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New Car Test - HSV Clubsport VY

Still a good car but losing focus a little.

by Julian Edgar

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The first HSV Clubsport was seen as a car where you got the engineering upgrades of the performance arm of Holden without having to pay a lot more for bits that, basically, you didn't want. Literally, a car to go weekday driving and weekend racing. But over the years the model has moved away from that premise, harried in its steps upmarket by the standard SS Commodore. And so by the time the current VY HSV Clubsport has come around, we're looking at a lot of luxury equipment, a full-on cosmetic change - and in tested auto trans form, $59,200.

And talking of cosmetics, it was the body kit that attracted the most comment while we had the car. Unfortunately, we didn't find one person that liked it - and many were quite clear in their negative views. In fact, the VY Clubsport makes such a strong visual statement that its relatively modest predecessors must be a little embarrassed.... We'd rather lose the bodykit and pocket the savings. That's even more the case when the aero kit apparently doesn't undergo any wind tunnel work - it's there for cosmetics alone. In engineering terms, the profile of the rear spoiler is really questionable ...

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In fact read HSV's press release and you could be forgiven for assuming that aerodynamics has no functional engineering purpose at all: the frontal styling is "inspired by a Formula 1 wing, it's the most eye-catching feature of the design."

"The 'V' forms part of the centre bar and reinforces this as the HSV signature," says designer Neil Simpson, Chief Designer at TWR (UK). "I'm particularly happy with the way the spoiler hugs the rear lamps and takes the eye down to the air outlets and onto the inset area."

Drag? Lift? Ahh well...

So with the VY Clubsport what do you get for your money? Under the bonnet is the 5.7-litre Gen III unit. The engine's been around long enough to develop a reputation - with some good and bad. Firstly, the good. It's a sweet-revving and tractable design - over the 235kW standard SS, the 260kW version in the Clubsport uses extractors, and exhaust and a revised engine management ECU which leans the mixtures, adds timing and desensitizes the knock sensor. It's an engine that we always enjoy for its sweet manners and predictability of response. However - and now the bad - it's also an engine which has caused Holden no end of angst: the number of engines which have been factory rebuilt because of problems is astonishing. And those rebuilds include HSV models. Despite its diet of premium unleaded, the test car's engine could also be heard detonating at high rpm and loads, especially when given a chance to first heat-soak.

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The other downside is fuel consumption. Some electrical problems with the car's three-window trip computer meant that mostly we couldn't see the average fuel consumption number, but occasionally it did become visible and never showed better than 18 litres/100 km. This thirst figure also matched what we found at the bowser. However that consumption's no worse than we achieved in the same driving conditions with the normal Holden model, so at least you're not paying an additional fuel consumption penalty for the extra power.

Question marks over engine durability and the fuel consumption aside, the VY Clubsport is as good a car on-road as any of the recent HSV models that we have sampled. The new thick-rimmed steering wheel is meaty in weight but precise in feel, the handling is confidence inspiring, and the performance - we recorded a two-up 0-100 in 6.8 seconds - very good. As we have said previously, although with 18 x 8 alloys and 235/40 Bridgestone Potenza S03 tyres the Clubsport has a very hefty wheel-and-tyre combination, it never feels as if the car is getting its fast cornering speeds from grip alone. The progression into understeer (or power oversteer with the traction control off) is benign and gradual, helped in this model by the adoption of a new throttle cam which gives better small throttle opening progressiveness. (But the corollary of this is that a decent prod of the throttle is needed to get away fast from the line: without electronic throttle you can't have both!) The wide tyres tramline a little - something likely to get worse as they wear. But overall the Clubsport is an excellent on-road package - it tends to shrink when going fast along a winding road.

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Although we didn't get a chance to push them hard, the (previously optional) HSV Performance Brake System (which comprises 330 x 32mm front grooved discs and 315 x 18mm rear grooved discs - both with twin-pot PBR calipers) felt good underfoot, with a short pedal travel and progressive action. However, the pads are apparently semi-metallic and can at times be heard - as well as felt - to be biting.

The venerable auto box works adequately - although many drivers will miss a 'tiptronic' style function. To make the most of what they have, the engineers have configured the shift to allow on-the-fly selection of second and third gears without the potential of rushing it back into first or mis-selecting neutral - they're both locked out. The difference between 'Power' and 'Normal' modes is obvious, with in the former the engine holding far higher revs before changing and selecting a lower gear more easily. In fact, we preferred the 'Normal' mode except when going hard - which is just what the system should be!

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The ride from the Touring 3 suspension is very firm - on rough, patched and potholed bitumen, too firm in fact. One of our staffers felt that the ride was characteristic of a high unsprung weight, but its negative impact really depends on the sort of roads that you'll primarily be on - normal slightly bumpy secondary roads are fine, as are freeways and the like. But together with the unyielding seats, put the car on some of the atrocious roads that we have in Australia and you start wondering at the trade-off. Interestingly, the discomfort is more noticeable for the driver than the front passenger - presumably because of vibration transmitted through the steering wheel. However, at speed the ride does smooth out a little.

As indicated earlier, the car is packed with equipment - from four airbags to climate control, from the new Blaupunkt in-dash CD stacker to sports seats. While firm, the seats are supportive and comfortable, with lumber adjust provided on both the passenger and driver's seats. The instruments are new - we found the markings a bit fussy - but the cabin generally works very well. Sometimes forgotten is that the HSV Commodores remain eminently practical family cars, with a huge amount of rear room and an enormous boot. Talking about the boot, in there you'll find a cargo net, fire extinguisher and - not so good - a bright yellow spare wheel, rather than a matching alloy. Also a bit of a downer is that the little centre console insert of a torch and tyre pressure gauge has now gone.

But if you're happy with the looks and the thirst, it's very likely that you'll find the Clubsport an excellent car. It's one of our favourites because it's just such a practical and quick on-road package.

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Why you would:

  • Roomy, comfortable, practical
  • Quiet in cruise
  • Good performance
  • Excellent handling
  • Well equipped

Why you wouldn't:

  • Thirsty
  • Those engine durability questions just won't go away
  • Ride on poor surfaces very firm
  • Many people find the body kit ugly

The Clubsport was provided for this test by HSV.

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