LIVING IN Pomgolia for 20 years hasn’t turned me into a Pomgolian, but I’ll admit to gaining a Pommified sheen. Blighty, bad weather and warm beer over two decades will have an effect, manifesting itself in a neon-white complexion, a one-pack (keg) gut and a few more chins than necessary. But anyone accusing me of being a Pom will find me taking a swing at them.
I’ve only recently returned to live in our great country after driving cars and writing about them abroad for too long. Despite that, even living in Westminster, home for me was always Petrie.
Petrie, in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, is the place I grew up, and there are some great driving roads in that area – out round Samford in particular, Mt Mee, north to Maleny and beyond. But I hadn’t driven in many other parts of the country before I left for Europe. The great road passes of the Alps are not unfamiliar to me – Stelvio, Simplon, Brenner, St Bernard, Grossglockner, I’ve been across the best of them – but a gaping hole was left in my Aussie road knowledge. It needed filling.
Melbourne-to-Sydney it is, then, a run between the two great population centres, following a route suggested by former Wheels editor Peter Robinson. A plan was set, some rough notes scrawled out, a Melbourne-to-Sydney map purchased, and a single rule laid down, not to be broken – no Hume.
The car for the job is the HSV Clubsport R8 Black Edition – a standard Clubsport with new forged wheels, some extra black cosmetic addenda and badgework. This is my first run in a VE-shape HSV. After a particularly flu-ridden Virgin 737 flight from Sydney, which left me wondering where all the romance went with flying, photographer Wielecki and I arrive at HSV’s nondescript facility in an industrial estate in Clayton South and are given the keys to the car on the cover. Driving still has romance. To hell with budget airlines and boarding cards that look like supermarket till receipts: point me in the direction of Sydney.
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I’ll come clean with you – this story was originally intended to be a cultural journey as much as a drive, about me ‘rediscovering’ Australia and what it means to be Australian. As soon as I turn this car’s ignition key, though, a little part of that idea dies. Later, it would be shelved completely. The plans to call at places like Glenrowan and Gundagai and other historical spots perish on the altar of the LS3.
What an engine. After a diet of European stuff, it’s an interesting moment, awakening the big pushrod unit under the black-scooped bonnet. Vrrm, burble-grumble. Ah. This is a proper muscle car, the gearlever shaking and the whole car trembling at tickover.
First impressions? Solid. A big flat-bottomed steering wheel for a big car – great, too-small wheels are a pet hate. Meaty rim but not too thick like in a BMW M3. Fussy dials, switches, graphics and dodgy plastics everywhere, but it doesn’t matter – I ran a Corvette C6 long-termer (with this engine) and the HSV’s build quality is a match for the ’Vette’s. The only rattle all trip came from the metal key fob badge.
Great seat, big enough for big blokes, well-shaped and body-hugging, smart leather trim. Spot-on driving position, wheel not too low. Seat not fully electric but that doesn’t matter either. Let’s hope the money’s been spent where it counts to justify this car’s $70K pricetag.
We trundle out along the M3 in the direction of the Yarra Valley, nods of approval coming from other road users in a steady stream. I’m still measuring the weight of the controls. Clutch not too heavy, not too light. Long travel. Gearshift is notchy and tractor-ish, especially from cold. Clatter and rattle from the ’box, slap from the clutch. OK, so it’s not sophisticated, but what big high-performance car with this much torque has a slick, short-throw manual shift? With a firm hand, you can change with precision once you get used to it. Drivetrain shunt is no more than you’d expect in a big GT like this – at 1812kg, it’s not light. But the engine has the force to make it feel light. A deeper press on the throttle awakens a hard exhaust note beyond 3500rpm when the butterflies open in the bi-modal exhaust and let the howl straight through. Thrust to make a Virgin 737 cower is right there. Steady, let’s get out of camera-infested Melbourne and onto some proper roads before we let rip. The Black cruises sedately, ticking over at 1700rpm in sixth at the legal limit.
The Black Spur Road is damp and slick, and the Black starts feeding me plenty of information about what its tyres are doing as we tear through a spectacular mass of giant, bolt-upright ash trees and huge ferns, climbing the Great Dividing Range. This won’t be the first long stretch of beautiful scenery I’ll mostly ignore as I try to expose the HSV’s weaknesses. The Bridgestone Potenzas – 275/30/R20R rear, 245/35/R20 front – hang on grimly and silently.
Doesn’t take long to discover that this car is utterly unruffled by bumps. It is sublime over mid-corner hits, refusing to be thrown off-line or lurch or bugger about, maintaining its poise even at the point where the tyres are beginning to run out of ideas, instilling the driver with utter confidence, from braking and turn-in, through the apex, and onto the power. There is a profound sense of the front suspension talking fluently to the rear and vice versa, matching movements –
in this way the HSV is superior to any Aston Martin I’ve driven. Those things tend to squat and roll a little too much at the back, soft in the name of traction, but it leaves a question mark in your head.
There are no question marks in the Black. You commit, and it holds its line. World class. The HSV rides better than an Aston, too, more like a big Jag. Pomgolia is a fast-receding memory. Great talent has been at work here. The fundamentals are right with the Commodore underpinnings, of course, so hats off to the Holden guys, but HSV’s engineering team has taken it to a new level. Ride height is lowered by 20mm over the SS, springs are about
30 percent stiffer, it runs unique damper rates front and rear and the dampers themselves are 5mm larger in diameter.
I begin thinking of the European chassis gurus I’ve met over the years and how impressed they’d be with the balance of this machine – Martyn Anderson and Dave Minter at Lotus, particularly. They’d like this car – and I’m told the GTS with the active dampers is even better. Looking forward to trying that thing. The steering is much better than I expected, too – a touch light and elasticky at the straight-ahead, but well weighted and easy to use when you get some lock on.
After the intensity of Black Spur, we trundle round to Bonnie Doon, wary of cops, and find plenty of ‘serenity’ down by the lake, which until recently had been bone dry in this area. Soon it’s forgotten as we tackle the Mansfield-to-Whitfield stretch (see breakout). Robbo knows his roads. Again, a mixture of low, medium and high-speed twisties, ideal for getting a feel for any car. And it goes on and on, I charge and charge for what seems like 10 hours. In Europe, the greatest roads are dotted with towns and other interruptions. Here, we have vastness and a proper marathon. Fantastic.
I’ve found the Killing Gear, too – fourth. The V8 is so smooth and tractable, you could easily slip the clutch and take off in fourth… I often let the car run down to tickover at 700rpm and pull out of smallish roundabouts in fourth, the engine not complaining, just pulling. But remember, at 35km/h-per-1000rpm, fourth runs to 233km/h at the 6650rpm limiter. The bi-modal exhaust opens around 3500rpm when you’ve got the hammer down, or about 120km/h in this gear, by which time the engine is only just getting into its stride.
Fourth can do anything. I mutter ‘ah, fourth’ more than once as I power down another stretch. Couple of slow cars and a truck you need to dispatch in a short distance? No problem, floor it in fourth and they’re specks in the mirror in an eye blink. Need to pull out of a tightish uphill hairpin? Fourth. The speedo needle still spins round its dial rapidly at full noise. The engine is a masterwork and combines great low-down torque with a real keenness to rev.
After relentlessly entertaining, undulating stretches past Myrtleford and up to Kiewa, and the faster, challenging section of B400 near the Murray, all tackled at night behind fantastic headlights, we are welcomed by Fiona at the Mountain View Motel, Corryong. We’re late, but she’s friendly anyway. Why can’t the French be more like this? I’m rapidly forgetting the French, too.
According to the trip computer, we’ve travelled 557.43km today, 8hr 27min of driving time, used 78.26 litres of fuel at 14L/100km. One of the best driving days of my life. I stand and look at the car under the motel lights for a few minutes, admiring its long dash-to-axle proportion, listening to it tick as it cools. European-style chassis prowess with brute US power in a big four-door package. Is there anything else on earth like it? Not at this sort of price there’s not.
The road north to Tumbarumba is impossible to drive the next morning because we’re constantly stopping to take photographs. It’s like Tuscany in Italy, this stretch, some of the most beautiful scenery you could imagine, clean rolling hills and huge vistas. Breakfast at Tumut in the old Butter Factory cafe signals the fastest run of the trip, on the Snowy Mountains Highway to Cooma. Famous in this magazine but unknown to me, I find the tight run up the hill south from Talbingo a real challenge, but the car shrugs it off. It seems no road is too bumpy or twisty for the Black.
The Snowy Mountains Highway is truly one of the world’s great driving roads. At one point, I stare down a long, straight stretch and say to Thomas “I feel like doing some big, big speeding now – this car would only be pulling 3400rpm at 200km/h. The exhaust baffle would only just be opening … we could cruise at 220km/h on this road with ease.”
“Nothing’s stopping you, except jail,” he says.
I slow down.
We reach Narooma at sundown and it feels like the Pacific Ocean is an end in itself, given our two days’ hard slog cross-country, corner after corner. Rather than take Robbo’s inland route – no doubt it’s phenomenal, but now? – we decide to wimp out and test the Black’s cruising ability on Highway 1. But the road proves entertaining yet again, and I punt the car through the night at good speed and attack corners yet again, all the way to Wollongong, which marks the beginning of our first cruise control stage since Melbourne.
We arrive in Sydney at 11pm. The trip computer reads 1471km over the two days, 21hr 29min driving time, 202 litres of fuel. At an average $1.50 a litre, that’s still only $150 each. Add the hotel and you’ve paid less than the cost of two seats on that flu-ridden Virgin 737. We saw no highway patrol cars.
And the HSV? Mighty. Surprisingly sophisticated, despite an appearance that some would label brash. Feels well-developed in the key areas – drivetrain and chassis – and the rest doesn’t matter when you’re punting it on the right road. It is a driver’s car to its core, with a big heart, honed by talented people. Giving it back hurts, badly. Few cars on the planet deliver such performance, size and sheer character for the money. Gimme a GTS for the return run, please. I’ll do it tomorrow.