From the archives - 2004 HSV Coupe 4
HSV heads into Audi quattro territory with the Coupé 4, an all-wheel-drive version of the HSV GTO. Like the Avalanche and Adventra crossover wagons, this new lower-rider sports 4wd – and maximises driving pleasure
The Nissan Patrol appears suddenly around the blind corner. It’s heading over onto the wrong side of the road and this is a narrow and bumpy piece of tarmac with trees and ditch on the outside – my side.
No time really to think; just wrench the steering wheel, lift, brake and scramble around the corner as best I can…then steal a glance across at my passenger, HSV’s Sam Davis. He’s looking straight ahead. I can’t tell if that’s because he’s in shock, because he hasn’t even noticed our momentary drama, or whether he’s contemplating killing me for putting his pride and joy at risk.
I speak of the HSV Coupé 4 I am driving, the first low-riding all-wheel drive to emerge from the Holden stable. To be accurate, it hasn’t exactly emerged because the car doesn’t go on sale in Australia until June. In New Zealand the wait’s a month or two longer than that. So what I am in fact imperilling is one of 11 Coupé 4 test and development cars, indeed the very one that outgoing Holden managing director, Peter Hanenberger, revealed to the media throng at the Sydney show last October.
Right now it doesn’t look anywhere near as smart as that day. The bespoke body kit is back at HSV’s Clayton headquarters, stripped from the car after we completed our photography. We’re lamenting its departure. By our common agreement, Coupé 4 is the best-looking Monaro/Coupé yet, and a real commendation for the talents of HSV’s new design chief, Julian Quincey.
It’s tougher, squarer and appears more compact (when it’s actually wider, higher and longer) than the more organic and silky Monaro, while the HSV Coupé looks trashy and contrived by comparison. There’s a European feel to Coupé 4 courtesy of the mesh grille, the HID driving lights add aggression, and the squared-off fenders recall industrial strength. Filling them up are 19-inch polished alloys shod with the very best rubber, 245/35ZR19 Pirelli P Zeros. Just to complete the look down the back are a subtle roof spoiler, low-riding rear wing with chunky centre post, and 2x2 exhausts exiting each side of the rear skirt via cutaways. But all that’s gone - simply too valuable and rare to be risked on the open road. Instead it’s been replaced with grille, sills and lowers from the production Coupé before we head off into the hills east of Melbourne to sample the technology that lies underneath the two-door body.
Which is where Davis comes in. He’s here riding shotgun, to answer any questions and no doubt make sure we don’t do anything silly - like decamp with HSV’s latest gem. Davis’ title is HSV programme director, and strictly speaking Coupé 4 is not his project, but he masterminded its early stages and did all the powertrain work. And HSV is still small enough that all senior engineers are conversant with the major programmes going on at any one time; it’s not his baby - but he is an uncle.
Coupé 4 is as big and as important a programme as they come. In the history of HSV the company has never been handed the lead role on something as significant as this: the introduction of all-wheel-drive technology to low-riding passenger cars. That’s as opposed to high-riding crossovers like the Avalanche and XUV, which are based on the Adventra and Crewman Cross8, respectively. There is no Monaro all-wheel drive from which Coupé 4 springs: it is a unique programme that sets the agenda rather than follows.
It’s very significant that Coupé 4’s body will have sheet metal and other modifications made to it off-line at a specific HSV area within the Holden assembly plant at Elizabeth in South Australia. Monaro bodies are literally plucked from the line, modified, and then reinserted before the paint shop. Up till now, there have been no panel changes to Holdens that were to become HSVs; they simply turned up at Clayton direct from Elizabeth to be adorned in their body kits and other finery.
The installation of the Quad Drive (or CrossTrac to use Holden’s name) all-wheel-drive system makes that traditional approach simply impossible. Therefore Coupé 4 is a flag bearer for the future, a vehicle more identifiably HSV than Holden. It’s the start of something really big.
But more of that later; what you want to know right now is how it drives - right? Much of the answer came in those few milliseconds as that Patrol lurched into view. The Coupé 4’s response to my sudden and savage sawing of the wheel and tap dance on the pedals resulted in nothing more than…a slowing and change of direction. No sudden, sickening lurch as the rear end gave way, as might have been expected in a rear-wheel-drive HSV, and no pushing to the outside of the corner as the front wheels scrabbled for grip in traditional all-wheel-drive fashion. The Coupé 4 simply went round the corner without fuss.
Stability is the key attribute, and there seem to be several reasons for that. Of course, there’s Quad Drive itself, which combines electronic traction control with three open differentials to split drive 38 per cent front and 62 per cent rear. Mated to that is the archetypal LS1 5.7 litre V8 engine and the 4L65E four-speed auto transmission now found in all HSVs, bar Avalanche and XUV (and they will get it soon to replace the very similar 4L60E).
But Quad Drive also adds up to an extra 120kg of weight in the Coupé 4 compared to Coupé, and because it sits low down in the chassis, it improves centre of gravity and helps keep the cornering of the car flat and predictable. Just as fundamental is the 60mm increase in track front and rear that comes with the installation of Quad Drive; there’s no doubt the wider footprint plays a key role in the Coupé 4’s feeling of solidity. But before I get too carried away, it should be pointed out again that the car driven was a prototype and the drive was limited to a couple of hours, albeit on familiar and quite testing roads. Final conclusions must wait till the production cars go on sale, and Paul and the guys drive one in New Zealand.
But that’s ahead of us. Let’s backtrack a couple of years to the birth of the Coupé 4 programme, where Davis picks up the story:
“As soon as Adventra was being proposed, we knew we’d be doing our own version of that, so naturally we looked at the CAD data to see if we could drop it down to do a low-ride sedan because we were not sure an all-wheel-drive wagon was what all HSV customers would want,” he recalls.
“We were originally quite keen to do a sedan and the reason we ended up doing the Coupé instead was because the basic car isn’t really designed for all-wheel drive. The all-wheel-drive system is designed to sit under the high-ride-height wagon and with the wider track. When you lower it down, you crash into the wheel arches - so you can’t fit it to the body.
“At the front, that is not too much of a problem because you can cut away a bit of the guard, and you can fit in your wheels and tyres, but with the sedan you are going to have a real problem with your rear-door system, and once you cut into that it starts to get very complicated. So that’s why we decided Coupé would be the first model.”
Dropping 80mm in ride height – back to 120mm – also produced an unacceptable change in suspension geometry, most notably camber. So all that meant a variety of new components had to be specifically developed by HSV for Coupé 4, including a revised front subframe, new steering knuckle, front lower control arms and struts, as well as the adaptation of the wagon’s semi-trailing arms to the rear suspension. Even the wiring harness required a redesign. Not only will the front and rear sheet-metal modifications be made by plasma cutter robots off-line at Elizabeth, there will also be a myriad of other changes, including widening the transmission tunnel to fit Quad Drive’s transfer case.
“Suddenly you end up with a Coupé 4 body that is totally different from the Coupé body - just as different as Coupé body is from a normal wagon,” says Davis.
The Coupé 4’s unique suspension and brakes are also fitted into the car on-line, something made possible because they come in a modular package. Furthermore this car gets fitted with the US-spec 70-litre petrol tank that sits behind the seat rather than under the floor, allowing the use of four exhaust pipes.
All this manufacturing complexity and uniqueness was nutted out by a combined Holden and HSV task force, and if it sounds like overkill for what’s scheduled to be a 200-car run, you’re right. Not to forget the development budget of $AU5-6 million – high for HSV - and the need to conduct a full crash-test programme, which is something not normally required of HSV product. The thing is there are a lot more all-wheel-drive cars in Holden and HSV’s future, and Coupé 4 is a great way of troubleshooting for that.
Back out on the road the trouble (that errant Patrol) is in our past and the Coupé 4 is hunting its way through some often-rutted and rough-edged roads. For a mule, this is one tight car, with only a buzz from somewhere behind the dash betraying its origins.
As it is a show car, the internal fit and finish is quality, the look and equipment much the same as Senator, the slow-selling luxury model in the HSV short-wheelbase range. The spin from HSV is this car is designed to be more gentleman sports-tourer than out-and-out blaster, and there is even a warning before we set off that the suspension tune is a tad harsher than what can be expected in production.
“With the wider track, the car behaves quite differently on the road to the Coupé, so the spring and damper rates are all different,” explains Davis. “Effectively what we have done is the front damping is a bit firmer just because of the extra mass at the front.
“The other thing we found was that because all-wheel-drive cars are basic understeerers, we could firm up the rear a fair bit to try and counteract the understeer a little bit. With the two-wheel-drive car you keep it a little bit softer so it can squat and get better grip, but with the all-wheel drive you don’t need to do that.”
Coupé 4 still feels somewhat like an HSV, thanks to the way Quad Drive splits more torque to the rear, but it’s a lot more predictable. And the suspension set-up seems excellent. Firm and controlled enough to exude true sporting ability, but not without compliance. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any need to go any softer than this.
If there’s an area where this car loses out to the rear-wheel-drive version it is the steering, which is a tad vaguer at the straight-ahead and not quite as crisp turning in. There’s no change to the power-assisted rack itself, so perhaps that extra mass up front is having an impact here.
Overall, Coupé 4 feels less challenging to drive than a rear-wheel-drive HSV like ClubSport, but that does not mean it is less fun – just different. It is too heavy and slow to change direction to be in the league of the best of all-wheel-drive sportsters like the Lancer Evo VIII and WRX STi, but it is highly capable, quite entertaining and thoroughly convincing.
Braking is strong, although on this car the pedal travel was quite long. Coupé 4 shares its brake design with Avalanche, and considering it’s more than 200kg lighter than the wagon, HSV justifiably concluded it should do the job. It’s a brake package unique to the all-wheel-drive cars because the new steering-wheel knuckles prevent six-piston ‘Premium’ calipers fitting in behind the 19-inch wheels. Instead, Coupé 4 gets PBR-developed four-piston calipers mated to 336mm front AP grooved discs (up six millimetres from standard) and 315mm items at the rear.
And so to the drivetrain. And here is a key reason why HSV has decided to sell this car a bit softer: it has less power than the rear-wheel drive and comes with auto box only. Because of the additional clutter such as the front driveshaft in the engine bay, smaller extractors have had to be fitted to Coupé 4. Result? That’s 270kW at 5700rpm, and 475Nm at 4000rpm. Compare that to ClubSport Y Series II, which produces 285kW at 5800rpm and 510Nm at 4800rpm. I challenge you to pick the difference on the open road - open the taps and the cabin fills with that familiar bellow, passing moves are completed in a single bound, and hills are soon a pimple in the rear-view mirror.
To my mind, there’ll be plenty of situations where the Coupé 4 will be faster because of its superior grip level. A ClubSport will do you on a drag strip but you’ll be more than competitive over the serpentine roads that seem to populate every corner of New Zealand. And when talking about the drag strip, the difference isn’t that great. Acceleration claims for Coupé 4 are 6.1 seconds to 100km/h and 14.3 seconds over 400 metres. To emphasise the advantage of all-paw grip, HSV also lists gravel acceleration times – add 0.5 seconds for each. Verification will have to wait for the NZ Autocar VBOX, but I can tell you this much when it comes to accelerating a Coupé 4: it’s an HSV where burn-outs are a thing of the past. And Avalanche aside, when was the last time you accelerated hard on gravel in an HSV and it simply hooked up and went straight? Strange stuff.
Where a ClubSport driver will have an advantage on the open road is transmission, because sales indicate he’ll most likely be flicking through the six-speed manual version. The Coupé 4’s unsophisticated gearbox really is its Achilles’ heel. Hey, around town it’s no big deal, but anytime you press on, there’s that crude shift and state of confusion to remind you how ancient this ’box is. Bugger a manual, even a five-speed auto with semi-manual control would be a huge improvement.
“There was a lot of soul searching…because an HSV without a manual gearbox doesn’t really fit in with what we want,” admits Davis. “But it was one of those things where the cost to do a manual version was going to be prohibitive. Basically the system just hasn’t been set up for manual transmission.”
So where does all that leave us as we trundle back up the freeway to Melbourne to hand Coupé 4 back to its sweating owners? Pretty bloody impressed is where. Usually, driving an HSV hard combines excitement and fear, anticipation and anxiety. Thanks to Quad Drive, Coupé 4 takes some of the insecurity out of the process for us mere mortals.
For some it will sanitise the experience too much. For them there will always be the traditional HSV lineup. But for plenty more, this car will be a welcome addition. It looks good, goes well, and feels so very secure. And it avoids errant Nissan Patrols with ease. Very important that.
This article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of NZ Autocar Magazine.
Model 2004 HSV Coupe 4 Price $110,000
Engine 5665cc, V8, EFI, 270kW/475Nm
Transmission 4-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Vitals 6.1sec 0-100km/h, n/a L/100km, n/a g/km, 1802kg