There was a time - and it wasn't too long ago - when I was less than inspired by the way Holden Special Vehicles' (HSV) Clubsport looked.
They struck me as being a little on the chunky side, the body styling additions detracting from the grace, economy and smoothness of the lines of Mike Simcoe's beautifully-balanced Holden Commodore VT/VX.
The Holden styling boss and his talented team produced one of the best-looking big cars yet when they penned the VT. Their work is so skilful the car looks much smaller than it is, especially in comparison to Ford's controversially-styled AU Falcon.
And the VT/VX has struck a real chord with New Zealand buyers who have made it the country's consistently best-selling new car.
Though it can look a little bare without a bootlid spoiler, the VT/VX still looks great and absolutely up-to-date several years down the track.
As I was saying I was a little underwhelmed by HSV's take on the VX, especially the Clubsport. I was veering more towards Holden's own hot rod Commodore, the SS, which retains more of the sinuous lines of the standard car.
My views remained the same when I picked up the red-painted road test car from Auckland Holden dealer Schofields - nice but no more than that.
Turn the switch and the 5.7-litre V8 rumbles into life and settles into a rhythmic idle.
Select Drive on the slick-shifting automatic gearbox, release the handbrake and ease out into the traffic.
The steering is firm, the leather-wrapped Momo steering wheel has a pleasingly-chunky rim and the diameter is about right.
Step on the throttle as we exit a right-angled corner and there's a chirp, a little wheel scrabble and then the traction control intervenes to bring matters back to normality.
We thread our way across town, the car handling nicely, easily, the V8 doing little more than tick over at city speeds.
The exhaust note is muted, the gearshifts all but imperceptible.
The drive is pleasant, the Clubsport behaving in highly driver-friendly fashion, happy to burble along. You're never unaware of its potential. The blast out of the right-angled corner and the attendant slide and traction control intervention leave you in no doubt that serious power is there for the asking.
I reach home in fine good humour. I get out and take a long look at the red Holden in my driveway. It's starting to look good to me. It certainly looks at home.
The following day we hit the highway, diving into Northland to cover the second day of the Propecia Rally of New Zealand.
By the time we reach the service park at Ruawai I'm convinced. The Clubsport is at the top of the wish list, elbowing former favourites aside.
By the end of the weekend the impression remains the same. The more I drive it the more I want to drive it, and the more I want one.
When I finally have to take it back, it's at the last possible minute the following Friday evening.
In the interim I've driven the car in the wet and the dry, on State Highways, motorways, gravel roads and for two memorable blasts along favourite twisting and turning roads.
And during that whole time it hasn't put a foot wrong.
HSV's VX range came on stream at the end of 2000.
The VX got HSV's first major re-styling in three years. It wasn't the radical change the previous one was when Holden replaced the VS with the all-new VT as the raw material on which HSV went to work.
But the styling changes are real, if subtle.
The reason was simple. With its own VX line-up Holden deliberately made its performance models, the SS V8 and S V6, look more aggressive and distinctively different from the other high-line models in the Commodore range.
Their styling even took on a little of the HSV character. The VX HSVs introduced other changes too: new parameters for suspension tuning, significant gains in safety and equipment, and drivetrain refinements.
The LS1 V8 is now more powerful and torquier. A new rear muffler design with new outlets matched to the new rear styling generates a more distinctive V8 engine note, though it's still relatively strangled to meet Australian noise regulations. Aftermarket exhausts restore the V8 rumble and roar.
The Clubsport's 5.7-litre Chevrolet LS1 V8 produces 255kW of power at 5600rpm, and peak torque of a chunky 475Nm of torque at 4000rpm.
It's a versatile engine, as at home making the daily commute as it is rocketing the car along a winding country road or cruising down the motorway.
Acceleration is vivid. The sprint from rest to 100km/h takes around six to 6.5 seconds and acceleration from 80 to 100km/h is strong in all gears.
The power is well-managed and aside from an ability to light up the rear tyres at will if the traction control is switched off, the Clubsport was never a handful. In fact you get used to the acceleration and it's only when you have a new passenger in the car that you realise - from their comments - just how hard and how fierce the acceleration is.
HSV says it has re-calibrated the Clubsport's automatic transmission for smoother gearshifts. The Power mode is less aggressive but is still far more performance-oriented than the Power mode on standard Commodore transmissions. HSV's Normal mode is similar to Holden's for more relaxed shifts and improved fuel economy.
The four-speed automatic gearbox shifts smoothly and quickly, and can be used manually to hold the car in a ratio for rapid country road driving.
HSV says the VX Clubsport's suspension is now more sophisticated, in line with improvements to steering response and tailshaft refinement that Holden made on the VX Commodore.
A new Touring suspension is standard and was designed to be smoother and quieter over a wider variety of surfaces without sacrificing handling and roadholding.
Drivers willing to trade some ride quality for sharper responses and handling can specify the new R8 performance suspension. It keeps the beefier rear control arm bushes and firmer damping control of the previous system, but also delivers improved ride and greater composure over bumpy surfaces.
We found the handling to be excellent and the rear wheel grip difficult to shake on dry roads even with the traction control switched off. The Clubsport has 18-inch diameter alloy wheels as standard, and they wear low-profile Bridgestone S02 tyres.
HSV says new damping with better valving through the mid-range provides a more compliant ride and better absorption of bumps.
We found the supple and pliant ride one of the Clubsport's most appealing features.
This is no bone-shaking sports sedan which tells you jarringly of every little irregularity in the road.
The suspension soaks up road imperfections and provides a comfortable ride without sacrificing handling sharpness or grip.
Turn-in to corners is crisp and direct, much crisper than in the VX Commodore on which the car is based. In fact, the VX II Commodore which we drove briefly in Australia shares much of the HSV's crispness.
The Clubsport is enormous fun on a demanding road, turning-in beautifully, holding its line well and refusing to be unsettled by mid-corner bumps.
For most running we left the traction control switched on, but seldom found it intrusive.
It would occasionally kick in on corners where we weren't expecting a loss of rear wheel grip.
But we didn't feel that - in most circumstances - it was taking anything away from driver enjoyment.
In fact, when pushed hard in ultra-tight corners the rear would step a little before the traction control cut in.
The car can still be cornered on the throttle despite the traction control.
The Clubsport is a prodigious ground-coverer, capable of impressive cross-country times without apparent effort.
On the run into Northland and back during Rally NZ we kept our maximum speed to 100km/h but still made good progress, taking advantage of the chassis' agility and nimbleness to keep cornering speeds up and relying on the engine's strong torque to regain momentum after slow corners.
And at the end of a long journey we weren't tired.
We found the brakes strong and progressive and well up to the task, although pedal travel increased slightly after a hard run on a many-cornered road. The brakes soon recovered, though.
Headlight and windscreen wiper performance is at the level you'd expect on a high-performance car.
Fuel economy depends on how you use the car and we were using it relatively hard, but we averaged around 13 litres per 100 kilometres.
Comfort levels are good and there plenty of seat and steering wheel height adjustment to achieve a comfortable driving position.
The sports-style seats are nicely-shaped and provided good grip, though the regular front seat passenger said she could have used more lateral support on one particularly tight section of road.
There's the usual roomy Commodore rear cabin and big boot. Creature comforts include a good quality Compact Disc sound system; air-conditioning; power aerial; power windows; power mirrors; central door-locking and a comprehensive alarm system.
At the end of our week with the car we were more than sorry to see it go. We'd fallen in love with the way it looked, went and handled. It looked great on the driveway and in the garage and it seemed to feel at home too.
Basic Commodores are well-sorted, user-friendly cars and the potent SS is a fine sports sedan.
But the HSV Clubsport takes the Commodore concept to new levels of sophistication, performance and handling.
It does its job supremely well and is a sports sedan of world class. We think it's the best car we've driven this year, and among the best we've ever driven.
And the VX Series II Clubsport is just around the corner. HSV says the new model is better again than the Series I. We could find virtually nothing to quibble with on the old car. We can't wait to get our hands on a Series II.
AutoPoint road test team. Photographs by Dean Smith and Mike Stock.