ZERO XXXX GIVEN
| Vauxhall Monaro VXR 6.0 review |
Back in the mid-2000s, Vauxhall's staid image received a much-needed shot in the arm, courtesy of some Aussie V8 muscle
By John Bee | Photography by Jake Thomas
adge engineering is one of the most depressing realities of the car manufacturing universe. The phrase immediately conjures up images of soulless white good hatchbacks comfort braking their way to the Post Office and unsympathetic accountants typing fat profit margins into spreadsheets. In our trying times, even flagship sportscars aren’t immune - step forward the Toyota Supra. But
occasionally, something rebellious sneaks its way past the bean counters and completely turns the concept on its head. One such car is the Vauxhall Monaro VXR.
It’s a curious melting pot of nationalities, the Monaro. Built down under in Australia on a Holden chassis, powered by a Chevrolet ‘small block’ V8 and in this case, lumbered with the most uninspiring of British badges. If it was a burger it would have a double Detroit patty, a large dollop of Vegemite sauce and be smothered in smart price cheddar cheese. Depending on what part of the colonies you call home, it also goes by three different names. If your ancestors were prisoners, it’s the HSV GTO Coupe. If your late relatives got a bit upset about taxation on tea, then it’s the Pontiac GTO. There was even a briefly mooted attempt at reviving the Bitter marque on a re-bodied Monaro in Germany, but it didn’t gain enough traction with investors.
You’ll no doubt be keen to point out that Vauxhall has previous - the lithe VX220 and ludicrous Lotus Carlton spring to mind. But where the VX220 went to great lengths to distinguish itself from its Elise foundation with retuned suspension, inhouse powertrains and a distinctive rebody, the Monaro received absolutely nothing other than a set of Griffin badges. And this is a very good thing because the HSV in the above paragraph stands for Holden Special Vehicles, an offspring of GM’s Australian arm that likes to go motor racing.
At first glance, this big Aussie brute appears to have missed a corner at Mount Panorama and got lost in the Lancashire countryside. V8 Supercar features like its massive AP Racing brakes, cavernous bonnet nostrils and long boot spoiler are giveaways this isn’t your run of the mill sports coupe. A chic Audi TT rival, this is not. It has serious presence this car and I can’t help but admire its menace, especially painted in sinister Phantom Black.
Things get really intimidating when you crank the Chevrolet Corvette sourced V8 into life and everyone in a 5-mile radius becomes aware that you’re here to cause some mischief. It takes a split second to turn 6 litres of freedom before the LS2 thunders away into a chop-chop idle that shakes the entire car. Blip the throttle and you may well trigger the Met Office into giving a severe storm warning. That savage of an engine dominates the car, helped by what are in my opinion, must have modifications. A Brian Tooley Racing Stage 2 cam gives it the lumpy idle it should have had from the factory and a Wortec exhaust is responsible for the amplified anger coming from (a supercharged variant matching) 483 bald eagles at the flywheel. If you want a car that flies under the doppler radar, look elsewhere.
Slip behind the wheel and the intimidation factor switches to hospitality. Here the Bathurst comparison fades and the car shows a different, softer side. The electrically adjustable seats are like leather armchairs, comfortable, supportive, and perfectly suited for covering long distances. As soon as you turn a wheel, the car's grand tourer credentials come to the forefront. The steering is low geared, taking more input to get around a corner than you first think. The wheel is also larger in diameter than you expect, although its rim is thin and falls nicely to hand. Once you get used to these quirks, the feel and feedback it gives are surprisingly, one of the car's strong points. It’s beautifully weighted whether you’re cruising on the motorway changing lanes or charging hard on a twisty A road.
Despite the fantastic steering feel, don’t expect to be clipping apexes or throwing it into corners like it’s a VX220. Supple suspension and slow steering combine to give a more relaxed approach to getting down a road. The car just seems like it’s in no rush for the inner tyre to be hugging the inside line. You’ve also got to take into consideration the mass that you’re forcing to change direction, around 1,700kg with no fancy electronic damping to help disguise it. That’s not a big figure by today’s standards but 16 years ago it was a bit on the porky side.
Far and away the car's biggest weakness is its gearbox. It’s a short, stiff throw and it doesn’t like to be rushed. It’s clunky, notchy and is about as heavy-duty as I’ve come across. The fact it requires patience to use once again amplifies the grand tourer vibe though and not wanting to make excuses for it, the mountain of torque available means you’re never really rowing through the box searching for that power band anyway. Owner Chris tells me there’s an aftermarket replacement available in the Tremec T56 Magnum - it’s a pretty penny but if it cures the car's Achilles heel then it’s a price worth paying in my eyes. The standard box is very long geared, it’ll do 30mph in 4th but only just. That’s in part thanks to the spicier cam sacrificing low down drivability but also means by the time you’re hitting the limiter in 6th, if you’re brave enough and can find somewhere to do it, you’ll be blasting along at nearly 180mph. This is the cars’ Australian roots showing - geared to cover vast distances for hours on end with the air conditioning cranked to the maximum.
The engine that propels you to that speed gives you the feeling you have the power to change the Earth's orbit with each shove of your right foot. It’s a relentless surge that only lets up at the upper reaches of its 6,600rpm redline and the noise it makes is nothing short of sensational. If you’ve not driven an LS-powered car, it’s by no means as lazy as you think a Yankee 6.0 V8 would be, it’s all aluminium after all and the BTR cam gives it more peak power than standard. Give the Monaro a lighter, more positive throw gearbox and I would guarantee you’d shave huge chunks off 0-60 and ¼ mile times. Not only that, it would make the car more versatile, giving you the choice to keep it in gear and ride the wave of torque or drop down a few cogs and enjoy the thrills of a big capacity V8 at full chat. I’m beginning to realise why “LS swap the world” is a trend.
Considering the huge pace on tap, I was disappointed in the brakes, especially since they are the uprated AP Racing units. They look the business with large, red-painted callipers but lack any initial bite and you find your foot sinking further and further into the carpet before the freight train momentum gets scrubbed off. If you’re on a twisty stretch of road and pressing on in the big Vauxhall, you’ve really got to plan ahead with all of your inputs. It's easy to think you’re going to plough straight on at the first corner when you’re not used to the car and that’s not due to understeer. You’ve got to hit the anchors early and with a fair amount of force, before getting the car turned in, again giving more input on the wheel that first anticipated. You begin to question if this car is a one-trick pony, a straight line juggernaut that can’t hide its American heart.
But this is where the Aussie hooligan comes out fighting. Forget how the car behaves at entry or apex, corner exit is where this car truly shines - it’s fantastic. That feeling when you plant the throttle mid-corner and start easing off the lock to let the car drift out wide, the suspension squats, the cone type LSD finally wakes up and it just goes. Any minor adjustments can be made with your right foot but be brave, keep it pinned and the V8 hits its crescendo and slingshots you down the next stretch. For the vast majority of the time, the Monaro is a comfortable cruiser, more than happy to be the daily driver or road trip companion. On the right stretch of fast sweeping bends, however, its mood changes and you become embroiled in a game of chicken. How early can you put the power down post apex? Truth be told, the traction control is on the intrusive side and when it does kick in it’s not all that sophisticated either but I was under instructions from the owner to leave it on. It’s on budget tyres and this much torque can be a handful, to say the least.
With a set of Michelin PS4S tyres (which Chris intends to fit soon) and a wide-open road to play with, I can see why this car has a bit of a reputation with the Bogans down under. It’s a real Jekyll and Hyde and no doubt would be more than happy to throw you into a hedge if you’re not giving it your full concentration. Give it the respect it deserves however and I can see that long wheelbase giving you plenty of notice before the drift angle gets too much to save.
When the car was new it was unfairly shoehorned into a category with the BMW M3 and Mercedes C63 of the day, of which neither is a direct rival. The BMW is much stiffer, far more responsive and sharper. However, unlike other cars of the commonwealth, the Monaro has a transcontinental skillset. Imagine a Jaguar XKR with a manual gearbox, a limited-slip differential and a naughty exhaust you're on the money. There's no doubt it'll cruise as well as the big cat - just without the opulence. For some that is a major stumbling block, just like the Vauxhall badge it wears.
What about reliability? Chris’s car does have the odd niggle, the seat adjustment button that randomly downs tools and goes on strike is just one of a few things that need addressing and he’s already spent a few quid getting the paintwork up to scratch. But at this point, it’s a 16-year-old car, I’m sure even a Lexus wouldn’t be perfect at this age. For me, the badge doesn’t matter and the LS2 is the main reason for that. It’s an assault on the senses like nothing else for the money and a two-fingered salute to those who value style over substance. I can’t think of another car that would be so at home on a comfortable and relaxing, long-distance cruise as it is bouncing off the limiter doing burnouts. I adore the Monaro’s split personality. That ability to be an antisocial yobbo one minute, a relaxed cruiser the next and back to being a menace to society with one press of the loud pedal is something that speaks to my inner child.
The follow-ups to this model became even more potent with bigger capacity and supercharged engines kicking out preposterous power for a saloon car. But what they gained in brute force they sacrificed in character. In my eyes at least, the coupe shape looks far better than the newer four-door VXR8, squint and they’ve even got a whiff of fat Vectra about them. In an effort to move the car more upmarket, they tried to raise interior quality and give it some style, chasing the BMW M5. However, going off the steering wheel alone, which is one of the least attractive designs in a modern performance car, they missed the mark by a mile. The Monaro on the other hand - despite its multiple identities - doesn’t try to pretend it’s something it’s not. Its designers probably spent 90% of the budget on the engine and did a very decent job of the chassis but bollocks to the rest. Other members of the team, in particular Craig, disagree. He used to live in Australia and has a real affinity for their macho saloons. Make of that what you will, or the fact that down under he’s a Holden man, yet in the northern hemisphere he swings back towards Ford, the Judas.
The bottom line is there’s a real honesty to the Monaro VXR that’s endearing and no doubt why Chris is happy to keep throwing money at it. We are grateful the badge engineering focused entirely on the engineering side of the equation, and the car cosmos is all the richer for its existence. If Craig could only afford the fuel bills, an HSV Maloo ute would be the perfect RUSH photography and support car.