The HSV brand has always stirred the gut of any petrolhead, for who doesn't like gobs of power?
Yet there have been flaws. Based on the Holden Commodore of the time, they never handled as well as the powerplants deserved and the look-at-me embellishments tended to be a bit over the top.
But with the latest generation HSV demands to be taken seriously. And not only by dyed-in-the-wool Holden fans on the hills of Bathurst - but by traditional Euro buyers too.
For these VE Commodore underpinnings are the best HSV has ever had - even before its designers got their hands on their pens.
The two teams car development teams worked side-by-side for longer than ever before, HSV able to tweak and tune from the early stages of the Commodore VE's development.
The aim was to produce a car that looked quite different, but subtly so - and without blowing the cost out too far.
So yes, stuff like the grille changed, as you'd expect. But now HSV removes a section of front fender and replaces it with unique fender vents. At the rear, there are not only differences to the bumpers, a diffuser section and different mufflers.
The whole rear has virtually been sliced off to accommodate alterations that allow unique rear lights, the subtle darkened inset lit by double red rings like the glowing eyes of a waking devil.
The interior, too, makes the most of the adaptability built into the VE. Forget the old tarted up Commodore look.
These cars are smart, the sporting accents - that chunky wheel, those supportive seats - creating an aura of upmarket hoon, with the emphasis on upmarket. Even the HSV accents are subtle, sometimes too sublte. The HSV lion and helmet watermark on the dials was completely invisible in the hard, cold light of our South Island launch drive.
But what a drive. Spearing across the Canterbury Plains towards the promise of those hills, the road climbing and curving up the wind-blasted ascents and piercing the huddled trees near the pass; slowing through the settlement then plunging into the abyss, clinging to the steep slopes of the South Island's mountain passes - a feat of engineering that had hardened HSV engineers gasping.
Or was that the driving? For few better roads could be found for this car. The Clubsport R8, the base car, blitzed down that tarmac, the 6.0-litre LS2 V8 filched from Chevrolet's Corvette offering great chunks of power whenever I asked. The six-speed manual gearbox has lost the heaviness that played against fast shifting. There's a six-speed auto if you prefer.
And either way, there's just enough bellow in the cabin to remind you there are eight mighty pistons under the bonnet - without deafening you (or bringing the noise-reduction spoilsports down on your head). But better yet is the way this car handles.
HSV's suspension boffins say there are more linear springs to improve initial steering input, and new front rebound springs to reduce front roll. Whatever, it works.
Fire the car into a corner, turn in, and it grips, corners and hauls out. This car's balance is so good that even with this much power, on that road, it was hard to get the stability control light to so much as flicker, and when the road opened out a little... You really need a racetrack to explore its limits.
But it's not the R8 that gets the clever stuff. That's reserved for the GTS and Senator, with their MRC, or magnetic ride control. This system isn't unique - it's also fitted to the recently released Audi TT, and to the Cadillac XLR in the US. They're all based on the Delphi system, altered by each manufacturer to suit its own application.
As simply as possible - instead of conventional, mechanical dampers these babies contain metallic particles suspended in fluid. Apply an electric charge and it creates a magnetic field that realigns the particles to create more resistance to fluid flow. You can alter the power almost infinitely, and very quickly, to alter the resistance of the fluid, and therefore the performance of the damper.
Internal software mapping keeps an eye on heat build-up and adjusts damping response accordingly. The main advantage is its quicker response, but it should prove more reliable. There are no mechanical parts to fail, and should any diminution of efficiency occur with time, it should self-adapt, which is expected to make it more reliable.
It certainly made short work of handling the big car's requirements over often bumpy roads - and yes, you can opt for comfort response at the touch of a button.
What else? Big wheels with tyres specially developed by Bridgestone, eye-watering levels of grip - impressed? You bet. At last HSV has cars that will preach not only to the converted, but to previously untapped markets.
Expect Euro buyers to realise exclusive performance from a large sedan is available at far below the prices Euro buyers normally pay, with the manual ClubSport R8 opening the bidding at $77,990, the GTS and Senator Signature from $91,990.
- Jacqui Madelin.
HSV VE specifications.
Engine: 6.0-litre 90-degree OHV LS2 Gen-4 alloy V8. Maximum power, 307kW at 6000rpm. Peaj torque, 550Nm at 4400rpm (tested on 98-octane).
Transmission. Rear-wheel drive. Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic gearbox. Limited slip differential.
Wheels. 19-inch by 8-inch alloy front; 19-inch by 9.5-inch alloy (Clubsport R8 and Signature Senator); 20-inch by 8-inch allor front; 20-inch by 9.5inch alloy rear (GTS).
Tyres. Front, 245/40 R19 98Y; rear, 275/3 5R19 96Y (ClubSport R8 and Signature Senator). Front, 245/35 R20 95Y; rear, 275/30 R20 97Y (GTS).
Dimensions. Length, 4943mm. Width, 1899mm. Height, 1467mm. Wheelbase, 2915mm (Senator Signature length is 4947mm).