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Driven: HSV’s force-fed monster

Roar power: HSV’s GTS has a clever electronic rear differential that helps it punch out of corners.

Likely the last of its kind, the supercharged HSV GTS is a thrilling swansong

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1 Aug 2013

I’VE waited a long time for this day. Before me is the most powerful production version of the Commodore ever built, and I’m just about to jump behind the wheel – the last motoring journalist at HSV’s launch of its new VF Commodore-based Gen-F range to do so.

All the day before, and all morning today, car scribes have been falling over each other to get behind the square-bottomed steering wheel of the $92,900 four-door sedan that, with the addition of a supercharger to the 6.2-litre V8, costs $10,000 more than the model it replaces.

Somehow, more by bad luck than anything else, I’m right at the end of the queue to drive it. Everyone else has had a steer of the most potent HSV yet around the gymkhana course set up around the Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit, but I am about to drive it at full noise around an open circuit. Quietly, I’m cacking myself.

What I’m about to drive, though, is the equivalent of a rough-cut diamond. The one-off early build car wearing the famous GTS badge low on the gaping front air dam and a LFA badge on the rear has the same huffed 430kW, 740Nm 6.2-litre V8 engine as the production version, but there are still a few rough spots to iron out, we’re told.

Jumping behind the wheel, the HSV GTS looks the same as the upmarket Clubsport R8 on which it is based. We’re in a six-speed manual version, with the gearshift lever looking as though it is exactly the same spot even though the GTS’s engine has been tilted, and the gearbox extended by 50mm to accommodate what lies in wait under the stock-looking aluminium bonnet.

Apart from the badge in front of the extra couple of gauges low on the centre console, and the GTS nameplate bearing its production number, the interior of the GTS shares much in common with the bog-standard Commodore, although the faux carbon-fibre trim and bespoke HSV instrument binnacle stand out from the commoner.

It’s beguiling to me that HSV’s performance hero keeps its self-parking function. The entire HSV range has electrically assisted power steering, meaning the car is now capable of guiding itself into a parking spot while the driver just controls the throttle and brake pedal. It seems wrong that such a big, blokey car should still have to bend a knee to shopping-centre convenience.

On with the show. Push the dash-mounted start button and the LS3 engine borrowed from GM’s Camaro program rumbles into life.

At idle, there’s little to suggest what lies in wait for the first stretch of straight track that lines up in front of the GTS. There’s a tiny bit of supercharger whine under throttle from the big Eaton strapped between the cylinder banks, and the low purr takes on a harsher edge.

We’re in a six-speed automatic version, which is a bit of a shame because this portends to be a real driver’s car.

A better match is always going to be the six-speed manual gearbox. Testing it in the lesser HSV models earlier in the day show it has a clutch pedal that has improved markedly over that of the previous-generation HSV models.

It still has the off-centre spring that gives the pedal’s action a meaty, easily defined ramp-over point, but it has lost the heaviness of the old pedal that made low-speed traffic work in particular a bit fatiguing.

It’s not that you are going to necessarily need to use much the clutch. The LFA engine under the same aluminium bonnet as the bog-standard Commodore on which it is based has a big spread of both power and torque on tap.

Nothing to do, then, but to place a foot on the standard-sized brake pedal, snick the GTS into drive, and idle out to the track.

There’s no lurch as the GTS jumps into gear, and under a light throttle the big-hearted HSV rolls easily on its 20-inch Continental tyres, with a lighter feel than the numbers would suggest thanks to the electrically assisted steering.

Stomp on the throttle, though, and the GTS is transformed. If the car’s electronic safety net is dialled into its more sporty mode, the burble from the rear becomes a roar as the rear end tucks down and the heavy nose pitches skyward, and a hint of supercharger whine suggests the cylinders are now gulping, rather than sipping, air.

Straight-line speed gives the GTS a claimed 4.4-second 0-100km/h sprint with the launch control function activated, and the standing 400 metres – a quarter mile in the old measure – is away in 12.3 seconds.

Point the big-engined GTS at a corner, though, and you’ll need to be prepared to commit. The big torque-vectoring differential in between the wider rear wheels – it is part of the reason why, in a world of showcar hoops, the most powerful and expensive HSV sits on unremarkable 20-inch alloys in a world of much bigger showcar hoops to help the car increase ground clearance – only works under throttle.

Bleed off speed, apply a bit of turn-in to the chunky, square-bottomed steering wheel, and instead of instinctively backing off the throttle to coast around, you can sink a boot into it, letting the clever electronics sort things out.

The throttle input lets the GTS’s electronics know you’re serious about hooking into a corner. While it is on, the sportscar’s electronics will divide drive between the rear wheels, rotating the loaded-up outside one faster to twist the long wheelbase through an arc. The unloaded inside wheel, meanwhile, slows its rotation to pull the car into the line.

Against instinct, if the heavy nose of the GTS starts to push wide as it dissolves into understeer, just roll on slightly more throttle. It’s odd to think that when things start to go pear-shaped, just give it a bit more.

It needs the electronic torque vectoring. All that 430kW of forced-induction power rushes in like an avalanche, while torque quickly reaches a plateau stretching into the upper reaches of the rev range.

Turn-in feels crisp despite the light steering, and the automatic gearbox, left in full automatic mode, snaps through the gears. There are no paddle shifters, unfortunately, so forcing the manual shifts is via a push or a pull on the gear lever when it is tapped across in sports mode.

The GTS appears no faster into the corners, even if it does appear to be faster out of them than its lesser cousins, although in a straight line even the plumped-up 340kW ClubSport R8 SV starts to grow smaller in the rear vision mirror.

We’re yet to drive the GTS on the road, so an assessment of how well the trick suspension that stiffens up at the twist of a dial works on the regular day-to-day commuter grind will have to wait for a bit. On the track, though, the GTS’s shifting 1882kg kerb weight is well controlled.

Also well controlled are the brakes. The GTS features specially forged, bright yellow six-pot calipers borrowed from the V8 Supercars program, wrapped around 390mm cross-drilled and ventilated discs at the front. The rear discs feature similar cooling, but only measure 372mm.

The lighter brake system, linked with a Camaro-sourced aluminium rear hub assembly, sucks a whole 2kg out of the car’s weight.

Pedal feel is a lot stiffer compared with other HSV models we drove earlier in the day, but despite repeated punishment they held up well during our all-too-brief time behind the wheel.

HSV’s new performance hero ticks all the boxes. Big, brash, loud and fast, it is also in reach of many buyers’ wallets – a lesson learned from the 7.0-litre W427 program that showed there was a limit to how much Australian muscle car enthusiasts were prepared to pay.

It’s a fitting farewell to the Commodore program as we know it. However, it’s with a twinge of regret that we think back to the Coupe 60 pillarless two-door show car unveiled in 2008, and stillborn ever since.

That would have been a fitting end to HSV’s locally designed and built program.

In the meantime, though, the HSV GTS will have to do.

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