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The Spin Circuit

A short novel about going on a Holden Special Vehicles new car launch.

by Julian Edgar

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This article was first published in 2003.

I looked through half-opened, gritty eyes at the digital clock.

Through the darkness of my bedroom I could see the figures: 2.30am. I groaned softly before pulling the quilt over my head and hoping beyond hope that sleep would finally come. It was now just 2 hours before I needed to get up, to quickly shower and dress and then drive the 80-odd kilometres to Brisbane airport, to ride the Qantas jet to Melbourne, where I'd be met by a Holden Special Vehicles representative and taken to Lang Lang - Holden's proving ground - for the launch of the Holden Special Vehicles VY Series II range of cars.

Before any big event I find sleep hard, and when good sense requires retiring to bed at 9.30 pm, I find it impossible. But each time I try...

At 6am Brisbane Airport looked uninviting. There was a background ache that filled my head, connecting my eyes deep inside: the result of a lack of sleep. I'd managed to restlessly doze off just minutes after that last despairing look at the clock, but as preparation for a big day, it was way insufficient. But since thinking how lousy I felt was unlikely to improve matters, I got on with work.

Knowing how few of you would have ever been on a car launch, one of the stories that I wanted to do was this one: to record what it's like to attend a new car launch, one where the airfares, accommodation, food and cars are all provided free by the car company.

A junket - or hard work?

Turning someone else's expensive tyres into smoke - or a detailed investigation of on-the-limit handling?

A great opportunity to talk to the people who engineer cars - or just a waste of time being drowned in marketing-speak?

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I didn't know - but I knew that many of you would like to. All stories start somewhere, and so I dug out the Nikon and took this photo, hoping that it would also help convey some of that leaden feeling that my head always seems to have when I reluctantly see dawn. Especially after only 2 hours' sleep - but we won't go there again.


I exited the Melbourne airport arrival gates and looked around for the HSV representative that I'd been told would meet me. He proved to be a tall, broad-shouldered man called Cameron McAvoy. Cameron led me out through the car park and installed me solicitously in an HSV - an R8 Clubsport, I think. We were barely out of the carpark - the auto trans car being driven with great prods of throttle that always makes them feel neck-snappingly quick - before Cameron declared that despite being an HSV employee, he was no car guy.

"I look after the merchandising," he said, going on to detail some of the lines in clothing and other non-car products sold by the company.

He'd previously been a sports goods buyer for the Myer-Grace Brothers department stores. For the next 75 minutes we talked clothes, race meetings, Melbourne house prices - and a little bit about cars. Cameron drove very correctly, very properly - hands-free phone earbuds in place and speed warning chime set for 100 km/h. It even sounded once or twice - but only when heading downhill.

For a busy man, the office boy pick-up-and-deliver job must have been a pain in the butt, but Cameron couldn't have been more polite or accommodating. He even behaved as if somehow I was important...

The Coffee

The mixture of freeway and double lane highway now extends right from Melbourne Airport to Holden's Lang Lang proving ground, located about 80 kilometres south-east of the city. The proving ground - which I'd been to once before - is enormously impressive, huge and well developed. In addition to crash-testing facilities, it also contains a high-speed banked oval (175 km/h hands-off in the top lane), a ride and handling circuit, skid-pan and many kilometres of roads and tracks for testing durability.

Cameron found his way past heavy security and then through a labyrinth of internal roads before pulling up at a building quaintly named The Chalet. It adjoined the skidpan and out the front was a long line of brand new HSV VY Series II models, including the Grange, Clubsport, R8 Clubsport, Senator and Maloo. Inside the building perhaps twenty people stood around drinking coffee and nibbling cakes. A scattering of tables was surrounded by chairs, while a podium was placed to one side of a white screen onto which an LCD projector threw its glare.

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I helped myself to a coffee and looked around to see who I recognised. The answer to that was quickly ascertained - no-one! I'd previously dealt with HSV PR person Penny Swan, but she'd been replaced by Alistair Ward, to whom I'd just been introduced. However, the room of people could be quickly divided into two groups. There were the HSV personnel - recognizable by their HSV jackets and/or polo shirts - and the rest must be journalists. Reference to the press pack - a folder with a few printed pages and two CDs, neither of which I could access because I hadn't brought my laptop - showed that in fact there were 11 journalists present. These varied from scruffy to neat, from young to old, from loud to self-effacing.

Looking around more closely I found two or three faces that I recognised - but not really to go up to talk to. There was racing driver Mark Skaife, and journalists Mark Fogarty and Barry Lake.

But it soon appeared that I'd been the last to arrive, and so before I'd even had a chance to scoff the coffee - let alone the cakes - the group was being seated for The Presentation.

And, I have to tell you, it was a bit strange. The journalists sat down and got out pads and pens, one placed a tape recorder near to the rostrum and all prepared to get down the vital information. There was an air of expectancy in the room: this was obviously where the real work began.

The Presentation

So what was strange about it? Well, fundamentally what was said.

The head of HSV, John Crennan, is a polished and smooth public speaker, a conscious exerter of charm. He smiled frequently, made eye contact with everyone in the room, and spoke in beautifully modulated tones. His clothing was casual but expensive. He looked sophisticated, well-travelled - and supremely confident. In the way of the professional speaker he used witticisms to break up the stream of information. Up on the white screen next to him appeared graphs and lists of bulleted points, each new one prompted by a nod at the HSV man operating the laptop connected to the projector.

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HSV sales were rising, HSV was the success story of the last sixteen years. HSV holds a unique place in the Australian car culture; HSV has a synchronicity (or was it reciprocity, a special nexus or an unparalleled relationship - I forget which) with the Holden Racing Team that is unique in the field of Australian car production. On and on it went - ever-rising bar graphs showing the sales success, including sales not even made yet... unless I was wrong and instead of this being September 4, 2003, it was actually the end of 2004....

Ford Performance Vehicles were barely on the radar, said Mr Crennan. HSV were soon hoping to beat Audi's total Australian sales, he said, pointing at a list that showed a variety of manufacturers and their annual sales. Who got to be included on the list was tortuously defined: but in the end Lexus and Audi were there, but BMW strangely was not.

The Year to Date Sales Figures of Apparel and Merchandise, the Training Program Launched for the Sons and Daughters of HSV Dealers, it was all a glorious and unique story of business success.

It irresistibly reminded me of the press release emails that lob into my in-box at the beginning of every calendar month, the ones prepared by PR flacks when the previous month's car sales figures are out. It doesn't matter whether a car company's sales are up or down - every company puts out a press release saying how wonderful that month's results were. I delete them without even reading past the headline... and here was a more elaborate and better presented version of the same stuff.

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I'd been sitting near to the front of the room, most of the other journalists behind me. I glanced around, expecting them to be staring into space as they mentally composed humorous limericks or had sexual fantasies - but I was astounded to see them intent and concentrating, assiduously writing down everything Mr Crennan had to say.

I have to say that it knocked me for a six. How on earth could this information be actually used in an article of any interest?

The presentation moved on, including listing all of the nice places around the world where HSV has flown their dealers - multiple grands prix, the US, Europe, - you name it - while I sat in puzzlement. No one asked questions (like for example, how do HSV customers like having to indirectly foot the bill for dealer junkets?) and everyone kept writing.

Mr Crennan then took his seat and other HSV personnel started going through the features of the new range. A bit more power and torque, some technical add-ons like HID driving lights and tyre pressure monitoring - nothing of wild excitement. The meaningless marketing speak continued to be mouthed - the Y series II had an emphasis on interior HSV-ness, "performance dynamics" was a phrase that best described the new range, it was self-evident that the high tech features and greater refinement marked a move upwards in the performance/value equation.

You could be forgiven for thinking that what was being described was a range of cars on the cutting technological edge - you know, that the line of cars that I could see out in the sunshine didn't really have semi-trailing-arms-plus-a-toe-link-rear-suspension, the auto transmissions really had five ratios and not four, that all the cars were equipped with electronic throttle and stability control....

Well, I thought, at least when we get to the question and answer session that will surely follow this barrage of marketing, some decent content will be generated. Surely I am not alone in seeing in foot-high letters all that is being missed? I waited with excitement for the questions...but I was to be disappointed.

"Did you follow the lead of Ford in releasing that new green colour?" was something like one of the first questions.

OHMYGOD! They're asking about paint colours!?

I couldn't stand it any longer.

"You mentioned in the context of this range of cars that 'performance dynamics' best summarised it," I said. "Aren't you embarrassed by the lack of stability control in any of these cars?"

There was a short silence. Everyone looked at me.

Director of Engineering Phil Harding viewed me expressionlessly.

"No," he said.

There was another short silence.

Then Mark Skaife spoke up: I listened to the first sentence. What he said was straight out of Mr Crennan's book. These cars are developed to have an optimised suspension system that enhances the ability of the car to respond to driver requests at a plane of unparalleled quality that is rare on this planet, he said. Well, they weren't the actual words, but that was the meaning.

I wondered why the HSV range had ABS, when presumably the brakes were also developed to the same plane of unparalleled brilliance.

I wondered why they bothered fitting airbags, when the crashworthiness of the cars was presumably world class.

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I wondered why they bothered leaving Holden's traction control in place, when presumably the rear end grip is optimised to produce a nexus between the race team and the synchronicity of the education of the dealers' sons and daughters - perhaps at the Hungarian Grand Prix - while the sales of HSV merchandise (Year to Date) show the strong and sustained growth which is so indicative of the HSV success story.

Or something like that.

I wondered a lot of things: but most of all I wondered why everyone didn't fall about laughing at the unreality of it all.

But I also knew something else: unless the engineers who actually make the cars happen had dropped the ball in the biggest way possible, I knew that the cars out on the skidpan would be very good indeed. That, in having to make the most of whatever Holden makes available in the base car technology, HSV does a superb job.

But why didn't anyone in the company have the guts to actually say: "We'd love to have stability control - and a whole host of other technologies - on our cars. But we're a small company that simply doesn't have the resources to develop such things on our own. These technologies are coming, but not on this range of cars."

The credibility of the speakers would have been so much higher - but then given the standard of the other questions posed by the journalists (they weren't all about paint colour, but most were close) - HSV's marketing-based media presentation worked.

I'd only been here an hour, and already I had learned more than I ever expected...

The Proving Ground Drive

The question and answer session wrapped-up while I sat still, slightly dazed. If the quality of information continued at this rate, I'd wasted my time in coming. But perhaps I was just being unfair: there had been some tech details on the new engine, but they'd been largely glossed over. But I did distinctly remember a throwaway line about some engine parts on display at the back of the room, if anyone wanted to look at them.

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All the journalists were heading out the glass doors to the range of cars, ready and eager to drive them - and I noticed waiting staff already tidying the room for lunch. I grabbed my camera and photographed the new airbox and intake trunking. But my mind was reeling - why weren't any of the other journalists looking at these bits? Why weren't they photographing them? Were pics of all these components on the press pack CDs? Which of these engine bits were old and which were new?

I felt confused, slightly disorientated.

I finished photographing the components (later I realised that I had missed many of the important ones) and wandered outside. People stood around in small groups, animatedly chatting. I heard someone say, "Mark, can you take Jaedene around please?" and saw Mark Skaife drive off with the only female journalist. I was uncertain of where he was actually going - if you don't know what the 'Ride and Handling Course' is, you have no idea where the cars are permitted to be driven in this maze of roads.

I walked over to an HSV man - it turned out to be Manager of Engineering, John Clark - and asked him to chaperone me onto the test circuit.

"This road is two-way," is amongst the first things he said, guiding me back to the left of an access road. We then turned onto another road marked by a centre white line.

"This road is one way," he confusingly added.

Then, a little later: "This is the ride and handling course."

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The road was configured as a typical, averagely good country road. It had straights - each perhaps of a kilometre or so - and a mixture of bends, ranging from what would normally be marked at perhaps 60 km/h, upwards. One section included some waves at an evil frequency; another had some tramlines set longitudinally into the road. There were some cross striations and some off-camber. It wasn't a hugely demanding road - there was little change in elevation that would cause a car to compress or lighten on its springs, and the surface roughness was typically not at all bad. But it was certainly vastly better at testing road car handling than a race track.

But despite being marked as a country road with a white centreline, I soon found that everyone - except me - actually drove it like a race track; using the bitumen from edge to edge across the whole road width. That made it wider than the widest lane you will ever drive in, which seemed to be a stupid way of assessing handling on what was an obvious attempt to recreate real road conditions.

I drove around the track, not knowing where it was going, keeping in my lane, being slow and awkward. Other cars raced up behind me, going perhaps 50 km/h faster and so I was constantly pulling over to let them through. For me, it was hard to learn anything - the cars seemed to have good brakes, a flat torque curve and fairly slow steering. But in this environment even the major differences between the Grange (softer suspension and a slower steering rack) and the Clubsport were muted: I didn't feel comfortable, didn't know what to look for and kept waiting to spear off, straight into the drainage ditches that surround the course.

There are no run-off areas, and no-one wore helmets.


I drove a few other cars before realising that this wasn't generating any story content. But perhaps I could grab some of these engineers and do some interviews? Suspension and engine management were two areas I really wanted to explore. Despite claims to the contrary by those who have not driven the cars, and despite those pretty basic underpinnings, HSV do a fantastic job of tuning the suspension systems in their cars to provide outstanding real-world handling. Point-to-point on smooth roads, rough roads - and everything in between - the cars are very quick and comfortable.

Very quick.

What philosophy of suspension development underpins this outcome?

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John Clark wanted his suspension man - Mark Beasy - in on the interview and when he finally prised him from a car (Mark being a man who apparently just loves fanging around the ride and handling course), the three of us went into The Chalet. Tape running, I asked a bunch of questions but felt that the interview never really clicked - these guys are so used to giving interviews to journalists, they tend to speak in generalities which when really analysed, don't reveal much.

It wasn't that they were unwilling; it was just that I wasn't making it clear enough what I wanted. But when they said that they'd happily release to me shock dyno graphs (without the numbers on them; fair enough) and Mark started talking about the effect of altering front damping rebound, and how the Monaro shell is so much more torsionally stiffer than the four-door sedan that the suspension tune for each car has to be completely different, I felt that the trip was becoming worthwhile.

During the interview The Chalet had filled with people eating the prepared lunch, and while I could have kept on talking to the engineers for much longer, I ended the interview and grabbed something to eat.

I had kept on learning: it was much more important to spend less time driving the cars and more time talking to the right people.

After lunch the afternoon drive program began - initially it would continue at the proving ground, before a long country drive occurred to the hotel where we'd have dinner and spend the night. I chose to ignore the offered cars and instead find the engine management man, an engineer who was also in charge of the complete HSV VY Series II program. I found him talking to journalist Barry Lake (interesting, I thought, how that experienced journalist wasn't bothering to drive the cars any further but instead was collecting material one-on-one) and requested an interview.

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Sam Davis is a quietly spoken, bespectacled man. He also has a razor-sharp grip on his fields of expertise, and within a very few moments just blew me away with what he told me. There was literally not a single question that I posed - including stuff which Ford engineering simply flatly refuses to discuss - that he didn't give a thoughtful, detailed answer to. Knock sensor strategies? Sure. Why HSV can run their cars with leaner air/fuel ratios at full load than the Holden equivalents? No problem. How knock sensors are mapped on different engines to recognise the different waveforms of knock? Here's the detail. And it was detailed - here was a technical journalist's dream man, someone who intimately knew his stuff and could speak with a complete absence of bullshit marketing overlay.

I was entranced.

But the pain of tiredness inside my head was slowing me down: there were long pauses in the interview where I tried to remember the question I wanted to ask next. This was a priceless opportunity, and I didn't want to blow it. Even for what I could learn for myself - let alone bring to you - Sam was my man.

The Drive

The proving ground session complete, at about 3 pm we all hopped into cars and played follow-the-leader across a range of country roads to the south-east and east of Melbourne. Unfortunately the crocodile straggled along at 80-100 km/h, a nose-to-tail line of cars being driven gently down country roads. I don't think I learned a thing - although when I was in the tweaked 300kW GTS coupe running very special pre-release (and simply superb) Ohlins suspension, I did switch off the traction control and light them up through first and second gears. But then I guiltily returned to the group driving style - it was as if we all had caravans behind us.

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The drive went on and on, stopping every 50 kilometres or so for driver changes. By this time I felt completely knackered - I was literally having to perform mental alertness tricks that normally I would only use after a one-day drive of a thousand kilometres or more. In fact, about three hours into the tedium I was seriously thinking of asking whether could they find another driver and I ride passenger. My tiredness was becoming near to dangerous...

But one thing did gel with John Crennan's marketing speech of the week before - er, earlier in the day. (It just felt like the week before.) He had talked at length about targeting the youth - ("Like cigarette companies used to, but we're more politically correct," he'd said). It had struck me as interesting because he had seen such potential in investing in youth brand awareness and aspirational car ownership - Gawd, I am starting to talk like him.

But what was actually meant was that if you get the kids interested in HSV, one day when they're grown up, they'll buy one. And here we were in these little Victorian country towns, something like a dozen new HSV models glowing in the dusk light - and there were kids on bicycles, kids on footpaths, kids in cars, all gesticulating, cheering, giving the thumbs-up. A collection of Porsches would have received no greater attention than those Holden Special Vehicles.

Hmmm, perhaps I'd learned more than I thought I had during the morning session...

The Evening

My tiredness was such that by this time events were starting to blur and morph, but I distinctly remember at pre-dinner drinks John Crennan again using his charm and voice to put people at ease, to make us one happy unit. He used the nicknames of some journalists; he joked and welcomed and, well, was a very good host. But I am not sure that relationships between impartial journalists and car companies should be quite like that, so I stayed silent and simply watched.

I wasn't particularly looking forward to dinner, simply because I felt so tired.

But my tiredness was lifted when I found myself sitting next to my man, Sam. Sam Davis was the engineer who had been so forthright, clear and up-front in the interview about engine management. And since we just kept talking cars with each other, the evening romped past. Everything from the handling of the Porsche 911 (they're just awful: go drive one, he said) to the driveline layout of an Alfetta (I still have an Alfetta at home, he said with a grin), from the breadth of performance of the coming HFV6 Holden V6 (better than the Astra Turbo), to the highlights and lowlights of current Australian motoring magazines (an awful lot of lowlights, he said).

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And yes, the lack of stability control on HSVs came up as well. To do stability control "Bosch will tell us they want a million dollars and ten cars for a year - in northern Europe," Sam said tiredly. It was certainly coming, but without Holden first making the technology flow-on available, it was just impossible for a small company to do it alone. Fantastic stuff from no bullshit Sam - but why wasn't that said at the presentation earlier in the day? It was so much more valid than that gobbledygook about "these cars are developed to have an optimised suspension system that enhances the ability of the car to respond..." - or whatever it actually was.

Sam and I touched base on the handling of the Lancer Evo VI (fantastic car, said Sam), on what he likes and dislikes about the Falcon XR6 Turbo (about 95 per cent there, he said) and about pretty well every car either of us had ever driven that we thought would be of joint interest.

It was simply a great dinner conversation for car nuts!

Early in the evening, Mark Skaife was invited to address the two dinner tables. He spoke with assurance, polish, those little witticisms, and clarity. Not having much interest in V8 Supercar racing, I didn't know a lot about what he was discussing, but it seems as if his team has been less successful this year than it ought to have been.

And then something intriguing happened.

He asked for questions from the assembled journalists - and actually got some good ones. They were tough, confrontationist and obviously hard to answer - at one stage Skaife looked at a questioner and asked rhetorically, "You're joking, aren't you?!". It's apparently OK to ask tough questions of a sportsman, but not the car company. Or maybe these particular journalists - who perhaps specialise in motorsport - could think up good questions in this area but didn't have enough tech and industry knowledge to highlight HSV car deficiencies?

I can't make up my mind, but there's something odd about listening to thousands of words of marketing speech associated with the introduction of a range of new models - and effectively asking nothing - and then listening to a 15-minute dinner speech by a racing driver and having lots of good questions to ask.

All very strange.

But I had little time to reflect on that - bed was beckoning and I wasn't fighting it off...

Final Morning

After a good sleep I felt much better - even with another longish country drive scheduled. But any hope that they'd send us off at 15 minute intervals, or put an HSV staffer in each car to navigate and let us go our own way, was soon dashed - it would be another crocodile of caravans. Once I realised this, I opted to do no driving at all, but instead to photograph some of the people who I'd interviewed - and to do some more talking.

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One man I talked to was another journalist - Barry Lake. It was slightly odd using a press car launch to gather a story from someone who works for other media, but Barry seemed willing and like Sam, was a great conversationalist about cars. Especially as we found ourselves agreeing again and again on cars that had been greeted with enormous praise by other media - like the Mazda 6 - but that we could find little outstanding about. And other things too: we both love the Honda Jazz and Insight, think the HSV suspension extremely well set up for real-road handling, like the open-road handling of the Magna, and agree that testing a road car on a race track can give a very deceptive analysis of road car handling - unless the journalist takes into account the wildly different environments.

Pity he doesn't write the road tests for Motor (the magazine he once edited), rather than now being just a columnist.

Morning tea put me next to Director of Engineering, Phil Harding: the man who at the previous morning's presentation had given such an unhelpful 'No' when asked whether he felt any embarrassment in the lack of stability control on the HSV models. ("I thought it a stupid question", he'd later said to me.) We'd also had some further private verbal jousting that morning, when he had claimed that the oil consumption problems of the LS1 5.7-litre V8 were over - and, somewhat contradictorily, there probably hadn't really been a problem anyway. It was all perception: there were no problems in adding oil to engines between services. People in Europe did it all the time, he said. It had been a discussion in which we had quickly come to respect each others' debating skills, but in terms of achieving story content, I had had a nil outcome.

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Rather than resume the debate, instead I asked Phil of his background. And struck gold. Phil Harding is Tom Walkinshaw's man in Australia - back home in the UK he has a family, and a house, and a car parked out the front. He's been in Australia 18 months. And what did he do prior to this appointment? Incredibly, he was Chief Engineer at Rolls Royce and Bentley, including during the period when the enormous 6.75-litre V8 turbo engine was developed. Try 900Nm of torque... There had to be a story in that, so I grabbed his email address before being hustled back into a car to be taken to the airport.


Sitting alone for a late lunch at the Melbourne Airport before flying home, I didn't know quite what to think of the previous 36 hours. I would have gained more knowledge of the cars by having any one of them for a week (the normal road test duration) than driving all of them endless laps of the proving ground Ride and Handling Course or in slow-moving country drives. But that is quite likely a result of my inexperience at driving a whole bunch of cars in these conditions.

The contacts with the engineers - especially Sam Davis - will result in AutoSpeed stories that I think (hope? - I haven't yet listened to the tapes!) will be strong and interesting.

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But the reluctance of journalists to ask the hard questions (except of Skaife) was startling, and the company hypocrisy of publicly pretending that something is wonderful - when clearly it isn't - strains credibility and at times gave me the feeling of participating in a bad play. Simply, when a $34,000 Honda Accord Euro has better electronic active safety than an HSV product at up to three times that price, suggesting otherwise does a massive disservice to consumers.

Phil Harding asked me rhetorically, "Do you expect us to reveal what will be in the next model when we're here to launch a new car?" - but that is a little ingenuous. To implicitly suggest that the current car is as good as it will ever get is simply ridiculous, and so also is the justification of the absence of certain widely available features - just because they are indeed absent.

But perhaps I can now more clearly see why many car magazines tend to uncritically push car company lines - the information being fed to journalists has 'spin' written all over it. That's especially the case in the more technical areas - which also happen to be where most motoring journalists have the weakest knowledge.

The cars themselves? They'll be as good as the other HSV models that AutoSpeed has driven. In fact, yes, they will be better. So far, we've never driven a bad one and with this new series, it doesn't look like it will happen now.

Julian Edgar's Brisbane > Melbourne flights, accommodation and meals were paid for by Holden Special Vehicles

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