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HSV Clubsport R8 long-term review

By Damion Smy, 01 Jan 2016 Reviews

2015 HSV Clubsport R8 long-term review

Time for Damo to (re)connect with his inner Bogan, in his first – and likely last – Australian built long-termer.

Part One: Reconnecting with my inner bogan

A CAR is more than nuts, bolts, plastic, metal and oil. If you’ve ever built your own street machine, you’ll know it’s bucket loads of blood, sweat, tears and emotion (not to mention rolls of cash).

That’s what the HSV Clubsport is to me: a rolling tribute to our motoring history. It has links to my childhood hero, Peter Brock. I have memories of V8 Commodores with my big brother, some of my best mates, and my dad when I was a kid.

He reckons I was taken home from the hospital in a VH – unfortunately, a VH Valiant, whereas I’d have preferred a VH Commodore but that was only launched four months after I was born.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I drive what will probably be my only Australian-built long-termer. After several years living in England and talking CO2 tax, it’s the ultimate car for repatriation into Australian culture for this lifelong Bathurst tragic.

This HSV Clubsport R8 automatic sedan in Heron White rides on awesome SV Rapier
20-inch wheels. It’s bold and confident, yet not as brash as a Fantale Orange VF, though its ‘GENF’ plates and bassy exhaust note show this is not a car for the timid.

Holden -clubsport -r8

A V8 measuring 6.2 litres isn’t for the meek, either, and while it’s not the flagship supercharged GTS, the 340kW Clubbie R8 is hardly tepid.

It’s not carrying a blower under its bonnet – the Gen-F GTS runs a great big supercharger to push it to a somewhat unfathomable 430kW – but the R8 still packs a bigger punch that any previous GTS hero model.

Hard to believe that the very first HSV GTS was the 1992 VP with what now seems a pathetic 200kW, and the original HSV Clubsport, based on the VN, had a downright laughable 180kW…

My first weekend with the Clubbie peeled back a layer of its identity because I attended a Bathurst Legends dinner attended by Holden Dealer Team royalty including Colin Bond – who, with Tony Roberts, won Bathurst in 1969 driving an HT Monaro GTS – and blokes like Frank Lowndes and Ian Tate, who built the engine that took Brocky to his first Bathurst crown in ’72.

This car is a remnant of the past. Brock built his HDT Special Vehicles as an escape from the mundaneness of ordinary life. And that’s exactly what the Clubbie does.

It represents escapism from the front-drive and all-wheel-drive hatches that dominate the performance scene, while its $79K ask is a long way short of the $155K-plus rear-drive C63 AMG Mercs and BMW M3s we love driving. There’s simply nothing like it for the cash.

It also shows that a car is a social machine created for and by a social animal – the human. Now, over six months, we’ll see if I change into an atypical stereotype or if it can fit into contemporary Melbourne, where it was conceptually born long before lattes, organic food and the snobbery of an even wealthier nation took over.

Dollar dazzler, sunk by the SS

Holden -commodore -ss -v -redlineThe Clubsport R8 looks like great value – unless you line it up with the Commodore SS-V Redline (above).

THE starting price for a Clubsport R8 sedan is $73,290, including Luxury Car Tax but before on-road costs. Our ‘GENF’ is an auto with excellent steering wheel shift paddles, adding $2500, while the Red Hot leather trim costs another $695.

Outside, 20-inch SV Rapier alloys cost an extra $1895 while the Hyperflow rear wing adds $985. That brings the bill to almost $80K for a sedan that can hit 100km/h in 4.8sec. Still damn good value, unless you mention Holden Commodore SS-V Redline.

Price as tested: $79,365
Part  1: 820km @ 15.4L/100km
Overall: 820km @15.4L/100km
Odometer: 6810km
Date acquired: March 2015

Part Two: Thirsty Work

IT’S clear that the Clubsport R8 is not just a fast and glorified taxi. It’s a hero car for bogans, a thin slice of the performance car wedge. It’s part of a cult, a religion, an addiction, where emotion and wallets meet, with emotion usually winning.

We’re at the annual All Holden Day in Dandenong, and we feel a little out of place in our brand-spankers and completely stock R8. Yet all the 400 cars here – chrome-bumpered sedans, panel vans and utes, large and small alike, fours, sixes and eights, turbo and supercharged – have one thing in common; they wear the Lion emblem on their bonnets and in their owners’ hearts.

And so the Clubbie R8 is welcomed into the tribe with open arms, the faithful admiring the six-piston AP Racing stoppers that perform so well pulling up its 1782kg mass, the Anthracite 20-inch wheels that still don’t scupper the ride, and the optional rear wing that hampers rear vision, especially at night.

Holden -Club Sport -R8-filling -up -at -fuel -pumpOwning a car with a Lion badge on its nose immediately breaks the ice. But despite the common thinking, it’s a broad church. Take the blokes from the SS club, who reckon you don’t need to spend the extra $35K that our Holden Clubsport R8 costs over an SS. Or the blokes who prefer chrome bumpers and shun fuel injection in favour of a painstakingly tuned four-barrel Rochester.

Whether you’re in a standard FB Holden, a rebuilt VL Turbo or the latest hardware from HSV, however, the kinship remains.

The R8 has booked us into the club, yet at a price. Its fuel economy is admirable for a 6.2-litre V8 – a best of 701km from the 71-litre tank is as good as the R8 gets, achieved on an interstate run – but around town you’re looking at close to 16L/100km.

You need to keep it in Sport mode because Touring mutes the bi-modal exhaust too much and Performance doesn’t feel much different on the street. You can feel its weight around corners, but those front seats hold you as firmly as the Continental rubber grips the road, even in the wet.

The R8 is extremely easy to drive and behaves itself in the city, even around corners that in my late teens had my V8-engined VH Commodore’s tail as switchable as an MP after an opinion poll.

The All Holden Day was quite a big deal, as is the R8. I can’t say it’s the car for all occasions, but so far it is the occasion.

It’s white, but a white good it ain’t.

Spare a thought

Holden -Club Sport -R8-checking -tyre -pressureIT HAPPENED in my last long-termer, and now it’s happened in the Clubbie – twice. A rear tyre started deflating as I left Ford’s HQ (perhaps the boss Graeme Whickman spotted me) and the pressure monitors chimed on my way back to the office.

Read more: How to fix a puncture

In the boot was a can of goo, which worked, until days later a screw lodged itself in the same bloody tyre! Now there was no goo, or even a wheelbrace to remove the alloy and get it fixed.

HSV has since fitted a 20-inch spare and toolkit snugly in the spare wheel well.

Price as tested: $79,365
Part 2: 2309km @ 9.6L/100km
Overall: 3129km @ 11.1L/100km
Odometer: 9119km
Date acquired: March 2015

Part Three: Compare And Contrast

The virtues of the Clubsport stand out sharply after a steer in a Camry.

I’M IN Port Melbourne picking up a test car. Bertie Street, to be exact, a Mecca for Holden fans and Australian performance cars in the 1980s because this is where Peter Brock’s HDT Special Vehicles was based.

I’m well aware this is a road where countless hot Holden Commodores once laid rubber in the fight against everyday mundanity as Dire Straits pumped out of their Eurovox cassette decks. Yet now, two decades on, at the end of this street, sits the HQ for the most boring car company in the world: Toyota.

I’m picking up the last Aussie-built version of Toyota’s cardigan on wheels as another significant chapter of our car industry approaches its end.

Yet, unlike anything from HDT, the Camry is a car I loathe: unexciting, underdone and usually bought by people who don’t like cars. The complete opposite of a mulleted Aussie car lover decades ago, or an HSV buyer today, then.

The Camry is a pragmatic Ned Flanders on wheels, and its buyers don’t want to become race drivers.

The Clubbie is anything but mundane. Like it or loathe it, the R8 is pure entertainment on a daily basis. Yet there’s one part of its skillset that’s not much fun: the inner-city parking game. If the Camry is Flanders from The Simpsons, the white Clubsport is Nelson Muntz. Like Nelson, it has a presence and people notice its arrival.

Holden -Club Sport -R8-hud -at -night-

The Clubsport R8’s head-up display is brilliant because it lets you use the centre display
for something other than speed.

Surprisingly, it swaps lanes swiftly and easily, and the steering is light enough that it doesn’t feel like you’re at the controls of a disobedient bullock. It is responsive, sharp and precise, but no amount of engineering can hide the fact it’s five metres of steel.

So while it can dice with Melbourne trams, cyclists and pedestrians who fail to check the road before stepping off the pavement, I can’t count the number of times I’ve missed a parking spot left teasingly by a smaller car.

I fume over the fuel it’s soaked up hunting for the next spot, with the trip computer telling me we’ve used more than 20L/100km. Then, down one of Melbourne’s eclectic laneways, with cars parked on both sides and the HSV taking up the entire space between, it felt like threading a needle to get slotted into the only spot left by the mid-morning brunch set feasting on quinoa with a clear conscience.

Thank God for that reversing camera, though not that stupid rear wing…

Yet I can live with this. I only occasionally need to park in the CBD, and it just requires a little more patience (and fuel). But I was reminded of why cars like the Clubsport exist while steering that Camry back to Bertie St.

On a white VF Clubsport R8 Tourer (I’m not making this up) was a sticker: “Life’s too short to drive boring cars.” Right on.

Enter Sandman

Holden -Club Sport -R8-at -beach-THE Commodore SS is one car that may stop me paying more for a Clubsport. The chance to steer a Sandman Ute – a stickered-up SS with gaudy-yet-sensuous orange wool seat inserts – was a moment of truth for GENF.

And you know what? The Sandy felt that bit more light on its feet in terms of handling, but was slower, didn’t sound anywhere near as good and didn’t give the kick in the back the Clubbie does. Perhaps this HSV stuff is worth it after all.

Price as tested: $79,365
Part 3:  761km @ 17.8L/100km 
Overall: 3890km @ 13.7L/100km
Odometer: 9880km
Date acquired: March 2015

Part Four: Return Of The King

“I CAN’T believe you gave it back,” says HSV’s keeper of the keys, Tim Stevens, as he drives off in ‘my’ Clubbie after I returned it to Clayton, just shy of 16,000km on the odo and near spotlessly clean. Not a single stone-chip near those white nostrils, a scuff on any of those stunning 20-inch wheels, nor a single mark. I loved that car, and it showed.

I’ll miss it.

That doesn’t mean it was perfect. The cabin is tacky but fun, the materials good rather than stellar, and for some reason, the boot remote stopped working days from the end – before randomly working again.

On the road, the transmission proved too slow to maximise the 340kW on tap and, while the R8 is a supremely sorted vehicle for its size and price, it still felt like a collection of excellent parts rather than the proverbial ‘fashioned out of a single piece of metal’.

The light steering only added to that feeling, and it seemed odd that, in this day and age, it didn’t have idle-stop to save fuel.

Also odd was that the HSV logo came off the passenger-side floor mat, not the heavily used one under the driver. And the bolster on the driver’s side was heavily worn thanks to my backside.

Yet the R8 is a car to sink your heart and soul into. It’s a link back to Australia’s motoring heritage, the golden era that kicked off in the late 1960s, even if its 6.2-litre V8 is made in Mexico.

The idea of this car is archaic – let’s face it, it’s a dinosaur on wheels – but we still bake bread in loaves and wilt over the oldest bottles of whisky. Old doesn’t mean bad. The smartphone proves that ‘new’ isn’t always better, and we often see change for change’s sake.

The Clubsport isn’t something that’s better than a modern marvel like a VW Golf R, for instance. It’s not as precise, not as sharp, even if it is (in a straight line) faster; who can argue with a 4.8sec 0-100km/h time?

HSV-CLub Sport -R8-Damion -Smy -sidejpgNot exactly what you’d call a dignified end to Damo and the Clubbie’s five-month love affair.

In our time together, so many people sat in the Clubsport that would normally shun an Aussie-made machine as a relic; surely it must drive like the HK Holden their grandad had? After all, the Aussie industry can’t have made any progress, could it? Yet the response, time and time again, was, “You know, I didn’t think these things were this fast, or so comfy”.

Okay, so none of them beat HSV’s door down for one of their own, but still, the R8 proved that there’s often little respect and a lot of ignorance for how good these cars are. They’re loaded not only with our proud past, but misconceptions as well.  That, too, stems back to the 1960s.

Cars like my Clubbie are the Aussie cultural cringe on wheels. They’re Midnight Oil; supremely talented, but often overlooked as Bogan bop-alongs.

Modern Australia is a wealthy, latte-sipping nation that sees sophistication in European cars and regards things like the Hills Hoist and Victa lawnmower as artefacts of a daggy past. Many park our beloved V8s in that frame, too.

Yet in 2015 I wear a scarf (questionable a decade ago), sport a beard, drink cappuccinos and wear pointy suede shoes. And I  love Holden V8s, because I love driving, love the sound and don’t care what my peers, parents or poseurs think.

I’ll miss the Clubbie, and hopefully will see her in a few decades, after riding my eggshell autonomous car to a show-n-shine, its proud young owner beaming proudly over his ‘old HSV’. Perhaps there will be a blower on the side, some oddball paint scheme or oversized wheels ruining the ride.

Whatever happens, this particular car will be loved, wherever it ends up.

Bogan brothers hit the highway

HSV-CLub Sport -R8-Damion -Smy -steering -wheelTHE Clubsport completed not one but two return trips between Sydney and Melbourne during its time with me.

The best mileage we recorded was on the last run, 10.6L/100km. That happened to be the same tank that I stretched the furthest: 724km.

My brother did the same return trip alongside the Clubbie in his 2005 VZ Berlina 5.7-litre and recorded a figure of 9.2L/100km. That’s not bad for a 225kW V8 with 148,000km on the clock and loaded to the gills.

Price as tested: $79,365
Part  1: 2220km @ 13.4L/100km
Overall: 9980km @14.4L/100km
Odometer: 15970km
Date acquired: March 2015