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£48,495 when new
When Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) calls its latest 576bhp, 546lb ft supercharged, 6.2-litre V8 vehicle, “The most powerful performance production car ever built in Australia”, you can well believe it. It’s coming here by the end of the year, badged as the new Vauxhall VXR8 GTS. This is a good thing. Top Gear has always appreciated the VXR8’s robust attitude to sophistication, what with its habit of jamming a big V8 into a rear-drive saloon and charging relatively little for it. But times have changed. The VXR8 is officially no longer unsophisticated. It is also officially no longer cheap. But first, the good stuff. New VXR8 looks much better with bare eyes than it does in pictures. It’s not a pretty car but has a bullish charm, and you certainly don’t mistake it for anything else. The new supercharged motor required an extra two thirds of cooling air over the previous model, and HSV’s designers have done an excellent job of making a front bumper that isn’t just one big hole, keeping the twin-nostril grille and other intakes resolved and purposeful. It’s handsome, and just the right side of snarling. There’s also a huge amount of room inside the greatly improved cabin (quality, design and materials all on the up), a decently sized boot and plenty of standard kit. The engine is still a basic large-capacity V8, this time sporting an Eaton supercharger and charge-cooling to deliver all that slugging power and torque. It drives the rear wheels through a heavy-duty six-speed manual gearbox (there’s a 6spd auto option) and twin-plate clutch, and has an enormous 9.9-inch rear diff and unique subframe. It’s basically a Chevy Camaro LS1 underneath, and while this kit might not be the last word in sophistication, it’s all rock-solid stuff and built for abuse. The other hardware upgrades are designed to cope with the dramatic increase in power. There are now standard AP forged brakes (which used to be an option) - six-piston up front, larger diameter at the back. There’s third-generation Magnetic Ride Control (MRC), which means you can tighten up the body control and damping at the flick of a switch and a new electric power-steering system to try and claw back at least a little of the efficiency lost through that supercharger. And you know what? The car feels 25 per cent better to drive in every direction. Immediately. The steering is more accurate and consistently weighted. The clutch pedal is lighter, even with the standard twin-plate clutch. The brakes are excellent, and the harder pedal is most welcome, lending feel to committed stops. And, of course, it sounds bloomin’ brilliant, though any supercharger noise is buried deep in the velvet of V8 thrum. And boy, is it fast. Any gear, at any revs, this motor picks the GTS up and pelts it at the horizon, and you barely need to head all the way to the 6,100rpm red line. Though you will, just to hear the V8 get abrasive and howling. It all adds up to a car that feels tighter, more consistent, more European-fast. It’s shed some weight, too - about 40kg. Though that’s pretty hard to tell in a car of this size, it’s more to do with where the VXR8 has lost the pounds, rather than the total. New forged wheels have reduced unsprung mass by a huge 4.3kg a corner, and those new forged brakes are bigger for no extra mass. Add some aluminium bits in the front suspension, and each front assembly has lost some 9.4kg - about a stone and a half - where it matters. The back axle is lighter too, but not by quite so much, carrying as it does the heavy-duty kit needed to make sure the back wheels don’t explode when you dump the clutch. As before, the gearbox is long and chunky and can’t be rushed, and the handling is similarly the slow-in, fast-out of the old school. But there’s nothing wrong with that because this car is still very rear-wheel drive, which, in an increasingly nannyish world, is massively refreshing.
So far, so good. But this is where the VXR8 GTS hits a small snag, because it’s having a gentle identity crisis. In an attempt to compete with the likes of AMG and M Sport, HSV/Vauxhall has thrown an entire suite of electronics at the GTS, which doesn’t suit it for the UK market. For instance, this big, simple, easily defined car now comes with a torque-vectoring system that drags a rear brake to tighten the car’s line when understeering. Which is fine, but doesn’t work well enough to make it useful. It now also comes with automatic park assist, forward collision alert, lane departure warning, keyless go and other functions largely redundant for the kind of driver that appreciates the enthusiastic attitude of the VXR8. The EDI screen displays g-meters, damping loads, lap times, exhaust temperatures and the state of the bi-modal active exhausts flaps. There’s a Driver Preference Dial that contains four modes (Touring, Sport, Performance and Track) to control seven different aspects of the car’s behaviour (stability control, traction control, launch control, torque-vectoring, power steering, magnetic ride control and exhaust). Most of which it just doesn’t need. In fact, you’ll play with most of this stuff for an hour or two, and then stick to driving the car in either Touring or Performance, and leave it at that. The issue is that the VXR8 used to be a simple proposition: fun, fast, huge personality - a car for keen drivers in a world of all-encompassing electronic competency. It stood for something. But now, at 55 grand, it’s starting to lose some of the appeal that came from knowing exactly what it was, and what it was trying to achieve. It’s still a brilliant car, but if it were a bit less techy and a few grand cheaper, it would have been an absolute standout.
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