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Quick Drive: Holden Epica

Review by Feann Torr - 1/May/2007

Holden Epica

Holden’s new mid sized car, the Epica, has the arduous task of going head to head with popular models like the Mazda6 and Toyota Camry. It’ll be a tough job as the mid sized car market doesn’t show any signs of growing like the ebullient small car market, which means that sales will have to be poached from its rivals.

But Holden is confident that it's new Epica model is innovative enough to attract current mid sized car buyers, and as we discovered during at car’s launch the new Holden has a number things going for it, one of which is price. Starting at $25,990 the new model undercuts many of its rivals, including its two major rivals: the Mazda6 starts at $28,285, and the Toyota Camry pricing begins at $28,000.

Two engines types are offered: a 2.0-litre and a 2.5-litre engine, and two levels of trims, the entry-level CDX, and the premium CDXi.

Power windows, cruise control, and four airbags are standard on all models, and as the photos indicate you wouldn't know it was made in Korea unless it was pointed out. The reason for the contemporary styling is two-fold. Mike Simcoe, the man behind the VT Commodore and the 21st century Monaro, had the final say on the design and according to the Australian car maker he established a recognisable Holden 'DNA' for the Epica. 

The second reason for the new look is that the car had to be a global vehicle. That is, it was designed with specific markets in mind - namely Europe and North America.

We spent a day driving the new Epica models during the launch, and our first impressions are positive. It's a practical, roomy, and well-equipped vehicle powered by a pair of very smooth engines, and the American and European influences give the car an interesting character. 

And then there's the somewhat notorious "Money Back Offer" that has sparked plenty of controversy only days after its Australian lauinch. But as they sometimes say, even bad publicity is good publicity.

Make: Holden
Model: Epica
Price: $25,990 - $30,990
Transmissions: 5-speed automatic + 5-speed manual
Engine: 2.0-litre + 2.5-litre inline 6-cylinder petrol
Seats: 5
Car Supplier: GM Holden Australia


Holden Epica

Holden Epica

Epica's Money Back Offer

Overshadowing many of the Epica's good points - creamy smooth engine, great efficiency, good interior space - is a new offer that Holden is running for its new mid sized car. If you buy an Epica and you don't like it, you can ostensibly take it back to the dealer and get your money back. The reason behind this move is because Holden wants to offer a 'no-risk' purchasing option to private buyers -but there's a catch.

If you have had the Epica for more than 30 days, or travelled more than 1500km, the deal's off. And any modifications - such as nitrous oxide injection - will also void the money back deal. But the most interesting point is that to get your cash back you must have already bought a totally new vehicle. Here's the company line:

  • "To gain any financial benefit under this Contract, the Customer must provide proof of purchase of a new (not used) motor vehicle of equal or greater value than that appearing on the original final purchase invoice for the Vehicle (“Replacement Vehicle”)."

Holden mentioned that this scheme has been rolled out in Europe to good effect, and will take the risk out of changing brands for a lot of buyers. Is this a desperate move by Holden? The car maker says no, saying that the deal works on the showroom floor. A lot of buyers will be concerned about changing brands (from Toyota), and this deal supposedly mollifies that fear.

This year Holden has already launched the new Astra and the Captiva diesel, and like these models the Epica is another global car. It’s sold in Asia, Europe, and North America, and the influences show in the car. There's an electronic compass on CDXi models, a feature that American drivers insist on having, while the exterior styling blends Asian and European designs.

Designed in Korea with Aussie input from Mike Simcoe, the overall look of the car eschews the angular design of the current Camry and goes for a much more curvaceous profile. It has a certain presence, and especially the range-topping CDXi model ($30,990) with its fog lights, but the brake lights need work.

One of the first things about the Epica that caught my attention was it's size. It ain't small. Measuring 4805mm long, it's only about9cm shorter than the VE Commodore (4894mm). Boot space is also generous in the new Holden mid-sizer, amassing 480 litres.

Holden representatives assured us that the Epica will not eat into Commodore sales. Why? Holden reckons the driver demographics are very different and the Epica is a front-wheel drive vehicle with small engines, whereas the Commodore is rear-wheel drive with large engines.

The Epica doesn't look too bad in the flesh and the CDXi model with the 17-inch alloy wheels and bodykit gives the car a sportier look. But don't expect sports car performance.

The 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre engines are both inline 6-cylinder blocks, outputting 105kW and 115kW respectively, so they're not the quickest vehicles off the mark, and compared to their rivals they leave a little to be desired: they are very smooth in operation, and not too loud either, but they're not what I'd term responsive and take a while to build steam if you floor the throttle. 

But if outright power isn't at the top of your list, these small 6-cylinder engines may still pique your interest.

With the fuel efficiency of similarly sized 4-cylinder engines, the Epica returns good economy figures: 8.2L/100km for the manual 2.0-litre variant and and 9.3L/100km 2.5-litre automatic model. During our first drive of the car, it was clear that the engines are very frugal, and I would imagine that this will be one of the car's key selling points.

There are two engines to choose from, the 2.0-litre manual and the 2.5-litre auto. Both gearboxes have 5-speeds and both engines are quite smooth and exhibit a more refined character than 4-cylinder engines of a similar size. Built by GM Daewoo, the engines were designed by Porsche and feature variable intake manifolds. And importantly for Holden, both models beat the Toyota Camry’s fuel consumption figures.

When pressed on a diesel option, Holden staff said there is one currently on sale in Europe, and it will be "evaluated" for Australia. Translation? Don’t hold your breath. Once the Epica has been around for a while and people know the model, maybe then.

Inside, the car is quite comfy and features decent quality materials. I was expecting a budget-basement cheap-mobile, but that's not the feeling you get when driving it; the steering is fairly light and the cloth upholstery isn't bad and the seat cushions are nice and soft. There's a leather option (beige or black) if you want it for $2000, and the plastics aren’t from the bottom of the spare parts bin either, which gives the Epica a fairly confident interior feel. 

The icing on the cake are the easy to use steering wheel controls, for the stereo and cruise control. The switchgear, too, has a certain quality feel, and the culmination of these things won't its sales prospects one iota.

Driving the car is like, well, driving a Camry. It won’t set any performance records, but it is very frugal. The larger 2.5-litre engine with the 5-speed automatic gearbox (the least fuel efficient model) was sipping 6.2L/100km on the freeway, which isn't too bad. 

At 100km/h in top gear it was sitting on 2000rpm, and it must be said that the automatic gearbox is quite smooth. It's an Aisin number, built in Japan. It doesn’t offer the quickest shifts in town, but they are smooth and combine with the 6-cylinder engines’ refined characters to create a smooth and dare I say seamless driving experience.

The engines aren’t as raspy as 4-cylinder mills when wound up, and the sound they emit is far more endearing. But as mentioned, these things are not speed demons. But then if Holden’s Epica is trying to poach Camry buyers, this will be seen as a boon, rather a than drawback.

As well as punting the 2.5-litre CDXi Epica with the 5-speed automatic, I had a dip in the 2.0-litre manual version. It has less poke than the 2.5-litre model, but has a smoother feel than a lot of 4-cylinder engines of the same capacity. The larger 2.5-litre engine feels better equipped to drag the 1400kg body around, but takes it's sweet time to reach peak power high in the rev range.

The Epica has a very smooth ride, smoother than Mazda6, but maybe not quite as soft as the Camry. At the same token, it’s not shy to tackle corners and exhibits only mild body roll when hustled through bends. It presents a good ride/handling balance that suits the car's demeanour – practical, attractive, but not too in your face.

It soaks up bumps in the road easily (thank the American input for that) and provides a very smooth ride in most situations, and we covered some unsealed roads too which the Epica dealt with effortlessly. There is some wind noise at highway speeds, but in general it's a rather smooth cruiser.

Holden put some 64,000 kilometres on the clocks fine tuning the Epica's suspension in Australia for our local conditions, so the car is slightly more responsive and direct than overseas models. This results from different spring and dampers settings and the steering has been sharpened too, making it more direct and designed for low effort parking.

The Epica won't set alight your desire to drive hard and fast, but then that was never it's intention. It's a Camry rival, and in this sense it does a lot of things well. It's smooth, quiet, and easy to drive. Everything is where you expect it to be, and because it's at the value end of mid sized class, it will be more accessible to a wider range of buyers. Holden talks about the 35+ demographic accounting for the largest proportion of drivers, but I think it may be more like the 45+ age group.

Practicality was a key design theme in the Epica, and that's why you'll find a small hook near the globebox that can keep grocery or takeaway bags from spilling their contents all over the seats. The steering wheel controls for the cruise control and audio are different to look at, but work well, and the 8-wayadjustable drivers seats on all models are a nice touch.

Conclusion

The Epica - like the Korean-built Holden Barina - is part of Holden's plan to tackle Japanese and Asian car makers with budget-priced cars, and to a point the Epica does a good job. It's cost effective, the 6-cylinder engines are remarkably smooth, it returns good fuel economy, and it's got heaps of room. That should be enough for potential Camry buyers to take a closer look.

The entry-level CDX models gets four airbags, while CDXi versions get six airbags (curtains airbags are added), but without ESP to improve its safety ratings, no satellite navigation option and the preconception among many Australian drivers that Korean-built cars are still rust buckets, the Epica mayinitially find the going tough. Having driven the car, I reckon that Holden has done a fairly good job with the Epica, but the money back offer may be viewed as cynical by some buyers.

At present, the medium car category makes up 14.6% of total Australian new car sales, which is about 87,000 cars per annum. That's a lot of cars, and Holden wants a piece of the pie, something that the Vectra never quite achieved because of its premium price. The Epica comes from a completely different angle; it's not built in Europe, it's built in Asia; it's got a very different look and Holden hopes it will appeal to style focused customers and those looking for low running costs and good standard features.

General Motors has sunk big bucks into GM Daewoo and it's starting to show with vehicles like the Captiva, and now this new mid sized sedan. The Epica may not have been given the best start to life with the money back controversy, and in some respects it is a somewhat bland vehicle but perhaps that what this market segment requires? Regardless, I reckon it'll make quite a few drivers more than happy in due course.

Pros:

Cons:

  • Refined 6-cylinder Motors
  • Fuel Efficiency
  • Roomy Interiors
  • No ESP
  • Brake Light Design
  • Money Back 'Controversy'

Comments on the review? The Car? Your Car? Email us.

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