DO YOU ever have that feeling you really should be doing something useful, but just can’t be arsed?
That’s the zone I find myself in as I sit outside a nondescript building in a nondescript industrial estate in a nondescript suburb near Melbourne airport.
I’m waiting for editor Inwood to arrive in the HSV GTSR W1, a weak autumn sun warming my face. I should be using my phone for something productive, like replying to emails or watching Nurburgring crashes. Instead, I’m following a link to an oddly compelling time-wasting site.
Deathclock.com purports to be able to predict the precise day of your death, based on a bunch of lifestyle questions.
It was started back in the early 2000s when the Grim Reaper finally figured out website construction and decided to apply his powers to nonsensical uselessness, instead of evil. According to the site, my time on this earth will be up on February 16, 2051. I’m accepting of that; I’ve had a great life, and besides, I don’t appear to have anything else in the diary on that day.
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But what if there was an automotive Deathclock.com around back in 1988?
What if HSV was able to punch in the details of the first VL Group A SS, the game-changing Plastic Pig, into this morbid calculation device?
Somehow I doubt the result spat out would say something like: “You’ll evolve through three core generations, building a legion of loyal fans. Your zenith will come as your morph into a 474kW supercharged beast, reigning supreme, lauded as the greatest Australian-built sports sedan ever built. But you’ll be the last of your breed, and your final passing will come in the summer of 2017-18…”
Yet that’s pretty much the reality, so it’s no wonder I’m feeling a weird tangle of emotions.
Excited, of course, to be heading to some of the best drivers’ roads in the Victorian High Country in this epic car.
But also just a bit melancholic it’s come to this. Is this a wake? A celebration? Hell, it can’t be a wake; that feels a bit premature; and besides, we can’t neck fruity moselle and listen to a boring old uncle bang on about the glory years.
So it must be a celebration, then. An 815Nm, tyre-frying knees-up as the curtain comes down.
It’s impossible not to feel a tug in the gut, though. We all know large, locally built, rear-drive sedans are about as relevant as a Nokia 3310 these days, and as popular as gout, but it’s still tragic that the mainstream swing towards SUVs and small cars has claimed the scalp of the great Aussie sports sedan.
This is our effin’ M5; our E63 … those German V8 headkickers have never been in better shape; it feels criminal that as a supposedly switched-on country with a 92-year history of automotive manufacturing, we are about to have precisely nothing built here that can stare headlight to headlight with those cars.
INWOOD’S arrival in the W1 snaps me from this doleful decline.
Very considerately, he treats the neighbourhood to a bit of second-gear wide-open throttle, and as shrieking birds take to the skies, it’s enough to make you want to cheer and sear a Southern Cross branding iron into your left pec.
Holy crap, it sounds tough. Way more hard-edged and nasty than the GTS/GTS-R’s related LSA engine of the same capacity; properly motorsport loud and chest-thumpingly unapologetic.
Job one, even before we drool over the W1’s carbonfibre airbox and dry-sump reservoir, is to deal with HSV’s request to add only 1000km to the car’s odo.
Inwood’s idea is to simply trailer the W1 to the prime driving roads, and as he’s my boss, of course I agree it’s a brilliant plan; why waste any of our kilometre limit plodding along camera-infested freeways?
But the W1’s wide, low front bar refuses to be dragged onto a trailer, and I’m quietly pleased, as towing this car anywhere would have felt a bit wrong. Pampered, concours E-Type Jaguars are trailer queens. The W1 is this country’s toughest-ever bare-knuckle brawler; dragging it around on a trailer would feel a bit like Danny Green being pushed into the ring for a title fight in a wheelchair, so, y’know, his legs don’t get tired too soon.
So my first taste of the W1 is through suburbia and onto the Hume towards Heathcote dragstrip for performance testing.
First impressions are that the clutch and gearshift don’t feel noticeably different to a GTS, which is to say, the pedal is medium weighted – not heavy, with a nice, progressive bite – and the shift action reassuringly mechanical-feeling with short, positive throws.
And damn, it feels brilliant to connect with this car via a manual gearbox. Then there’s the engine’s flexibility, which is just colossal. Sixth gear will pull from 40km/h at 1000rpm with no snatch or judder. The drummer from Def Leppard could motor around in a W1 and hardly remember his accident.
The ride feels ultra-taut, but first impression suggests there’s just enough initial compliance to filter out most of Melbourne’s ruts and bumps.
Then a decent whack comes through at suburban speeds and I feel the driver’s door heave in its jamb in protest.
HSV was utterly unapologetic when describing this as the most track-focussed chassis set-up its engineers have ever attempted; the all-new SupaShock suspension, similar to that used in Walkinshaw Racing’s Supercars, offers a setting “comparable to a street-circuit tune of a V8 Supercar”, according to the company.
The inverted coil-over front set-up is apparently ‘2.2 times uprated’ over the current GTS, so no wonder there’s so little roll. But it sometimes feels this stiffness is at the threshold of what the body rigidity can take, given the protest of the doors over fast, bumpy backroads.
Later, the brilliance of the damping will be apparent, but the ride equation will continue to mess with my head, sometimes feeling completely acceptable, other times, a jiggle and shake-fest that starts to tire after a long day.
HEATHCOTE dragstrip, about 90 minutes north-west of Melbourne, somehow sits as a motorsport portrait of what’s happened to the Australian car industry. It’s a faded and tatty shadow of what it once was, but just fine for our purposes.
Deep down, though, we all know the W1 is a slim-to-none chance to put down a really blinding 0-100km/h time. HSV claims its halo model can hit the magic number in 4.1sec, but we’ve rarely been able to match the company’s claims, and we know that the manual transmission will rob it of several tenths in the launch phase, even with the ultra-sticky (and expensive) 295-section Pirelli Trofeo R rear rubber.
Yes, over in Germany, there are probably Porsche GT3 powertrain engineers, who’ve only now grudgingly reinstated a manual ’box in their track-focussed weapon, shaking their collective heads, going, “Jah, vee told you so…”
Sure enough, despite loads of attempts and various launch techniques, the W1 refuses to bolt to 60km/h any quicker that the last manual HSV GTS (down 54kW and 75Nm) we tested here in near identical conditions. It’s closed-case proof that gifting more power and torque to a big, heavy rear-driver does not bring faster off-the -mark sprinting ability once you pass circa 430kW and 740Nm outputs.
By the 100km/h mark, the W1 has trimmed 0.2sec off our GTS number, but its time of 4.5sec is still only what an auto GTS will do anyway. Beyond that point, though, with the tyres hooked up and inertia tumbling into the vapour trail, the W1 hauls like a shot dog. By 160km/h it’s a second faster than a GTS; by 180km/h that gap has doubled to two seconds.
But quibbling over the raw numbers, especially in the off-the-line phase, feels like a football star agonising over the fact he’s earning $40,000 a month instead of $43,000. What’s more relevant is just how epic this thing sounds from inside the car with the bi-modal exhaust open in either the Performance or Track modes, and how well the driveline handles abuse.
The tone is deep and rich off the bottom, all Barry White-ish from down low in the diaphragm. By 4000rpm it’s hollering, but there’s no taper up top, just a borderline vicious lunge to the 6600rpm limiter and a volume, especially in the back, that would have small children calling their DOCs case-worker.
Then there’s the overrun, which rumbles and crackles and pops with almost cantankerous contempt that you’ve backed out of the throttle.
Yet it’s not like the almost cartoonish noise some other performance manufacturers tune from their exhausts; this sounds properly motorsport, the noise you expect from a hand-built engine running titanium internals and a dry sump.
It’s way more Nomex, much less feather boas, than the twin-turbo V8s from a couple of the Germans. It’s also quite distinct, in sound, character, and revability compared to the LSA. Of course there’s an inescapable family likeness, but it’s almost like a William-and-Harry thing. Both have ample merit, but you know which one you want along for a weekend in Vegas.
That close-ratio Tremec gearbox, too, is right on the job, allowing near-flat upshifts just shy of the 6600rpm cut out, with a synchromesh that’s hard to beat.
WE HUSTLE from Heathcote towards the pretty little town of Nagambie via the C344, which is a road that manages to basically irritate the bejeezus out of the W1. The size and frequency of the lumps and bumps on this stretch send the chassis into a constant state of restlessness and, frequently, complete agitation. I have to grudgingly concede that the trade-off for the ultra-focussed chassis tune is a loss of a little of the GTS’s unflustered touring ability.
I take slight consolation that Inwood, now ahead of me in a 991.2-series Porsche 911 Turbo, is suffering exactly the same discomfort, but also has earfuls of tyre roar to contend with.
I still have no real clue why he needs a 911 Turbo for this trip when there’s a perfectly nice, vacant passenger seat next to me, but I try not to take it personally. Since becoming editor, I’ve noticed via Instagram he’s taken to wearing snakeskin trousers and a fedora in nightclubs, and demanding his grapes be pre-peeled. So of course he needs a 911 Turbo. I’m hoping it’s a just phase he’s going through.
When we arrive at our overnight stop in Bright, nestled in the Ovens Valley, Inwood eats pizza and drinks beer with us just like a regular person. There are no demands for poached swan or a snifter of cognac, although he does insist on the seat closest to the heater at our outdoor table, and I know he’d take a throw-rug for his knees at this point if one was going. Still, things are looking up.
The next morning we’re up in the pre-dawn darkness to try and meet the sunrise at the ski resort of Falls Creek.
To avoid a possible lynching from the Bright locals, I leave the drive-mode selector in the Sport setting, which keeps the exhaust well hushed unless you spin the engine into its angry zone.
This really is a brilliantly judged set-up, and gives the W1 terrific powertrain duality.
With the secondary flaps shut, you can lope around using as few ratios as you want – first to fourth is no problem – and there’s no bass drone when you ask it to pull. I actually prefer the lighter steering delivered in the Sport mode; for me it’s a shame you can’t keep this setting when the Performance or Track modes are selected. A job for the facelift? Oh, wait…
Inwood’s 911 Turbo was never intended for comparative purposes, but it’s instructive that the W1 is able to keep it so honest on the twisting run along the Great Alpine Road towards the famed Bogong High Plains Road.
Sure, in the hands of pro drivers on a closed-road targa course, it would likely be a different story. But in the hands of a couple of journos having a crack within the bounds of sanity on a public road, the W1 stands tall.
Literally tall, as Inwood and his Porker have a centre of gravity similar to goanna roadkill compared to me in the HSV sedan.
He’s also got about 250kg less to wrestle and phenomenal all-paw traction. But I have a power and torque advantage, as well as massive mid-corner grip provided by those only-just road-legal (and massively temperature-dependent) Pirelli Trofeos. Then there’s the power-down ability. The Commodore’s Zeta platform has always been a great thing when it comes to converting torque to thrust, but the W1 takes it to a new level.
First, though, you can lean on the loaded front corner in this car with an intensity that would have a regular GTS howling and baying at you to keep its nose out of the Armco. Then start chasing big throttle inputs still with loads of lock on and the apex barely in sight.
Unless there are ruts or you’re plain savage with the loud pedal, it just squats slightly and hammers out. The clarity and feedback of the chassis is sublime; the linearity and punch of this engine properly next-level.
Then there are the upgraded AP Racing brakes and 410mm front discs, which didn’t make any great difference to the car’s 100km/h-0 figure on the test track, but feel like they could stop communism when used hard on the road, with near-perfect pedal feel and the ability to seemingly burrow the snout of the car into the bitumen just before turn-in.
Only the lack of perfect pedal placement for heel-toeing (for my feet, at least) sticks as a demerit.
Guess that won’t get fixed in a facelift either.
BY THE time we begin the climb up towards Falls Creek, first light is starting to weakly filter though the huge stands of eucalypts, and smooth bitumen glows black in the soft, bluish pre-dawn. Right now, it feels almost wasteful to be one-up in this car. It’s so specifically built to accommodate four adults in comfort, it seems a shame not to have anyone else to enjoy it with, or at least make car-sick.
See, parts of this road should, in theory, be too tight for the big HSV to feel fully deployable, yet it just doesn’t seem to care. It’s a huge-hearted thing, scathingly quick and sounding enraged when really spanked, yet at the same time utterly co-operative and remarkably non-threatening when you’re driving it hard.
You’ll feel out the ESC intervention just to know where the threshold is – yep, bloody high – but then find you can drive right up to it, and be sniffing at it, corner after corner, even on damp patches, without re-awakening it.
Alex and I suffer possible irreversible testicle damage in the biting cold for our Falls Creek photography, but who cares? After swapping cars a few times, we’re both left shaking our heads, exchanging grins that render words a bit redundant. We both know we’re getting close to the peak of this drive, and the realisation that, in terms of the Aussie performance-sedan landscape, the W1 has just stuck its flag on the summit. This thing is a proper belter.
Later, as I’m bombing along a deserted section past Rocky Valley Lake, I find myself mentally ticking off elements about this drive that I doubt I’ll ever repeat.
To have had a chance to drive a big-capacity, supercharged V8 hooked to a manual in a rear-drive, Aussie-built sedan – a combination about to become an automotive unicorn – is something to be deeply grateful for.
I recall one of those eulogy cliches; “let’s not lament what we’ve lost; let’s celebrate that which we were lucky enough to have had,” or something along those lines.
Yet it doesn’t seem to help much when I finally park the W1 for the last time and walk away.