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Car reviews - HSV - ClubSport - R8 SV

Our Opinion

We like
Stability control upgrade allows for performance fine-tuning, new electric power steering works well, more of a track-day car than it ever was
Room for improvement
Interior is good but a bit too Commodore-like, analogue dials in centre console eat up valuable storage real-estate, no clever fuel-saving technology

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HSV logo7 Jun 2013

OUCH. Someone in front of me has just bounced HSV’s all-new performance hero, the supercharged GTS, off the rev limiter.

I’m sure they have, because the forward momentum of the engineering evaluation vehicle – production GTS cars are yet to make their way down Holden’s Adelaide production line – into Lukey Heights at Phillip Island’s grand prix circuit has stalled suddenly, and puffs of black smoke are popping out of the 430kW engine’s quad exhaust pipes.

We’ve jumped on the brakes hard, the red four-pot calipers biting the big, vented disks hard as we bleed off speed approaching the corner, the engine popping and snapping and the rear end wriggling slightly as the centre of gravity shifts forward.

Us? We’re in a souped-up version of the ClubSport R8 sedan, called the SV. And the only reason it is tucked up behind the GTS is because of the rev limiter.

We can’t tell you yet how the big LSA engine in the GTS drives, as no production cars exist and engineering mules don’t count until an embargo lifts in August, but we can tell you how the rest of the range stacks up against it.

In the meantime, the Clubsport R8 sedan, Sportwagon and Maloo ute are are expected to be HSV’s biggest sellers across a range of vehicles that, at $60,990, starts cheaper than the vehicle it replaces.

The volume sellers of the HSV range are fitted with a 325kW, 550Nm version of GM’s LS3 engine, but the SV ups this to 340kW and 570Nm by borrowing the same freer-breathing airbox as under the aluminium bonnet of the vehicle we’re trying to chase down.

The $76,285 HSV ClubSport R8 SV (the SV performance kit adds $4995 over the R8’s price), to give it the full title, is extremely capable on the track. Yes, there’s electric steering that has replaced the more traditional hydraulic one, but in a sense it has made the big-engined sportscar a lot more liveable without any discernible loss in the all-important feel.

It accelerates briskly, even in its default “touring” mode that softens up the suspension and makes the steering much lighter, and over what has to be one of the most boring launch drive programs in performance car history – mainly good-quality backroads with some freeway cruising built in – absorbed all the lumps and bumps without the need for a spine transplant.

Yet point it at a slalom course set up at the Phillip Island grand prix circuit, switch into performance mode to let the exhausts rumble rather than purr while adding weight to the steering, and the car is transformed.

Softer springs and a stiffer anti-roll bar help the front end tuck in nicely as the weight transfers to the outside front wheel. It feels much more balanced and composed than the E3 series that preceded this, the Gen-F model line-up.

A dab of brakes – the HSV range gets the same stiffer firewall that provides a much more progressive pedal feel than before – snatch second gear via the short-throw six-speed gearbox, dial on a bit more throttle and throw the flat-bottomed steering wheel across to the other side, and the big HSV responds predictably and smoothly.

For me, though, it all goes pear-shaped when selecting track mode – a much more tuneable electronic stability control system has allowed HSV to significantly make over the level of electronic driver assists available – via the centre console-mounted “driver mode” dial resting in between the front seats.

All of a sudden, the R8 wants to play. The HSV pitches past the first cone of the slalom just like before, but this time snatching second gear and squeezing the throttle results in spades of oversteer rather than a computer-controlled, smooth application of drive to the big rear wheels.

I miss cone number two, and cone number three disappears under the R8 somewhere behind the front left wheel. Ah, so now you need to drive it rather than just sit behind the wheel and have fun.

Dawdling back to the pits after our training exercises under the watchful eye of Holden Racing Team drivers gives time to appreciate how much the Gen-F HSV has moved on from the predecessor.

The HSV range has a bespoke instrument cluster that looks more chunky than that of the Commodore, but without looking too boy racer.

The leather seats are comfortable and extremely well bolstered, and for once the eight-way electric seat adjustment mounted on the squab is easy to reach rather than pinching between the seat side and the door trim.

Aside from that, the interior looks very Commodore – made even more so by the one interior design that dominates the whole Commodore range this time around. Yes, there’s the as-expected carbon fibre-look trim around the dash, and the brushed aluminium-look plastic, but it doesn’t look that different.

Another issue is a pair of analogue gauges mounted in what is a storage tray low on the centre console of the Commodore. The electronic interface on the big multimedia touch screen throws up a host of car-related information, including digital dials, making analogue versions somewhat redundant. Instead, HSV has robbed the car of valuable real estate for items such as wallets and mobile phones.

In a nutshell, HSV’s Gen-F is a big improvement over the old – the result of almost four years of work and one of the most radical mid-life changes to an Australian-made car we’ve ever seen.

It drives better, many hours of argument would suggest it looks better, and it is also priced much better, even if you only save the price of a full-size spare wheel over the old R8’s price.

It’s a shame, though, that the touring mode doesn’t incorporate some form of fuel-saving technology that helps owners cut ownership costs when all that power is untapped. If HSV wants to go toe-to-toe with German performance car buyers, it is the one key point of difference – other than price – that could hurt it.

But still, look at what you now get. The Aussie muscle car is far from dead. And according to HSV managing director Phil Harding, Gen-F won’t be the last. His parting words? “Stay tuned.”

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