2009 HSV Clubsport R8 Road Test Review Photo:
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Tim O'Brien | May, 14 2009 | 5 Comments

Auto shifter into sport mode, ease off the brake, right Blundstone to the floor and... WOOOOOF!

Yes, HSV?s fourth-gen LS3 has the grunt to turn even the most stubborn of non-believers into cubic inch converts. It?s one hell of a mill.

And if you get a chance to stretch it out behind the wheel of the Clubsport R8, it will take more than an hour or two to get the silly grin off your face.


But let?s back things up a little.

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland Photographics

Let?s say your loyalties are neither ?rusted-on Holden? nor ?rusted-on Ford?. And let?s say you?ve just been called by some jackass from a radio station who tells you you?ve won a car. Not only that, but you?ve got a choice between two.

Now here?s the thing. The choice you?ve got is between HSV?s Clubsport R8 and Ford?s FPV GT. Both slavering beasts, both superbly responsive V8s, and both the duck?s nuts down at the footy club.

So, c?mon, which is it going to be? Which one will have you tingling in anticipation when the keys are handed over? Which will have you dreaming about a full-throttle run, V8 bellowing at the redline, rushing to the horizon along some long and lonely freedom road?

For these two iconic machines this is the test for both the cars and their marketing. Which would you choose?

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland Photographics

We had the 2009 Clubsport R8, HSV?s much loved ?Clubby? for a week. In the showroom, it is lined up squarely against FPV?s seriously quick and seriously stylish GT.

But where Ford?s GT crown has slipped a little in latter decades, the R8 Clubsport has become now, it can fairly be said, the stuff of legend. And that puts it in rarefied air among Aussie performance cars.

So let?s untangle the legend.


Clubsport lineage

The Clubsport is HSV?s volume seller. It shares little in common with the original bare bones ?Clubsport? that started the revolution all those years ago.

The original VN Commodore-based Clubsport was lighter on the luxuries and featured Holden?s own cast iron push-rod 5.0-litre V8, tweaked by HSV. It produced a ?mousily? (by today?s standards) 180kW and 400Nm, driving through a four-speed auto or five-speed manual gearbox.

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland Photographics

It was, as the name suggested, a Clubsport in the true meaning of the word. It was basic, not too expensive, built for performance, built to handle better and built to be enjoyed at the odd club track day.

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland PhotographicsThe species has since evolved. Nine major model changes later and we have the current E-Series Clubsport. Gone is the agricultural rawness and basic spec. In its place is a seriously powerful, well-equipped and ? yes ? cosseting performance sedan.

It now sits somewhere between the appealing Aussie raw-boned hammer that personified the original, and the refined Teutonic brilliance of the big German performance sedans.

Up-front in the Clubby now is GM?s potent LS3 engine. Built by General Motors Powertrain in North America and available in the current Corvette, it was introduced into the R8 in April last year. With a capacity of 6.2 litres producing 317kW of power @ 6000rpm and 550NM of torque @ 4600 rpm, it puts serious fire-power under the toe.

Put those ergs to work and the R8 Clubsport can be a weapon on the track. But the intended function of the E-Series is not one of track day champion.

Strangely enough, despite this shift, it?s arguably more ?the legend? than ever it was.


Exterior styling

Perhaps it?s because it looks so damn good that the R8 stirs the blood; the styling of the R8 is as uncompromising as the car. With twin-nostril grille, deep lower intake, pseudo brake cooling ducts, rear diffuser and quad pipes, there is no mistaking the iron fist behind those purposeful lines.

There is even a hint of ?supercar? in the way it sits on those huge rear hoops.

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland Photographics

For the first time in HSV?s 20-year history, thanks to the less-compromised VE platform, wider wheels and tyres can be fitted to the rear of the Clubsport. (It?s actually the first HSV to run tyres of different width, front to rear.)

Bigger rubber means more grip and better handling. It also gives the R8 one of the best looking rear-views in the business.

No risk, the 2009 Clubby stands out in any crowd. HSV has done a magnificent job working with the handsome lines of the VE in producing this car.

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland Photographics

Even the most gone of blue-oval fans could not help but give some grudging respect to the style of the R8. (?Ok, yeah, it looks good, but it?s shit.? That?s how the compliment would likely be expressed.)

In the rear view mirror it will always jag a second glance. And passing by in the street it has the presence and menace of a hungry white pointer. Everyone notices the R8.



Inside though, for me, it is not quite so engrossing.

I always find it harder to get ?set? in any Commodore. It takes me ages to get the seat right and the steering wheel in a position where I stop fiddling with it. Perhaps it?s the stumpy legs; dunno, but it?s not a problem I have with the FG.

I find Commodores ?enveloping? generally, as though every time I open the door the car swallows me. And I have the same trouble with the HSV. I stuffed around with the four-way electric driver?s seat for three days before I?d found the ?just right, for chrissake brother leave it alone? driving position.

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland Photographics

That?s not to say the unique R8 sports seats aren?t great, they are. The front pews are huge, heavily bolstered and trimmed beautifully in quality leather. And they keep you really well located when giving things a belt. It?s like planting your arse in a pitcher?s glove.

But ? and it?s a personal thing, you?ll probably disagree ? there is something ergonomically which doesn?t quite work for these arms and legs.

And the steering wheel is just too fat-rimmed. No-one likes a skinny rim, but swinging on the Clubby?s wheel is like holding onto a tyre. (Just back off the padding a bit there HSV.)

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland Photographics There are no complaints however with the quality of materials, the nicely-crafted and understated design of the wide dash, and the fit and finish. I?m no Carla Zampatti (ok, or whoever), but I reckon I know a good stitch from a bad one, and the leather and stitchery in the Clubsport is as good (maybe better) as you?ll find.

And there are other natty touches like the HSV instruments, the dash top auxiliary three-gauge cluster and the metal trim highlights. It?s a very well thought-out and well put-together interior.

There is one other thing about this car, and others of our locally-built warriors: you know that it can take a life of rough roads without shaking itself to bits. And in ten years, with 250,000 kilometres or so under the belt, it will still be running strong and the dashboard won?t have fallen into your lap.

It?s got all the geeky stuff too - six disc in-dash CD player (MP3 compatible), 150W Blaupunkt stereo, speed-dependent volume control, Bluetooth connectivity, auto-mute when phone is in use, 6.5" multi-function LCD screen, and, rounding off a long list of luxuries, dual zone electronic climate control.

So the R8 is no ?stripped-out? racer; it?s more now the executive express. But one that goes very, very hard.


On the road

Funny thing is, my first hour or so with the Clubby had me wondering what the fuss was about.

Sure, it?s a beaut drive, but poking through traffic it just felt too tame for a 6.2 litre. Perfect for the daily commute and with a mountain of torque available from not much over tick-over, the big bruiser just seemed a little too ?cruisy?.

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland Photographics

We had the auto ? the 6L80 E six-speed unit with ?Tiptronic?. I?m not much of a wrap for autos, but for tapping the prodigious reserves of power and torque available this one has a party piece. It works like this: drop it into sport mode, sink the Blundstones and hang on.

The LS3 will fairly belt its way around the tacho to its 6200rpm redline. It feels for a moment like the gates of hell have been opened before it changes up a cog and wallops you again.

If you use a heavy foot, both kick-down and up-shifts can be pretty abrupt; it?s not something you want to do mid-corner. (The ZF in the FPV feels and works better.)

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland Photographics

If using the tiptronic, it will hold selected gears without up-shifting, right to the rev limiter. With the LS3 howling fit to wake the dead, it is one heck of an act and why people love the Clubby.

(A six-speed manual, of course, is also available.)

That LS3 howl? What a sound. Where once Ford had the wet-your-pants Windsor V8 sonorous bellow sown up, Holden has now stolen the mantle. Above 4000rpm, the LS3 just sounds fabulous; punching through to 6000rpm, it makes your knees tremble.

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland Photographics

On the road, when seriously hunting the bends, the R8 also takes the cigar over the FPV. Open the bonnet and you?ll see one reason why. That Chev all-alloy pushrod V8 is stuck right down there somewhere, snug as a bug in the engine bay. The Ford OHC V8, on the other hand, is almost leaping out of the bonnet - as if it?s trying to squeeze itself out.

The result is a lower centre of gravity for the HSV, and, when working with that well-tuned (if unsophisticated) strut front end, the HSV sits noticeably flatter when running hard into corners and powering out.

By comparison, and though running a far more sophisticated (and expensive) double wishbone set-up, having that Ford V8 sitting high in the engine bay gives the GT a bit of a lead-tipped arrow feel.

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland Photographics

In the HSV, initial turn-in is now as good as its blue-oval competitor, but holding it through the apex and barreling out, the HSV feels flat, composed and fast. Best of all (for performance drivers), the ESC is not too much in your face when exploring its potential.

You will discover, if you didn?t already know, that for a huge lard-arsy thing, my God it hammers.

Pulling things up are huge 365mm (front) and 350mm (rear) grooved and ventilated rotors, with HSV four-piston front calipers. A HSV-tuned Bosch ABS system stops things from going entirely pear-shaped. Developed in conjunction with AP Racing, we liked the good pedal feel and could find no fault with the Clubby?s braking performance in the time we had with the car.

Interestingly, we also found the R8 to be a comfortable and quite refined steer on the highway? in context of course. A longer wheelbase, front rebound springs (inserted in the shock absorber), and a more linear and less-progressive spring action, produce an unexpectedly compliant ride. You wouldn?t call it plush, but the chassis and underpinnings work very well over a variety of road surfaces.

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland Photographics

With minimal wind and tyre noise, good feel through that too-fat wheel and with a nice V8 rumble for accompaniment on a long highway haul, the R8 is an ideal interstate hauler.

But there was a minus here. At 105km/h, there was a slightly irritating harmonic coming from the drivetrain that disappeared above 110. It was nothing to get into a stew over, it was just there, and it would be better if it wasn?t.

(We also thought the Blaupunkt audio was a tad crappy. Again, no big deal but perhaps not up to the standard you?d expect in the R8?s price segment.)



The R8 Clubsport is a pretty special car. Few cars anywhere near its price will so instantly dial-up the Newton metres that the R8 dials up. The F6 turbo maybe? after that, you?ve got to stretch the budget into six figures to get anywhere near this performance potential.

From $65,320 plus on roads for HSV?s R8 Clubsport (for the manual) ? and some hefty discounts around right now - there is no way I could justify shelling out for an M3 or an ISF when there is something that looks this good, has this engine up front, goes this hard and is this well built for under half the cost. (But that?s just me? you probably have a different view.)

So ? ?hello radio jackass guy? - which one will we choose, R8 Clubsport or FPV GT? It?s a Sophie?s choice my friend, they are both brilliant but in different ways.

Holden Special Vehicle Clubsport R8.Photoshoot .29th of March 2009.(C) Joel Strickland Photographics

For me, it would be the Clubsport because of that LS3. Steane though, he leans to the greater sophistication of the FPV GT.

He also prefers the look, inside and out, of the ?Blue Oval? stormer; whereas I lean to the style of the Clubsport.

And ain?t that the way it has always been when it comes to Ford and Holden? It?s a debate that they?ll be trying to sort it out on ?the hill? at Bathurst for a few more years to come yet.

The fact is, when you stop to think about it, we?re spoiled for choice here for thunderously quick, brilliantly engineered large performance cars.

So, the legend lives. HSV?s Clubsport R8 still packs enormous performance and value into its sub-$70k showroom price. In this market, its only match is on the other side of the loyalty divide.

Tim?s Big Statement

For the totality of the offering ? performance, robustness, relative ease of servicing - the R8 is a super buy. And while in the current climate residual values will be taking a bit of a pounding, that?s a temporary thing. Few performance cars hold their value over the long term quite like an Aussie performance car in the Aussie market.

Sure, rising petrol prices will give some customers reason for pause in the showroom, but for anyone who loves performance and the cracking sound of a V8 on song, the R8 falls into the ?just gotta have one? category.

And that LS3 engine? talk about an ace in the deck.


Tim Likes:

  • Just love that LS3
  • The superbly penned lines
  • Sharp turn-in and flat handling
  • Versatile, well-mannered ride
  • Strong braking performance and pedal feel
  • Nicely laid-out (and trimmed) interior
  • In context, the R8 is a performance bargain

Tim Dislikes:

  • Auto transmission perhaps a little too brutal
  • Overly fat steering wheel
  • Seating ergonomics (but I?m alone on that one)
  • The faint whine at 105kmh
  • Audio system not quite in keeping with price
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