In Australia the ‘Ute’ is the lifestyle vehicle of choice. The place is full of pickups and flatbeds, all with outdoor gear and a dog called Blue sat in the back. Try that in the UK and your wellies would be full of water and someone will report you to the RSPCA. Do ‘lifestyle’ in the UK and you’ve just got to buy something with a lot more roof.
Holden Special Vehicles now offers Australians a more Northern hemisphere alternative - a big, high performance estate. Aware that this isn’t their traditional market, HSV are making just 163 Clubsport R8 Tourers for the Aussie market, at a premium of just £500 over the sedan.
HSV has also fettled 6.2-litre LS3 V8s. It looks good on paper. Could the Aussies have inadvertently made an alternative European uber-estate? I grabbed a snapper, asked HSV nicely, and borrowed one to find out.
Between the speed cameras and busy traffic we were never going to find out much about this car on the streets of Melbourne. Heading out of town for the weekend gets us away from the fixed cameras, but Victoria’s finest have a habit of lurking in bushes with radar.
On a few occasions I’m alerted by the flashing lights of oncoming traffic to innocuous parked cars with disguised lights in the grille containing Aus-plod, so it’s with some relief that we turn off the beaten track up the Yarra valley. This spectacularly rainforested area is full of sweeping gravel roads and vineyards.
One compliments the other, as we exploit the boot space by ballasting the car with a few cases, and I then try to stop the back end from overtaking me. With the ESP off it’s ridiculously easy to hold slides, and it takes the onset of starvation that evening to get me down off the mountain roads. It may look fairly sensible, but the long wheelbase, LSD and linear torque of the Tourer make it a fabulous hooligan’s tool.
The hard plastics of the upper dash do cause distracting reflections in the windscreen – strange for a car developed in a country where the sun actually does shine. I’m not wholly convinced either by the three dials set high in the central dash. Battery voltage, oil pressure and oil temperature shouldn’t routinely concern the driver of a grown-up car but other features like the driving position are very good.
There’s good space in the back too for two adults, and what with worthy stuff like a split/ fold rear bench, load cover, cubby holes and load netting I start weighing my chances of persuading the wife that one of these would make a sensible family proposition. Not a chance. She’d see straight through me the second the GM sourced 6.2-litre V8 fired up.
Press the throttle down enthusiastically and the R8 will sharply drop two cogs to catapult you down the road, which I’ll admit startled a few Melbourne commuters when I first collected the car. Knocking the shift lever across to the left puts me in charge of gear selection, and actually proves more relaxing on a cross country lope.
Overtaking can be now achieved by flexing the LS3’s 405 ft/lbs of torque, rather than by exercising the fancy cog swapping electronics. Unlike with the ‘Vette, I find that in the HSV disagreements between the driver and the gearbox are few.
Situated up in the Australian Alps the Mt Buller ski resort only enjoys a relatively short season. In the summer months the lifts continue to run, allowing guys dressed like Imperial Stormtroopers to throw over-suspended bikes down impossibly steep trails. We are heading up there to have a go, but I’m rather more interested in the drive itself – as the last 16 kilometres of sinewy road up the mountain is the location for the Mt Buller Sprint.
It feels like the run down to Foxhole at the Nordschleife, but without the Armco or catch netting – more like the Fuchsröhre of the 1930s. Make no mistake - get it wrong here and you are spat over the edge and into the trees.
The surface tips into and away from the mountainside as it climbs, coloured by rubber deposits laid down from previous events which hint at the racing line. Straight line skids and scars in the trees are evidence of a few failures, too. The Buller sprint, first run in 2004, is earning its notoriety.
It is here that the HSV really surprises me. This is a fantastic road, demanding and punishing in equal measures. It’s as good as, no, much better than many European hillclimbs, and it just keeps coming. The R8 laps it up. Knocked into manual, seat forward, window ajar to better judge speed, the driver’s seat of Walkinshaw’s family rocket is a very good place to be.
HSV has revised the spring and damping rates for the Tourer, which means that it is possible to carry much more speed than 1939 kgs would suggest. There’s a lot of mechanical grip and there’s little evidence of shake or flex in the big estate. At almost exactly twice the price, would an M5 estate romp away from it? Not up here, it wouldn’t. I’m scared, elated, buzzing from the adrenaline. Mt Buller is exceptional even on a push bike, but I’ve just had one of the drives of my life. In an estate.