Spoiler-clad 4cyl saloon or one of many V8 muscle cars? Make your choice
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I know what this is. It’s a… Yes, it’s another version of the car that GM sells across three continents. It’s known as the VXR8 GTS here in the UK, the Commodore in Oz and the SS in the US of A. They are not exactly the same car in each territory; the UK and Australia getting supercharged LSA V8s while the US cars rub along with the normally aspirated, lower-powered LS3 motor. But other than a broad spray of detail changes they all ride on the same platform. So what’s new about this one then? We haven’t driven this big fella for a while, so quite a lot since we last drove it. Big change number one is that the chassis now rides on GM’s world-leading third-gen MR adjustable damping – Ferrari licenses it from the General, so there can’t be a better solution right now. That alone makes this car instantly more desirable. Having that level of chassis control is a game changer. OK, anything else?
It also now has a dual-mode exhaust system, which gives this modest-looking car a shedload more character. It crackles nicely when it starts and on the overrun. The great thing is, virtually no one knows the noise is coming from your car, except you. Cops, pedestrians, other drivers all look up when they hear it. But then they see a car that looks like Chevy’s mass-selling Malibu and assume that the din must be coming from somewhere else. Useful if you want to run under the radar. Do those bonnet vents actually work – or are they just cosmetic? No, they are functional. We checked. There is the tiniest of pickups for each, but they do remove heat from the engine bay. Just probably not very much. Other changes which are mainly cosmetic are the new front grille treatment, including some LED driving lights, And some 19-inch wheels. But that’s your lot. Doesn’t sound like the thrill ride of the century… It’s not, but it’s all the better for it. This is a proper V8-engined, rear-wheel drive, manual-gearboxed Q car you can drive hard all day everyday for your personal pleasure, not others. It’s no lightweight, still weighing in just shy of 4,000lb, but the joy of this car is the way all of the components harmoniously complement each other to create a fluid, agile and fun car you can push to the edge of its abilities. The steering and feedback are excellent, the power strong and linear, the ride controlled and comfortable. What what’s wrong with it then? Much as it pains me to admit it, as we are all for great manual shifters, the gearbox action – principally the clutch bite point and the stupid first to fourth skipshift programming – is irritating. Almost to the point I’d recommend the auto. Uh oh, why’s that? It’s just fiendishly difficult to get a clean, smooth getaway, due to a non-linear feeling clutch actuation that makes chasing the bite point occasionally a chore and not the seamless interaction it should be. Allied to this foible, the gearbox has been programmed – to save fuel ironically – to shift directly from first to fourth at slower speeds. The only reliable way to defeat it is to launch the car at every stop sign and traffic light, which in turn burns more, not less fuel. Is that a deal-breaker or would you still buy one? No it’s not. The rest of the car is so capable and understated – it’s a bit of a stretch to say it’s a four-door Corvette, but it’s the closest thing to it – it would still be on my shopping list if I was looking to get a performance four-door saloon. I would buy it with the auto but I’d completely understand if you had to have the manual. There aren’t many left out there these days. Just be prepared to spend some time recalibrating your hand/eye coordination – or just throw caution to the wind and stomp it off the line every time. In the softly styled SS, even if they see it people won’t fully believe it.