Luxury Holdens are now equal to the best in the world. Bill McKinnon, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16/03/07 Holden's Statesman-Caprice duo and the Ford Fairlane-LTD rivals dominated the luxury car landscape a decade ago, racking up nearly 10,000 sales in 1996. That was when company car fleets operated to a simple, long-standing formula. The underlings drove Commodores and Falcons, middle managers got Berlinas and Fairmonts and the boss swanned around in a Statesman-Caprice or Fairlane-LTD, depending upon whether he was a Ford or Holden man. Fast forward to 2006, with sales reaching only 4000 or so (about 3000 Statesman-Caprice; 1000 Fairlane-LTD), and these home-town heroes are struggling for relevance in an Australian market that has embraced affordable imports, is nervous about fuel prices and seemingly no longer seduced by the "big car for a big country" pitch. Ford's Fairlane, reliant on domestic sales alone, is struggling. The nameplate may not survive beyond the current model. However, Holden's Statesman-Caprice has developed into one of Australia's strongest automotive exports. In the Middle East it's sold as a four-model range, badged as the Chevrolet Caprice. Holden hopes to sell about 20,000 cars overall in 2007. The VE Commodore's wheelbase has been lengthened by 94mm to produce the WM Statesman-Caprice. It's more than 5.1 metres long and weighs in at 1.8-1.9 tonnes. These numbers are comparable with a BMW 7 Series or a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, an analogy relevant in other areas too, as we'll see. The 195kW, 340Nm, 3.6-litre V6, five-speed auto Caprice costs $65,990 - $4700 less than the previous model. The 270kW, 530Nm, 6.0-litre V8, six-speed auto costs $69,990 - a $5400 price drop. The Statesman is available with the same drivetrains, at $58,990 and $62,990 respectively. It includes leather upholstery, six airbags, stability control, front and rear parking sensors, rain-sensing wipers, in-dash six-stack CD, 11-speaker audio system and Bluetooth connectivity. The Caprice is full of gear, with 10-way power-adjustable sports seats, upholstered in leather and suede, a Bose premium audio system, remote-control three-screen DVD, tri-zone automatic air-conditioning, bi-xenon headlights, visual parking warnings at both ends and tyre pressure monitoring. Both models have a full-sized spare on an alloy wheel. The 3.6 V6, five-speed drivetrain has more than enough performance by any objective measure but the 6.0 V8, six-speed is worth the extra $4000. You're never in doubt that it is pushing a heavy mass yet this engine delivers huge bottom-end grunt, hammer-like top-end performance and endless, effortless, smooth urge between these two extremes. It drives the Statesman-Caprice to 100kmh in only 6.6 seconds - mighty quick for nearly two tonnes' worth and line ball with a 285kW, 5.5-litre V8 Mercedes S500. The six-speed auto is busy and nicely attuned to pedal movement. It's less refined than the ZF transmission used in some European makes and the Fairlane, with some low-gear shift shock and occasional indecisiveness - but Sport mode means what it says. Most six-figure luxury limos today have adaptive suspensions which can be adjusted, automatically or according to the driver's preference, to deliver a variety of ride and handling characteristics. Holden, however, has to sell the Statesman-Caprice for less than $70,000, so it cannot yet afford to include this relatively expensive hardware. Instead, it gives buyers a choice. As with the top-of-the-line short-wheelbase Calais V, it fits the Caprice with lowered suspension, firm springs, relatively heavy dampers and 18-inch alloys with 245/45 Bridgestone RE050A tyres. The Statesman runs a softer, lightly damped, longer-travel set-up and 17-inch alloys with 225/55 Bridgestone Turanza rubber. Despite its size and weight, the Caprice can be driven quickly and confidently on our patchy country roads. The handling-oriented suspension delivers outstanding control and the Bridgestones provide strong grip. Its steering is precise, has lots of feel and is consistent. The Caprice turns in with the responsiveness and accuracy of a smaller car. Braking power, progression and pedal-feel are excellent. The Statesman is also a secure handler on the open road. However, its lighter damping takes longer to arrest body movement, while body roll and understeer in tighter corners and when changing direction quickly are much more pronounced than in the Caprice. The Statesman, though, glides over the roughest bitumen with imperious grace, a characteristic now forsaken in most luxury sedans in favour of sports-flavoured handling. To this end, Holden has taken the Caprice's ride quality to the edge of what many buyers of this style of car will find acceptable. It's still compliant but very firm. You feel the road surface and the suspension working to accommodate it, to a much greater extent than in the Statesman. The Statesman-Caprice interior mimics the sleek, expansive, understated elegance in vogue in top-end Euros, especially the Mercedes E- and S-Class. The quality of materials is light years ahead of previous models - you even get real aluminium trim on the Caprice dash - as is fit and finish, though this is still inconsistent, a new-model characteristic Holden still cannot shake. As in other VE Commodore variants we've driven, the driver's door seal also squeaks against the door itself, indicating movement in the door and/or the body. The problem is more apparent on models with firm suspension. Holden has wisely resisted a cursor-menu approach to the central controls; the buttons are big, clearly marked and the screen is legible. The Caprice driver's seat, a body-hugging, pseudo sports number, will deposit you 1000km from home in great shape. There's also unlimited leg room, plus ample reach adjustment for the steering wheel. The Statesman has a less heavily sculpted seat, broad in the cushion, generously padded and shaped for blokes who have spent some time in the top paddock. According to the Drive tape measure, no car has more back seat leg room than the Statesman-Caprice. The seat is shaped for two, firmly padded and you sit low, an impression amplified by the high window sills. On hot summer days you'll also cop some sun, as the seatback is partially under glass. The Bose sound system is a beauty and the kids will think the Caprice's back seat DVD player is the best thing about the car. Rear passengers in the Caprice also get their own air-conditioning temperature and fan controls, with vents in the centre console and on the floor. The boot floor is as big as the SCG. A split fold rear seatback extends capacity. It's easy, and in some respects understandable, to look at the Statesman and Caprice as 20th century antiquities, yet they still present unbeatable value. Nowhere else in the world can you buy as much space, performance and equipment for this sort of money. The Statesman is a wonderfully comfortable, relaxing long-distance cruiser. Its ride and handling is from the old school of luxury limos but in the land of pockmarked road surfaces, 100kmh speed limits and 1000km between capital cities, it still works. The Caprice V8, though, is the star of the range. Its performance, handling and equipment list stand up against comparably sized European cars that cost two or three times as much. We'd back it point-to-point against an S-Class, Audi A8 or BMW 7 Series. We're not being sentimental, just pragmatic. Test-drive a Caprice, do a comparison and see if you can work out how the Germans justify their $150,000-plus price tags. We're still trying. Good Great value against megabuck Euros Sweet, strong V8 is the perfect engine for this car Loaded with gear Caprice handling; Statesman ride Occupant and boot space Steering and brakes are 200 per cent better than the previous model Comfortable driver's seats Bad Thirsty Six-speed is a bit of a blunt instrument and gear shift mapping needs a tweak Rear seat passengers sit low and under glass Complex trip computer display Weak resale values A few quality niggles Competitors Chrysler 300C From $53,990 The Chrysler looks like a Mafia hit-squad staff car but it's not a bad thing. The 6.1-litre V8 and 3.0-litre turbo diesel are the pick of the engines. Smooth ride, but crisp handling? Err, not really. Ford Fairlane Ghia From $58,625 The Ford's 4.0-litre, six-cylinder, six-speed auto drivetrain is punchier and more refined than the Statesman-Commodore's. Overall the big Ford drives well but in the V8 contest, the Holdens take the money. HSV Grange From $89,900 If the Caprice V8 pushes your buttons it might be worth taking a look at the new hot rod version from HSV. The new Grange packs a 307kW, 6.0-litre V8, six-speed automatic and adaptive dampers.