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Review | 09.11.2013 - 23:07

Used Car Review: Holden VR Commodore / Caprice / Statesman

A review of the Australian 1993 - 1995 Holden VR Commodore, Caprice and Statesman. Also sold in New Zealand.
Holden VR Commodore
Photo by Richard Lewis.

The Holden Commodore VR is a well built vehicle based upon the older VN / VP series Commodores previously sold between 1988 and 1993. The vehicle was given a redesign front and rear externally and inside the door trims and dashboard were remodeled to give a more modern appearance.

 

Behind this, we find the same engine from the VN / VP series, a 3.8 litre LN3 Buick V6 Engine (Rear mounted for those unfortunate americans who were forced to use this in front wheel drive models). The engine is reliable however can be prone to overheating, headgasket problems are common so cooling improvements and maintenance should be focused upon if you own a v6 model.

 

For the higher end models, a V8 option was also available, this engine was taken from the VN / VP series with a few small changes, the block itself is much older, coming from the 1970's Kingswood range. The engine used in this car is known as the 304 EFI Holden V8, however in the kingswoods this engine was known as the 5 litre 308 Holden V8. The V8 is a bulletproof engine when maintained well, general servicing is all it will need and examples of these 304 series EFI models have shown over 500,000km's while the engine still wants to carry on without an issue. They are well built, the EFI upgrade on them is strong and although the basis of the engine is very old, the engine fits well with the VR series.

 

The cars use what is known as the Turbo 700 or T700 automatic transmission, these are a 4 speed automatic as used in many american models. The transmission is very strong, however not bulletproof. The problem with these comes as the bands are unable to be adjusted, meaning that if they aren't serviced at regular intervals (every 20,000kms), the bands will begin to slip not long afterwards. Once the slippage occurs, if the gearbox is left in this manner the bands will begin to burn out, the consequence being that once slippage begins, it can not be fixed without rebuilding the gearbox. Gearbox rebuilds are fairly low cost for these gearboxes so it may not be a serious issue, however it is best to maintain the gearbox rather than simply aim to rebuild.

 

Also offered was an optional 5 Speed manual transmission, also known as the Borg-Warner T5 Transmission. These gearboxes were very strong and reliable, if you are in the market for a manual these gearboxes were some of the strongest manuals offered in the Holden range. As such failures are very uncommon and you shouldn't need to worry about these gearboxes furthermore than a general clutch and bearing change every 120,000kms or so.

 

Braking in these cars can be a bit of an issue. The booster feel in this model is strange, much worse than the older VN / VP Series. I am unusre why this is however some changes may have been made, the introduction of ABS may be the problem, as the booster and master were taken from the earlier models before ABS was introduced. The problem is simply that the pedal feel is strange, and when pressed heavily the brake pedal can basically touch the floor. When heavy braking, even before the pedal hits the floor you can feel the ABS engage, so the problem is mainly to do with feel not performance. In saying this, the cars do have serious problems when being driven in heavy duty type situations, after a sudden stop brake fade is very common if using standard brake pads, it is always recommended for these cars that a "performance" or "heavy duty" set of 4 brake pads are used even in regular driving conditions, in order to maintain safety. The standard brake pads simply don't hold up well in a car of this size and weight.

 

Fuel economy, basically if you are worried about rising petrol costs however are not a fan of LPG, then give this car a miss completely. The economy is not great at all, and 15L per 100km is common of both the V6 and the V8. If driven mildly and the engines serviced regularly, including new spark plugs and leads, then the economy can be around 11L per 100km, which isn't so bad. To avoid large costs, look at installing a new generation LPG system, known as liquid injection LPG. This system provides the exact same power as petrol however at half the running cost, the LPG is injected in liquid form directly into the cylinder head and is controlled by a totally separate LPG computer, meaning that the engine can be tuned specifically for LPG while still retaining proper operation when switching back to petrol.

 

Interior wise, the inside of the car is very nicely designed, the design is simple but effective and feels fairly modern, not too cheap but not expensive either. The seats are well made and very comfortable, the dashboard instruments are clear and easy to read / understand. Climate control and other options such as cruise control are simple to adjust, the downside of these cars is there was no cup holders installed, not a big problem for some, but still it is an option that can be added using aftermarket sources.

 

Parts availability: as the car was very common and hundreds of thousands were sold, gathering second hand or even some remanufactured parts is fairly easy. These cars however are starting to come of age, and as such parts availability is quickly slowing down. If you plan on owning one of these cars, buy one now and restore it before parts availability becomes an issue. For more information on parts and repair processes, download the VR Commodore Workshop Manual.

 

The car has downsides, economy wise and brakes specifically, however both can be solved without much of an issue.

 

The fact the engines were bolted in from other vehicles means that access to engine components can be heavily restricted, espeically in the V8 where it is almost impossible to change the coil and distributor as they are hidden under the firewall. However the parts used in the 304 EFI were designed to last a lifetime for this specific reason.

 

The interior could have done with an upgrade, certainly the Series 3 VS commodores produced a few years after the VR are much nicer, especially when it comes to the Statesman and Caprice models.

 

Exterior wise the car presents well, the VR is a tidy and respectable car.

Suspension wise: The VR did not come with IRS except in the Statesman and Caprice models. The IRS in these models is strong and well built, however was never properly suited to the car, hence there is some issues such as the inability to adjust the rear suspension angle (aftermarket kits are available to correct this) and sometimes excessive inside tyre wear.

 

On the other hand, the lower model Commodore / Calais with a solid rear differential also had a fair share of problems, the worst being that on some, the rear differential would snap off the body of the car, rendering the car useless and unable to be fixed without a complete rebrace of the rear tub. IRS never had these issues so the Statesman / Caprice is the preferred car to own.

 

Overall the car is a great everyday car, and if you are willing to spend money to get the brake booster professionally upgraded, along with fitting performance brake pads (at the very least) then it could make a very good performance car. Corvette brake upgrades are available for this model too, meaning that the brake issues could permanently become a thing of the past. The V6 does not respond well to modifications, about the only thing the V6 can do is when you buy a supercharged model, the pulley can be upgraded in order to gain more boost. For the N/A 6 cylinder, don't bother building one up for performance, either bolt on a supercharger kit or just buy a EFI V8 model and go from there.

 

For a wealth of performance / modification information on the VR Commodore / Calais / Statesman and Caprice, visit the forums at http://forums.justcommodores.com.au. Most members will be happy to assist you with questions about the car, and help you with maintenance information in the future should you purchase a Holden VR for your next car or as a project car.

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