GM Holden Ltd. this month unveils its all-new Holden Commodore large-car lineup, designed and engineered to extend a decade-long record as Australia’s best-selling car, officials say.

The much-anticipated new models hit the market at a precarious time for the auto maker, when soaring prices at the pump are pushing car buyers to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

GM Holden Chairman and Managing Director Denny Mooney admits high fuel prices have contributed to a 22% dive in large-car sales in Australia this year, making it a tough time to launch a new entrant in the segment.

"There are some definite headwinds right now in the market," he says. "I'd rather be launching a fullsize, comfortable product like this in an environment with lower (gasoline) prices and oil prices."

But Holden is not alone. Ford, Toyota and Mitsubishi brands all are introducing new large-car models this year. The survival of the industry lies in the balance, industry observers say.

A great deal is at stake for GM Holden, which says the all-new ’06 VE Commodore is Australia’s first A$1 billion ($748 million) vehicle-development program.

The Commodore lineup is based on GM's new Global Rear Wheel Drive architecture. Interiors, exteriors and major mechanicals all have been redesigned or upgraded, representing the most clean-sheet car program in GM Holden’s 60-year history.

More than six years of planning and developing went into the new models, the first complete makeover since the VT Commodore was launched in 1997. The first-ever Commodore was launched in 1978 and since has sold 2.4 million units in Australia and export markets around the world.

Taking exports into account, GM Holden’s current long-wheelbase cars, based on the earlier Commodore platform, are its second best-selling vehicles. The company last year exported more than 27,300 WL series Statesman and Caprice models, more than seven times the number sold in Australia.

The vehicles are branded as Chevrolet in the Middle East, Buick in China, GM Daewoo in South Korea and Holden in New Zealand. Combined, they led GM Holden to record vehicle exports of 60,518 units last year.

Mooney says the design differences between the all-new WM Statesman and Caprice and the new VE Commodore now are greater than ever, although all are based on the Global Rear Wheel Drive platform.

“The all-new WM Caprice is the most distinctive modern vehicle (that) Holden has had the pleasure of calling its own,” he says. “Virtually every panel is unique to the WM. This car now is our biggest seller overseas, which has allowed us to take the car to a whole new level.

“You’re not buying a longer Commodore (anymore); you’re buying a standalone car.”

Production of the VE Commodore is under way, with the auto maker aiming to reach 500 units per day within two months. Exports are expected to account for 30% of sales.

Mooney says the new VE has potential for GM markets around the world, including the U.S., having been engineered from a global architecture for left-hand-drive requirements.

He says GM has invested more than A$6 billion ($4.5 billion) in Australia over the last decade, including the new VE, to protect the Commodore’s market-leading position.

The ’06 VE program cost A$1.04 billion ($777 million) and the WM Statesman and Caprice programs totaled A$190 million ($142 million), taking the combined cost to A$1.2 billion ($919 million).

GM Holden says more than 2 million miles (3.4 million km) were driven during the development programs, but it has yet to release fuel-economy figures for the new models.

The company says engineers still are calibrating fuel consumption and concedes some versions will be less economical than the older model. "We don't have the final numbers," Mooney says. "Some powertrains might be more economical and some might not be."

A GM Holden spokesman is quoted as saying testing production cars will give a more accurate figure than taking the fuel consumption of earlier prototypes. He says the figures will be available by the time the VE goes on sale next month.

Mooney says safety is a key factor in the new vehicles, with an Electronic Stability Program standard and side curtain airbags available on the entire VE sedan range.

“The chassis is designed to accommodate a range of active and passive safety technologies, as well as the crashworthiness expected in many different markets,” he says.

“We have used more super-strength and high-strength steels than ever before in (the) Commodore’s structure. Real-world crash performance was a huge priority throughout its development.”

Additionally, the peak power of GM Holden’s two advanced Alloytec 3.6L V-6 engines offered in the Commordore move up to 241 and 261 hp, respectively, while the new 6.0L 361-hp V-8 produces 391 ft.-lbs. (530 Nm) of torque.

“We will introduce a new 6-speed automatic transmission for V-8 models, sharing it with GM’s premium cars, such as Cadillacs and the Chevrolet Corvette,” Mooney says.

The new Commodore series will base at A$34,490 ($25,782) for the all-new Omega, up A$500 ($374) or 1.5%. The Omega replaces two models – the Executive, introduced in 1988 and the Acclaim, introduced in 1993.

Pricing for the Berlina V-6 is rolled back A$3,900 ($2,916) to A$39,990 ($29,896), while the Berlina V-8 price falls 7.4% to A$44,990 ($33,638).

The price of the new long-wheelbase Statesman V-6 rises 3.5% to A$58,990 ($44,000), and the Statesman V-8 increases 2.1% to A$62,990 ($47,000). The price of the Caprice V-6 is reduced 6.6% to A$65,990 ($49,334), while the Caprice V-8 is lowered 7.1% to A$69,990 ($52,325).