Comparing a Holden Commodore/Calais and Toyota Camry would have been incongruous until this year, when both entered new lives as imports. Now it seems perfectly natural to pit this front-drive pair against one another, despite a few differences in design and execution.
It’s the German-made Calais hatchback with turbocharged petrol engine versus the Japanese Camry sedan with petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain.
Handily for the purposes of this test, each is priced at $40,990 before on-road costs. However, there’s quite a difference in the level of standard equipment.
Common features include 18-inch alloy wheels with a temporary speed-limited spare in the boot, LED tail-lights and daytime running lights and rain-sensing wipers.
Each also has cabin niceties including leather seat trim, proximity key access, dual-zone climate control, 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen, Bluetooth/USB, sat-nav, wireless smartphone charging, digital radio, plus rear cabin air vents and USB points.
On the safety front, both get five-star 2017 ANCAP crash scores (the Camry scored a near-faultless 36.16/37), plus AEB, collision alert, lane assist, blind-spot monitoring, reversing cross-traffic alert, parking sensors at both ends and a reversing camera.
Read more: Camry news, reviews, comparisons and videos
There are some distinctions, though.
The Calais alone gets park assist, heated front seats and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto app integration. But the Camry counters with LED headlights, active cruise control, cooled front seats, electric steering column adjust, electric front passenger seat adjust, a larger digital instrument display, a head-up display, and a sunroof.
If you want all the fruit on a Commodore, you’ll need to step up to the $51,990 Calais V with its V6 and all-wheel drive.
We really like the simple layout, the driver-centric dash design that wraps around front occupants by morphing into the doors, the crisp touchscreen with app integration, and the leather steering wheel with idiot-proof buttons to control all sorts of functions.
There’s plenty of storage such as door bins, a deep cubby ahead of the closing console, two front cupholders and a sunglasses-holder in the roof. There’s also an acceptable amount of steering column and seat adjustment, though only the driver gets electric movement.
Downsides: the instruments are ringed by flimsy silver-coloured plastic that couldn’t have cost more than a few bucks, this being one example of how the general solidity, fit/finish and tactility of many interior materials don’t feel as expensive and long-lasting as the Camry’s.
Another example is the way the clipped-on plastic part surrounding the inside hatch door handle was already falling away on our 11,000km press car. Yes, these are small gremlins, but better to point them out now than later.
The front seats are also heated and have a decent breadth of adjustment, however they’re not the wide buckets found in the old Australian-made car. With that said, I did a 600km road trip and my back was left unscathed.
Given the new Commodore is about 86mm shorter between the wheels, a reduction in back seat space is to be expected. Yet there’s a heap of leg room for my 194cm frame behind my preferred seating position, so it’s hardly small.
It’s also 35mm narrower than the VFII Commodore, but shoulder room isn’t bad at all. Less impressive are the foot room (under the seats) and the head room, which is minimised by the sloping roof line. Amenities include LED reading lights, vents and two USB inputs.
One area where the Calais gets plaudits is its boot. The Euro-style liftback design gives you a much wider opening than a conventional sedan, and if you slip the back seats down in both (easily done), the Holden is far more akin to a wagon/crossover than the ‘three-box’ Toyota, though the latter has a huge, deep boot of its own, and through-loading.
We’re pretty impressed with the longer but lower Camry’s interior.
Read more: Everything Toyota
The interior sports a leather steering wheel with an electric column adjustment like a Lexus, and a driver-centric instrument fascia that blends into a backlit wood-look strip ahead of the passenger. Everything is soft to the touch, though the faux stitching is a touch naff. It feels quite ‘premium’.
The additional equipment is also most welcome, particularly the summer-ready cooled seats, large colourised head-up display, and the sunroof. Considering its cabin feels more upmarket and has more equipment, for the same money, the Toyota clearly makes a strong case for itself.
Where it’s a little ‘off’ is in the realm of infotainment, with Toyota’s refusal to embrace Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in favour of the clunkier Toyota Link app remaining a gripe. Ditto the excessive use of shiny black plastic over the fascia, which is a real magnet for smudges and dust.
Storage is great, with a cubby beneath the sliding wireless Qi smartphone charger, while it also has a bigger centre console than the Calais.
The back seats offer similar levels of leg room, but a little more under-thigh support than the Calais, superior outward visibility, greater foot space and a smidgen more head room – more than ample for anyone below 190cm despite the sunroof. Rear vents/USB points feature.
With the hybrid batteries being mounted below the cargo floor, you are free to drop the back seats down via little levers in the boot.
We’re giving the win in this area to the Camry. The Calais has that fantastic liftback boot and superior infotainment, but the Toyota’s interior is better made, a touch more comfortable and better equipped to boot.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this pair is the powertrain.
The Calais as tested uses a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol making 191kW of peak power at 5500rpm and 350Nm of peak torque between 3000 and 4000rpm. Outputs are sent to the front wheels via a standard nine-speed automatic transmission.
This gives it a power-to-weight ratio of 124.4kW per tonne, compared to an inferior 97.9kW per tonne for the heavier and less powerful Camry. Fuel use on the combined cycle is 7.6L/100km, which we managed to match on our long test drive. Highly impressive. It’ll also tow 1800kg.
On a side note, you can also buy a 125kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbo-diesel option that reduces fuel consumption by about 25 per cent, while the Calais V and the sportier RS-V and VXR grades get a 235kW/381Nm V6 aimed at purists still enthralled by displacement, plus all-wheel drive.
The GM 2.0-litre turbo engine featured here is actually fantastic, though, and all the average buyer will need (though the option of AWD with this unit would be preferable!). It’s got a strong mid-range for overtaking, and plenty of oomph just off idle sufficient to chirp the front tyres.
The 9AT has one too many ratios for Australia, because you’ll not be doing autobahn speeds legally here, but it’s generally pretty unobtrusive. The fact we matched the fuel-use claim is hugely impressive, and after 600km we still had plenty left in the 61L tank.
The Camry has a very different drivetrain. It’s a 2.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine running on a fuel-saving-oriented cycle putting out an uninspiring 131kW at 5700rpm and 221Nm at 3600rpm.
Instead of a turbo, it gets help from a 88kW/202Nm electric motor with a small amount of battery storage (a nickel-metal hydride rather than more efficient, but pricier, lithium-ion unit), taking the system output to 160kW of power, and the maximum torque to a variable figure.
For short distances, below about 40km/h and with minimal throttle input, the Camry can be driven in EV Mode as a fully electric car. Ditto in reverse gear. But most of the time, the engine powers the front wheels and sends charge to the battery pack, with performance augmented by the front-mounted electric motor.
It’s all matched to a CVT infinite-ratio gearbox and gets a few driving modes to either maximise fuel savings (Eco) or performance (Sport). The upshot of all this complexity is a remarkable combined-cycle claimed fuel use of 4.5L/100km – far superior to any petrol rival, and matching or beating most diesels while emitting fewer NOx carcinogens.
It’s also as seamless as this tech gets in operation, with Toyota’s decades of experience showing. The engine kicks in without many vibrations or much noise, the CVT ‘droning’ under throttle is minimised thanks to sound-deadening, and the dual powertrain has more low-down torque than you’d think, giving it strong, surging acceleration. It’s quite quick.
On our combined drive loop with significant urban driving, we managed 5.3L/100km without any overt effort at conserving fuel. That’s impressive. You’d be silly to opt for the $1000 cheaper 2.5-litre petrol non-hybrid Camry SL, though we’ll point out that this spec can also be had with a crisp (but thirsty) 224kW/362Nm V6 engine with an eight-speed auto.
It’s hard to determine a winner in this area. If straight-line punch and engagement are your priorities, then the Commodore is for you. If you value fuel savings, go the Camry. Both are above average, though the Toyota packages a pricier and more complex system into the Camry without charging you more, which surely deserves a commendation.
The Camry sits on Toyota’s modular TNGA (GA-K) architecture, adding stiffness and lowering the centre of gravity. While chiefly a cost-saving effort, company head Akio Toyoda also demanded the engineers make this Camry drive in a more engaging fashion.
They delivered, as the fitment of pricey double-wishbone suspension at the rear might suggest. You sit low in the cabin, and while the electric-assisted steering is vague (and overly resistant in Sport mode), the body control through corners remains excellent, even though the ride comfort is never short of high.
This Camry doesn’t merely tolerate twisty roads, it actually handles them with some verve. That’s a new thing to this badge.
It also has a few nifty features you don’t get on the Holden, notably the auto hold function that stops you ‘creeping’ in D in gridlock, and radar-guided active cruise control. You can also potter around silently at low speeds.
For all this, the Calais edges it still. Holden’s Australian engineers spent a long time calibrating the springs, dampers and more specifically for Australia, and we’re pleased that the ZB maintains the old VFII’s familiar long-legged, loping road feel as well as its agility and responsiveness to steering inputs.
For those keen to do long drives, both also ate up corrugated gravel without a fuss. As we flagged earlier, we just wish Holden would offer AWD with the four-cylinder engine, since it’s arguably crisper and certainly more frugal than the old V6.
Holden offers a standard five-year and unlimited-kilometre warranty, superior to Toyota’s three-year/100,000km cover. Toyota does, however, offer eight years/160,000km of warranty on its hybrid battery. Both companies offer roadside plans.
The Camry has annual service intervals (or every 15,000km, whichever comes first) capped at $195 per visit for the first five services. By contrast, Holden’s intervals are 12 months/12,000km, with the first five visits presently advertised at a maximum of: $259, $299, $259, $359 and $359.
Read more: Everything Holden
So, the Holden has a better warranty, but the Toyota should be cheaper to service and fuel. In terms of resale value, both are quite new to the market. The fact these grades are not overtly fleet-oriented means they should hold up okay.
This pair are generally impressive offerings.
The Holden’s ‘Australian-ised’ ride and handling are supreme, though some traditionalists will lament the loss of RWD. Yet, the Toyota is well ahead of its predecessor in this regard, and while it’s not as agile as the Holden, it’s every bit as comfy and quiet.
In all ways, the new Camry is the best car to wear the badge, to date, with new levels of driver engagement and design nous coupled with all the familiar attributes of value (clearly superior to the Calais’s), cabin space and efficiency.
So, while in most ways the ZB Commodore/Calais family is actually an impressive car once you take it on its merits and don’t lumber it with the baggage of Holden’s defunct factory, the Toyota Camry SL Hybrid takes the edge here.
Photos by Joel Strickland