Holden’s proving ground in Lang Lang, 90-odd kilometres south-east of the city, is something of a Holy Grail for motoring enthusiasts. It’s where cars are sent from around the world to undergo rigorous testing – exposed to the elements, a range of demanding courses and the attentions of a cadre of engineers.
Security is tight at the site. It’s common practice for phone cameras to be taped over, and guards search every vehicle entering or exiting, lest there be spies or stowaways. The sprawling 809-hectare proving ground has been locked down so well, in fact, that over the decades it’s become its own ecosystem, home to rare flora and curious kangaroos, wallabies and deer.
Holden has dug out statistics that show a new baby is born in Australia every minute and 40 seconds, while an SUV is sold every minute and 10 seconds. I’m part of a crack team of journos assembled to test the company’s new range of SUVs, which are all high-performance vehicles in the guise of family cars.
“Where once SUVs were seen just the typical soccer-mum car, or for outback, off-road adventures only, that’s no longer the case,” Holden’s communications director Sean Poppitt says.
“We’ve already got the stylish, small SUV, the Trax; the capable, rugged, seven-seat 4×4 Trailblazer; and they’ll soon be joined by the high-tech Equinox and the luxurious Acadia.”
Normally Holden has engineers with years of training looking over the cars, but today they’ve got me instead. As a serious motoring journalist, my first port of call is to email and make sure the cars we’re testing have automatic transmissions. Once the laughter in our office has died down, I’m reassured that this is very much the case.
The first car we’re testing is the Acadia, a powerful, US-developed beast of a machine. Behind the wheel, it’s much nimbler than it looks – we get up to 180km/h quick-smart on the high-speed track, which is curved like the side of a bowl. Our velocity and the gradient allow the engineer to take his hands off the wheel, while the car calmly follows the track. I am not at all terrified.
We also plow the Acadia through a trough, to test its waterproofing, and show off its hill-climbing abilities on a 25-degree incline. It doesn’t even roll down – where was this technology when I did my driving test?
We then put the sprightly Equinox through its paces on the Hill Road Course. The track is shrouded in fog, giving everything a slightly mystical air, atmospheric conditions that I maintain are to blame for my decision to cheerfully take off in what proves to be the complete wrong direction.
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Once this is remedied, we really put the Equinox’s agility to the test. If you’ve ever doubted journalists are competitive, let a gaggle of them try a timed slalom around a course marked by traffic cones. The ground is wet and the tires are screeching as we race to shave seconds off our time. The car handles our demands with aplomb, and only a few cones are injured in the process.
Then we get behind the wheel of the Trailblazer, which more than capably handles an off-road course largely composed of steep ridges and all-embracing mud. Finally it’s on to the gravel road slalom with the Trax.
What follows is a meditation on the dangerously addictive nature of handbrake turns, as we slip and slide but are kept in line thanks to the car’s stability control. Rain has turned the gravel into more mud, but we each have four or five turns and emerge giddy with our accomplishments.
In the afternoon, we’re occasionally aware of a noise like a speedboat in the distance. Just when we think we’re done, the source of that recurring noise is revealed – it’s the new Commodore being put through its paces.
What follows is the closest I have come to embracing religion, as the test driver casually chats about the Commodore’s quality while hurtling down the track at speeds that feel like the usual province of a fighter jet.
Keen to get your hands on any of these? The Trax and the Trailblazer are available now, while the Equinox and the Acadia will be released next year. Just remember to follow the speed limits.