Holden Commodore: first foreign model ‘missed opportunity’ to be hybrid

The new Holden Commodore – the first to be made overseas – is a “missed opportunity” to launch a high-profile electric or hybrid car in Australia, according to pro-renewables groups.

The 2018 Commodore has been launched after the last operational Holden plant in Australia, in Elizabeth, South Australia, closed on 20 October last year.

The German-made car has fewer cylinders than previous models (between four and six instead of eight) and is an all-wheel rather than rear-wheel drive. It is Holden’s most fuel-efficient and low-emissions Commodore, at 5.6L per 100km and 148g of C02 per km for certain models.

Environmental groups said the flagship car could have been a powerful statement to promote electric cars in Australia, but an underlying lack of government investment, and “fear of the unknown” was putting local manufacturers off bold steps.

“It would have been good to see Holden pursue electric vehicle technology,” said Clint Steele, from the Alternative Technology Association. “But I understand why they decided to take the path they took. It comes back to the local market being misinformed when it comes to electric vehicles.”

Australian consumers have been slow to embrace electric cars. But recent moves from the federal energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, state governments and companies such as Tesla have tried to kickstart the industry.

In January, British billionaire Sanjeev Gupta announced plans to buy assets from Holden’s closed Elizabeth factory and set up an electric car plant in South Australia. The state treasurer, Tom Koutsantonis, wrote to Holden’s owner, General Motors, and strongly urged them to sell to Gupta.

In the same month, Frydenberg declared the electric car “revolution” imminent in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, but faced immediate backlash from Coalition colleagues.

Compared to the rest of the world, Australia lags significantly behind – with fears of poor charging infrastructure, and unaffordable models behind the reticence. In 2016, according to the Electric Vehicle Council, only 0.1% of new car sales were electric, compared to 29% in Norway, 6% in the Netherlands and 1.5% in the UK, China and France.

Steele said this underlying situation was the reason companies such as Holden were discouraged from promoting electric cars.

“The new Commodore is a well designed car,” he said. “Holden has done the best they can with the leadership and engineering tools they have. But if we want to see more electric cars here, then we need to wait for companies like Tesla to lead the way, a new local electric vehicle company to start up or see more government support.

“You need a campaigner or crusader running a company, or a supportive government. Elon Musk is such a crusader. Henry Ford would have likely made an ideal crusader at this time too. However, each time electric vehicle technology is discussed by current established automakers, there is this fear of the unknown.”

A Holden spokesman told Guardian Australia that low demand and the high price of electric vehicles was the reason why new models were not electric.

“Almost all [of electric cars sold in 2016] were well over $60,000,” he said. “Commodore has been an affordable Australian family car for 40 years and its accessibility and value is an important part of its DNA.

“Holden did in fact introduce and market an electric vehicle, Holden Volt, in 2012. This was an affordable, high-tech electric vehicle with extended range capability. However, due to very low sales and lack of appetite for electric vehicles in Australia, it was later withdrawn.

“Holden will continue to analyse electric vehicles in Australia, however due to customer demand and the necessary large infrastructure investment, mass-market electric vehicles are still a few years away.”

Behyad Jafari, the chief executive of the Electric Vehicle Council, said in January that the industry could boom if the government introduced a temporary tax exemption as an incentive to buy electric cars.

Frydenberg also said the problem lay with pricing.

“The lack of takeup is not because of a lack of consumer interest,” he wrote. “What holds them back are issues relating to price, range and infrastructure. But on each count, there are good things happening, with more to come.”

Western Australia and New South Wales have launched large charging station programs, and Queensland’s state government has announced a 2,000km superhighway of chargers, from Cairns to Coolangatta.