Think Monaro and what images come to mind?
Gaudy paint schemes and front-to-rear racing stripes?
Australian racing legend Norm Beechey manhandling the tail-sliding beast out of corners?
Grady Thompson winning the 1969 Shell Silver Fern New Zealand rally?
That's what used to come to mind, till last October. Still does to some extent.
Those two words, Holden Monaro evoke images of a snorting, roaring, oversteering beast of a car. A hairy-chested car, hard-riding, hard-charging, tough to tame when it's being pushed hard.
Till last October. For at the 2001 Sydney Motor Show in Darling Harbour, Holden literally took the wraps off the reborn Monaro.
There had been some argument within the company about calling the new car a Monaro. Maybe there was too much of a hoon image surrounding the name, too much of the working class rebel.
Within Holden the car was known as the Coupe and some argued that's what it should go to market as. The new two-door Holden was intended to compete head-on with sophisticated European performance coupes and was to blend ultra-high performance with top-flight road manners and refinement.
But from the time the coupe prototype appeared at the 1998 Sydney motor show, the car had become known increasingly as the Monaro, in the specialist and general media and among the public at large.
And it became clear that media and public alike held Monaros in special awe.
So the coupe became the Monaro, and it received a rapturous welcome from the Australian media and public at Darling Harbour.
When we drove the car in Queensland in November, Australians' reaction to it was staggering. They gawped, they pointed, they stopped in their tracks. Holden had a winner at home.
What, we wondered, would the reaction be like here?
Was the Monaro legend held in the same affection in the Shaky Isles?
The answer is a resounding "yes!"
We haven't had a road test car that has attracted so much interest.
People stopped their cars in the office carpark, got out and took photographs of the bright yellow coupe.
A cyclist was so busy looking at the car that he almost fell off his bike.
A motorbike rider, similarly mesmerised, almost turned in a full circle.
Kids pointed at the car, drivers flashed their headlights or gave the thumbs-up sign. When we were photographing the car, a guy drove up, got out of his car and had a good look around the Monaro.
A passing police patrol spotted the car as we finished the photo shoot, stopped opposite and then trailed us for a kilometre or so.
Oh yes, the Monaro has a special place in New Zealanders' affections too.
It's showing in initial sales. Monaros aren't cheap. The V8 auto and manual CV8 retail for $74,000 and the auto-only supercharged V6-powered CV6 is $63,000.
But in April, the Monaro's first month on sale, New Zealanders bought 67. May was slightly better, with 71 leaving dealers' showrooms.
It's not difficult to understand why the car attracts so much favourable attention.
Just standing still it looks sensational.
Holden's talented design team led by Mike Simcoe has done a beautiful job.
They earned their spurs with the VT Commodore from which the Monaro is derived; they've gold-plated those spurs with the Monaro.
They resisted the temptation to dress it up with ostentatious spoilers or overstated add-ons.
The single-opening grille sets the car apart from the double nostril Commodore. The front bib spoiler is more understated than the Commodore SS's and leads into side skirts than sweep up behind the rear wheelarch and continue along the bottom of the rear bumper, effectively circling the car. The front and rear screens are sharply raked, the bootlid spoiler is little more than a raised lip. The taillight clusters are beautifully done (they'll also slot directly into a VT/VX Commodore and are becoming a popular customising accessory in Australia).
The whole Monaro look is about understatement and elegance, and that's much of the reason its styling is so successful.
It looks clean and classy, the thoughtful sweep and careful detailing of the basic lines giving the car its character and individuality without the need to resort to add-ons.
The Monaro body's bending stiffness is 23 percent greater than the VX 2 Commodore sedan's and torsional stiffness is five percent greater.
That has allowed engineers to sharpen the Commodore's already-good handling.
Suspension and steering have been comprehensively revised and refined for greater stability, precision and predictability.
New Zealand market Monaros have Holden's FE2 sports suspension as standard (it's an optional extra in Australia). It has lowered ride height, beefed-up rollbars and sports-oriented spring rates.
The car rides on 18-inch diameter, eight-inch wide alloy wheels wearing 235/40 R18 Bridgestone low-profile tyres.
The CV8's Chevrolet-developed Gen III 5.7-litre V8 engine produces 225kW of power at 5200rpm and 460Nm of torque at 4400rpm.
Performance is excellent. The car will hit 100km/h in less than seven seconds from standstill. Acceleration for passing is prodigious.
The test car had the slick-shifting four-speed automatic gearbox. A six-speed manual is also available. A limited-slip differential is standard.
The engine, gearbox and suspension combine to produce an outstanding road car.
The engine provides plenty of power and crisp, high g-force acceleration, but its punch is never overwhelming.
The excellent steering and composed chassis mean you always feel in command. You never get the impression that you're just along for the ride.
We discovered during a session at Holden's advanced driver training centre in Queensland that the Monaro has exceptionally high roadholding and handling reserves.
We thought we were using the cars pretty hard until we rode as passengers with V8 Supercar driver Greg Murphy.
He hammered the car around the course, traction control turned off, holding the car in long opposite-lock powerslides, punishing the brakes hard at the tight hairpin.
Murphy rates the Monaro as having very forgiving handling and excellent brakes.
We emerge from the laps with Murphy with absolute respect for the Monaro's abilities.
Back in New Zealand the Monaro proved itself to be one out of the box.
The turn-in to corners is crisp and instant, the car tracking superbly and refusing to be fazed by mid-corner bumps.
There's good steering feedback and you can feel exactly what the chassis is doing. The tyres' grip is unshakeable.
We found little difference in the chassis' behaviour with the traction control switched on or off. Nowhere could be get the tail to move more than slightly, even in the tightest of corners.
The traction control allowed some gentle rear-end movement before it kicked in.
It was seldom obtrusive to the point of being annoying and allowed the car to feel lively and spritely while retaining high margins of dynamic safety.
On a favourite sequence of tight corners the Monaro was as agile as hot hatch but felt much better with its viceless rear-wheel drive chassis.
The seats are supportive and comfortable, the multi-adjustable driving position first-rate.
And the ride quality is exceptional. It's supple and absorbent without compromising handling sharpness.
The Monaro's standard equipment includes cruise control; leather-wrapped steering wheel; 12-function trip computer; colour-coded instrument cluster (yellow-faced dials in the test car to match the brilliant yellow paint); dual horns (with the good blasting note you expect in a high-performance car); and satin chrome and leather trimmed gearshift and brake levers.
There's dual zone climate-control air-conditioning (the usual unobtrusive and efficient Australian type).
Windows, exterior mirrors and radio aerial are power-operated and there's remote-control central door-locking.
Stainless steel door sill plates add a touch of class.
The sound system is a 260 watt set-up with a dash-mounted cassette player and a boot-mounted 10-disc Compact Disc changer. The sound is great, but we prefer the Ford-style dashboard-mounted multi-CD change to the awkward boot-stowed type. The steering wheel has sound system controls.
The test car had the standard Anthracite leather upholstery.
The front sports seats are power-adjustable with eight adjustable features and three-position memory for the driver's favoured settings. The front seats can be slid electrically to allow access to the roomy two-passenger rear cabin. Some passengers found getting into and out of the rear cabin difficult because of the low seating position (the rear seats are sculpted like the front seats to provide good lateral support during cornering) and the door opening's low roofline.
Safety gear includes ABS anti-skid braking and Traction Control, driver and front seat passenger airbags, and lap/sash seatbelts for all four seats.
Security gear includes an alarm system and engine immobiliser.
"Few nameplates have the emotive impact of the Monaro," Holden chief executive Peter Hannenberger said at the car's unveiling last October. "The design icon of its era...it has an unmatched heritage."
He was talking about the original Monaro of the late 1960s.
He could well have been talking about the new car, the one Holden dubbed the millennium Monaro. It really is one of the best-looking of all current cars and it has performance and handling to match. This a truly one of the great cars of the early 21st Century, an instant classic that's already on its way to being a legend.
AutoPoint road test team: words and pictures by Mike Stock.