IT’S 2001, I’ve just finished playing a game of high-school cricket, and one of the defining moments in my love affair with cars is about to happen.
As I slide my gear into my bag, a member of the opposite team is collected by his dad in a brand new HSV Clubsport. It’s a white VX, it’s immaculate, and as they cruise slowly past at a pace guaranteed to attract as many eyeballs as possible from the watching crowd, the kid rolls down the passenger window and plants his elbow firmly on the sill. In that moment, it is the coolest car in the world.
I should point out here that I grew up in Bathurst, at the foot of Mount Panorama, and had such an affinity for fast Holdens that I painted my BMX bike red and plastered it with Mark Skaife stickers.
Anyway, you can appreciate why collecting my new HSV Clubsport R8 LSA long-termer was so exciting. Mine’s a wagon, and first impressions of the home-grown steed that will fill my driveway for the next four months are brilliant.
HSV has given the Clubsport a visual overhaul for the Gen-F2 series, and the addition of matte-black inserts in the front bar, side skirts and bonnet, plus a new design for the machined 20-inch wheels (255/35R20 up front and 275/35R20 out back), has turned the aggression up to 11.
If there’s a visual disappointment, it’s at the rear, which remains unchanged in wagon spec – HSV says that Tourer volumes are so small it didn’t justify the investment – and it looks a little Plain Jane compared to the rest of the Clubsport’s pumped-up physique.
Still, that letdown is quickly forgotten when you prod the start button. Under that vented bonnet lies the same 6.2-litre supercharged V8 as HSV’s flagship GTS, only in a lesser 400kW/671Nm tune. It barks into life, and with Sport mode engaged on the selector dial, settles into a loud and lumpy idle that rocks the car.
Normally I like to break in a new long-termer over a series of short trips (usually to and from work) where I learn the ins and outs of its character over a period of weeks, but this time is different. With a few days of annual leave approved and a beach cabin booked on the NSW coast, the wife and I throw the fishing rods in the 895-litre boot (the Clubsport sedan has 496L) and head north.
It takes less than an hour for the HSV to work its way under my skin. It’s roomy, sublimely comfortable, and in top gear on the Hume freeway, with the big blown eight ticking over at little more than 1200rpm, an effortless cruiser. It’s not even that thirsty for a car with this level of performance, with long stretches of flat freeway returning a fuel reading in the low 11s.
The one thing I can’t get on board with so far is the sound. Sure it’s mean on start-up, but the Clubby’s audible package is bit of a letdown low in the rev range, where it’s too quiet and lacks character. This changes drastically above 4200rpm, where flaps in the exhaust open with a loud metallic snap and the big bent-eight lets loose with a bellow, yet even here the note isn’t what I was expecting. A Holden VFII SS-V Redline, which costs $30K less, sounds better.
Still, it’s clear the rest of the Clubby’s package is living up to the memory I have of that white VX. Except mine’s even cooler because it’s supercharged. And it’s a wagon, and fast wagons are awesome.
ONE of my favourite games to play, usually with friends at the pub, is ‘One Car For Life’. The premise is simple: players are asked to name the one car they’d be willing to drive, forever. In choosing, you’re excluding all others for eternity, so think of it as nominating your permanent one-car garage.
Easy, right? Well, not really. Most make the rookie mistake of picking a sports car, often a Porsche 911, which is brilliant, until they realise they have kids. And a dog. And occasionally need to tow things.
Powerful SUVs are popular, too, like a Porsche Cayenne GTS or Range Rover Sport SVR. But I don’t want to drive an SUV for the rest of my life.
My choice, and I’m quite proud of this, has long been the Audi RS6. It’s the Swiss Army Knife of cars, capable of lugging five adults (and a Labraschnoodle) in supreme comfort, yet powerful enough to blow supercars off at the lights. Case closed.
Or so I thought. Second month in and the Clubsport wagon continues to have me hooked. There’s something deeply satisfying about driving a car with this much grunt, especially when its onboard electronics are calibrated so brilliantly.
This month has been spent exploring the Drive Mode Select dial, which comprises three settings: Tour, Sport and Performance. Cycling through them loosens the electronic nanny to the point where, with Performance mode engaged, you almost feel like you’re on your own. You aren’t, but it does allow for a large amount of slip, and after a month of exhaustive testing I can’t think of another car that breaks traction as smoothly, or predictably, as this.
Admittedly, this is childish (Harold Scruby would say hoonish), but I hope you’ll agree it’s also brilliant fun.
I’m even starting to like the way the Clubby sounds, despite my initial misgivings about its flat, unimaginative exhaust note low in the rev-range. The trick is to keep the big blown V8 above 4200rpm, where it bellows, crackles and delivers upshifts with an addictive brrrraaaaaapppp.
The downside to all this is higher fuel bills. Dialling in Sport or Performance has seen my consumption jump from 11s to 17s. And I’m not convinced about the steering, either, which is fine in Tour but too heavy for my taste in the other modes.
So has the HSV trumped the RS6 as my One Car For Life? Almost. I’m still drawn to the Audi’s luxury, build quality and warp-factor acceleration. But I also know the Clubby’s rear-drive layout and tail-happy character would be more fun.
IF YOU’RE to believe the media hype, last month I achieved the impossible, at least for a young person living in a major capital city. I bought a house. Sure, it’s not exactly how I pictured my first home, but it’s close to the city, has oodles of space, and it’s mine. All mine.
The downside to this, apart from being hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, is that buying a house meant I had to move. Normally I’d rather barbeque my own tongue than spend a weekend lifting furniture, but with the huge red minus on my bank statement still fresh and a big blue wagon sitting in the driveway, I decided to forego the removalist company and do the move myself.
How hard can it be? I thought. Bloody hard, it turned out. Just ask the mates I roped in to help manoeuvre my fridge, dryer and washer up the world’s narrowest staircase.
Broken friendships aside, moving allowed me to explore another facet of the Clubbie’s personality: its practical side. Until now I’ve really only enjoyed the HSV’s back end for its brilliant, shooting-brake looks. And the only thing I’ve thrown in the back has been the dog.
Drop the 60/40 split-fold seats, though, and the HSV can swallow an astonishing amount of stuff. Officially, the HSV Clubsport’s boot space is rated as 895L with the rear seats up and 2000L down, but it feels considerably more than that.
There’s plenty of storage up front as well, with twin cupholders, a large central tub, and door pockets that swallow one-litre bottles. HSV has also deleted the bulky gauges that used to fill the storage cubby in front of the gear-shifter for VF2 models, which is a handy place to park your mobile phone.
So the Clubbie passes the practicality test. What I’m liking most is the sheer scale of the thing. I’m still in love with its hulking, heavy-handed design, its nicely judged ride on 20-inch wheels and its chassis agility and adjustability. I’ve also become addicted to the blown V8’s grunt.
The downside is that this larger-than-life character profile doesn’t only apply to the engine, dynamics and brakes, but to the fuel economy as well. Good lord, it’s a thirsty bugger.
MAN, I must have cut a forlorn-looking figure. Shoulders hunched, head bowed, eyes staring wistfully through hooded lids at the sign hanging over the front door of HSV’s Clayton HQ. It was all rather pathetic.
I’d just returned my HSV Clubsport and the reality of suddenly having a huge blue hole in my life was beginning to set in. The lady at the front desk didn’t help, either. Far from offering counselling, or even a small smile that I could interpret as a “there, there, you’ll be okay”, she’d snatched the keys from the counter with barely a glance, leaving me to wander aimlessly back into the carpark.
Returning a long-termer is rarely easy. After all, unlike most of the cars that pass fleetingly through the Wheels office, these are the ones we spend the most time with. They’re opportunities to dig into a car’s character, to look beyond the equipment levels and obvious handling traits to discover the foibles and triumphs that real owners unearth over a period of months.
Some cars are easier to return than others, but even a week later the Clubbie’s departure still stings. It’s not quite phantom-limb levels of loss, but it’s close. We’d bonded, the Clubsport and me.
Over four months and 8300km, I’d used it on two interstate slogs, loaded it to the gills to move house, and thrown it into the thick of Melbourne traffic as a daily commuter. In every instance, the big wagon excelled.
I’d grown used to the power and the sheer brute force that flexing my right foot would deliver, but the Clubsport is much more than a big, shouty, supercharged V8. It’s a comfortable, long-legged GT, a commodious family hauler and, surprisingly, an effortless – albeit very thirsty – daily commuter thanks to a nicely judged ride, excellent vision and smooth-shifting six-speed auto.
What I hadn’t explored in much detail until this final month was its on-the-limit handling. Happily, a quick blast up Arthurs Seat on the Mornington Peninsula showed that HSV’s engineers haven’t dropped the ball. The Clubsport isn’t what you’d call nimble; push hard into a bend and you feel the weight of that big V8 up front, but wash off speed before the apex and its lovely rear-drive balance and expertly calibrated ESC system in Race mode reward you on corner exit.
What I didn’t gel with is the LSA V8. There’s no faulting its effectiveness, but it’s not what I’d call a sexy V8. It’s more about sheer force and enormous reserves of torque than delivering a spine-tingling top-end or operatic exhaust note.
There were other foibles, too. Some of the cabin materials, such as the piano-black plastic surrounding the shifter and the rubber inserts in the central cupholders and storage bins, feel sub-par and mark easily.
I also endured an ongoing battle with the voice recognition system; depending on its mood, it either worked seamlessly or would suddenly develop a speaking disorder. Conversations would often run like this:
“Call Mum”; “Did you say 1567902342?”;
“No, call M-U-M”; “Calling Peter O’Malley”.
It was maddening.
And did I mention the thirst? Complaining that a large-capacity V8 is inefficient sounds churlish, but even so, the Clubsport’s appetite for premium unleaded during daily use, which averaged in the high-teens, is the biggest hurdle I would face in actually buying one.
Still, there’s no escaping that, of all the long-termers I’ve had in my time at Wheels, the HSV is the one that has suited my lifestyle, and my character, best. I loved its brutish personality, its over-the-top design, its breadth of talents and the way it vaporised its rear tyres every time I flexed my right ankle. I still miss it.