Q. So let's start at the beginning - the Sportwagon was planned at pretty much the same time as the sedan, and it is very closely matched. Was the brief to essentially replicate the sedan in wagon form? And why the long wait?
Actually, the story is more like this: when we are framing up a new architecture, we scope out all the possible variants that we think are viable, i.e. SWB Sedan, LWB Sedan, Ute, Coupe, Wagon, Crewman, et cetera.
This is followed by some initial packaging studies with the principal objective to design the mainstream donor vehicle (Commodore) in order to enable all the derivatives. This will include Engineering studies, package drawings and scale models, even full size clay models.
The underbody and other common components need to 'flex' into other bodystyles. When we are satisfied with this groundwork, we 'park' them and focus on the mainstream. It isn't feasible to run many programs simultaneously, so they are staggered to balance the workload.
Q: Hence the long wait for the Wagon... Why was a different design direction so important for the VE variant?
A: I was also involved with the VT-VZ wagon bodystyle and am still proud of it. It was a very popular wagon for a long time and still makes for a great secondhand family car.
It certainly met its objectives, which was to be the most spacious fleet and family wagon. It was fit for purpose at the time but subsequently the popularity of SUVs started to erode the retail sales of wagons for families - ultimately, 90% of wagons were fleet purchases.
So when we considered a replacement we studied various options, including the SUV scenario - but we had many SUV options available to us in the GM portfolio (we had already signed up for Captiva, which is a really good 7-seat package) so we didn't think the world needed yet another
We analysed the buying habits of SUV owners and conducted focus group studies on the Wagon vs. SUV. As we all know, most SUVs don't go off road but people like the functionality and active lifestyle image. Conversely, large wagons were considered only for the load carrying capacity.
Since SUVs are generally smaller than large wagons, it became evident buyers were prepared to trade some outright space for functionality and image.
We felt we could achieve the same objectives with a stylish Sportwagon, so we focused our energies into balancing those essential elements of style and space.
The key was right-sizing the package to hit the sweet spot between form and function. Some people have a genuine need for SUVs, but now we finally have an affordable Euro-style Sportwagon as a sensible and stylish alternative.
Q: You owned and drove the previous VZ wagon for a while; did anything about your time with the car make you determined to amend its design in the VE?
Truth is, I have been driving a wagon bodystyle for 20 years. I currently have one of the last Adventras in the Holden fleet because I am hanging out for the Sportwagon!
We have kids, a dog and a weekender shack on the coast so we have always had the need for a practical vehicle.
I could easily have been one of the respondents to the focus groups because I fit in the demographic for this type of vehicle. Personally, I rather like the classy feel of the Calais V but I expect the SV6 to be the popular choice. It looks great and I think it would appeal to both mums and dads. It looks sporty without being overt.
This is a great family car - If you don't go off road and you don't need seven seats, you should take a good look at this car.
Q: Wagons aren't usually sexy or exciting - you said so yourself. What makes this Sportwagon different?
A: The essence of any well styled car is in the proportion and stance. Think of it this way: real estate agents spruik Position, Position, Position; designers will tell you Proportion, Proportion, Proportion. In any language the VE has classic proportions.
A long wheelbase with short overhangs, tight muscular bum and athletic stance - these are the intangibles of a well-styled modern car. Our objective was to maintain the same VE Sedan underbody and overall length to preserve the great proportions and driving dynamics.
Q: Was the reduction of space in the total cargo area (from VZ) a real concern, and how did Holden justify losing 700-odd litres of volume?
The reduction of volume from the VZ wagon only seems significant because you are comparing with a very high baseline. Remember, the VT/VZ Commodore wagon, along with Falcon, were the biggest wagons in the world! Not even the Americans build large wagons anymore, and the popular European wagons are certainly not as big.
Although smaller than before, the new Sportwagon is still one of the biggest wagons on the market - the floorspace is bigger than most SUVs, extending to two metres with the seats folded, which is about the same as a LandCruiser. The appearance is very deceptive and frankly I consider that the triumph of design - it appears small and compact on the outside but is surprisingly large inside. This is the pursuit of any designer, because it is the indicator of efficiency.
The perception is that the rear space looks small is an illusion achieved through a combination of factors. Firstly the VE wheelbase is quite long which allows for very short overhangs. Secondly, the tyre diameter is greater than VT/VZ which, combined with the pronounced wheel arches, chews up body mass. Throw in the longer doors, raked beltline and swept roofline and it all hangs together beautifully and deceptively.
Even our fleet operators have embraced the new proportion because it still delivers plenty of space but moreover they are excited by the styling and car-like ride and handling. After all, the company car also becomes the family car so drivers still want to enjoy the experience.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of designing this variant?
It wasn't a particularly difficult car to design because we have a great springboard coming off the VE sedan proportions. The challenge was a matter of finding the right balance between style and space because they are both essential buying factors.
We didn't invent the Sportwagon concept but I believe we have created one of the best examples of this bodystyle.
Q: Walk us through the hatch-like hinge: was it a big challenge?
A major styling element of the Sportwagon is the roofline that sweeps down after the B pillar. This gives the car that sleek, sporty silhouette.
To compliment the fast roofline we pushed the hinge point well forward into the roof - almost like a hatchback. This delivers two significant benefits: the larger opening improves accessibility allowing better reach into the car without bumping your head, and secondly it provides a more vertical tailgate opening arc, which requires less space behind the car in tight spaces - only 268mm.
Q: Do you think the Sportwagon will help Commodore to pinch back the No. 1 spot from the Toyota Corolla?
A: Our Marketing guys expect to regain some market share with the Sportwagon in the mix, which should consolidate Commodore in its rightful place as Australia's favourite car.
Some people will continue to challenge the relevance of this size car but this is an uninformed view. Not everyone can manage to fit their families into small cars.
There is nothing indulgent about transporting our families in a safe, sensible, comfortable car. We all need to find the right balance and this car has been pared down to a pragmatic solution to family motoring with a healthy dose of style.
Car companies don't own oil fields so I can assure you, they are all working their collective butts off to improve the efficiency of engines and to find affordable, alternative powertrains. There are a lot of smart people working on it so if there were a single silver bullet it would have been loaded in the chamber by now.
We can expect lots of fresh ideas coming.
- Holden Sportwagon
LAUNCH PAD: Holden Sportwagon
OFFICIAL PRESS RELEASE: VE Holden Sportwagon Design Overview
Richard Ferlazzo, Chief Designer, GM Holden
• The essence of any well-styled car is the proportion and stance. The VE sedan has this in spades - wheels in the corners with short overhangs. Sportwagon uses the same VE short wheelbase underbody.
• The VE wheelbase fits nicely between the previous VZ SWB and LWB, so we found we could maintain the great proportions and driving dynamics of the sedan, yet still deliver a spacious cargo area.
• We swept the roofline down to give it a sleek, sporty silhouette. It was a matter of finding the right balance between style and space.
• To complement the fast roofline, we slid the tailgate hinge point well forward into the roof - almost like a hatchback.
• This delivers two significant benefits. It improves accessibility by allowing better reach into the vehicle - and it provides a more vertical tailgate opening action, which requires less clearance behind the car, only 268mm.
• The result is a fresh looking, functional body style.
• From the side and rear three-quarter it is sleek and athletic. The rear is muscular and purposeful.
• It is the same length as the sedan yet one of the most spacious wagons on the market.
• Inside, Sportwagon's re-engineered rear end structure and its 60/40 split rear seats provide a virtually flat load floor.
• With the rear seats folded down flat, the bed length extends to almost 2 metres.
You can still sleep in the back of a wagon.
• Sportwagon also boasts the largest amount of rear head room out of all VE variants as well as increased rear knee and leg room when compared with VZ.
• The cargo space - 895 litres with the seats up and 2000 litres with the seats down - is complemented by a number of functional features in the rear compartment.
• These include a cargo blind that slides up the D pillar.
• The cargo blind allows easy access to the rear storage area without having to fully release the blind.
• Other storage features include:
» Two retractable shopping bag hooks
» Four floor tie down hooks
» 12 volt power outlet
» Four quarter trim tie hooks
» Multiple position luggage net (Calais and Calais V)
» Low-mounted cargo lamp
• I will say, we are very proud of the outcome - and it is not often a designer gets excited about a wagon! But the positive response has indeed been gratifying.
• Holden fleet operators have also embraced the re-positioning of the wagon, because it still delivers plenty of space and they're excited by the sophisticated styling and its car-like ride and handling.