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HSV Clubsport R8 Series II


The decal plastered at the base of the rear screen sums it up rather nicely.

I just want one, it says.

There's a little bit of Aussie bombast about it; a little bit of arrogance; a huge amount of confidence.

Something inside you wants to reply, "no I don't."

And then you drive it.

After spending a week with this iconic Australian super saloon, you find yourself agreeing with HSV's boast.

At least I do, and so do many New Zealanders.

The HSV range is a good seller for Holden in New Zealand.

And the Clubsport model accounts for around three-quarters of all HSV sales.

Every third Clubsport sold is an enhanced R8 version, and R8 is the subject of this road test.

The R8 is based on the more upscale Berlina version of the Holden Commodore where the Clubsport uses the Executive as its starting point.

The R8 has specification gains over the Clubsport, but has the same powertrain and no performance improvements.

The R8 sells for $85,000. That's a $12,000 premium over the regular Clubsport.

Its standard equipment is enhanced by HSV Performance brakes which have larger front and rear discs and uprated callipers.

There are minor bodywork upgrades including R8 badges so people will know you're driving the premium Clubsport model.

The air-conditioning is more deluxe and the sound system is the Maestro with 260 watt amplifier, 10-disc Compact Disc stacker (the Clubsport has a single disc, dash-mounted unit; we actually prefer that to the R8's boot-mounted magazine system) and upmarket speakers.

The cloth-upholstered seats have high race-style support for your shoulders. They locate you firmly, though passengers complained about the height of the cushion bolsters when they were getting out of the car. It wasn't such a problem getting in.

Frankly, given the way the seats hold you during vigorous cornering, we'd put up with a minor difficulty getting out of the car for the better grip the seats give.

Our only irritation with them was that the seatbelt tended to get lost behind the high back and it was a scrabble to get the belt out and buckle in. The cushion bolsters also made it a tight fit to get at seat adjusters.

But on the open road when the car is being used even in mild anger, the seats' excellent support is much appreciated.

The R8's fuel tank carries 75 litres of 96-octane petrol.

The car rides on attractive, unique-to-the-model five-spoke 18-inch diameter, eight-inch wide alloy wheels.

Tyres are 235/40 ZR18 SO3 directional Bridgestones.

Like the Clubsport, the R8 runs the Chevrolet-developed 5665cc V8 that Holden calls the Gen III. At HSV it's known as the Chevrolet Heritage LS1. Chevy itself calls the motor the LS1 in its Corvette incarnation.

The HSV V8 produces 255kW at 5600rpm, and peak torque of 745Nm at 4000rpm.

The power output shades Ford's Tickford-enhanced 5.6-litre V8 by 5kW, but the Ford has 25 more Newton Metres of torque.

It's a potent engine which delivers excellent performance.

The test car ran the four-speed automatic gearbox which can be shifted manually when you're storming a tight and twisting road.

A six-speed manual is an option. It will add an extra note or urgency to the car's response in twisting country, but the auto is a good compromise, smooths out drivetrain shunt and is much more user-friendly in commuter traffic.

The driving experience in any HSV product is good, and current Clubsport models are outstanding road cars, blending unshakeable grip with a nimble chassis, first-rate steering feel, meaty performance and a wonderfully supple ride. HSVs ride firmly, but never harshly.

So, to our drive.

I don't know about you, but I've got heartily sick this winter of driving in heavy rain and on rain-soaked tarmac.

I'm always keyed up when cars like HSVs, Tickfords, SS Commodores or XR8 Falcons become available for test, and the prospect of the Clubsport R8 had me even more agog with anticipation than usual.

So when did it come along? Slap-bang in the middle of one of the most sustained periods of rain we've had for the past couple of years.

The Tickford TS50 had come along a week before - again in the middle of the rainfest - but having to cover the Rotorua Rally for Auto Trader forced my hand, and I had to drive the car in the appalling weather.

With the R8 I hung off and hung off waiting for a break in the apparently seamless downpour.

Writing another story about how a high-performance Aussie V8 drove in the rain didn't appeal, no matter how well the car fared - and the R8 handles the wet almost as well as it does the dry.

Finally, with the car's return to Holden imminent, I had to venture out on to our regular road test route.

The rain was falling as we headed up the Northern Motorway.

But the skies were clearing and about 20km north of the city, guess what? The rain stopped, a dry line was forming and most of the road surfaces were just dotted with puddles rather than resembling an ultra-shallow swimming pool.

A chance then to get the Bridgestone rubber working on some dry tarmac.

Turn-in on HSVs is sharper than on regular Commodores, and the R8 turns-in to corners crisply, though the steering feel is not quite as sharp and direct as on the Tickford Falcon (nor is a standard Commodore's when compared to a stock Falcon's for that matter, despite the changes to the VX Series II suspension).

The R8 settles into corners well, working the right-rear tyre as the weight transfers.

It's a satisfying feeling as the car hunkers down and then catapults out of the corner when you squeeze the throttle pedal.

We take the big sedan on to a favourite little sequence of corners we use to test agility.

It's a relatively low-speed set of bends, starting with a deceptive off-camber corner approached over a blind crest.

A sequence of left/right bends follows. A couple of them have tightening radii, the road rises and falls.

It's only a few hundred metres long but the corners are packed in and they're demanding.

They test a car's grip, its ability to change direction frequently, its braking feel, its stability.

The benchmark car through this sequence is the new Mini Cooper. It was faultless there, managing the run along the sequence and back without needing to be braked - except for the turn-around at either end.

Now though the new Mini is not really a small car, it's not big either.

How would more than 1600kg of Aussie iron measuring 4890mm fare?

In a word, brilliantly. The brakes were needed, but the chassis' composure is so good they needed only a brush to get the corner entry speed down on most of the corners.

A heavier stab was required on the corners that had the greatest distance between them.

A HSV R8 held in second gear will gather speed very rapidly in a very short distance when you mash the throttle pedal on the way out of a bend.

The car's cornering speeds were good, the Bridgestones did their work without complaint and the car changed direction and hung on with an aplomb and accuracy that belied its very real bulk.

The steering is beautifully-weighted and gives very good feedback.

The chassis is wonderfully communicative. Held firmly by the sports seat with its high bolsters on the cushion you get a very real for what the rear wheels are doing.

In effect, the car "talks" to you and its a conversation all keen drivers will enjoy.

A curious thing has happened with the latest crop of high-performance Australian V8s, be they XRs, Tickfords, SS Commodores or Monaros.

Their chassis are now so well sorted and their steering and handling so good that even colleagues who used to blame my fascination with the big cars on the fact that I live in West Auckland are now singing their praises.

One friend who used to say the Aussie V8s were anachronistic, mutant survivors of the US muscle car era now thinks they're great. He drove a V8 Monaro and a Tickford for extended periods during a holiday in Australia and came back fizzing with praise for them. He could only criticise their thirst for fuel.

That's how far the big cars, and especially the HSVs and Tickfords, have come. In many cases they've converted their harshest critics. They're no longer regarded by those members of the motoring press as Westie cars for Westie drivers.

Though the chassis talks loudly, the car's exhaust doesn't.

The HSV Chevy is whisper quiet to meet Australian drive-by sound regulations; and the Chevy lacks the fierce down-low note or whooping shriek of Tickford's 5.6-litre.

So how come most HSVs you see on the road come complete with a gorgeous and LOUD V8 burble?

The answer is an aftermarket exhaust kit which adds the final touch to an already beautifully iced cake.

We loved the Series I Clubsport we drove last year, rated it the best car we'd driven in 2001.

We did big distances in it, racked up around 1500 kilometres. Kept going back again and again for a quick blast along favourite roads. If there were ever a car that matched the HSV slogan it was that rich red Clubsport.

It had a magical blend of performance, secure handling, comfort and space.

The Series II Clubsport builds on the achievement of the Series I, adding sharper turn-in and other suspension tweaks to the mix.

We haven't driven a regular Series II VX Clubsport, but the R8 is one impressive motor car.

Is it worth the extra $12,000 over the standard Clubsport? If you want the better equipment, the more race-style seats and the status of having the ultimate Clubsport variant, the answer is a resounding yes.

If you want the car purely for its performance and handling abilities, the regular Clubsport would probably do you just as well.

In fact we'd even be happy to have the Series I Clubsport we drove last year. Even stacked up against the ritzier version of its Series II successor, that Series I passes the test.

It still holds a special place in our affections. We'd own a Series I Clubsport any day.

Story by Mike Stock. Pictures by Mike Stock and Holden Special Vehicles.

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