Holden Commodore SS 1989-2006: Buyers' Guide

By: Cliff Chambers

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Sourcing a used Commodore SS is as easy as falling off a log. Tracking down a decent one? That's a bit trickier. Here are some of Cliff Chambers' notes...

 

1989-2006 Holden Commodore SS

Throughout the North American muscle car era, any Chevrolet with potential to perform came with a SS version somewhere in its model range.

Australia took until 1972 before finding space in its range for an SS model. Even then it was nothing especially interesting; just a low-budget, 4.2-litre limited-production addition to the HQ range. A decade later the designation popped up again as part of the VH Commodore range and as a series-production platform for Peter Brock’s HDT versions.

Finally in 1989 Holden found space in the VN and subsequent series for an ongoing SS. Standard fare in the VN was a 165kW 5.0-litre V8 with skirts, alloy rims and a very understated boot spoiler.

1989-Holden -Commodore -VN-SS_01-658

Sadly for some – although not fixit guru David Morley who has sourced an excellent VN – early SS Commodores have been ignored almost to the point of extinction. Of equal concern is that the money being paid for excellent survivors is probably insufficient to justify saving cars that are suffering a major mechanical fault. A highlight was the VP, which got much-needed IRS which brought handling into the Commodore’s repertoire.

The mid-’90s saw the VR and VS SS that were quiet achievers in many regards, but overshadowed by the blue-blooded competition. That said, down-low grunt from the 185i’s 400Nm was hard to ignore and you’re hard-pressed to find a tidy one now, too.

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June 1999 saw a VT II version of the Commodore announced and Holden taking the opportunity to side-line its long-serving 5.0-litre V8. In its place was an imported LS1 engine that upped power output by 15 per cent to a hefty 220kW.

Holden unpacked and slotted the 5.7-litre into the VT II engine bay.

The 446Nm of torque was a bit much for the old five-speed Getrag so VT IIs were supplied with a six-speed Tremec manual or the familiar T700 four-speed auto.

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Despite the improved specification and performance, SS prices were pulled back a little and declined further to mark the replacement of sales tax with GST. The VX version introduced during 2000 with a 5kW performance boost was cheaper again. However, this price-slashing wouldn’t continue forever.

Each new SS from the VX II onwards brought a replenished bag of goodies with which to tempt devotees and converts, accompanied by minor price increases. These would eventually push the cost of an auto-tranny VZ to more than $51,000, however sales remained encouraging for Holden.

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From late 2000 there had been an SS utility as well. Designated VU, the SS load-carrier shared its 225kW motor with the VX sedan. Manual transmission was listed as standard, with the auto an option. Standard wheels were 17 inch, independent rear suspension and a limited-slip diff included.

SS utes were show ponies not workhorses. Their role was to get you to the job on time while some yob in a Hilux carted the gear. Maximum payload for a VU-VZ was 665kg and tow capacity an inadequate 1200kg.

For a brief period (May 2003-04) there was also an SS station wagon, based on the VY and VY II. Only 250 were made, colours were in black or red and they came with leather trim featuring patterned inserts and door trims to match.

VZ_holden _SS-Commodore _2005_1-658

The Commodore body shape had changed hardly at all since the days of the VR and by the mid-2000s was looking dull. Holden’s impending VE was also a secret to almost no one, so to maintain interest until the new design was ready, the VZ V8 was tweaked again to achieve the magic 250kW. New 18-inch alloys, revamped body plastics, some eye-catching colours plus brake assist and electronic brake force distribution were added to the SS goodie-bag.

Switchable traction control and ABS brakes, numerous air-bags and other safety features should have given the VZ a boost to its safety ranking. However, some significant cabin deformation in crash testing and the risk of driver chest injury in side and offset impacts saw it restricted to Four Stars.

Those who peer around the VE’s massive ‘A’ pillars have to cope every day Holden’s response.

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ON THE ROAD

The age of the Great Aussie V8 is rapidly approaching its finale and if you haven’t already owned one now might be the time. Cars like the SS certainly drag their draughthorse-sized hooves when pitted against European models in terrain which favours the Euros. But throw in some corrugations on an unsealed back-road or try rounding up a semi on one of our ridiculously short passing lanes and the clunky, grunty Holden is your guy.

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Without sounding too parochial the SS also boasts durability and servicing costs which will make owners of more complex products from the Northern Hemisphere wince. Back when the VZ SS was new, Holden was quoting four hours and $170 for a 10,000km service. Almost anyone with a hoist can work on a V8 Holden without getting too confused.

While considering the suitability of the SS for running in isolated areas, do remember that these cars with their low-profile tyres still don’t have a huge amount of clearance. Add the weight of a few passengers and they can drag that fairly costly exhaust along the ground.

Holden say that the LS1 motor will happily deliver its quoted power output when fed a diet of basic 91 Octane fuel, however SS models seem happier on 95 Premium.

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Most cars in the market are four-speed automatics which deliver their performance with little fuss and almost no driver effort. They also like fuel a little more than the manual and will in the suburbs use 14-16l/100km. Highway running with the six-speed’s extraordinary 61km/h per 1000rpm top gear should see the trip computer slipping into the 9l/100k range.

Six-speed manuals are less common on the used market and not unpleasant to use. However the shift-action does take some effort and a heavy clutch is not what you want to be pumping in stop-start traffic. However, for those in the market for rapid acceleration, a six-speed is the 'box to choose.

Road tests of a manual VZ clocked 0-100km/h in 5.9 seconds and a standing 400 metre time of 14.1. That was a tenth better than the same magazine extracted from a more powerful R8 Clubsport. Leaving the 'box in second when overtaking saw the Z series slash its way from 80-110km/h in a tick over three seconds.

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If you’re looking to impress the family with some old-style V8 rumble and lots of bright objects then VY-VZ models have got you well covered.

Basic cars are trimmed in cloth, with leather a common option.

Seats adjust electrically, the sound system is good for a car of this kind and climate-control air was standard from mid-2005.

Early cars with smaller alloy wheels and taller tyres will totter about to varying degrees when cornered hard. The VZ on low-profile 18s move about somewhat less than a 1990s version but those wanting a genuinely taut cornering experience need to spend some money at the suspension shop. Even when devoting space to a full-sized spare wheel, boot space in any of these cars is excellent.

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BUYING AN SS

Familiarity breeds contempt and that seems very much to be the fate of Aussie V8s built since the ‘chrome bumper’ era came to an end.

Early SS Commodores are becoming difficult to find, as are parts unique to the model. Full restoration is said to cost $40,000, however the amount a doting owner is likely to recoup when selling is $16-20,000.

Given how cheaply cars in ordinary condition are – $5000 for a decent VR-VT, double that for a VY – a lot will be bought with short-term fun in mind and not for preservation. That’s a shame and doesn’t bode well for survival of these quite significant cars.

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If you are looking at long-term ownership then authenticity and extremely low kilometres are the factors to consider. Paint needs to be original and largely undamaged, trim well-kept with no rips to cloth or cracked leather and all the electric/electronic features have got to work. You will only spend double the price of an ordinary car ($20K as opposed to $10K) for one of significant quality.

VY SS wagons were built in limited numbers and are scarce but not yet collectible. In fact, an excellent SS wagon will cost only 15 per cent more than sedans of similar age.

Kilometre readings seem to influence SS ute values more significantly than they do sedans or even wagons. A couple of SS Thunder two-seaters were sighted showing fewer than 60,000 kilometres and priced well above $20,000. Conversely, decent-looking VU-VYs on the wrong side of 300,000k were selling for under $7000.

BUYER'S CHECKLIST

Body & Chassis

Limited clearance when negotiating speed-bumps or climbing a gutter makes low-slung Commodores susceptible to crushed sills and cracked plastics. Inconsistent bumper and bonnet gaps can signify poor-quality panel repairs. Look from underneath for chassis rail repairs and areas of floor-pan showing recent work. Replacement body panels are still available at fair prices – new bonnets at around $300, utility tailgates for $250 and complete quarter panels for sedans at less than $400. If you’re considering long-term SS ownership, storing away a few panels at current prices could prove a canny investment. Pitted and discoloured headlight covers should trigger a failure at the roadworthy station but a lot of cars are getting around with compromised lighting.

Engine & Transmission

Any V8 available to the VN-VZ series will be impressively reliable. As time passes the LS1 import will be easier to maintain because so many were sold in the USA and spares will remain available for decades to come. Check for overheating by letting the car idle after test-driving, switching off for a while then restarting. Clutch life varies according to use but 80,000 kilometres should be possible. Cars with a mushy pedal need the hydraulics overhauled but stay away where gears are difficult to select and acceleration sends vibrations through the gearlever. Automatics that slur changes or jump from 2nd straight to 4th need an overhaul.

Suspension & Brakes

Worn bushes cause front-end clunks and wavering steering response. Be careful too of a car that rolls, bounces and wants to dig its nose in when cornering. Commodore V8s are hard on front shocks so buy quality replacements. Check rear tyres on IRS cars for edge wear which indicates alignment issues and perhaps more costly problems.

Interior & Electrics

Cracks and missing stitching can generate a hefty bill at the trimmer so pick a car that has been well-maintained. Leaks from the heating system or poor windscreen sealing will create damp, smelly carpets and eventually promote rust. Make sure that the headlining isn’t coming loose above the back seat. Faulty air conditioners can prove costly. Check power windows for shuddering and the power seats’ willingness to adjust.


SPECIFICATIONS

HOLDEN COMMODORE SS

NUMBER MADE: N/A
BODY: integrated body/chassis four-door sedan & station wagon, two-door utility
ENGINE: 4987cc or 5665cc V8, ohv, fuel-injected
POWER & TORQUE: 250kW @ 5600rpm, 470Nm @ 4800rpm (VZ SS)
PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h: 5.9 seconds, 0-400 metres 14.1 seconds (VZ SS manual)
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual, 4-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: Independent with struts, control arms and coil springs (f); independent with trailing arms, coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES: Discs with power assistance & ABS
TYRES: 235/40/ZR18 radial (VZ)
PRICE RANGE: $2500-27,000
CONTACT: Holden Clubs in all States www.vnssclub.com

 

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