The Vauxhall VXR8 is an unsophisticated sledgehammer that is engaging, entertaining and very different from the German super-coupés that it rivals
I laughed when we went sideways at 60mph, and I was still laughing when we did it at 75mph, but during the heart-pounding seconds when race driver Nathan Priddy wrenched the Monaro’s steering wheel left-right-left in a blaze of staccato jerks, I went quiet. Because we were on a straight stretch of road. Not flat, but straight, the tarmac rising and falling with increased abruptness on a road laid to test a car’s bump absorption, its suspension’s capacity to keep tyres in touch with terra firma when speed and the surface are trying to throw it free.
We’re here in Australia, Holden’s natural habitat, to sample The Holden Monaro on both track and the Great Ocean Road. As you may have guessed, the Monaro comes from a company that is refreshingly uncomplicated about why lots of us love cars, and admits that many of us enjoy their powersliding capabilities.
Start by imagining a coupé version of the recently deceased Vauxhall Omega, but if that thought inclines you to stop reading, you need to know more – not least because it is coming to the UK, badged as a Vauxhall. You need to know that this Vauxhall is powered by the Chevrolet Corvette’s 5.7-litre all-alloy small block; that the V8 spins six gear clusters; that it drives independently sprung rear wheels; and that there’s anti-lock and a traction control system that can be switched off.
Completely. This is a muscle car, Australian style, and it’s a genre Holden has a bit of a history with, the company having produced Monaros past that did the smokey pony car bit with that tyre-ripping lack of subtlety that is so appealing.
The ’68-’70 Monaro, an antipodean facsimile of the muscle-bound American coupes, makes this modern version look modest. Actually, it’s not. Especially if it comes painted Devil Yellow. That’s because it’s big – almost as big as the Bentley Continental GT – and sizeable enough to seat four adults in real comfort, along with a fair haul of luggage.
The combination of this and that fat V8 make the £28,650 Monaro a unique package here in the UK. Perhaps its closest rivals are the Nissan 350Z, though that is two seats and two cylinders down – or MG’s ZT 260, which comes with two extra doors, but 70 horses fewer from its Ford V8. Or you could spend tens of thousands more and get yourself a German coupé from Mercedes or BMW.
It’s hard to imagine this Holden matching the sophistication of any of those cars with such a red-neck spec. Surprise number one, however, is that the cabin is a comfortable and contemporary-looking habitat, if not truly special. Mock stippled aluminium decorates a centre stack from which a pair of Saab 9-5 cupholders perform their dance, the instruments include LCD displays, the gearlever and handbrake are fashioned from a pleasingly tactile mix of leather and faux aluminium, and the pedals are metal-faced to boot.
The big, squashily supportive seats are electrically adjusted. You may even find the lumbar knob too, stuffed tight as it is between backrest and B-pillar. So we’re not driving a piece of pre-history here, even if the Monaro is looking a bit dated.
This, then, is our weapon for the Great Ocean Road, and I find myself wondering what kind of car it will be. Blind assumption suggests a somewhat raw device that’s long on power and short on subtlety. However, the drive from the Holden headquarters in Melbourne to the dual carriageway that will take us to the Southern Ocean demolishes those thoughts. The Holden proves a quiet, comfortable, almost soothing machine with which to cut clear of the city.
The only thing you have to concentrate on is the transmission, because the clutch can make a clean, brisk getaway a hard-won outcome, and because the shift itself is a little slow-witted. We tried the ’box in several Monaros, and wondered whether some of the Mexican Tremec-made transmissions were assembled the morning after a Tequila sunrise. Some shifted ponderously but with great accuracy, others resisted the thrust of your wrist, while a third would allow you to brush reverse when you had intended a 90mph rendezvous with fifth. Ouch.
Once you’re ambling at 68mph in top – the limit on Australian freeways – with the engine turning lazily, such inconveniences are forgotten. The Monaro feels like a big saloon, its sporting pretensions betrayed only by the odd abruptly handled bump from a suspension that works with admirable quiet. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the steering, whose reactions seem dulled given the car’s purported athleticism. But that does mean you can drive it in relaxed manner along arrow-straight black-top, of which there is much in Australia. A wet roundabout provokes a brief slither from the back end, though nothing too dramatic, the traction control intervening tidily.
The road is dry now – though far from free of traffic – but with 330 horsepower on standby, vaulting past is easy. It’s easier still if you’re in the right gear. At first I let the torque do the work, and there’s plenty, but in time I realise that to get a whole lot more, to make the Monaro behave like the seriously fast car that it is, you must stretch that 5.7-litre V8. It glories in a long stretch of revving, even if it doesn’t go banshee-ballistic like a Honda motor. In the Vauxhall-ised version of the Monaro we get a tamer exhaust, our drive-by noise regulations outlawing the more burbly item the Holden comes with. A louder sports item will be a £2000 option.
As it is, you must listen hard for the V8 warble, and I find myself making less and less use of fourth and fifth gears as we bound past surf and turf.
The motor’s willingness to spin encourages bolder bend-tackling and, on tighter second-gear turns, experimentation without the traction control system. It soon proves pretty easy to dislodge the aft end, but what’s impressive is the Monaro’s resistance to picking up an inside wheel and spilling its power away, the limited-slip differential harnessing the energy for hooligan whims.
Long straights demand much of the brakes, but they’re well up to it, even if they don’t provide the feel-laden bite of the best road-racers. There’s plenty of grip, too, though with 343lb ft of torque to undam, it’s easy to have the rear wheels running out. But you feel secure – even when rougher roads have the Holden perform a curious jack-rabbit bounce, suggesting excess damping on the rebound. Whatever it is, British roads, I fear, will bring out the bounce more often than you’ll like.
Curiously, though the steering is a bit short on sensation, this doesn’t rob you of confidence over-much, mainly because it’s satisfyingly accurate. There’s weight there, but if you expect the Monaro to tell you all about the road below, you’re in for a disappointment. The seats compensate in part, transmitting enough tactile chatter that you needn’t resort to using the A-pillars’ movement relative to the scenery to gauge the onset of oversteer. And it doesn’t take long to get into a rhythm with this car, and a particularly satisfying one if you’re on the right road.
No, the Monaro isn’t the sharpest driving tool, yet I find it a curiously engaging car. I like its combination of civility and brute urge, its honesty and the unexpectedness of it – it looks like it should be packing a V6, not a 330bhp V8. And its dated look suggests performance well short of 5.3sec to 60mph and 160mph. But power like this makes the Monaro a great mile-eater. It can lope if you’re not in the mood, bound from bend to bend if you are, and entertain you with all kinds of sideways action should you be feeling excitable. And after a day in this car on just the right kind of road, I was.