Vauxhall bids farewell to its line of Aussie performance legends in some style with the limited edition VXR8 GTS-R

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October 2017 saw the production end for arguably Australia’s greatest automotive export, the Holden Commodore – and with that end, one of the UK car market’s strangest, most enriching, most wonderful and most unlikely seams of import supply has forever dried up.

Vauxhall’s lurid, unreconstructed, antediluvian, V8-powered, infamous Aussie-built Anglophile – the VXR8 – is no more. Cue the ‘Kylie and Jason’ mood music.

See the GTS-R badge on the bootlid and you know you’re looking at a car rarer in the UK than most £1 million hypercars – if not quite as advanced

There is much more to mourn with the Holden’s passing, of course, since it also represented the death knell of local car production in Australia and of the variety it gave to petrolheads everywhere.

In the end, Holden’s Commodore production line stayed running a year longer than Ford’s Falcon factory and a month longer than Toyota’s local Camry facility but finally wound to a stop on 20 October 2017.

And when it stopped, Commodore supply obviously stopped for the firm that has been supplying rebadged, performance-tuned versions of the V8 saloons to UK showrooms for 10 years now: Holden Special Vehicles (HSV).

And yet before it stopped, Vauxhall put in one last batch order with HSV for just 15 examples of a special-edition VXR8 that’s the focus of this valedictory road test: the GTS-R.

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Meaningfully identical to the HSV model of the same name, the VXR8 GTS-R gets a dab more power than the GTS we tested in 2014, as well as various other mechanical tweaks, styling modifications and cabin upgrades – all of which you’re about to read in greater detail.

All 15 of those cars have since been sold. So if you’ve been waiting since the earliest Holden Monaros appeared in the UK in 2004 to treat yourself to your very own slice of Australian muscle and you’re only now learning that it’s too late to do so, commiserations.

You can, at least, find out how the very last VXR8 – and the most powerful car to wear a Vauxhall badge – got on against our road test timing gear, and what kind of farewell tribute to such a unique and likeable car it is, by simply reading on.


Vauxhall VXR8 GTS-R front grille

First, let’s position this car correctly – both as a Vauxhall and an HSV.

Running the same LSA-family Chevrolet ‘small-block’ V8 as the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 (remapped and fitted with a new air filter compared with the one in the regular VXR8 GTS), the GTS-R has 587bhp on which to struggle by.

Rear wing has body-coloured endplates and a carbon-look centre section, which reverses the orientation of the one on the lesser GTSv

And although that’s more than any VXR8 or indeed Vauxhall has ever had before, it does leave the car shy of the headline power output of cars of its ilk from Mercedes-AMG, Audi Sport and BMW M by a clearly present margin, however narrow.

Much as the handful of owners may not care about such things, some may have preferred to see the VXR8 sign off with a more emphatic performance statement. And in Australia, at least, it did. The LS9-engined GTS-R W1, whose 636bhp V8 came from a Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, was HSV’s own farewell love letter to the Commodore. Only 300 were built, and unfortunately it never got – or needed – the Vauxhall VXR8 export makeover treatment.

Back to what we did get, then. Although the GTS-R’s V8 makes no more torque than the regular GTS’s, it has an Eaton supercharger blowing at 9psi and bi-modal exhaust system – now with two diagonal exhaust tips rather than four round ones – that has been retuned for a fruitier bellow. Downstream of it, buyers had the same choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmission as with the GTS; and a mechanical limited-slip differential for the driven rear axle as standard, as well as brake-based electronic torque vectoring and proper track-intended electronic traction and launch control systems – again, all just as the GTS had.

In the rolling chassis department, though, we find evidence of greater change: retuned suspension springs and Magnetic Ride Control dampers; uprated, 410mm front brake discs and six-piston front calipers; and new 20in forged alloy wheels.

Suspension is otherwise by struts up front and independent multi-links at the rear. Power steering is an electromechanical system, the switch from hydraulic steering having been made for the regular Commodore as part of the 2013-model-year VF-generation revision.

The GTS-R’s exterior identifiers comprise a new front bumper with a wider central air dam, wider front wings and a larger front splitter than the GTS’s, as well as an enlarged rear wing with a carbonfibre section and a more aggressive rear diffuser panel.

The overall visual effect is of a fast four-door with plenty of steroidal attitude, particularly when painted the Spitfire Green of our test car – and if you like that sort of thing, chances are you’ll like what you see.


Vauxhall VXR8 GTS-R interior

The changes made to the GTS’s cabin as part of HSV’s GTS-R upgrade are few enough but the contrasts struck by the car’s driving environment compared with that of most modern super-saloons are many.

The large, comfortable and deeply bolstered sports seats are mounted medium-high, making the driving position feel a bit antiquated.

HSV’s EDI drive computer is hilariously over-specified, with display modes that are at once massively distracting and pretty much useless

You feel as if you sit slightly high and perched at the car’s controls, which are nonetheless fairly well positioned, with enough room between the three pedals in the driver’s footwell – count them, by gum – for easy operation even by an Outback sheep farmer in size-12 hobnail boots.

You get diamond quilting on your leather and Alcantara sports seats here and, HSV claims, a smattering of richer materials and new decorative trims on the fascia, although we struggled to recognise many of them.

To look at it, you still wouldn’t imagine this car could convince someone shopping for a luxury performance car not to buy a fast Mercedes or Audi.

And yet you get a lovely, tactile, Alcantara-upholstered steering wheel that didn’t escape our road testers’ attention – and nor did the standard-fit head-up display, which can even be made to relay lateral g loading.

Just as in the GTS, you use HSV’s tunnel-mounted Driver Preference Dial to hop between driver modes (Touring, Sport, Performance and Track), which configure the powertrain, damping, steering, torque vectoring and traction control systems to best suit the use you’ve got in mind for them.

Once you’re bored of fiddling with that, there’s plenty more amusement to be found in the car’s Enhanced Driver Interface drive computer, which has a procession of video-game-like menu screens full of information on things like lap time, yaw rate, slip angle, throttle position, boost pressure, coolant temperature and just about anything else you might want to be distracted by.

This is a big saloon car and it provides plenty of room for four adults. The boot is sizeable, too, and although you don’t get proper folding seat backs to expand it fully, there is a large ski hatch for longer items.

The VXR8’s 8.0in infotainment system looks and feels like it belongs on a decade-old car – and understandably so. Its display looks low of resolution and it often takes a while to respond, although it is at least a touchscreen system.

There’s no smartphone mirroring here and very few internet-connected features – and on a £70,000 car, you’ve a right to expect much better. But you do get a nine-speaker premium Bose audio system that sounds more than adequate and it will also stream audio from your phone via Bluetooth – and Vauxhall’s MyLink smartphone interface system grants limited app-based web connectivity to streaming sites like Stitcher.

HSV’s Enhanced Driver Interface system is linked into the car’s sat-nav for what looks like pretty rudimentary lap time data logging, although we didn’t have time to fully test it. It’s fair to say that the likes of Porsche and Mercedes-AMG do this kind of thing much better – as you’d expect them to. But it’s also fair to say that nobody buys a VXR8 for the infotainment.


5.0-litre V8 Vauxhall VXR8 GTS-R petrol engine

The GTS-R’s dying-breed status is detectable in the weight and tactile feel of almost every one of its controls; in every delicious crack and flaw of its bleeding heart, blood and thunder motive character; and in so much of the wonderfully idiosyncratic way that it goes about flinging its 1.9 tonnes at the horizon when you really stretch its legs.

To observe that they really don’t make super-saloons like this any more is, of course, to recognise how much the fast four-door executive has changed over the past decade or so.

The GTS-R traction control’s Track mode allows just enough slip out of longer corners

But it’s also to salute the supremely genuine, singularly analogue and wonderfully engaging driving experience of the VXR8 GTS-R.

In an era of four-wheel-drive, paddle-shift-equipped performance saloons crammed to the roof with advanced chassis technology intended to make ever increasing speeds ever more easy to achieve, the GTS-R asks you simply to clock on and play your part – to give in order that you might receive – before returning on your investment incredibly vividly.

Anyone minded to write this car off as some irrelevant throwback, though, should first experience how good its electronic traction and stability controls are.

Finding launch control here feels a bit like finding a laser gunsight on an Edwardian battlefield catapult, and it’s not a system you can get the best from at your first attempt.

Our performance figures were recorded on a chilly day, on slightly damp tarmac; and even with launch control enabled, it took several sets of attempts to gauge the right amount of throttle and revs to use (plenty), how abrupt to be with the clutch (very), and exactly when to manhandle the heavy, short gearlever through the gate (only once the needle’s hit 6000rpm).

But after investing some time, you realise you can be as bold as you like with the power once the clutch is out, leaving the traction control to subtly feather engine torque and curb wheelspin.

The GTS-R has long gear ratios, and also not as many of them as the average 2018 super-saloon – and yet it overcomes both disadvantages to feel genuinely fast through the upper half of its rev range.

The 4.8sec 0-60mph sprint it recorded, in damp conditions, matched precisely what we saw from a VXR8 GTS in 2014 on dry tarmac; but the GTS-R was more than half a second quicker to 100mph than its range-mate, and some four seconds quicker to 150mph.

Rivals allow you to go even quicker, sure, but they don’t reward you in anything like the same way. And they don’t beguile you with even half as much bristling V8 audible drama or unreconstructed physicality, either.


Vauxhall VXR8 GTS-R cornering

HSV’s retune of the GTS’s suspension hardware and software has added a little bit of tautness, crispness and high-speed stability to the car’s handling and has certainly done enough to make this feel more like a really fast and purposeful track machine than any VXR8 to date.

But to have taken this car onto the side of the super-saloon spectrum marked ‘firm’ or ‘highly strung’ would have been a betrayal of the laid-back, grunt-over-grip, ‘she’ll be ’right, mate’ performance ethos of every HSV-prepared Holden to have made it to the UK. And, thankfully, that’s not a betrayal HSV is guilty of.

The GTS-R’s softish suspension keeps the car’s limit handling progressive

Even in its firmer ride modes, the GTS-R still feels like an Alcantara-upholstered La-Z-Boy compared with, say, a Mercedes-AMG E63 S.

Its suspension has the sort of longish-travel suppleness that has been engineered out of the likes of the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, and combined with grip levels that are high – but deliberately not heroically so – the GTS-R deals with uneven B-roads particularly well.

There’s a delicacy and an interactivity involved with driving this car fast that the sheer competence of newer rivals doesn’t allow for.

Both axles grip dry tarmac quite hard, but neither so hard that there’s precious little progressive feel about the way that grip level drops away on the limit.

The VXR8’s front wheels bite with an incisive directness but they also feed back plenty of confidence through the steering. They’ve always got enough grip, though, to be leant on hard enough to allow you to pass your attention through to the tail end of the car at both low speeds and high, and to adjust your attitude as much or as little as you like with those 275-section driven rear tyres – and your right foot.

When it comes to offering habitable handling margins, and of really entertaining its driver with its supremely well-balanced and singularly benign cornering manners, there probably isn’t another performance four-door in the world this good.

On the road, there are more agile and immediate-feeling rivals and, at times, more composed ones, but the brilliance of this wonderful driver’s car is that it would make many of them seem soulless, flat and unexciting in a broader sense.

In an ambient 5deg C and with patches of dampness lingering on track, the GTS-R had to be managed up to temperature and cajoled a little to give up an indication of its true capabilities – all relationship-building stuff that only fuels your affection for the car.

With the tyres up to temperature, the chassis’s adhesiveness increased markedly, although the delicacy of its balance of grip was ever-present.

This is an old-school driver’s car that moves around under you and responds to being driven well; being slowed, turned, pivoted and manipulated with sensitivity.

The confidence and pace with which you can attack the track’s big braking areas is high, the apex speed you can carry likewise.

But corner exit remains the highlight of most bends, where you can choose from the discreet, unobtrusive safety net of the excellent traction control system or get as wild as you want by turning it all off.


Vauxhall VXR8 GTS-R

There are obvious factors to consider before spending upwards of £70,000 on a rare-groove saloon imported from the other side of the world, whose like has been little known to many Vauxhall retailers and which, you have to assume, will only become tougher to find support for now that the VXR8 has been discontinued.

If you’ve owned Vauxhall-badged HSVs, you’ll know the route to happier ownership of cars like these – and our experience suggests that it’s no tougher than acquainting yourself with the right Vauxhall dealer.

Time your inputs badly and the GTS-R makes you pay. But get in tune with the car and I suspect it’s as quick as anything in the class on its day

VXR8s haven’t held their value brilliantly well over the years, but this ultra-limited, last-of-the-breed edition ought to hold up rather better; and better, probably, than the premium-branded machinery you might otherwise splash your cash on.

If you must, you’ll find that the car’s well capable of topping 27mpg on a touring run.


4 star Vauxhall VXR8 GTS-R

The line of V8-engined ‘special Holdens’ brought to our shores by Vauxhall over the past 13 years has not been short on material for a Saturday prime-time TV ‘best bits’ showreel, but with the VXR8 GTS-R, it has undoubtedly hit a zenith.

One or two HSV Holdens we’ve been treated to before have had similar combustive and visual drama as this car, but none has combined as much outright performance and on-the-limit grip and composure with the simple, unfiltered rear-drive handling engagement we’ve come to expect from HSV over the years.

VXR8 signs off in bristling, charismatic, dynamically delectable style

Compared with some fast executive saloons in 2018, the GTS-R may be a little short on traction, firepower, driveline sophistication and outright off-the-line pace.

But it utterly wins you over with the honesty, authenticity, tactility and physicality of its supremely analogue driving experience – which is utterly distinguished next to those of its ever more isolating, often less exciting rivals – and you can’t help but form a bonding affection for it. This is a fitting epitaph for a car that’ll be very sorely missed.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.