Brute battle between motor foes
AUSTRALIAN muscle cars are a lot like the blokes who drive them — uncomplicated, robust and occasionally obnoxious when they're let off the leash; what you see is what you get.
They've been that way for more than four decades and over that time they've probably sparked more pub brawls than a thousand spilt beers. There's no sitting on the fence when it comes to Ford and Holden. As far as rivalries go, the red-versus-blue battle is in the same league as Collingwood and Carlton, the Blues and Maroons or the Wallabies and All Blacks.
Holden Special Vehicles has been in the performance-car game longer — it started in 1987 — while Ford didn't have a true performance arm with dedicated dealers until the short-lived Ford Tickford Experience in 1999. But Ford and Holden V8s have been butting heads since the late '60s, when Ford launched its Falcon GT and Holden replied a year later with the Monaro.
The hostilities see the protagonists take a different tack in the battle to win over the hearts and minds of the V8 faithful.
Ford, the perennial bridesmaid when it comes to V8 performance, has gone all-out, shoehorning a new supercharged 5.0-litre V8 under the bulging bonnet of its latest GT and leapfrogging HSV with 335kW of power (10kW more than the HSV GTS).
HSV has gone in a different direction altogether with the GTS, spending its development pennies on technology, including a racing car-style data logging system that gives drivers pages of feedback on what their car is doing. It's also given the GTS's cabin a much-needed makeover, further separating it from the Commodore upon which it is based.
To settle the latest score, we took them to Wakefield Park Raceway near Goulburn in NSW. These days, a racetrack is the only place you can really exploit the performance potential of these cars.
But the racetrack wasn't the only field of battle. We also clocked up plenty of city and country kilometres to see whether they could fulfil the dual role of muscle car and family transport.
When the design team at HSV sits down to style a car, subtlety and understatement aren't words you're likely to see on the whiteboard.
The GTS received a radical makeover last year, dubbed the E2 model, with a polarising new look that had some fans reaching for the smelling salts and others fumbling eagerly for their cheque books.
Despite the controversy, HSV hasn't changed anything significant about the appearance of the new E3. That suggests the faithful have voted with their wallets.
The only change is a reworked rear spoiler that sits a little flatter on the boot for better rear vision; it also incorporates revised mounts designed to mimic the "shockwave" shape of the exhaust.
HSV saved its money for where the GTS arguably needed it most: the cabin. Unchanged since 2006, the inside of the GTS was looking tired against the more upmarket Falcon GT.
A new touchscreen entertainment unit, positioned higher in the centre of the dash, does a lot to lift the cabin ambience of the HSV. So do the new piano-black surrounds and some imitation carbon-fibre highlights elsewhere in the cabin, as well as a metallic strip with the model designation emblazoned across it.
The instrument panel has also been redesigned to distinguish it from the donor Holden car; it looks more modern, while keeping its clear, easy-to-navigate read-outs. The speedo rises in 20km/h increments, except for a welcome 50km/h mark that recognises the suburban speed limit.
But the centrepiece of the new HSV is its EDI, or Enhanced Driver Interface. The menu-based system gives a mind-boggling array of data about the car, from how many kilowatts the engine is delivering to the G-force you're pulling through a corner and whether the car is understeering (pushing the front of the car wide) or oversteering (sliding the tail out).
Other screens show you gear selection, engine revs, braking force, suspension travel and even throttle position. You can also download data and set up lap timing at tracks using GPS tracking.
The V8 Supercar-inspired read-out, developed with race data-logging expert MoTeC, is incredibly addictive but also worryingly distracting. If you're oversteering at high speed in an 1800-kilogram V8, the last thing you should be doing is casting a glance down at a digital read-out on the dash. The information really needs to be contained in a head-up display on the windscreen, if at all.
HSV says the idea is to download the information via USB and look at it after you've finished driving but if that's the case, why is it visible while the car is moving?
EDI may attract criticism but it's sure to be a huge winner with HSV buyers.
Overall, the new HSV cabin is a big step up from the previous model — but bugbears remain. The plastic and exposed-metal handbrake feels cheap for a circa-$90,000 car, while the thick windscreen pillars limit vision on tighter corners and roundabouts. There is still some shiny hard plastic in the cabin, while the leather seats don't look as plush as they should for the price and some of the switches feel a little cheap.
Mechanically, the GTS is unchanged in E3 form and a few laps of Wakefield suggest there's not much need to tinker with the car's dynamics.
The 6.2-litre V8 is not lacking in grunt or growl. It may be down on power against the Falcon GT but in the 0-100km/h sprint, the two cars recorded identical times. We didn't try the launch control feature that is standard on all manual HSVs but the GTS seemed to hunker down and grip better initially than the GT.
The delivery of power comes in a smooth, predictable surge, which makes it easy to feed the power on quickly as you exit a corner. It may no longer be the most powerful locally built sedan but no GTS buyer is going to feel short-changed on performance.
The GTS's straight-line performance is matched by its road manners. Around the tight, twisty Wakefield circuit, it changed direction with an eagerness belying its size and weight. Switch the adjustable magnetic ride-control suspension to its track setting and the car's suspension stiffens, reducing pitch and roll and allowing the car to sit flatter through corners.
The stiffer suspension and wide, low-profile tyres also deliver bucketloads of rear-end grip on faster, sweeping corners, while the car also feels very stable under brakes. The steering isn't as direct as the Falcon's but it responds accurately to inputs, while the front-end has plenty of bite when asked to turn in to sharper corners.
The tactile sensation of driving the GTS hard is matched by the symphony coming from the car's rear-end. The bi-modal exhaust opens up a special flap about 3500rpm (earlier if you're at 100 per cent throttle or when idling, depending on what mode you've selected) and the noise is music to the ears. Leave the car in a low gear as you slow for a corner and the exhaust burbles and spits.
Away from the track, the most impressive thing about the GTS is the way it rides for such a performance-focused car. The suspension is firm without ever becoming crashy or overly sharp.
On the open road it settles immediately after bigger bumps, while taking the edge off other imperfections in the road surface. If you switch to the stiffer suspension, you'll get an occasional thud over sharper bumps and it can skip a little over corrugations but, overall, it delivers a commendable trade-off between comfort and agility.
In many ways, the GTS's ride-handling balance is superior to some more expensive German performance sedans.
When Ford launched the Ford Tickford Experience (or FTE) in 1999, its approach differed in two key areas to its main rival. Its cars were far more understated than the opposition, while then-Tickford boss David Flint went to great pains to explain that true performance wasn't simply about who had the biggest donk under the bonnet. It was just as important to be fast through the corners as it was to be quick in a straight line, he said.
How times have changed. The new GT from the Blue Oval's latter-day go-fast incarnation, Ford Performance Vehicles, matches the GTS for visual impact. There's a huge bonnet bulge, a massive rear spoiler, and new go-fast stripes liberally plastered on its panels including its power output emblazoned on its front guards (the only visual differentiator from the old 5.4-litre GT to the new 5.0-litre supercharged version). The new ethos for FPV appears to be "if you've got it, flaunt it".
After decades of living in the shadows of more powerful Holdens, the Falcon-based GT has regained the horsepower high ground with a 5.0-litre supercharged V8.
The engine is based on an American-made, all-aluminium double-overhead cam V8 — codenamed Coyote — that has been modified locally at a cost of about $40 million. FPV has used a Harrop supercharger to boost the engine's output to 335kW of power and 570Nm of torque — a 20kW and 19Nm increase over the previous model. But the headline numbers don't tell the whole story.
The new supercharged unit develops its peak torque much lower in the rev range, at 2200rpm (compared with 4750rpm for the old model), and maintains it right through to 5500rpm.
The results are spectacular. While the old 5.4-litre V8 matched the GTS on paper but not on the road, the new 5.0-litre is noticeably stronger than its HSV rival.
While the HSV can hold its own with the FPV from 0-100km/h, the Ford wins the argument convincingly after that. The Wakefield straight wasn't long enough for a quarter-mile showdown but by the seat of the pants, the FPV felt significantly stronger in the higher gears.
The GT's in-gear acceleration is phenomenal; where the old V8 ran out of puff too early in the rev range, the new one keeps spinning freely towards the red-line, allowing you to punch out of corners by holding lower gears for longer.
FPV can now confidently lay claim to having the best six- and eight-cylinder engines in the land. The new V8 is also easier on the wallet, with the supercharger delivering a 4 per cent cut in fuel use (down to 13.6 litres per 100 kilometres). Both cars were surprisingly economical on the freeway, dipping below their claimed highway fuel use average to 8.5L/100km on the trip from Goulburn to Sydney.
Around town it's a different story. A heavy right foot will make the figure creep into the 20.0L/100km range. And with both cars running on premium unleaded (about 10¢ to 20¢ more per litre at the pump than regular unleaded), filling up is an expensive exercise.
The only disappointment with the new engine is the sound it makes. The GT has a similar bi-modal exhaust to the HSV but it sounds muted in comparison; where the GTS bellows, the FPV whistles and purrs. The whine of the supercharger won't be to everyone's taste and some enthusiasts will crave more rumble, although the Ford still sounds great when it drives past.
The GT's new engine is also 47 kilograms lighter than the one it replaces and FPV claims this has improved the car's road-holding. With less weight over the nose, FPV says the car is more eager to turn in than previously and feels better balanced overall.
But, significantly, the tweaks to the GT haven't come with any changes to the car's suspension set-up. The car still feels a little nose-heavy in corners and the suspension is noticeably softer than the HSV, which means it leans more through bends and dives more under brakes.
It also feels trickier getting the Ford's power down out of corners. The back end of the car doesn't feel as planted as the HSV and although it still has plenty of grip through faster sweepers, the Dunlop tyres squeal more readily than the HSV's Bridgestones.
The GT's steering is sharp and accurate and the car still points into corners with precision but, overall, it doesn't give you the confidence the GTS does.
On the open road, the car will float slightly over bigger bumps but otherwise makes short work of imperfect road surfaces.
The six-piston Brembo brakes, which were optional on our GT but standard on the more expensive GT-P, provide plenty of bite and show little evidence of fade after a handful of laps around Wakefield. The six-speed manual shifter is also precise, although a little notchier than the HSV.
From the cockpit, the FPV still feels the equal of the HSV, despite the GTS's recent mid-life update. The blue-lit instrument panel looks suitably upmarket at night and the dash is functional, with soft-touch materials on top and a classy-looking centre screen. The controls you touch — the handbrake, gear lever and steering wheel — also feel better in the hand than the HSV.
The cloth-trimmed seats are also comfortable and supportive, although you still sit a little high in the cabin.
The GT we tested missed out on the HSV's standard satellite navigation, EDI, reversing camera, adjustable suspension, launch control, leather trim and larger 20-inch wheels, although it was significantly cheaper. The $9700 more expensive GT-P (from $80,990 plus on-road and dealer costs) gets leather trim and trumps the HSV with standard six-piston Brembo brakes (six-piston AP brakes are a $4475 option on the GTS) but still misses out on satellite navigation and all the HSV's driver aids.
Both cars have top-notch safety packages with six airbags and stability control, although the Ford misses out on adjustable headrests for rear passengers.
A six-speed automatic transmission is a no-cost option on the Ford but costs $2000 on the Holden.
For most enthusiasts, horsepower is king and, in that regard, the FPV is a clear winner. The Coyote-derived powertrain is a world-class engine in every regard except its fuel use.
The GT also matches the GTS for cabin quality, while costing significantly less, especially in the more popular automatic guise.
The result isn't that clear-cut, though. As an overall package for an enthusiast driver, the GTS remains our pick — only after much debate in the Drive office. It feels like a smaller car through the bends and manages to tame the V8 beast beneath its bonnet better than the GT. In short, it inspires more confidence in the driver.
It also has the gadgets enthusiasts crave. Potential distraction concerns aside, the EDI is a pretty impressive piece of equipment to show off to passengers, while the adaptive suspension and launch control also add to its allure as a performance car.
Finally, the GTS's exhaust note is more reflective of its sporty intent. It all adds up to a better-rounded performance-car package.
It turns out Tickford's David Flint was right all those years ago. Performance isn't just about who's got the most horsepower but the complete package. Ironically, a Holden has ultimately proven his point.
How much? From $82,900 plus on-road and dealer costs
Engine 6.2-litre V8
Power 325kW at 6000rpm
Torque 550Nm at 4600rpm
Fuel use and emissions 13.5L/100km and 320g/km CO2
Transmission 6-sp manual
Safety Six airbags, stability control, 5-star ANCAP crash rating
0-100km/h 5.6 seconds (on test, claimed 4.9 seconds)
How much? From $71,290 plus on-road and dealer costs
Engine 5.0-litre supercharged V8
Power 335kW at 5750rpm-6000rpm
Torque 570Nm at 2200rpm-5500rpm
Fuel use and emissions 13.6L/100km and 324g/km CO2
Transmission 6-sp manual
Safety Six airbags, stability control, 5-star ANCAP crash rating
0-100km/h 5.6 seconds (on test, claimed 4.9 seconds)