THE IDEA of a performance wagon is not a new one. The practice of combining performance and family practicality has been a concept that European manufacturers have turned into an art form.
Take the BMW 335i Estate that we recently tested. It was hard to fault: close to perfect, even. But then, for $112,000, it would want to be.
Audi is also partial to a fast wagon, except the German luxury marque calls it an 'Avant' and fast is now a relative term, recently put into context by the fearsome V10 twin-turbo RS6 Avant.
With a sticker price of $270,000 (give-or-take), the RS6 Avant is well out of the reach of all but a few, though that stack of cash will buy one of the heftiest amount of kilowatts currently doing the rounds in a wagon (or any car for that matter) - 426kW to be precise.
Will it buy you a deeply satisfying drive though? Apparently not, according to some RS6 reviewers.
Which is where a car like HSV's R8 Tourer, at a quarter of the Audi's price, has an unexpected advantage. Driving it is a deeply satisfying experience.
This time around, Holden's Sportwagon (which is based on the short wheelbase sedan platform), has provided HSV with the perfect base for a hi-po wagon and the folks at Clayton have taken the ball and run with it.
As a result the R8 Tourer shares nothing with the AWD Avalanche or the VT Commodore-based Senator Signature of 1997, its slow selling, long-wheel-base wagon forebears.
Instead it presents as a muscle-bound European-style wagon. One that provides enough extra luggage capacity (over the sedan) to satisfy most families, but not so much that it appeals to Telstra's fleet buyers.
Up-front the R8 Tourer is identical in styling to the sedan. There is the same snub 'bulldog-like' nose and stance, and while the Commodore may look a little cartoonish in standard form (largely due to those oversized wheel arches), it all comes together on the HSV range.
Transforming the humble Commodore sedan into the E-Series R8 Clubsport saw HSV spend a small fortune restyling the tail-lights, differentiation from the basic Holden product being an important part of HSV's modus operandi.
In contrast, HSV has taken a low-key and less expensive 'parts-bin' approach with the rear of the Tourer. There's a Commodore SS Sportwagon bumper facia, a chrome strip from the Calais V and the tail-lights are standard Sportwagon.
For HSV it is a subtle and surprisingly effective approach, that combines well with the hint of menace provided by the quad-exhausts and wide rear rubber.
In our Tourer's case, that tight and well-proportioned rear hunkers down over a meaty pair of optional 20-inch alloy wheels shod with some fairly serious 275/30 series Bridgestones.
Squat, compact, well-proportioned and aggressive. The R8 Tourer looks good from any angle, in-particular the rear three-quarter view, where a masterful blend of body style, ride height and big wheels combine to create one of the sexiest rumps around.
Turning the key fires up the mighty LS3 6.2-litre V8, and as Clubsport afficionados will know, that currently puts a gruff 317kW and 550Nm at the drivers disposal.
Built by General Motors Powertrain in North America, the LS3 also powers the latest Corvette and for a while there, the Commodore based Pontiac GXP.
The Tourer on test was fitted with the new Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual, which is a vast improvement over the previous MIO Tremec T56 box.
Those preferring an auto will need to shell out an extra $2,330 for HSV's re-calibrated six-speed automatic, but our advice would be drive the manual before making that decision. It still lacks a rifle-bolt action, but it's a satisfying drive for those who like to change their own gears.
The R8 Tourer runs the same standard brake package as the rest of the HSV range (except of course the limited edition W427). That means 365mm front and 350mm rear, grooved and ventilated rotors and HSV specific four piston front calipers, all developed in conjunction with AP Racing.
Where the Tourer really shines is in the chassis stiffness department. Coming in a whopping 30 percent stiffer than the sedan, it's also 100kg heavier - weighing in at a hefty 1914kg, in manual form.
HSV has developed a unique suspension tune for the Tourer; with springs that are around 20 percent stiffer all-round, rear-dampers borrowed from the Maloo and a smaller diameter rear anti-roll bar than the one found in the R8 Clubsport.
The tailor-made approach continues through to the electronic stability control progam, which has also been specially developed for the Tourer.
Aside from the obvious change - a wagon rear end - the Tourer is all E-Series Clubsport inside.
Which means HSV's unique Clubsport R8 front pews dominate the interior, looking for all the world like a couple of shovel heads for big aussie bums. The rear seat also gets the HSV treatment, and, in the case of our test car, the whole lot came wrapped in leather, a $2,490 option.
Other HSV additions include the requisite and rather chunky, leather-wrapped sports steering wheel, a set of white-faced instruments, and an integrated three-gauge, dash-top auxiliary gauge cluster.
The leather-wrap treatment extends to the gear selector and the de rigueur alloy faced pedals, a HSV staple.
For a wagon that has essentially placed style well ahead of function, there is a reasonable and usable 895 litres of cargo space, compared to 496 litres in the sedan. Fold the rear seats down and that more than doubles to a whopping 2000 litres.
The rear seats feature a 60/40 split layout, while a retractable luggage cover is standard fitment, along with two shopping hooks and four D-ring tie-down points.
Equipment and Features
The Clubsport may have been born as a bare bones performance sedan back in 1990, but there is nothing bare bones about the equipment and features list in its latest E-Series and Tourer guise.
In addition to the exclusive HSV interior and exterior features, the Tourer is well-stocked with 'the good stuff'. Audiophiles are well catered for with a 150 watt, 9-speaker Blaupunkt six-disc in-dash MP3 compatible Audio system.
A 6.5" multi-function display colour LCD screen located in the centre stack, displays stereo, heating and air conditioning information.
All Tourers are equipped with dual-zone climate control, while the most sensible standard inclusion is the reversing camera and park assist function (rearward visibility in the Tourer is somewhat compromised by those massive d-pillars).
The Tourer's passive safety arsenal centres around HSV's Control and Handling Electronic Stability Control system which incorporates all the requisite acronyms including, Anti-lock Braking (ABS), Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD), Electronic Brake Assist (EBA) and Traction Control (TCS).
Active safety features include dual-stage airbags for driver and front passenger in addition to curtain airbags.
The front lap/sash seat belts include load limiters and pyrotechnic pre-tensioners, in addition to active front seat head restraints designed to help reduce risk of whiplash injury in the event the Tourer is hit from behind.
On the outside, the Tourer is fitted with 19" x 8" front alloy wheels with 245/40 R19 tyres, and 19" x 9.5" rear alloy wheels with 275/35 R19 tyres at the rear. Buyers have the option of turning up the visual temperature substantially by ticking the 20" wheel option.
An additional $2,500 will see HSV fit your Tourer with 20" Pentagon alloy wheels, 20" x 8" up front with 245/35 R20 tyres and 20" x 9.5" in the rear with 275/30 R20 tyres.
Whatever wheel size is chosen, the Tourer includes a full size spare wheel and tyre (as per front wheel and tyre).
If it feels, smells and drives like a Clubsport, then it must be a Clubsport - right?
To properly test the Tourer we chose a circuitous route that took us through the Macedon Ranges, across to Trentham and Daylesford and then back into Melbourne on the Western Highway.
It's a mix of plain vanilla highway miles and plenty of winding, often lumpy, country roads that wind their way across the top of the ranges.
First impressions once on the move were that you don't feel the extra 100kg that the Tourer carries over the sedan (largely in the rear). It feels just as agile; just as solid and chunky in the way that is peculiar to the E-Series range.
The acceleration is - as we've come to expect from the LS3 - thunderous. Stoke the fires of the small-block Chev and a melodious rumble erupts from the very depths of the engine. Those little hairs on the back of your neck rise up and you are soon looking for the next reason to drop back a gear and tickle the throttle again.
It wasn't so long ago that the definitive V8 exhaust soundtrack belonged to Ford's Boss V8, but for the moment at least, the LS3 has the Boss licked in that regard.
The Tourer's steering is as finely-honed as the sedan: offering excellent feedback and feel through the wheel, turn-in is accurate and immediate. For such a large car there is a real sense of lightness and finesse about the way the E-Series steers.
The deftness of the Tourer's controls, and the 'wall of grunt' provided by the LS3, combine to provide a heady mix of precision and power, the Tourer displaying an inherent balance that is as surprising as it is difficult to define.
Maybe it's the 30 percent stiffer body structure, or the suspension tune that is specific to the Tourer. Or it could be that the extra weight over the rear wheels adds to the overall balance and poise. Whatever it is, the Tourer feels right.
You can place the Tourer precisely into a corner, let the rear settle, clip the apex and then punch it out the other side. The rear-end grip offered by those hefty Bridgestone boots is prodigious and the whole package feels completely predictable.
In fact, stringing corners together is where the Tourer really shines, the impressive rear-end grip allowing you to feed in a bucket load of throttle on second and third gear bends, before triggering the ESP.
Hauling the 2,000kg+ (with driver and fuel) Tourer up, requires a solid push on the brake pedal, but once they bite, the big brakes do their job well enough.
The new Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual is a vast improvement over the Tremec offerings in previous HSV's. The shift action is lighter and more positive and you no longer have to physically wrestle the stumpy lever across the gate to select the lower gears.
Gear changes still lack any real feel, while the clutch pedal requires a purposeful prod and is too springy on the uptake, but it is a vast improvement over previous HSV and Holden manuals.
In fact, compared to the auto R8 Clubsport that we tested earlier this year, the manual is now a superior and more satisfying drive.
Out on the road, it's only the regular glances in the rear-view mirror that remind you this is a wagon and not a sedan and they serve to highlight one of the few issues that the Tourer (and Sportwagon) suffer - rearward vision.
Thanks to those massive d-pillars, it's like looking back through a narrowing cave. It takes a while for your depth-of-field to adjust, forcing you to rely even more on the door mirrors, which suddenly seem too small.
It really was a sensible move by HSV to make the rear view camera and parking sensors standard fitment items on the Tourer, as you strike the same issue when reversing.
The Tourer, like all of HSV's V8 range, clearly thumbs its nose at the greener folk amongst us, yet despite the enormous engine and two tonne kerb weight, we managed to achieve 14.6 l/100km on our test route, and it was no economy run.
Use a deft touch and make full use of that tall overdrive sixth gear and we suspect that 10.0 l/100km or less would be achievable on the open road.
Around town is a different story of course, and you'll watch the fuel consumption rise past the 15.0 l/100km mark, but you don't buy a V8 if you are going to have sleepless nights over fuel consumption - right?
Of course, for those who like their HSVs but want to reduce their carbon footprint, and pain at the pump, then it should only be a short wait until HSV introduces the option of LPi (Liquid Propane Injection) to the V8 range, either later this year or early in 2010. You'll then be able have your V8 cake and eat it too.
Rear-vision aside, the R8 Tourer really does feel and smell like the Clubsport sedan, only we think it's an even better drive.
"It's a real peach..." was how HSV's PR man, Simon Frost, described the R8 Tourer after we rather reluctantly returned it to HSV.
Having had a week at the wheel, we agree. The R8 Tourer is one of those rare cars that satisfies on all counts. There is an intangible feeling of completeness about the way it looks, feels and drives.
That HSV, and Holden, has produced so much car with such performance, and at a fraction of the cost of highly-fancied Euro performance wagons, is a real achievement.
As much as we like the R8 Sedan, the Tourer costs a mere $1,000 more, looks better, is infinitely more practical and provides a subtle but noticeably improved driving experience.
We believe it's one of the best overall packages ever produced by the folks in Clayton - a real 'peach'.
- Seemingly endless torque from the LS3
- Styling is just about perfect
- Manual gearbox is better than ever
- Balance and Handling is hard to fault
- Rear-end grip is stellar
- Infinitely more practical than the sedan
- Sexy (optional) 20 inch wheels
- Poor rear vision
- Thirst for Premium Unleaded
- Small instuments are hard to read
Photos by Joel Strickland Photography.