get it’s collective head around the idea that things change.

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Comments (9)

  • Great article. I may have said this before, but as a car, the new Commodore is undoubtedly better. The trouble is in all the attached strings, which a name change would have done away with. All that said, the first Commodore was very different from the Kingswood, and history has judged that change kindly.

      2 years ago
    • I agree, the ZB in most respects, and especially as a base model, is a better car than the VF. A lot of the criticism it's receiving could have been avoided with a different name. If Holden could produce a more powerful VXR there'd be nothing...

      Read more
        2 years ago
    • The bogan's salvation rests in HSV...

        2 years ago
  • Brilliant article. Well put. Perhaps they should have dumped commodore as a name. Been thinking that myself. A great car lost.

      2 years ago
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