Five forced-induction V8s were being let off their leashes deep in the Victorian countryside at the very moment treasurer Joe Hockey was publicly demanding that GM-H boss Mike Devereux ‘come clean’ on Holden’s car-making future in Oz.
But it was business as usual for MOTOR. The time-honoured old chestnut of comparing the greatest high-performance large cars from Germany, England and Australia that all manner of money buys, as we’d done many times before.
Just 24 hours later, brakes still ‘tinking’ and smoke still clearing from our 400kW-plus club somewhere near Heathcote, the bombshell lobbed by Detroit had reverberated out of Fishermans Bend. It was no longer business as usual for The Lion.
During the fallout in the days that followed, while Holden’s underwear was being waved around so publicly, the mainstream media ignored HSV, the Victorian skunkworks whose business has, for 26 years, been built off locally-produced donor cars now set for the chop in 2017. Despite brave-faced statements from Clayton, the days of the Aussie muscle car are now terminally numbered.
As I climb out of the GTS we dubbed the best Aussie performance car ever created at Performance Car of the Year 2013, I have the overwhelming and inescapable feeling that it’ll also be – last-hurrah special editions apart – among Australia’s last.
While the wider ramifications are best discussed elsewhere, for the task at hand of comparing today’s high-performance family cars, the landmark situation casts
a fresh spotlight: has HSV truly ‘made it’ in a straight fight?
HSV has long claimed to produce world-class competition for the German benchmarks and, while there’s certainly a long history of offering exceptional performance and value, the Clayton concern has perhaps brashly claimed to be equal on pure merit, sticker price notwithstanding.
HSV maintains that AMGs, Ms and RSs are in its crosshairs, not FPVs. And, given that the fastest and most powerful car ever built in Australia is in all likelihood a now terminally condemned swansong, the ‘world-class’ legacy rests on the LSA-powered Gen-F GTS’s considerable shoulders.
Let’s be clear: ‘world class’ doesn’t just mean output or performance numbers. These are attributes that HSVs have never lacked, and the GTS’s 430kW/740Nm stacks up favorably against Europe’s latest and greatest, all four of which assembled here command more than twice the flagship HSV’s $95,490 price tag.
Competitors? Merc’s E63 AMG, the priciest here at $249,545, is available in Oz only in the twin-turbo 5.5-litre V8’s highest ‘S’ tune of 430kW/800Nm. Likewise, the revamped ‘LCI’ BMW M5 at $229,900 gets the M Performance Package fitted as standard, raising the kilowatt count of its 4.4-litre bi-turbo V8 to 423 (up 11kW) and retaining 680Nm.
The Jaguar XFR-S, at $222,545, offers 404kW and 680Nm from the evergreen supercharged 5.0-litre eight. And Audi’s new, leaner RS6 Avant (there’s no RS6 sedan), which ditches the old car’s V10 for a comparatively compact 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, is good for 412kW/700Nm and wants for $225,000.
The heavyweight numbers continue onto the weighbridge as all five cars nudge two tonnes. The GTS’s 1880kg puts it on par with rivals E63 S (1795kg) and M5 (1870kg), XFR-S (1875kg) and RS6 (1935kg).
Claimed acceleration times are equally whistle-worthy. However, as we discovered at the drag strip, the numbers begin falling apart. As evidenced with this 400kW-plus club, large mass and big outputs create a narrow window for success when conditions are less than absolutely perfect. That is, at least with the rear-drivers.
The GTS’s 4.7sec 0-100km/h and 12.7sec 0-400m times were marginally slower than the same car managed at the same venue during PCOTY. And nowhere near Clayton’s claim of 4.4sec.
It was even worse with the E63 S’s lackadaisical 4.9/12.7 and, oh dear, the M5’s bests of 5.0/12.9; these cars are claimed to be 4.1sec and 4.2sec prospects respectively. The Jag, meanwhile, comes with a 4.6sec promise and a 4.9/12.9 real-world delivery.
Whinge time: if a test driver with more than two decades’ experience can’t come within a half-second of makers’ claims – that’s you specifically, Merc and BMW – on a rubbered-up drag facility with near countless attempts, how’s your average non-pro owner going to come near tapping these cars’ so-claimed potential under anything like normal conditions?
Further, why aren’t these cars’ launch controls more easily accessible and idiot-proof to use – we even resorted to searching the internet and downloading a user manual CD on-site in efforts to achieve more favorable numbers.
In the real world, then, such fanciful numbers remain fairytales. And the numbers they do produce require some pretty handy wheelwork to keep these cars straight while their rear tyres grapple for traction at well north of the national speed limit.
Unless, that is, your name is Audi. The sole wagon here rattled off a stunning 3.9sec run to 100km/h and an 11.9sec 0-400m time. Without fuss, without fluke and with consummate consistency. Sure, it might be all-wheel drive, but, well, there are no buts. There’s no downside (thus far) to quattro drive, and the RS6 does what it claims to do. And it feels equally quick out of the box on regular hotmix, too.
Nor is the Audi plying all of its advantage during the initial launch phase. Its terminal speed of 192.75km/h was only just shaded by the lighter, more powerful E63 S and M5, and its 80-120km/h time of 2.19sec was bettered only by the simply ballistic M5 (1.97sec).
Mind you, even the slowest 80-120km/h time, the HSV’s 2.6sec, illustrates the kind of performance any owner of these cars can harness and enjoy. Each and every one of these five is wickedly, licence-robbingly quick.
The E63 S, GTS and M5 threaten to nudge their electronically-governed 250km/h limits on a circuit such as Phillip Island and, given enough blacktop, the Jag and Audi will run into their limiters at 280km/h and 300km/h respectively.
It’s no surprise that with so much performance available, some of the five – the Merc and BMW in particular – come on song harder the faster you go. And faster means above 100km/h, where you can stretch their legs and flex their muscles without the threat, at full throttle, of either wheelspin (ESP off) or incessant traction smarts intervention.
At cruising speeds, each of the five has stunning, instant response and incredible overtaking ability. And the differences in character, both tangible and sonic, are markedly different between part- and full-throttle applications.
The M5 feels the most docile and mundane – the most bread-and-butter – in most normal driving situations. Its drive modes set to Comfort/Eco, its twin-clutch gearbox reaches quickly for (top) gear, the engine trickling along at 1700rpm at 110km/h with a note that, in this company at least, is borderline insipid.
The E63 S pulls the same smooth-sailing card, yet still manages to underpin big-distance hauling with a rich mix of slightly-too-muted exhaust baritone, albeit with no more rpm on board than the BMW.
You could attribute the M car’s workmanlike audio track to engine design, as its turbochargers are located up in the valley of engine, not the more conventional either-side-of-the-block set-up employed by AMG. And yet the Audi, which shares the BMW’s new-school ‘reversed’ airflow path, presents a satisfying, almost visceral note in most driving situations and throttle positions.
Both supercharged cars, the HSV and Jag, have more conventional, perhaps less ‘technical’-sounding rumbles, though the local car has the most golden tonsils once its bi-modal exhaust cracks open, and it positively roars in the noticeable audible switchover once the blower comes on positive boost. By nature of their forced-induction design, the GTS and XFR-S also offer a tsunami wave of torque anywhere, anytime.
Not necessarily so the German turbocharged cars. The lag in response time might be imperceptible by traditional measures but, with the M5 in particular, it can be caught off guard, usually in low-speed situations. That said, the Merc and Audi are almost seamless, though it must also be said the transition between these cars’ myriad, sophisticated Jekyll and Hyde drive modes can be felt.
Throw some cornering into the equation and, boy, do the tables quickly turn. And, frankly, it’s the Jag that falls behind by some margin. Despite the firmer suspension hardware, tricky Adaptive Dynamics dampers and active electronic rear diff, you sense that the core XF’s fundamentals weren’t really designed for athletics, let alone the kind of Olympic-sized challenge of channelling 404kW and 680Nm.
Push on at even a moderate clip and those fat 295mm rear tyres give up the ghost quicker than expected and you spend more time gathering the Big Cat up than digging into the throttle.
This would be fine if the whole experience was a big barrel of fun. But it’s not. The eight-speed Quickspeed auto is neither responsive nor close enough in its ratios to rank as truly high-performance.
Ditto the brakes, which are large, but don’t match the precision and tireless power of all its immediate rivals. And then there’s the steering – decent by normal measures, but lightweight and virtually feedback-free by comparison in this company. For a car that costs that much and looks that purposeful, it’s a little too much of a pussy cat when it’s time to go hunting.
The M5, meanwhile, which feels like a pussy cat under normal driving conditions, simply transforms when it’s time to man the battle stations, though only once you’ve set all its drive modes into Sport+ and switched stability control to its loose, performance MDM setting.
Then the whole car tightens, its muscles flex and it seems to shrink around you. Throttle response and shift times become near-brutal, its steering becomes clear and accurate, and though you’re always conscious of its heft, the chassis develops a grippy, sharp edge provided you’re circumspect with your right foot. It’s got talent, but you must dig through the buttons/settings to find it, otherwise it can feel a bit bloated and unsatisfying.
The GTS never quite transitions into a razor-like device in this way. The steering and throttle, even in the sharpest of its four drive modes, are a little woolier, its edges a little blunter.
Yet it’s a natural, beautifully balanced package to the core and HSV’s deft hi-po chassis tuning – it’s superbly damped – makes it both incredibly quick and engagingly fun. The six-speed auto isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed — and needs wheel-mounted paddles — but it gives little away in pace to the vastly pricier Germans.
The E63 S is, by and large, a deceptive beast. It’s easy to be duped by its austere looks and by its polished, fuss-free cruising nature from the passenger seats, either around town or in the country. But behind the wheel on a red-misted punt it feels the leanest, clearest and naturally fittest performer of the rear-drivers assembled.
Of any large rear-drive car out there, it has the most naturally balanced, performance-savvy chassis and it becomes more beautifully responsive and intuitive the harder you dig into it. Thrown into a corner, its nose tucks and it points and shoots with an accuracy only the M5 can match.
But the most tenacious animal here is the RS6. Even from a moderate punt, the Ingolstadt wagon is brimming with a fizzy performance vibe. Its engine is the most linear and responsive of the Germans, its seven-speed twin-clutcher the most precise cog-swapper in the field, its chassis oozing sharpness and communication.
And provided you keep those dampers in Comfort, it strikes the keenest balance between ride comfort and handling, though one that’s unapologetically sporty in its leaning. The seachange over the old, bloated, numb V10-powered RS6 Avant is truly remarkable.
Not only is the RS6 the most visceral car here for anything from six- up to ten-tenths pace, it feels the most composed, planted and responsive on a twisty back road. There’s much more at play than simply the roadholding benefits of its Quattro system, too.
But the tangible upshot is that it feels to be the quickest device of the five cars from A to B. It’s certainly the benchmark for inspiring confidence. That there’s extra room in the cargo area for prams, dogs and soccer balls is neither here nor there: Audi now makes the best large performance car you can buy. It just happens to be a wagon.
And Australia makes, for the time being at least, a performance car that comes close to matching — and in the case of the Jaguar, easily surpassing — imports asking for more than twice the outlay. But is it really, truly world class?
Climb inside all five beasts and it’s obvious that the HSV has a way to go before matching the Germans, price notwithstanding. Its upmarket trinkets feel more of an afterthought, its basic Commodore genes more apparent, the built-to-cost nature of the materials and fit and finish about what you’d expect, no more or less.
It lacks the aura of premium richness that oozes from the pores of the AMG, Audi and, to a marginally lesser extent, the BMW. Pores that include cold-touch metal trim, peerless shut lines and precision craftsmanship that stands up under the closest inspection.
HSV has about four years to complete its goal of being truly, certifiably world class, not necessarily by shaving yet another tenth or adding another 10 kilowatts, but by getting things like the double stitching on the passenger-side dashpad nice and straight...
Audi RS6: 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8; 412kW/700Nm; 1935kg; $229,500 - 4.5/5
BMW M5: 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8; 423kW/680Nm; 1870kg; $230,400 - 4/5
HSV GTS: 6.2-litre supercharged V8; 430kW/740Nm; 1880kg; $96,990 - 4.5/5
Jaguar XFR-S: 5.0-litre supercharged V8; 404kW/680Nm; 1846kg; $222,075 - 3.5/5
Mercedes-Benz E63 S: 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8; 430kW/800Nm; 1795kg; $250,930 - 4.5/5
This feature first appeared in the February 2014 issue of MOTOR magazine.
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