Melbourne (Vic), August 2006
What we liked
>> Six-speed auto and V8 combination
>> MRC suspension
>> Driving position and chunky wheel
Not so much
>> Build quality patchy on launch cars
>> Speedo calibrations fussy and hard to read
Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) needs little introduction. A high-profile component of the Australian automotive landscape for close to 20 years, the privately-owned go-fast arm of Holden has been making a healthy living by warming over the Lion's sedans, utes and so on and selling them to cashed-up fans of local V8 iron.
HSV debuted its own LS2-based 6.0-litre V8 last year in its Z-Series update. The arrival of a powerplant unique to the brand was a coming of age of sorts. So too was the milestone of 50,000 cars built.
With the launch of the most radical all-new Commodore ever and arguably Holden's most important large car since the '70s-vintage HQ, the VE Commodore, HSV has taken the opportunity to further raise the bar.
Comprising the ClubSport R8, GTS and Senator Signature (ClubSport and Grange are "resting" HSV says), the E-Series is the most expensive and extensive model development project ever undertaken by the company. Indeed, according to HSV boss Phil Harding, the cost of the four-year engineering, validation and production development of the new three-car range was "more than VT, VX, VY and VZ programs put together".
The range opens with the ClubSport R8 priced at $62,890 with a manual gearbox. Add $2000 for auto and if you so desire, $2490 for leather upholstery.
The GTS and Senator Signature are the range headliners. Arriving with the sort of equipment you'd expect of a top-spec local and then some, there's little in the way of optional equipment offered save for a sunroof. The GTS kicks off at $74,990 ($76,990 for auto) and the auto-only Senator is also $76,990.
With the arrival of the E-Series the level of differentiation between HSV and Holden product has never been higher. This affects many aspects of the car right from production. HSV cars are now designated from chassis stage on the factory line -- the so-called body-in-white 'wears' a HSV designator.
Though built down the same line as their Holden cousins, the HSV cars get unique componentry at many stages of the build process.
Outside the cars are set apart from their Holden-badged cousins more clearly than ever. HSV has spent up big developing bespoke front and rear bodywork. There's all-new LED taillights (a local manufacturing first) and an aggressive new look at the front end -- for the R8 and GTS at least.
The rear lamps on all three models are set lower and along with body-coloured lamp-caps help to visually widen the rear stance of the E-Series cars.
Up front the R8 and GTS get stacked twin under-bumper driving and fog projector lamps and a more aggressive front splitter. The trademark twin nostril HSV grille remains with a race-style matt black leading edge trim on the GTS. Expect this bi-element grille to become a stronger part of the company's overall vehicle DNA going forward.
The Senator's front treatment is reminiscent of the Coupe 4. There's a cleaner, more understated mesh grille with a chrome frame. At the rear, a deck lid spoiler finishes off the car. Something the Calais V lacked.
The side view of all three cars is arguably the most dramatic change, however. Here, just behind the wheels, the signature E-shaped vents of the E-Series make it impossible to mistake the new HSVs for mass-market models. There's different treatment of the plastic vent inserts to set the individual models apart, though the metal work's the same.
Interior differentiation between Holden's own and the HSV cars is arguably not as bold as the exterior, however, the E-Series does debut a bespoke dash. Rather than just grab the SS or Calais set-up, the HSV cars feature a composite of Holden's premium and sports-level dash componentry and add their own dash-top ancillary gauges, unique main instrument binnacle and steering wheel.
The wheel features a much beefier leather-wrapped rim with pronounced Audi-style flattened bottom.
Each of the three E-Series models boasts its own front seat designs: Sports - R8; Performance - GTS, and Luxury - Senator Signature. More heavily bolstered than the Holden seats, the HSV pews each have a distinctive look and feature contrasting textured panels.
The R8 gets a technical Graphite cloth trim as standard with manual slide and electric height adjustment. The GTS and Senator Signature feature leather with suede-style inserts and full power operation.
The GTS offers a choice of understated Onyx (read: black) leather or Red Hot -- a red and black combo that's matched with a coloured lower dash. Overall the effect is definitely a step up on the similar treatment Holden dishes out on the SS V.
The Senator Signature's colour combinations have been chosen to accent the car's
premium positioning. Holden's new Light Urban interior is the 'hero' colour for this model, however, unlike the Calais V and long-wheelbase WMs, HSV retains dark coloured carpets and lower door and trim panels. It works well in the flesh -- take our word for it. Traditional dark Onyx is again the default leather and trim option.
The two upper-spec cars also get a reprofiled twin-bucket-style rear seat. Fast families fear not -- it still seats three!
None of the cars are short on equipment. All feature the full complement of Holden's goodie bins -- even the R8's spec level is comprehensive and includes dual-zone climate control air; 6.5-inch colour multifunction display with full 11-speaker 230W audio and DVD compatibility; folding flip key with full security and remote functionality and so on.
The Senator Signature sets itself apart with a Calais V-style rear roof-mounted DVD and front memory seats but all the cars get premium sound, full trip computer functionality, full electrics, power mirrors and so on. In a word: loaded.
What the spec sheets can't convey is the refinement of the VE-based cars even, nay especially, in HSV trim. As the VE was a step forward from its VZ counterpart, the E-Series is a leap ahead of the at-times cranky Z-Series HSV cars.
The E-Series cars benefit from the significant step forward in body integrity claimed by the new VE Commodore. They also benefit from the revised and update passive and active safety systems.
Six airbags are standard on all E-Series models: front passenger and driver dual stage front and side airbags, plus full length curtain airbags. There's load limiters and pretensioners on the front belts and three lap-sash set-ups and headrest in the rear.
Active safety aids include Electronic Stability Control including, antilock brakes, electronic brake assist and brake distribution and switchable traction control.
All of these systems have been recalibrated from their native Holden settings for their use in the E-Series cars.
As befitting a car with a much more sporting bent than the donor VE, the HSV cars deliver a bit more latitude for attitude in the ESC programming and the traction control is set up to allow the required amount of wheelspin for a 'perfect' launch.
HSV's exclusive Magnetic Ride Control Suspension (see more below) is also a potentially an active safety boon. One of its benefits is better stability and less dive under heavy braking.
Rationalisation of brake componentry has benefited E-Series buyers -- especially those opting for the ClubSport R8. In the past purchasers have had to pay extra to access HSV's premium braking package -- now the company's top-of-the-range car and entry level share a common AP Racing-sourced braking system.
Featuring specifically sports-calibrated Bosch anti-lock technology, the new HSV braking system comprises specially-design four-piston calipers that deliver a claimed 15 per cent improvement in braking performance over the previous six-piston set-up.
Front discs are a whopping 365mm in diameter, with rears (also gripped by four-piston calipers) a still substantial 350mm.
HSV says the R8 and its siblings' 100-0 braking distance is just 36m. It claims that this performance betters the likes of BMW M5 (39m), Lamborghini Gallardo (36.7) and Mercedes-Benz CLS 55 AMG (39). It is just 300mm longer than Porsche's latest 911 (35.7m). Impressive stuff!
Each E-Series models boast 275 section rear rubber -- 19-inch diameter in the case of the R8 and Senator Signature, 20-inch for the GTS. The special-developed Bridgestone RE050A rubber is stretched over 9.5-inch wide rear rims. Up front the 8.0-inch rims get 245 section hoops.
For the record, the E-Series feature full-size alloy spare wheels -- 8.0-inch wide wheels to match the front fitment on each model.
The E-Series cars share a revised version of the LS2 Gen IV 6.0-litre V8 engine which debuted in the HSV VZ range last year. Boasting new engine calibrations and a set of tubular, equal-length four-into-two-into-one headers, the engine produces a health 307kW at 6000 rpm. Peak torque is 550Nm, albeit at 4400 rpm.
The R8 and GTS are offered with both Tremec T56 M10 six-speed manual and optional six-speed automatic transmissions. The latter, the impressive Corvette-sourced GM 6L80E is standard on the Senator Signature and gets HSV-specific calibration which the company says improves shift times in both adaptive auto and manual modes.
Also Corvette sourced and the E-Series' ace-in-the-hole is the much-vaunted Magnetic Ride Control (MRC) suspension. This system is standard equipment on the GTS and Senator Signature. It is not offered, even as an option, on the R8.
MRC uses a magnetic field to alter the viscosity of a special magneto-rheologic fluid inside the shock absorber. By varying the fluid's flow characteristics in the space of 6.25 milliseconds, it is possible to alter the compression and rebound damping characteristics throughout the stroke of the shock absorbers allowing almost infinite suspension adjustment. And it's not just over bumps that it makes a difference -- the system is smart enough to be able to configure for optimum braking and accelerative traction and stability.
MRC has previously only been fitted to one other GM product -- the Chevrolet Corvette. More recently it has been used on Ferrari's flagship 599 GTB Fiorano and Audi's all-new TT coupe.
Designed and manufactured by Delphi in the USA in conjunction with local suspension component supplier Monroe, the system has been re-engineered for the E-Series range and features unique calibration and algorithms for HSV's two top-of-the-range E-Series models.
Requiring extensive and expensive calibration and validation, this part of the E-Series program alone cost more than $4m.
Two different MRC calibrations are offered across the GTS and Senator Signature. In the case of the latter, the default setting is what HSV terms 'Luxury,' however, at the push of a dash-mounted button, the driver can opt for a 'Performance' setting. In the case of the GTS, the 'Performance' setting is the default with the uprated setting termed 'Track'.
According to HSV this setting approximates to the settings of the recent limited-run VZ ClubSport DTS. Pretty sharp in other words!
The ClubSport R8 does not get HSV's new MRC suspension componentry but rather features uprated conventional twin-tube gas-charged shock absorbers. The company says the R8's 'HSV Touring Suspension' is tuned for driving enjoyment. It incorporates more linear spring rates and retuned dampers for less body roll and sharper turn-in feel.
HSV's fettling extends to the final drive ratio of its E-Series cars. The company commissions special gearseats for its limited slip diffs yielding 3.70:1 (manual) and 3.27:1 (auto) final drive ratios.
Said HSV boss Phil Harding: "There's not another car under $200,000 with the same power and performance as we are offering today and I can't find another car under $120,000 with the same features we're launching."
Fighting words and more than a hint to where the company is aiming its product.
While there's no doubt HSV wants to retain its grass roots customers, there's a confidence within the organisation that the E-Series cars can take on the European sporting sedans -- those it matches on price or performance. Indeed, Harding has challenged the media to compare the E-Series cars with the best from Europe.
In its sales literature HSV compares its E-Series models with the likes of the $132,500 Audi S4 and $164,500 RS4, BMW's $76,500 325i and $163,200 550i and Mercedes C230 and C 55 AMG priced at $77,490 and $160,490 respectively. There's ne'er a mention of the Ford and FPV products HSV's cars have typically been compared to.
In terms of pricing, at $62,890 the Clubsport R8 arrives priced (specification-adjusted) around $6000 less than the car it replaces. This compares to $51,990 for a Holden SS V or $62,210 and $70,410 for the FPV GT and GT-P respectively.
At $74,990 the GTS is over $4500 more than the top FPV V8 but boasts more power, on paper better brakes and HSV's very impressive MRC suspension. It's a mouth-watering comparison.
ON THE ROAD
With a claimed 0-100km/h time of 4.96sec (manual, 5.04sec auto), the E-Series is a performance benchmark for Australian production cars. Indeed, it ranks up there as one of the fastest accelerating sedans on the planet. Slow it isn't. Expect 0-400m times in the low 13s when the performance magazines get around to strapping their timing equipment on the cars.
However, the real eye-opener is not the cars' pure acceleration but their civility in real world conditions. Sure, after driving the SS V and its VE stablemates we expected the E-Series to be good; just how good surprised us.
The launch of the E-Series took place in the hills to the east and north of Melbourne on many of the same roads we drove the VE. Though it's dangerous to make back-to-back comparisons with the dulling of time between the drives, it's this writer's opinion that even the conventionally suspended ClubSport R8 was at least a match to the SS V in terms of refinement while grip, turn in and steering precision were all improved.
The refinement of the donor car has played into HSV's hands. It's been able to free up a bit of V8 burble and 'pipe' that into the cockpit without affecting comfort because the base mechanical, chassis and wind noise levels are so low. It's great to hear the timbre of the big V8 without the drone we've been subjected to in the past.
The engine itself is free-revving and crisp. Throttle response is sharp and there's a great mix of bottom end urge, real V8 midrange and an unfettled top-end.
Chassis-wise the R8 might be a touch more active on broken tarmac (probably thanks to its lower profile rubber) but it's little price to pay for the ability to place the car with more confidence than the SS V and far, far greater precision than any Z-Series HSV model.
And as good as the R8 is, the MRC-equipped cars are in another league altogether.
Hit the dash-mounted MRC button on the GTS and Track mode is engaged, and the car changes from simply sharp to alive. It's not a change that makes you feel as though suddenly you're riding a suspension-less go-kart: rather, damping is more controlled, there's less pitching over bumps, the seat-of-the-pants feeling is turned up to 11. The steering though still a touch sanitised seems to come alive in your hands.
We can't vouch for what it would feel like at a track, but on the road it's damn good. Turn-in is much more positive than the last generation of HSV equipment and the chassis never feels like it's going to turn around and bite.
In the past we've referred to HSV cars having plenty of 'tyre grip' -- they stick but it feels like everything is relying purely on the tyres. The new E-Series has an extra degree of poise and the chassis generates the grip, taking the pressure off the outside tyres and allowing you more leeway to fine tune your line and road position.
This technology is far from gadgetry. Following a R8 and a MRC-equipped GTS down a favourite road used on the launch you could literally see the difference. While the R8 bobbed and reacted to bumps then settled, the MRC car absorbed the road irregularities and rolled on.
The settings of the Senator Signature proved sporty enough in our short drive of the car. Perhaps of equal importance in the case of this variant, the ride of Luxury setting was cosseting and quiet. Such are the abilities of the chassis, however, maybe HSV should provide a three-step setting -- Luxury, Performance, and Get the hell out of town fast!
The recalibrated six-speed auto shifts fast and smooth in the E-Series cars. Using it in manual mode is quite satisfying and if you're a left-foot braker the adaptive sports mode sense what you're doing and accommodates.
Alas while it's greatly improved the Tremec six-speed manual is the least likeable part of the E-Series driveline. There's no escaping the fact this is a big gearbox made for big engines. In the end are we asking too much to have it as sweet shifting as a hot hatch?
Save for being able to hang back and attack the odd corner, our test convoy didn't yield much opportunity to push on and little if any opportunity to test the veracity of HSV's claims about the new brakes. That said, even at low speeds you can appreciate the responsiveness of the stoppers. They're even better with a bit of heat in them too.
All you can hope to get at a launch is a taste of the car and a hint towards its abilities. If first impressions are anything to go by, the E-Series is a watershed car for HSV.
In the past HSV has played at taking on the Europeans. This time the company has the platform and the technological tweaks to get a lot more serious...