That’s one hell of a Vauxhall you've got there...
Don’t let the badge fool you. It reads Vauxhall but underneath that chunky sheetmetal is Holden’s new Commodore Clubsport R8 with a higher spec GTS interior. Re-badged as the VXR8, and wearing a barely believable £35,105 price tag, this 411bhp monster will terrorise British roads come mid-June. The new Commodore is Holden’s first-ever cleansheet-design, and was developed and engineered in Australia at a cost of over £490m. And its four-door rear-wheel chassis architecture is set to underpin a range of future GM products. In fact, its Global Rear-Wheel Drive platform will underpin everything from the forthcoming Pontiac G8 to the Chevrolet Camaro. It’s a hugely important model for Holden and marks the first time the manufacturer has developed a Commodore without GM Europe’s input.
It looks brisk enough…
The VXR8 is a 417bhp thug of a car, delivering the kind of brutal acceleration that gives your adrenal gland a thorough workout. It will hit 60mph in just under five seconds, the Corvette-sourced engine spitting out an urgent hammering soundtrack as the big Vauxhall rockets its way towards its as-yet-unproven top speed. We reckon it should top out at 170mph. That’s speed with a capital S. In-gear go is just as vicious, the VXR8 catapulting forward at the slightest hint of throttle. And the brakes – the largest, at 365mm, ever fitted to a production Vauxhall – are well up to the job of matching the engine, delivering instant and reassuringly fade-free deceleration with the lightest brush of the centre pedal. Stand on them hard at 62mph and, claims Vauxhall, you’ll stop in 36 metres – three metres sooner than an M5. (That's not been independently tested by us, we should add.)
So, good in a straight line, but does it handle?
During the car’s early development, Holden singled out the E39 BMW 528i as the car to beat, and you can certainly feel the Bimmer’s influence. The VXR8 feels agile and chuckable and it can be flung into and out of corners with an engaging wrist-flick action. And it excels as a drift machine. The steering may lack real hand-on-tarmac feel, but its generous lock makes it easy to catch the back when it steps out. The rear diff lets you melt the big 19-inch rear tyres into the tarmac and create plumes of smoke that a stunt plane would be proud of. Lots of juvenile fun, then. The VXR8 does have a lower grip threshold than the best from BMW and AMG, but it's exploitable and driver-friendly. You need to be assertive if you up the ante, though. You need big balls and bigger muscles if you want to take this 1831kg bouncer of a car and throw it about. Its controls may be user-friendly light, but it won’t tolerate those limp of wrist and clumsy of foot.
Being a compliant cruiser should make it ideal for our roads, shouldn’t it?
The VXR8 feels very Australian – big, comfortable and an effortless high-speed cruiser. Burbling along the national limit in sixth gear with just 2000rpm dialled up, the Vauxhall feels incredibly refined and composed with an inaudible engine note, the barest whisper of wind rustle and only a faint thrum from the 275-section rubber. The VXR’s chassis feels strong and robust, and the suspension is supple enough to sponge away all but the largest thumps and bumps. But there’s also a surprising level of lean through corners, and although body control is by and large pretty tight, the suspension struggles on long undulations. While the lesser Commodore GTS gets an Audi-style Magnetic Ride Control system, which kicks in to stiffen the dampers during enthusiastic cornering, the Clubsport-based VXR8 doesn’t because it would, according to Vauxhall, nudge the VXR8’s price up to £40,000. Pity.
What’s it like on the inside?
The interior lets the side down, frankly. Sure, it looks good as an overall package, and the Commodore GTS-spec seats are more like broad and comfortable armchairs for ache-free cruising. There’s also plenty of room aboard and that cabin with swallow four six-footers with ease, and there's a huge boot to match. But take a good look and some of the plastics look decidedly low-rent and too many of the dials, buttons and stalks lack the precision and machined action of its German rivals'. And don't get us started on the handbrake, which looks more like a second-hand walking stick than anything else. UK buyers will have the choice of either a manual or automatic transmission, both packing six well-chosen ratios. While many shy away from the automatic – a £1400 option – its intuitive reaction to throttle inputs and smooth shifts make it the box to tick. Not that there’s anything wrong with the manual – its throw is light if slightly brittle, and it allows for plenty of heel-and-toe action.
Bluntly put, the VXR8 is a lesson in badge engineering. Not one single Holden component will filter through to any other model in the current Vauxhall range, but at this price-to-power ratio, you have to ask whether you really give a Castlemain XXXX? With the exception of Chrysler’s SRT8 - £39,000 and 425bhp – there’s little out there that delivers such a lot for so little. And with only 350 arriving here each year, it’ll be pretty exclusive too. Think everyman’s M5 and you’re on the nose. But the best thing about the VXR8 is that it’s an absolute hoot to punt hard. And it’s been far too long since you could say that of a four-door Vauxhall.