Car journalism, in case you were wondering, is a mostly sedentary job. Long hours, yes; exciting, occasionally.
But it is generally accomplished while either sitting behind a steering wheel or laptop, or standing next to a car at a fuel station eating a sandwich. As preparation for any kind of manual labour, it is about as effective as watching Man vs Food from a hospital bed. This much I reflected on last month as B&Q bag of shingle number four made its ungainly way from shelf to trolley via cantilever crane made entirely of yours truly.
Why do I need 15 bags of tiny rocks? Well, I don’t. In fact, they’re strewn about Autocar premises even now, violating fire legislation and tripping up elderly photographers. No, what we need is 300kg of old-fashioned ballast: stackable, slideable and, crucially, affordable. And 20kg bags of shingle, it turns out, are as easy on the wallet as they are exceptionally hard on one’s back. We need this because in the B&Q car park, drawing absolutely no attention at all among the builders’ vans and bemused DIYers, is an indefatigable 1676bhp of Aussie, Brit and Bavarian packhorse.
Granted, only one actually fits the description – and it’s because of Holden’s (or Vauxhall’s, if you prefer Luton’s pretence) freakish Maloo pick-up that we’ve assembled in Bedford and started buying scenery. We’ve seen HSV’s modified V8-powered ute before, of course, except now, in numbers so small that you’re unlikely to run out of body parts counting them, Vauxhall intends to import this, the R8 LSA. The letters are significant, because they designate the fitment of a supercharger to General Motors’ 6.2-litre V8, meaning that the Maloo now dispatches a gargantuan 537bhp to the rear wheels.
That figure is significant, too. Not only is it more than you get in a Porsche 911 GT3 RS, but it’s also very nearly as much as the 542bhp twin-turbocharged V6 that Jaguar installed in a humble Ford Transit back in 1989 when it needed somewhere to surreptitiously test the drivetrain that would eventually power the XJ220. To almost equal the output of a supercar test mule pretending to be a commercial vehicle is remarkable. Strewth, it’s downright commendable. However, that doesn’t automatically mean that it’s the quickest way of shifting, say, 300kg of shingle in 2016.
Because while the Australians have spent their spare time marvelling at the potential of the humble sheep-carrier, the Old World has busied itself force-feeding other formerly utilitarian options: namely, the 4x4 and the estate car. Among 4x4s, none has the gross weight capacity or the expressiveness of the 542bhp supercharged 5.0-litre V8 of a Range Rover Sport SVR, and in the estate category, the zenith is comprehensively owned by Audi. The RS6 Avant, in its latest Performance guise, is powered by a twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 that develops a barely feasible 597bhp – more than Lamborghini entrusts the rear wheels with in a Huracán LP580-2.
Now, you might think that a payload turf war between the three is rendered moot by the sheer size of the Maloo’s rear deck, but that isn’t quite the full story. For one, the pick-up’s plastic-lined load space is hindered in height by its hydraulic hood, and two, its total capacity is limited to around 500kg by the constraints of the modified suspension beneath. The RS6, on its standard air springs and with the seats down, would manage over 100kg more than that. In the SVR, similarly equipped, you could potentially stow 900kg of shingle if the mood took you.
We’ve settled on 300kg because that’s the amount you could conveniently fit into the boot of either the Audi or Range Rover without lowering the rear seats. That’s important, because what you don’t want when testing 0-100-0mph is 15 bags of unsecured pebbles appearing in the cabin at head height. Also, we’re going to time the cars’ performance two up, which puts us in the 500kg ball park in any case. We’ve picked 0-100-0mph because although this is primarily an examination of old-fashioned brawn, it would surely be nice to know that – unlike, say, a B&Q trolley – your V8-powered juggernaut is as proficient at stopping as it is getting explosively under way.
And I do mean explosive. The RS6 is the only car here even vaguely interested in keeping its horse head count under a bushel, and even its closed-valve waffle gives way to a 117dB rasp when prodded at idle. That ought to be news to anyone who actually owns an RS6, because the cabin is so well insulated that its falsetto drawl often appears to be coming from the car in front. At low revs, it barely makes any sound at all, although you know it’s there because something of clearly remarkable proportions is making its near two tonnes of plush fixtures and blistered arches move about like it was a gnat’s rucksack. Persist with the accelerator in any of the early cogs on its automatic gearbox and the RS6 sluices forward with the kind of preposterous shunt that has your chest groaning at the effort of keeping your neck attached.
Despite this memorable quality – on a par with the Tesla Model S P90D for its savagery – the Audi manages to seem less overtly antisocial than the SVR, which records a pain-threshold-threatening 125dB on the noise meter. Such outrageousness is apparently part of the Special Vehicles in-your-face manifesto, where the supercharged V8 is as much torch bearer as engine. In the full-sized Range Rover, the 5.0-litre unit is all distant thunder and catatonic waft.In the SVR, it is unashamedly (mortifyingly) centre stage, all theatric snarl and hot-exhaust pop. The car is a pulsating antidote to the bland theme-park whoosh of most other fast SUVs: not agile, lithe or particularly pointy, but massive, brutal, fast and silly.
Not to be outdone on any of those counts, the Maloo’s pushrod powerhouse sends the meter needle to 129dB – somewhat surprising for an engine that doesn’t automatically go in for the SVR’s early-onset histrionics. Most of the time, on the road, it hardly feels as though it is doing any real work at all – certainly not in a blood-curdling, tank-draining kind of way. Instead, like watching a professional darts player sink a yard of ale, it very purposefully and assuredly guzzles skyline. Geared like a boring machine through a rugged six-speed manual (an auto is also available), the Maloo seems like it’s at a perpetual fast canter, but if you watch other traffic or – God forbid – the speedo, you soon come to realise that you’re accumulating speed like a tachyon particle.
Little of what the R8 does is sophisticated, but to lump it in with the sort of pick-ups common in the UK is unfair. The Maloo is essentially a car underneath (specifically the Holden Commodore), and on independent rear suspension and passive springs, it rides with rambling, heavy-set confidence – one specifically unafraid of its engine’s drawn-out clout or its inevitable focus on the rear axle. Placing 300kg on top of it drops the arches by about an inch and a half and reduces the back end’s tendency to slip laterally, although the chassis is sufficiently well sorted for you to miss its low-speed playfulness.
Amusingly, the Maloo comes with launch control. It’s wired directly into the car’s Performance mode. Select first gear, open the throttle wide and promptly come off the clutch. Easy. Amazingly, though, it doesn’t really need it. Even with the electronic aids switched off and a club foot on, the Maloo pounces forward – with wheels spinning, admittedly, but in a mix of flamboyance and exertion and not in an uncontrolled squandering of 495lb ft of torque. The traction being developed is admirable. Better still, its whereabouts is tangibly fed back through the pedals and is therefore pleasingly exploitable.
Unencumbered on Millbrook proving ground’s mile straight, with a very warm clutch and a brimmed tank, the Maloo manages 5.0sec to 60mph and 0-100-0mph in 15.6sec. Under load, helped along by a first cog that’ll have you doing 50mph alone, the pick-up is just 0.8sec slower in the sprint, and a little over 2.0sec slower in getting back to nought. So by the time you hit 100mph, each additional 100kg is adding around half a second to the pick-up’s time. Under braking, despite some ingratiating messiness and the unsettling noise of a load redistributing itself, the Vauxhall is just 0.2sec later in returning to a standstill. Managing to outrun a Honda Civic Type R to 100mph while lugging enough stone to pebble-dash a small house is rousing, and with the SVR carrying more than 400kg of additional weight before we even think about loading it up, it’s hard to see the Range Rover turning its fourwheel-drive benefit into a significant advantage.
Wrong. Although the SVR refuses to replicate its maker’s 4.5sec-to-60mph claim, it still manages 4.7sec, and 16.1sec for 0-100-0mph. It does this without launch control, but without a hint of wheelspin, either. And with its eight ZF ratios stacked like dominoes, the V8 spinning quicker and no delay required for upshifts, the Range Rover romps through the challenge like a silverback crashing through bamboo.
Turn the gorilla into hod-carrier, though, and it’s a slightly different story. With ballast and passenger aboard, the SVR is still 0.5sec quicker to 60mph than the pick-up – but by 100mph, the lighter, longer-geared Maloo has reeled it all the way back in, and because the Range Rover takes almost 5.5sec of pitching to shudder to a halt, the Maloo stops 0.2sec quicker, too.
Round two to the Aussie. Round three, though, lasts precisely 3.4sec, the absurdly small slither of time it takes for the RS6 to bludgeon its way to 60mph. That’s without the ballast, of course, but 13.1sec to do 0-100-0mph is absurdly quick for a two-tonne car. Even 15 shingle bags and a colleague to the good, it is the best part of a second quicker than the empty SVR to 60mph. To 100mph, it’s 3.0sec ahead of the Maloo. It even gains an extra 0.5sec advantage over both in the braking.
The Audi’s ability to snatch a bit at the steering wheel, bite, blurt and then tumble into a wormhole is probably unrivalled among fivedoor equivalents. Or to put it another way, if we generously call 300kg three extra occupants, the RS6 owner could rest assured knowing that each additional rugby-playing passenger is only going to worsen his passage to the national speed limit by just 0.1sec. That’s staggering, and testament to the overboost-enabled 553lb ft of torque that its V8 is apportioning between the axles from 2500rpm.
So it’s the quickest, which by the rules of the day makes it the best. No arguments about that – and were my house at one end of a runway and my place of work (or shingle outlet) at the other, it would be a sensational place to sink the best part of £90k. Which is not to suggest that the car has a problem with corners.It doesn’t. Moving the steering wheel away from the straight-ahead barely seems to concern the drivetrain. Problem is, it barely concerns you, either. Compared with either rival, the quiet, cosseting RS6 is as distant as Sydney. Perhaps that’s for the best. Its performance wouldn’t be nearly so road applicable if the chassis telegraphed the effort of containing it. But it does mean that by the time you’ve slowed to a half-sane speed for fear of rear-ending a tractor, the Audi is about as compelling as an email spam folder.
My soft spot is reserved instead for the Maloo: second place when stashed with rocks, almost a Caterham Seven lighter than the SVR anyway and practically half its price, at £55k. “Making the motoring world a happier place” is the description we cooked up for it a few years ago, and the LSA’s blood rush only amplifies the sentiment. True, the fact that it resists pigeon-holing is due in part to its limitations (the payload restrictions make it a less than brilliant pick-up), but that hardly curtails the nuts and bolts fun that can be had simply tooling around in the thing. Its singular weirdness means it swerves the entitled sense of bling that afflicts the SVR, and although its peculiar niche is absolutely more Cadillac-sized than Ford Mustang, outwardly it takes itself no more seriously than a Foster’s commercial.
The Range Rover’s own knowing sense of outlandishness is complicated by its habit of projecting driver enthusiasm as more impatient sneer than happy grin. Too often, the V8 feels like it’s supercharging the negative aspects of the brand image alongside the performance, contemptuously ridiculing everything not up to its scale, volume or speed. What saves it from obnoxiousness is the roundedness of the experience from behind the ideally weighted steering wheel. Unlike the RS6 or the Maloo, the SVR doesn’t feel like it has been modified to suit a big engine; it feels like it was built around one – built big and tall and heavy and tangible so that you feel the V8’s almighty tempo in every surge, sway, lean, yaw and lurch. Double the shingle and although it would be slower still, none of what makes the SVR great would diminish one jot. Thriftless labour-saving comes in no more likeable format.