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Holden Monaro

 

The three late-teenaged girls on the pedestrian crossing in Surfers Paradise's Main Beach almost come to a standstill themselves when they realise the identity of the sleek yellow coupe which has stopped for them to cross the road.

They talk among themselves, pointing. They reach the kerb, the yellow car's driver selects first gear and the V8's burble rises a little as he resumes his journey. The girls are still talking animatedly about the car they've seen, for the first time "in the metal."

Sitting one car back, I get a perfect view of this little vignette, a preview of several similar scenes which will be played out during a journey into the Gold Coast Hinterland, on to Holden's performance driving centre at Norwell, and back to Brisbane airport.

Holden's new Monaro - dubbed, naturally enough I guess, the millennium Monaro - hit the streets of Australia for the first time last week.

First Australian and then New Zealand motoring writers sampled pre-production versions of what has become an instant Australian icon even before it had turned a wheel in public.

There's absolutely no question of Australians having taken the new Commodore-based coupe to heart.

Holden's big car marketing division has been taking mini-Monaro shows around Australia since the public unveiling at the Sydney Motor Show in October. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.

If its Commodore parent is a runaway hit, then the Monaro coupe - seen by Holden insiders as a car their customers will aspire to - is doubly so.

The Monaro road show culminated in the Monaro Gallery at Holden's Norwell performance driving centre.

It's not exactly on the beaten track, in fact it takes a little finding our Australian hosts assured us.

But more than 14,000 Australians a weekend (the show ran over two weekends) made the pilgrimage to look at Holden's latest and finest. Some even travelled more than 300 kilometres, just to look at the car.

As we headed towards Tamborine Mountain west of Surfers the Monaros drew plenty of admiring glances, plenty of comment.

Like the two teenaged boys out walking with their dog. They couldn't take their eyes off the Monaro, couldn't contain their excitement at seeing one for real.

Only the dog was indifferent; and that dog's response (he wasn't a Blue Heeler so he definitely wasn't a Daewoo dog) was the only show of indifference towards the new Monaro. Aside that is from comments by some NZ motor writing colleagues (who decided not to make the trip) that it was just a two-door Commodore (how wrong they are) and not worth spending two days in Australia driving ("I don't need to go, I've driven the four-door," one reportedly said in a show of misguided self-confidence).

No-one expects New Zealanders to view the re-born Australian icon as reverently as Aussies do - Aussies like the motorists who drew alongside the Monaros, tooted and gave them the thumbs up on the roads of Queensland, or the Mercedes-Benz driver who kept drawing alongside for yet one more look.

But we're sure that in this country where the Commodore is king of the new cars, the Monaro will be greeted with enthusiasm too.

On the run up to Tamborine Mountain I get acquainted with my Flame-coloured Monaro CV8 automatic (the colour is a rich orange/red). It's familiar territory in many ways - the car, not the Queensland hinterland - with dashboard and controls layout derived from the Commodore.

The mirrors adjust in the same way, the auto gearshift feels familiar. The V8 burbles in much the same way, ready to launch you forward as 225kW of power and 460Nm of torque are unleashed by the Chevrolet-developed 5.7-litre engine.

"Yeah," I can hear the cynics crowing, "a two-door Commodore."

In the urban environment, maybe so. But then a VX is like a VT is like a VR when you're trickling along suburban streets.

We hit the open road at last, diving down through a military training area where signs advise you not to stop and not to get out of your car: live firing, with real bullets.

Here the Monaro feels composed, turning-in to corners precisely, hunkering down as you accelerate out.

My pace is set largely by the car ahead of me. I'm riding solo in my orange/red Monaro and I have to follow the car in front which has the benefit of a Holden Australia executive as navigator.


We start the climb towards the Tamborine Mountain summit and the breathtaking view down across the valley.

I drop back a little to get a run at hairpin corners with advertised 25km/h speeds. Drop the box manually into second, stay out wide, turn in on a late-apex line and nail the throttle.

The guy in the Monaro behind me has been doing this for kilometres already - dwindling to a silver spot, then charging back on to my tail as its driver enjoys the Monaro's responsive chassis on the tight and narrow road.

The car feels great in the tight corners, transmitting its power smoothly and with only the occasional intervention by the standard traction control unit.

The top of the mountain and as the line of coupes winds in the comments are favourable. Most everyone is impressed.

For the mountain descent and the run across to Norwell I switch to a yellow manual V8. My navigator is Holden's big-car marketing chief John Elsworth who confirms that the suspension set-up in this car is the same as in the automatic I'd just driven. The car just feels more stiffly sprung, a factor I decide has more to do with the road being a little bumpier, the downhill speeds being a little more urgent and the car having lived life a little harder than the orange auto had.

Coming up the hill motorists going the other way had been flashing their headlights. Recognition of the new Monaro, or something more sinister?

The answer becomes apparent as I accelerate away from the driver change in the 60km/h zone at the top of Tamborine Mountain. A motorcycle cop is pointing a hand-held radar gun at us.

As we run down the mountain and across to Norwell, Elsworth no doubt thinks I'm being a bit of a wuss with my cautious approach, but I have no desire to upset the local constabulary or to have a big moment with a senior Holden executive on-board the Monaro. So we stick broadly to the often-changing Queensland open road speed limit.

There's been a little criticism of the Monaro's ride, but it feels supple enough to me and the ride/handling balance seems in sync with the car's avowed role of being a sophisticated luxury sports sedan.

In some lovely sweeping corners I loosen the reins a little and revel in the crisp turn-in, the tactile feel of the steering, the glorious sensation as the unshakeably-grippy rear wheels bite the tarmac out of corners.

We run sporadically on largely corner-less stretches of gravel road (or dirt road as Elsworth calls them). The car copes well with the bumpier surface, tracks true and clean. The only cause for pause is making sure you don't get too close to the trees - which literally grow out of the road's edge - as you line up for the few corners.

The six-speed manual shifts nicely, though a slowish, positive gear lever action gives a better result than snatching ratios rapid-fire. Once, maybe twice, I have trouble finding sixth gear, trying to slot the lever back into fourth instead.

Norwell, on a property owned by V8 Supercar racer Paul (The Dude) Morris, consists of Morris' racing headquarters, a skid pan, a handling track and a tight little short circuit.

The skid pan will give us some idea of the car's behaviour in oversteer slides. The handling track will allow us to explore its chassis at speeds and in cornering attitudes not possible on the open road.


We're cycled through all the Monaro permutations on the track - CV8 manual and auto (18-inch wheels) and CV6 supercharged V6 auto (17-inch wheels).

First up I'm in a V8 manual, with V8 Supercar driver Greg Murphy riding as front-seat passenger. The things Supercar heroes have to do to earn their money, like ride shotgun for a bunch of out-of-control journos.

The electrically-adjustable seat gets me into the right position and at the right distance to depress the clutch pedal fully.

Let out the clutch and we're off. The clutch action is firm yet not heavy and we wind our way up through the ratios.

The first few corners are a dog's breakfast of steering adjustments, apex-missing and exit kerb-climbing.

"Mike, Mike," comes a familiar voice from the passenger's seat. "Fast in, slow out."

"Oh yeah, Greg. Yeah, I'll remember." I try to, but I'm not sure I achieve it. Driving a unfamiliar car on an unfamiliar track - alright, any car on any track - with a driver of Murphy's calibre sitting alongside you is daunting to say the least. If John Elsworth thought I was a wuss (he didn't say it, but I'm pretty sure he thought it) who knows what Murphy was thinking?

Maybe there was an indication in his comment: "you can go in really deep on these brakes." I didn't. Not while he was sitting there anyway.

Driving solo I'm a little more relaxed. We try deeper braking, slower entries, push a little harder. The Monaro chassis reveals itself to be beautifully balanced. Naturally there's quite a bit of understeer - this is, after all, a car intended for the road not the track.

The rear end grip is impressive, the car seldom feeling seriously taily, and even then only after you'd messed up. With the traction control switched off it was more likely to let go, and one of my colleagues caught what a motorcycle rider would call a tank slapper in the smaller-tyred CV6 as he braked right in front of me for a witches' hat chicane.

On the few corners I got right the feeling was sensational as the Monaro hunkered down and accelerated to the next bend.

There's been minor criticism of the Monaro's brakes, but they seemed fine to me, even standing on them hard for the left/right switch through the chicane.

There was an occasional chirp but no pedal sogginess and certainly no feel that the brakes were fading.

I preferred the V8 to the Supercharged six, but I always have in Commodores too. Nothing compares to the feel of a V8 at full cry in the big Australian car.

And then Murphy took us for a couple of hot laps and we got a real inkling of what the Monaro can do.

This time no other cars were using the skid pan and there was no need to tiptoe past the skid pan exit or cone-marked slip road.

Off with the traction control and Murphy nails the throttle and we hurtle into the sweeping right-hander around the cones.

From the passenger's seat it seems he must wipe out the cones. But no, he was just turning in hard, pushing hard and working the steering wheel to take the car through the bend with as little understeer as possible. Down to the tightish left-hander. A huge brake, turn in and accelerate out, the car sliding and riding the kerb. Down to the right-hander. Another big brake, turn in briskly to counter the understeer and accelerate out, Murphy's arms crossed as he uses full lock. And so on around the lap, bypassing the chicanes, and rounding the final corner in a full-blooded, tyre-squealing, induced-opposite-lock slide.

We now know how good the Monaro chassis is, understand what Murphy means when he says it's extremely forgiving and the car has superb brakes. Its grip is unshakeable and in Murphy's hands the big heavy coupe dances like a petite ballerina.


On the skid pan we learn to counter the natural tendency to react before the spinning turntable upsets the car and sends it into a tailslide. The third and fourth time I get it right.

The drive down the motorway to Brisbane airport is almost an anti-climax, but we get more evidence of Australia's instant - and we're sure it'll prove enduring - love affair with the new Monaro. Drivers wave, give the thumbs up.

Equally impressed are Holden staffers who've been involved with the Monaro programme. They've lived with the car in the design studios and workshops, but this is the first time they've seen it running in its intended environment. And they can't hide their satisfaction. The public's reaction to their creation is the icing on the cake.

As the convoy of Monaros moves down the motorway, the car looks great, with its distinctive tail lights with rounded elements and its single-opening grille and sleek headlights. The lower roofline and the car's lower-to-the-road stance give it a purposeful air which complements the beautifully-balanced Commodore-derived line of the bodywork. There are hints in there we're told of styling cues that will be seen in the next generation Commodore, the VY. The Monaro chassis tuning (re-designed front and rear springs, bigger-diameter front and rear stabilisers, retuned front struts and rear dampers, new steering gear) may find its way on to the VY as well. And customisers may fit the tail light and headlight clusters to existing VXs. We understand they fit the bodywork openings.

So how good is the Monaro? On the evidence of the Australian road and trackdriving, very good indeed.

I've never been on a car launch before where everyone agreed that the car was good, both in the way it drove and in the way it looked.

The only disappointment is that we won't see a Monaro on this side of the Tasman until next year. Holden expects the car to be on sale here by March, with the first boatload arriving at the end of February. V6s will sell in the mid-$60,000 bracket; V8s in the mid-$70,000s.

Looking on the bright side, March is only a little more than 12 weeks away. And then New Zealanders will get a chance to see and drive the car that is taking Australia by storm.

AutoPoint road test team.


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