First published in the June 2016 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
It would be easy to assume that people don’t understand subtlety anymore. Instagram selfies, bigger muscles, fuller lips, more Facebook likes, more hype. And often inversely proportional to the size of someone’s intellect. Long gone are the days of the intelligentsia receiving rock-star reverence, and ditto the likelihood of slipping under the radar in an AMG.
Remember the W202 C36, its C43 V8 brother, and the supercharged W203 C32? Pleasant things all, particularly the sweet-as-honey C43, but about as in-your-face as a Home & Away lovemaking scene. And that doesn’t really cut the sports-sedan mustard in 2016. Not when BMW has been setting the bar for puffed-up yet practical high-performance machinery since the epically hirsute E30 M3 of 1987.
Thankfully (or otherwise, depending on your point of view), the last decade has seen an explosion in AMG-ness, culminating in the indecently rapid C63, AMG’s mainstay since its smashing global debut in 2007. And it just keeps on getting madder, badder and, you guessed it, better. If today’s C63 S had a smartphone, it would photograph itself low, front three-quarter angle, playing up its deep chin and chiselled flanks. A wallflower it most certainly isn’t.
HSV has also come a long way from its understated past, to the point where it now has the under-bonnet firepower, and the street swagger, to take on the greatest sports sedans the world can muster.
And while a size-for-size stoush says the HSV’s natural rivals are the BMW M5 and Mercedes-AMG E63, the $80-100K price point of the supercharged Gen-F2 line-up says BMW’s smaller yet still searing (and roomy) $139,900 M3 sedan is a better fit.
Same goes for Japan’s belated bent-eight beast, the Lexus GS-F. Wielding the space and maturity that eluded its two-dimensional IS-F predecessor, and dialling aggression up a notch, the GS-F may well be the AMG you have when you’re not having an AMG. Or an M3 for that matter. The Lexus is like a former goody-two-shoes who’s suddenly discovered the joys of misbehaviour, especially with that anti-establishment ‘F-you’ of orange paint. But is that enough to earn the GS-F trending status?
Not at the strip, unfortunately. Despite packing a meaty 351kW at 7100rpm and a solid 530Nm from 4800-5600rpm, in pure numbers the GS-F’s naturally aspirated V8 is overshadowed when up against so much forced induction. Off the line, after a moment of helpful wheelspin, the GS-F bogs down a little before hitting 3750rpm and suddenly acquiring sound and speed. Backed by a strident, V8 Supercar-like induction roar, the GS-F keeps lifting its game in ever-more-frenetic stages right to its 7200rpm redline, but never quite delivers the same shove-in-the-back experience of its blown and boosted compatriots.
That said, zero to 100km/h in less than five seconds isn’t to be scoffed at. Plus, there’s a richness to the GS-F’s 5.0-litre V8 that elevates it well beyond the same engine’s superficial personality in the flawed old IS-F. Hell, it has character, and we weren’t expecting that. It also teams beautifully with its eight-speed torque-converter auto and neat wheel paddles, and while it would undoubtedly benefit from an extra 500cc, in isolation it feels amply strong enough.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is HSV’s supercharged Clubsport LSA, wielding a slightly less potent version of the GTS donk (missing 30kW and 69Nm) with easily the largest cubic capacity here. Despite its serious 400kW/671Nm outputs, the 6.2-litre LSA feels relatively unstressed laying down consistent mid-12 standing quarters, aided by a faithfully strong and foolproof MG9-spec Tremec six-speed manual in this instance.
HSV’s true equivalent to the velvet-boxing-glove C63 S, M3 and GS-F would surely be the slightly more demure blown Senator with adaptive magnetic-damper suspension, but we really wanted to see whether the fixed-damper Clubby feels polished enough to transcend its massive price saving. And then there’s the attraction of its increasingly rare manual gearbox, which deserves to be celebrated.
Besides some driveline shunt that requires smooth and dextrous clutch actuation, the manual Clubsport LSA is a wonderfully docile thing. Capable of pulling from 1000rpm on the flat, its natural shift pattern around town is first-third-fifth, backed by a rumbling undercurrent and an ever-present exhaust crackle on over-run. But when you’re up for a punt, this freshly supercharged Commodore sits neck-and-neck with the C63 and M3.
While the Clubsport LSA’s soundtrack can’t quite match the bassy ferocity of its 430kW GTS big brother, from zero to 80km/h, just shy of cut-out in first, it’s just three-hundredths slower than the C63 and one-tenth off the M3. Even to 160km/h, the difference is only a second and, while the HSV ultimately cedes accelerative honours to the Germans, the exhaust-crackle theatrics trumpeted from its bi-modal exhaust are worthy of a sizeable YouTube following.
For all their differences in principles, the twin-turbo six-cylinder M3 and twin-turbo V8 C63 S are closely matched in a straight line. As per the M-car norm, the M3 is quicker when launched by human than by computer, whereas the C63 will jettison itself in ‘Race Start’ mode with failsafe repetition, at least for the five successive runs we put it through. The M3’s worked once, then headed out the back for a ciggie.
But the C63 S is ultimately the faster of the two, and the more tuneful. It whip-cracks from its quad exhausts as it upshifts with decisive intent, and beyond 180km/h it begins to pull well clear of the M3… not that anyone other than time-poor Germans hoovering up the autobahn between Stuttgart and Munich should give a damn.
The M3 isn’t without its acoustic charms. Its somewhat grainy turbo six may not be to every petrolhead’s liking, but its performance is supreme and the bark of its exhaust can be intoxicating when you’re up it. Yet it lacks the C63’s histrionics, let alone the HSV’s cackling exhaust, and in day-to-day driving the dual-clutch M3 is simply too refined. Without BMW’s six-speed manual (which a far-too-small proportion of Aussies opt for), the M3’s personality is hobbled.
While not having a manual gearbox means it’s hard to play exhaust games, when the M3’s chubby turbo six is at full attack it’s still an effing brilliant sports sedan. Serving up unrelenting thrust and barking with each lightning-fast dual-clutch shift, there’s zero room for the chassis not to be on the same page.
With an arrow-sharp front-end and excellent grip, both in mid-corner and exit, the M3 feels unshakeable up to the outer limits of its adhesion. No matter what the cornering challenge, it feels superbly balanced, especially with the dampers (and steering) in Sport, allowing you to trim its line with the throttle like a true sporting professional. But the caveat to all that is a rear-end that tends towards ‘twitchy’, making it more of a light-switch car than the smoother C63.
When really on it, the M3 driver is never entirely sure if the back is going to step sideways, and sometimes when it does it’s out and back in before you know it! If you’re aware of the BMW’s on-limit behaviour, it’s a wonderfully focused, fast and involving car, blessed with one of the world’s great steering wheels and the weight (in Sport mode) to match its bulldog stance. But the C63 eclipses it.
Unlike the BMW, the firmly suspended AMG does its best dynamic work in Comfort mode, being too stiff in Sport and borderline brutal in Race. And there’s a fluidity to its movement that ultimately escapes the more digital M3.
The AMG pivots on its rear end, points its pretty nose into a corner and traces a deliciously smooth line through before hooking up its Michelin Pilot Sport Cup rear boots and thundering ahead. And while it has grip to burn – certainly in the dry, and even in the wet if you aren’t too exuberant – there’s an adjustability to it that upholds the old W204 C63’s dynamic DNA while adding a whole new level of composure.
The AMG certainly feels much smaller and lighter than the Clubsport, with the added agility (and visibility) that goes with it, but that doesn’t mean that HSV’s blown bargain is unable put up a mighty fight. Providing you’re aware of the huge V8 sitting just behind the front axle line and the mass you’re wielding, the Clubsport is an incredibly capable beast, beautifully balanced by the throttle.
While its pedal set-up means heel-and-toeing is only really possible when you’re standing hard on the forceful picks, and its steering isn’t as pointy and precise as it could be, the HSV is a really easy car to place. Trail some brake into a 35km/h corner and there’s zero understeer, followed by vast corner-exit grip that belies what the Clubsport’s on-paper credentials might imply. And then there’s that engine character, hollering like every day is Oktoberfest as it breaches 4000rpm, exhaust barking like a bushfire, gearshift slotting home with well-oiled accuracy.
The Lexus is no dynamic duffer, either, despite what the purists might want to think. Its torque-vectoring system (labelled TVD) has three settings – Standard, Slalom and Track – though we left it exclusively in Slalom because that’s what makes the 1825kg GS-F feel most agile. And it corners. The torque vectoring really works in making the relatively large Lexus shrink around its driver, and the g-sensor that helps ensure its eight-speed auto is in the right gear at the right time is supported by the GS-F’s excellent balance.
Only its steering drops the ball a little. While helpful in finessing the car’s cornering line, and linked to a rather likeable perforated-leather wheel, it’s too aloof for a sports sedan and no match for the GS-F’s entertaining chassis.
The HSV’s steering isn’t perfect, either, but it’s much more connected than the GS-F’s and in unison with its chassis’ talents. The BMW, too, isn’t without fault and could be more generous in its feedback, while the AMG somehow manages to properly connect its flat-bottomed, Alcantara-clad wheel to the front treads when all its dynamic chips are down. When it isn’t loaded up and chasing a figurative dragon, however, it can feel rather odd in the way it alters its weighting, regardless of what chassis mode the Agility Select system is in.
What the AMG manages with surprising efficacy is ride. Not in the truest sense because no car here is more firmly suspended than the C63, even in Comfort mode, and its lumpiness at low speed will have occupants rocking around like Bronwyn Bishop’s chopper in a strong wind. But at speed, it has a level of composure that enables it to resist irritating vertical movement while remaining hyper-focused in body control.
The M3 has more tyre noise than the C63, and feels restless and jiggly most of the time, even in Comfort mode. Switching the dampers to Sport only magnifies the issue, yet the flipside to this is the M3 is more accommodating at low urban speeds. Where the Benz can be unyielding, the BMW is less reactive and has a more comfortable rear seat. The C-Class’s rear bench is lacking in under-thigh support relative to the 3 Series’ deeper offering, but the compensation in the Benz is its more level ride, excellent vision enhanced by an all-glass roof, and its more special cabin presentation.
When you’re talking sprawling space, the HSV and Lexus put their longer wheelbases to good use. Each car’s rear seat is like stepping up to Business Class, with comparatively vast amounts of room in all directions. But, unexpectedly, it’s the Clubsport that offers the best ride of this group, even without the GTS’s excellent magnetic dampers.
There’s more vertical movement in the rear than the GS-F, and more tyre noise in the front, but the Clubsport offers the sweetest blend of comfort and control, at all speeds. The Lexus – also running fixed-rate dampers – has a decent urban ride, and is quiet and smooth on perfect roads. But this illusion is quickly broken as surface quality disintegrates and the GS-F becomes restless and jiggly – surprisingly so, given its palatial rear quarters and centre armrest filled with controls, like a proper limo.
Yet that somehow fits the brief. Luxurious on the inside, brash on the outside, with politeness left at the front door, each raising a glorious single-finger salute to conservatism. If you don’t get it, buy the bread-and-butter version.
The whole point of grouping together this unlikely crew was never about putting apples with apples, or trying to turn a pumpkin into an orange. But that’s definitely what has happened to the now five-year-old, fourth-gen GS.
Sporting the lairiest paint on a Lexus sedan in history, and easily the warmest iteration of its revvy atmo V8, the GS-F is unexpectedly likeable and surprisingly characterful. For a price roughly midway between M3 and C63 money, you get a big-hearted, entertaining and roomy sports sedan that isn’t what everyone else is having. It may be a little heavy-handed in the looks department, and some of its features may err on the side of gimmickry, but it gives us hope that there will, one day, be a true link between Lexus’s tuned road cars and its titanic LFA supercar.
As far as relative bargains go, few will ever match HSV’s Clubsport LSA. It is vast – both in space and in visceral impact – and shouty in the best possible way, like it’s constantly yelling, “I’m having a freaking awesome time!”. It has the performance and dynamic ability to shade the Lexus, not to mention long-distance cabin comfort and ride quality to shame both the Germans. What that sharp entry sticker doesn’t buy is the craftsmanship on which its luxury-brand rivals build their reputations (for nearly double the price).
Charging a few thousand more for truly luxurious and beautifully stitched seat trim would go a long way to bridging the gap. The HSV’s benchmark seat comfort deserves as much.
In isolation, both the Germans are blinders – ballistic in a straight line, eye-widening around corners and dressed like the automotive equivalent of wearing a cutting-edge suit with pricey sneakers. In so many areas, they’re neck and neck – including fuel consumption averages over our 700km test of exactly 13.36L/100km each – but it’s the flavour left on your palette after gorging on both that ultimately makes one superior to the other.
The tough-looking M3 might be a brilliant all-rounder, and faster than just about any mortal could want, but it lacks that sprinkling of genius, the elusive pixie dust that separates real from surreal, that allows the C63 S to keep on giving. The uber AMG might be more expensive, and arguably less of a chest-beater for your Instagram account, but it’s hard to put a price on the X-factor quotient of a C63 S. Underestimate it
at your peril.