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New Car Test - HSV SV300

What a car!

by Julian Edgar

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Doing a photo shoot on a car is a boring business, especially if you are an onlooker and not a participant.

Move the car here, move the car there, dial on some steering lock, take some off. It's a tedious procession of angles and shape and light and focal lengths. So after ten or fifteen minutes of apparent inaction, the interest of the onlookers waned. The fisherman - mid thirties, cigarette dangling - went back to his rod recreation, the old guys fiddling with the boat returned to their pottering. Each time I started the big 5.7-litre V8, their attention would intensify, but when they realised that it was only to carefully turn the car through 180 degrees, or just to change its angle on the boat ramp, they soon lost interest. After a while they didn't look up, even when the exhaust note throbbed into action.

Forty-five minutes later, we were finished exposing film.

I carefully backed the enormously powerful Holden up the ramp, did a slow U-turn in the carpark - best not get gravel and dust on the car - then eased it onto the empty main road.

Then I reached for the traction control button.

I popped the clutch at three grand and the enormously sticky rear tyres broke traction with the instant ease that only comes from a helluva lot of power. The SV300 slewed a little sideways and I whipped on some opposite lock, paddling the throttle as the engine bellowed, waaaahhhh, wahhhhhhh, waaaaaaah. Through the bedlam I saw the shiftlight LED glow brightly - the buzzer was inaudible with the wailing of the tyres and the demented roar of the engine - and grabbed second. The Bridgestones just kept on spinning and I snatched a look in the rear vision mirror to see total white-out filling the horizon behind me.

Then, mindful of the fact that these tyres cost a lot of money, I short-changed to third and just trickled off down the road.

I wonder if the fisherman retained hold of his rod - I'm sure the fag would've dropped from his mouth....

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Think 'three hundred kilowatts' - that's four hundred horsepower for Godsake! - and 'Commodore' and your mind is sure to give rise to the vision described above. But such an instant impression would be wrong, wrong, wrong. For unless you switch off the traction control system and then deliberately provoke it, the SV300 is one of the easiest to drive, safest and most progressively powerful cars on the road.

It's a car that I would be quite happy lend to a novice driver - although perhaps with a designated rev limit somewhat less than the factory 6500 rpm. For to be quite honest, the 300kW HSV is actually a harder car to get into trouble than, say, a dead standard 3.8 V6 Holden Commodore of three years ago. That car, lacking traction control and having a torque production that gave you a wallop down low whenever you twitched your right foot, could swap ends in an instant in the wet. As we then wrote, it could be like "an unguided missile". The SV300, even when being driven behind a truck spreading diesel fuel and oil onto already wet bitumen, is progressive and communicative.

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I used to think that the proposed 350kW - and more - HSV cars were madness; having now driven their currently most powerful car I no longer think so.

And it's even more pertinent to realise that immediately after we picked up the car, we were in fact a bit disappointed in its performance. Sure, it seemed to go OK - but 300kW? And high 5-second 0-100's? Nahhhhhh.

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But then we put the black beast onto ChipTorque's Dyno Dynamics - and saw a genuine 210kW at the back wheels! On this dyno you have to go up to mega-dollar exotics to come close to something that does those numbers off the showroom floor...

And then we ran some 0-100 km/h times - an easy mid-six 0-100 with the traction control system on and a gentle launch, and a 6.1 second time with just a trace of wheelspin. The high fives recorded by some other testers? Yes, they'd be easy if you wanted to practice the technique a little.

Yet this car, with so much power and so fast on the road, had staffer Michael Knowling declaring after he heard the performance times, "It's the most boring 5-second car I've ever driven!" Boring because it's no fun? Nope, boring because it does it so easily, with so little fuss, with such sureness of purpose and ease that it feels seconds slower.

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Yes, it's still just a Commodore (and as we'll come back to in a minute, not even a very well equipped one), but as a road-burning package, it's quite a helluva car.

The Callaway-built engine - designated C4B - lifts itself in power over the 255kW lower spec models by the use of a big-bore throttle, new cam and valve springs, CNC-ported heads, new exhaust and recalibrated management. The engine is built in very low numbers - and in some ways this shows in the management mapping. While the engine is generally tractable and well-mannered, the intense 1500km that we did in the week we had the car showed some stuttering at very light loads and low revs, and a noticeable surge on the over-run as the engine speed came back past 2000 rpm - we assume when the injectors switched back on after their fuel-saving cut-off. Another engine management concern was the idle speed that at times was very slow to return to normal, holding for 15-20 seconds at 1200 rpm before then dropping in steps.

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Peak power of a neat 300kW is developed at 6000 rpm, while peak torque is at a surprisingly high 4800 rpm. Sure, it is a massive 510Nm, but you need to be revving the engine to get there. But making the driveline package feel so much more responsive and cohesive is the (for a Holden-based product) very short diff ratio of 3.91:1. Despite the relative lack of low-rpm torque, the use of the six-speed trans and this short diff ratio gives instant response. You'll still need to use the gearbox intelligently - in sixth at highway speeds not a lot happens when you plant your foot - but unlike the base V8 Commodores, at least all six ratios are really useable. Sprint through the gears and you'll find the shift-LED a necessity - you're grabbing gear after gear, the engine immediately back on the cam and hauling hard.

The top-end - both in revs and road speed - is s-t-r-o-n-g.

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At 220 km/h the SV300 was bellowing towards the horizon, nose lifted and rate of acceleration apparently unabated. And it was also dynamically composed and stable. Critical to the success of this car is the way in which the suspension, steering and brakes work together. Er, brakes? OK, well we'll come back to that one in a moment.

The suspension is the HSV-spec 'Performance Suspension' (and not the 'Touring 2' pack that's actually listed in the brochure). Firmer than the Touring system that we recently sampled in the Clubsport R8, it gives a ride that on rougher roads can border on overly stiff. However, that is only on very poor roads; elsewhere it has that same brilliant combination of suppleness and good damping that so impressed us on the Clubsport.

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The chassis is composed and effective - this is a car that point-to-point can be blisteringly fast. Or, you can just idle along, changing gears at 2000 rpm and using the car as a daily commuter. Unlike some overtly sporting cars, on a freeway cruise at 110 km/h, the SV300 is effective and efficient - noise level low, steering nicely weighted and not too direct around centre (and not too slow around centre either!). The shorter diff means that a down-change isn't needed to maintain station when the traffic quickens a little in pace, and the car can be driven for very long distances without tiring the driver. In fact more tiresome than steering is the need to stop so frequently for premium fuel - we'd defy anyone to get better than 15 litres/100km in any mix of normal driving, while the consumption can easily go much higher than that. The wonderfully evocative exhaust bellow - which can be heard whenever the throttle is nailed - is muted at cruise.

And reach the tight and twisty roads and the SV300 shrinks around you. Fast? Is it ever! With loads of grip, it turns-in and holds cornering lines with precision and feedback. On-power handling is characterised by a touch of understeer - the traction control normally preventing power oversteer. Interestingly, the traction control (yes, complete with that that horrible Holden kicking feedback through the throttle) can operate at even quite high speeds - like 150 km/h around sweepers. In that situation it rather disconcertingly feels like fuel starvation.

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While we think that the traction control system is a vital element in a two-wheel drive car of this power, the SV300 should really have a full stability control system. That would lift its on-road dynamics above the shut-em-down-there's-too-much-happening approach that the electronics currently adopts.

And we wonder a little about the electronics of the brake system, as well. While the hardware is brilliant - four pot calipers front and back working on drilled 343 and 315mm ventilated discs - in emergency full-ABS halts, the front and rear feel uncoordinated. It is difficult to describe, but perhaps a clue to what we mean can be gained from the fact that the back brakes can be heard ABS'ing with a different frequency to the fronts. The emergency stopping distances also felt overly long for a system of this apparent mechanical calibre. Certainly, there wasn't the 'omnipotent giant hand of deceleration' hauling you back, of the sort that you can feel in powerful Mercedes models.

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Note that in less than emergency use we had no complaints with the brakes - the red calipers slowing you at seatbelt-locking rates of decel time and time again without a change in pedal pressure or feel.

The SV300 takes a big AUS$95,000 bite from the bank balance, and to offset this, HSV in its literature makes much of its equipment level. But really, the in-cabin features are nothing special. The car doesn't get full electric seats and doesn't get dual climate control - both available in much cheaper Holden models. A sunroof is optional. The sound system is just the not-very-good 10-stacker CD used in all premium Holdens, while the very useful shift-light LED is placed in an obviously afterthought add-on binnacle. You do get leather, good quality sports seats and HSV trickbits like the little compartment containing the torch, pocketknife and tyre pressure gauge. And there's also that unique body kit. To be honest, while at first we despised the Hannibal Lecter face, after a while it and the angular spoiler grew on us.

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So more than anything else, what you're paying for is the Callaway engine - the rest is either standard, of dubious benefit, or available as options in the Clubsport R8. Is it worth it? Taken as a whole car, the answer is 'yes'. This is a brilliantly cohesive package that works on the road with consummate ease. Blisteringly quick over good roads or bad, the SV300 drives with the performance and composure that normally only comes with price tags 40 or 50 per cent higher. Sure, you can see in the equipment and build quality and the vibrating gearknob and the (lack of) interior features why the SV300 doesn't cost that extra amount...

But if you're after a very rare driving experience that rewards in spades, the SV300 thrills and delights. It's a mighty car.

Holden Special Vehicles SV300 Fast Facts...
  • Blistering fast yet tractable and mild
  • Cohesive on-road package that handles extremely well
  • Good value for money, but resale variable
  • Thirsty
  • Very easy to live with, roomy and practical

The SV300 was provided to AutoSpeed courtesy of Holden Special Vehicles.

The dyno power run was performed on the SV300 courtesy of ChipTorque.

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