Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8

Holden Special Vehicles, abbreviated HSV is the officially designated performance vehicle division of Australian motor automobile manufacturer Holden. Based in Clayton, Victoria and established in 1987, HSV modifies Holden products such as the Commodore, Caprice and Ute giving them unique body-work and alloy wheels, up-spec interiors, and improved all-round performance thanks to upgraded engines, brakes, transmissions and suspension.
WHAT a pity chest hair is out of fashion! It robs us of a memorable phrase, first used by Britain’s Car magazine but a perfect fit for the Holden Special Vehicles Clubsport R8: chest-wig chariot.

A chest-wig chariot, like a chest-wig wearer, makes up for lack of sophistication through force of personality. That’s a fair description of the R8, and no insult.
But everything’s relative. The new Clubsport is considerably more sophisticated than the model it replaces. It justifies the word “special” in HSV.

Let’s get to the heart of the matter: HSV’s new LS2 6.0-litre V8. Brace yourselves for engineering jargon over the next few paragraphs because it’s a language HSV enthusiasts speak fluently and with passion.
In broad terms the LS2 is the latest iteration of the legendary Chevrolet small-block V8. Its basic features of pushrod valve operation and a thin wall cylinder block remain, even if recent versions are now cast in aluminium alloy.

The new engine is a bored out derivative of the 5.7-litre LS1 engine which powered GM’s flagship, the US Chevrolet Corvette, and under the name Gen III still propels Holden Commodores in Australia. The LS2, which debuted in the new C6 Corvette, is something of a flagship for GM. The Corvette and HSV are the only users of this engine.

The LS2 cylinder heads are based on those of the C5 Corvette Z06, a high-performance derivative of the previous model, and the entire engine is 4 per cent lighter than the LS1, itself a lightweight design. Throttle control is electronic via a 90mm single blade throttle body – that’s a big one, by the way.
What it all means is 297kW – or 305kW measured by the less stringent DIN criteria – at 6500rpm and 530Nm at 4400rpm.

An even more telling figure is that 87 per cent of peak torque, or 463Nm, is on tap at 1600rpm. That’s as much as some versions of the LS1 produced at optimum revs.
The LS1 could be a peaky engine by V8 standards. While powerful at high revs, it could lack the instant gratification of strong low-rev torque. HSV-tuned versions added more power and torque, but while this may have showed up on a stopwatch at a test track it was often less noticeable in everyday driving.

All that has changed, and it takes only a few seconds in an LS2 to realise it.
Even at idle it sounds more purposeful than the old engine, with a low-speed note that is equal parts stock car and diesel loco. Working harder, it takes on an intestinal and vaguely threatening tone, like King Kong breaking wind. You know you should be scared but you can’t keep the grin off your face.

Needless to say, the Clubsport is fast. HSV quotes a zero to 100km/h time of 5.2 seconds for the six-speed manual. The four-speed automatic is even quicker, at 5.1 seconds, but having driven both we’d recommend the manual.

The Clubsport uses an improved version of the Tremec/Holden six-speed, known as the M12. It’s still a heavy thing to shift – and by far the slowest part of the car – but the action does feel noticeably better than previous versions of the gearbox. The new one has shorter gear ratios but it’s attached to a taller geared differential.

Whatever, the net result is the LS2 turns over a truck-like 1600rpm at 100km/h in top gear. Like an old single-cylinder British motorbike it feels like it’s firing once with every passing telegraph post.
Driven in intermediate gears it feels even faster than its performance times. Torque and wheelspin are never more than a fraction of a second away, despite the best efforts of the traction control. There can be up to a second of scrabbling before the system reins in a drift but at least it no longer taps on the pedal like the cable-operated system did.

But there’s no need to explore the outer limits of the LS2 to enjoy it. Its enormous torque enables it to run fluently and rapidly between corners and to cruise on motorways in top gear without feeling strained. The revised steering pump shared with the VZ Commodore improves on-centre steering feel and tames the old-style HSV feeling of gratuitous steering weight.

The R8 gains performance suspension settings – that’s its chief mechanical difference over the regular Clubsport. The result is a much more tied-down feeling than standard Commodore, or even HSV, suspension. But handling still has a distinct Commodore flavour. Despite its considerable grip it still feels like a car that likes to be turned in early and powered out hard, rather than one that specialises in carving through bends at high mid-corner speeds.

The test car also came with the optional AP Racing brakes, of which our only criticism is that their soft high-performance pads soil the wheels with amazing speed. They’re an expensive but worthwhile option, though, at $3750.

Ride can be fidgety, as you’d expect from any vehicle with 19-inch wheels and low profile tyres, but this didn’t translate into discomfort on long runs. Credit for that comes down to the seats. They’re race-styled in HSV tradition but very comfortable. The steering also refrains from tramlining in the style of previous HSVs. When its monster engine is sleeping the car is also fairly quiet.

Another HSV tradition it breaks from is in fuel consumption. Although it will consume heavily in slow traffic, on the open road it can be amazingly frugal for a high-performance V8. Our best figure, measured fill-to-fill, was just under 10 litres per 100km.

Even when King Kong comes out to play consumption doesn’t deteriorate to the frightening extent it does with some V8s. A section of winding road produced an average of 14 litres per 100km, not far off what you’d use in some of the heavier Holden V6 models.

There’s one small additional cost: call me old-fashioned, but I couldn’t bring myself to put anything less than premium into an engine with a 10.9:1 compression ratio, even though HSV says the LS2 will run satisfactorily on regular unleaded.
Commodore’s fundamentals have been around for nearly eight years, and is starting to show its age in matters such as its lack of side curtain airbags.

We’ve harped on before about the dull interior style and low-class materials in the Commodore cockpit. At least the Clubsport doesn’t attempt to disguise its Commodore origins and we’ll concede the seats and driving posture are good. And the black leather and brushed metal treatment of the test car was a tasteful way of toning up the Commodore’s interior. On the outside, the characteristic HSV plastic prow is a fairly restrained item compared to some of its efforts.

When the history of the VT-VZ Commodore is finally written, after thousands of hours of beery debate in pubs from coast to coast, the LS2 Clubsport R8 stands a strong chance of being nominated as the ultimate version of the series. Like King Kong it’s a beast, but one that inspires affection. And like the movie it may well be fondly remembered long after it has become obsolete.

Holden has got it right, writes Robert Wilson, with a Clubsport V8 that will win hearts and minds. It could be remembered as the best of a breed
HSV Clubsport R8
Comment: Expensive for a Commodore but cheap for a performance car with top speed and acceleration close to Europe’s best. Creaking ‘Dore . . . can’t disguise its humble and ageing origins, but LS2 HSV may be the best of the 1997-2006 Commodore series.

Price: $71,140
Warranty: 3 years/100,000km
Engine: 6.0-litre V8
Power/Torque: 297kw/530Nm
Transmission: Rear-drive, six-speed manual (four-speed auto same price)
Seats/Weight:
Fuel tank/type: Five/1696kg (kerb)
Litres/100km: 75 litres/unleaded/14.8 combined
0-100km/h: 5.2 seconds
Turning circle: 11.0m
Airbags/ABS: Four/Yes

Scribbled on October 1st 2008 in Holden, Miscellaneous
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