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First drive: All-paw HSV Coupe 4 impresses

Prototype: Our first Coupe 4 drive was in the very concept car unveiled at the Sydney motor show last year.

HSV leads the Holden family into low-riding all-wheel drive - and in style

25 May 2004

IT'S about four weeks and counting until a new era starts for Holden in Australia.

That's when the HSV Coupe 4 is introduced, the first low-riding all-wheel drive car from the Lion pride.

Okay, HSV is not Fishermens Bend product, but it is the closest relation possible.

Coupe 4 is essentially a restyled HSV Coupe - in turn a restyled and uprated Holden Monaro - which has been modified underneath the sheet metal to accept Holden's traction control-based all-wheel drive system.

That's incredibly significant for HSV because it is the first time it has taken the lead on such a significant project, after all there is no such thing as an all-wheel drive Monaro. Yet, anyway.

The fact that there are only 200 Coupe 4s planned to be built over the next two years, despite a $5-$6 million investment by HSV, tells you that there's more to this project than meets the eye.

The message from both Holden and HSV is simple, Coupe 4 is pioneering a whole family of low-riding all-wheel drive vehicles, which will start flowing through in force once the Zeta architecture is introduced with the VE Commodore in 2006.

Coupe 4 was revealed to the world at the Sydney motor show last year and HSV and Holden have not been hesitant about leaking details out.

First off is a price set to be close to $95,000, although you get a heap of specification for that.

This includes LED interior effect lighting, rear park assist, eight-way electrically adjustable front sports seats with active head restraints, driver's seat with three memory settings, driver, passenger and side impact airbags, leather-bound sports profile steering wheel, specific instrument cluster, 200 watt sound system with six-disc CD changer and subwoofers, dual zone climate control air-conditioning, satin chrome accents and alloy pedals.

All that is fitted inside bespoke bodywork developed by HSV's new chief stylist Julian Quincey, a look that's intended to be more refined and luxurious than HSV's traditional aggro persona.

20 center image Looks can be deceiving in this case because Coupe 4 is higher, wider and longer than Monaro, yet looks smaller.

The look is also significant because this car actually features modified sheetmetal, the first time a HSV product has been so differentiated. The changes are driven by the 60mm wider track of the all-wheel system.

What that actually means is the body shell is taken off the Holden assembly line at Elizabeth in South Australia to a dedicated HSV area within the plant where plasma cutters perform modifications to areas such as the front guards and the transmission tunnel, before the car goes back on the line for the mechanicals to be installed.

This car is also different to normal Monaros because it gets the US-spec Pontiac GTO fuel tank, which allows 2x2 separated exhausts for the first time.

The final appearance is intended to be more refined and upmarket than your traditional HSV, in part driven by the Coupe 4's mechanical specification.

The all-wheel drive hardware means a compromise in exhaust routing which in turn knocks peak horsepower of the LS1 5.7-litre V8 engine back from 285kW to 270kW, while torque heads downwards from 510Nm to 475Nm.

But the other damaging aspect from HSV's sporting perspective is that you can only get Coupe 4 with GM's ancient 4L65E automatic transmission. That's because Holden decided the cost of adapting its CrossTrac AWD system (HSV's identical system is called Quad Drive) to a manual gearbox was not worth the expense.

HSV certainly would have liked a manual gearbox choice, but the fact was it didn't have the engineering or investment clout to make it happen.

But it still took the lead role on a series of engineering processes required by AWD.

Because the increase in track and 80mm lowering of ride height produces an acceptable change in camber angle for the wheels, HSV has developed a revised front subframe, front lower control arms and struts and new steering knuckles.

Those knuckles in turn mean the brakes are the same as those installed on the high-riding Avalanche and XUV SUVs all-wheel drives (based on the Adventra and Crewman Cross8 respectively). Those brakes comprise 336mm front and 315mm rear ventilated and grooved discs.

Harking back to that 270kW/auto gearbox drivetrain specification, HSV has also worked to make the MacPherson strut front suspension and multilink rear-end that much more pliable and luxurious than the traditional HSV set-up.

The prospects for Coupe 4 loom pretty good at this stage. With on-sale close there are 30 confirmed orders and another 20 or so said to be close to fruition.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

IF you are familiar with the HSV drive experience then Coupe 4 may leave you scratching your head, if our two hours behind the steering wheel of a test mule - indeed the very one unveiled by former Holden boss Peter Hanenberger in Sydney - are any guide.

Driving a traditional rear-wheel drive Commodore-based HSV product such as the ClubSport R8 is an experience in the traditional Australian musclecar ethos.

While pretty refined these days, it can still be a tense and edge-of-the-seat experience. With so much power and torque being deposited through the rear wheels, oversteer is a constant possibility.

Now that can be sheer joy. Predictable, controllable power on oversteer is one of the great things about driving Aussie sports sedans.

But not everyone is so inclined and that oversteer isn't always so predictable - and that can turn the exhilarating into butt-clenchingly tense, particularly when you strike rain or gravel.

Not in Coupe 4. Thanks to Cross Trac/Quad Drive and its 62 per cent rear/38 per cent front split of drive via three open diffs, this car tracks straight and true and faithful in all conditions we threw at it.

No, it didn't rain, but we tried a flat-out acceleration standing start on dirt and the Coupe 4 simply hooked up and drove away. A normal HSV would be trying to dig itself a hole in the ground if you tried the same thing.

Perhaps the steering has lost some of its precision on turn-in, the result of some extra weight over the front wheels, but that's compensated for by an ability to track straight and true, even if you are hurriedly forced to brake and/or change line mid-corner.

You can apply steering, brake and throttle force almost with impunity, relying on all-wheel drive to provide that extra security buffer. That extra track helps to ensure stability as well.

Backing that up are strong brakes and a suspension set-up which struck a very fair compromise between compliance and taut sports firmness.

The engine's reduced outputs are hardly noticeable. There's still that familiar burst of overtaking urge and the delicious V8 noise higher in the rev range is fantastic.

The only letdown is that old gearbox which, just as in other HSV and Holdens, continues to be as vague and clunky on the shift as ever. It's the Achilles heel of this car and everyone knows it.

Oh, how dearly HSV and Holden need a tiptronic style gearbox to go with their V8 engines.

But that's the biggest problem that we could detect from our drive, which again must be stressed was of a prototype.

The good news about that is that the production cars should be better again than the development mules. We're looking forward to the real thing.

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