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Car reviews - HSV - Coupe - 4 AWD coupe

Our Opinion

We like
Handling, grip, roadholding, ride quality, refinement, safety, security
Room for improvement
Power deficit to other HSVs, no manual transmission, regular HSV brakes

29 Jul 2004

AT least one thing’s clear in the brave new world of all-wheel drive Australian performance cars: HSV’s ground-breaking Coupe 4 requires a wholesale change in both the way we think about the go-fast Lion brand and the way we drive its future products.

Not only does Coupe 4 set a brand-new precedent when it comes to the way HSV vehicles, which have become famous for their sometimes unwieldy but always ferocious rear-wheel driving experience, are perceived by the public.

HSV execs are quietly tipping AWD to comprise at least half the company’s sales within just five years, spelling a significant departure – at least at the pricey end of its range – from the raw, less refined ClubSport models that have carved HSV such a successful performance market niche.

Exactly how traditional HSV buyers will react to this shift toward vehicles that actively prohibit the rear-wheel steering antics encouraged by its trademark cars to date will be interesting.

Because if HSV’s first such product, the Coupe 4, is any gauge, the change in driving experience is as significant as the change in company philosophy.

After an afternoon of driving two production Coupe 4s through the many twisty and slippery roads of Victoria’s Yarra Valley on a typically cold, wet and windy Melbourne day, there’s little doubt HSV’s first AWD offering raises the ride, handling and traction levels to unprecedented levels for Holden-based vehicles.

Sure, Holden’s Adventra wagon (and HSV’s iteration, Avalanche) and to a lesser extent the leaf-sprung, twin-cab Cross8 utility (and HSV’s similarly modified Avalanche XU-V) are solid examples of how AWD and a taller ride height can transform Commodore-based vehicles into surprisingly accomplished all-road vehicles.

But in much lighter and lower Monaro-based guise, the first "low-ride" AWD vehicle from the General Motors stable extends the handling and safety envelope considerably from what we’ve come to know.

While the fixed, rear-biased torque split retains many of the Commodore attributes driving enthusiasts find so rewarding – ensuring power oversteer is still available on super-slippery surfaces – the higher grip levels make both hard cornering and accelerating on low-friction surfaces a far less daunting affair.

Despite its more substantial rubber on the road, Coupe 4 is probably no quicker mid-corner than the likes of ClubSport because of its extra mass, but the efficiency with which it corners and then sling-shots out of turns gives the driver – especially less experienced ones – a much greater level of confidence.

But it’s more than just psychological: in a power-down situation, Coupe 4 will drive out of bends harder and faster than any other HSV, and will readily cope with severe cornering attitudes that would see a ClubSport spinning off the road like a boomerang.

But equally as impressive as it superior traction envelope is Coupe 4’s outstanding ride quality, which provides an almost European-feeling mix of suspension response and compliance, and is possibly this HSV’s greatest asset.

The AWD car’s stiffer springs and softer shocks see it stay fairly flat even during hard cornering, yet damping control can only ever be described as plush. Perhaps surpassing even the latest, Ohlins-damped GTS, Coupe 4 is probably the best-riding HSV ever.

Similarly, steering is far better than you’d expect for a vehicle that drives with its front wheels too, albeit with just 38 per cent of engine torque at any given time.

While it may lack some of its rear-drive brethrens’ turn-in crispness and precision, its linear-rate steering rack – previously exclusive to GTS – is direct, well-weighted, has good on-centre feel and is surprisingly responsive to direction changes without a noticeable loss of feedback.

That’s largely a result of the clever work by former F3 and F1 and now HSV suspension guru David Slater, who worked magic with the new steering knuckles, alloy lower control arms and reversed ball-joints to correct the roll centre of the low-riding AWD.

But there’s no getting away from Coupe 4’s front-heavier weight distribution thanks to the bulky front diff and cradle, which makes its presence felt in slower turns and increases the potential for understeer at the limit.

But that understeer never seems to eventuate and, while power oversteer is still available on low-friction surfaces, in most circumstances Coupe 4 never feels anything but well balanced and supremely neutral handling.

The AWD chassis’ stiffer rear roll centre and the extra traction makes powering out of turns harder, earlier a cinch. It’s this user-friendly nature that masks mistakes or sheer poor driving, and makes Coupe 4 deceptively quick and startlingly efficient when driven hard.

And the extra straightline stability thanks to significantly wider wheel tracks adds to the impression of safety and security.

Of course, its lack of the Y Series 2 HSV range’s fatter extractors and the resulting 15kW peak power deficit – plus the 140kg weight gain over Coupe GTO - means Coupe 4 is not as quick in a straight line.

That said, compared to the likes of Adventra, the HSV-enhanced V8’s extra torque and less spark retardation means throttle response from low revs is in another league and, while it’s still not what you’d call quiet, there seems far less of Adventra’s drivetrain friction and drag at all speeds.

And there’s no arguing with Coupe 4’s claimed standing start acceleration figures, with 0-100km/h a still-impressive six seconds in the dry, 6.6 seconds in the wet and just 6.3 seconds on gravel - where it really demonstrates its take-off traction by spinning all four wheels for a couple of metres before hunkering down and rocketing away.

Like Avalanche, front brake discs are 6mm larger than HSV’s basic, Commodore-based Performance brakes and callipers remain two-piston units. Despite the extra weight, they cope well with most situations, the higher-friction pads offering good initial bite except after repeated hard stops. Sadly, HSV’s four-piston callipers won’t fit, which is a shame for the $90K AWD flagship.

And the literally shocking, Jurassic-age GM four-speed auto remains its Achilles heel and really dulls the driving experience, as it does in all HSVs.

Okay so the older, wealthier customers expected to purchase AWD HSVs like Coupe 4 won’t want a manual, but at least they’re offered the choice in other models. It’s small consolation, then, that Coupe 4 gets the same beefed-up, sportier-shifting version as Avalanche.

Safer, more secure feeling and more confidence inspiring without totally losing that fun, rear-drive HSV nature, Coupe 4’s greater road holding envelope makes it the thinking person's more complete, more refined HSV.

A level of exclusivity and superb ride quality completes the well executed package that’s a doddle to drive quickly. And, while the new and more reserved styling and chunkier twin-exhaust note is refreshing, the V8’s effortless overtaking ability is still intoxicating.

However, the first AWD HSV doesn’t come cheaply, and for purist who still likes the odd bit of sideways action, would like a manual transmission, the best brakes HSV can offer and the same performance as the least expensive model in the range, Coupe 4 may disappoint.

That said, Coupe GTO (and other HSVs) may still be quicker in the predictable confines of a silk-smooth racetrack, but most mere mortals will benefit from the confidence inspired by superior traction.

And when conditions deteriorate and the road becomes wet and/or uneven, Coupe 4 would be the HSV to be in.

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