The boffins at HSV and FPV don’t stand around with idle hands for too long. HSV’s R8 gets a shot in the armature with its new LS2 ‘small block’ engine. Is the extra clout enough to knock off the Boss? We let our V8 mate loose with the biggest weapons from Aussie’s auto arsenal.
No matter what your penchant for things automotive, the rumble of a V8 causes everyone’s heart to beat faster. It only takes one full throttle burst to become hooked by those eight bellowing cylinders as they rumble in unison. HSV long ruled the Aussie V8 domain until the late arrival of Ford’s FPV reprisal. With more ponies and a sharp chassis, the FPV GT has been able to enjoy a reign – albeit brief – as arguably the best Aussie big banger. But HSV isn’t a firm to let the Blue Oval get one up in their perennial battle. In something of a coup, it has equipped its latest range with the thumping 6.0 litre LS2, a V8 with old-school torque delivery. Has Ford still got the package to remain king, or does the LS2 shift the power back to HSV, the traditional broker?
Just as potential buyers of the GT-P and the R8 will never feature rice-rockets on their wish lists, nor will they ever mention both, as one’s a Ford and the other’s not. Strewth mate, if it’s not an eight…
The Ford vs Holden battle rages in the showroom with the two antagonists closely matched on sticker price. The new R8 retails for $88,900, up just a smidge on the old VY-II R8 but now packing more firepower. The GT-P Mk II retails for slightly less at $86,990. And they are matched on the spec sheet, with sports seats dressed in leather, six-stack stereos with satellite controls on their sporty, leather-bound steering wheels, and each has cruise control and remote locking. Safety sees them both with four airbags, ABS with EBD, and traction control. FPV is armed with an integrated alarm, and both are covered in microscopic data dots to deter the underworld. The R8 adds eight-way electric adjustability to its front chairs while the Ford gets dual climate control and a premium audio system.
You get big 19-inch shadow-chrome alloys on your R8, along with the more in-your-face styling of the HSV-enhanced body-kit, with its deep cattle-catcher front treatment and low side skirts. The HSV Z series also picks up a faux intake on the front wing. Whether this improves the design is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. The aggressively styled R8 looks almost flamboyant next to the GT-P. Without the stripes and the Supercar-like rear wing, it’d take a Ford aficionado to make out the GT from the garden-variety XR8.
Look on the flanks of the R8 and you’ll spy an LS2 badge that proclaims this car is the big dog. With 6.0 litres of swept volume, this engine is now the biggest hitter in the HSV arsenal. Unlike the previous 300kW LS1, the LS2 comes straight from GM without HSV having to massage it to produce the numbers that make Ford fans weep. With 297kW at 6000rpm (or 305kW in the Ford-rated DIN standard) and 530Nm at 4400rpm, the LS2 proudly states there’s still no substitute for cubic inches. The LS2 is the latest in a long line of Chevy small blocks destined for America’s sports car. And it’s this family lineage that makes the Z series of HSVs the most potent.
The engine is basically a bored LS1 with cylinders increased in diameter to 101.6mm, so subsequently the bigger engine is slightly lighter. The cylinder heads are from the previous Corvette Z06 but are modified to match the size, while the compression ratio rises slightly to 10.9:1. With a bigger diet of air needed, there’s now a larger 90mm throttle body. Also new is a high-lift camshaft, and new lighter and larger valves with stronger valve springs to help the engine cope with an increased redline, now set at 6500rpm.
Controlling proceedings is a more powerful ECU and an electronic throttle. This new engine is quick to respond to inputs from the pedal. Low-end torque production is the LS2’s forte: HSV claims 87 per cent of the 530Nm is on tap from 1600rpm. Clearly demonstrating the low-end torque improvement is the fact that at 2000rpm, the LS2 makes the same amount of torque that the old LS1 was making at 3800rpm; and it’s a lot happier at the other end as well, breathing strongly all the way through the rev range. This is where the new LS2 beats the Ford mill. It has a wider power band, is ready to rock from low down, and keeps making power to 6500rpm, 1000rpm after the Ford has called it quits.
Chassis improvements are minimal. The R8 gets the VZ’s larger power-steering pump to aid on-centre feel and give a constant weighting, and there’s the adoption of the Bosch ABS 8 system with its less intrusive and more effective traction control. Think of it as the antidote to the venomous engine.
Like all BA Mk IIs, the GT-P received little in the way of enhancements. It still packs its 5.4 litre V8, dubbed the Boss 290 – a reference to the Trans Am-killing Mustang Boss 302. Interestingly, the original Boss engine was rated at the same 290kW but it made the power from a 302-cubic inch capacity.
FPV engineers hand-assemble the Boss, using better pistons and rings to raise the compression ratio over the XR8, as well as using higher lift inlet and exhaust cams, a balanced crank and an FPV-enhanced 75mm throttle body with electronic control and a high-flow intake and exhaust. The result nets 290kW at 5500rpm and 520Nm at 4500rpm. Four hundred of those newtons are present at 1000rpm, and build gradually until 3500 when the curve starts climbing steeply to its peak at 4500rpm.
Ford left the John Bowe-developed chassis as it was, with its double-wishbone front and multilink ‘Control Blade’ rear end, but its dampers and spring rates are set softer than those on the R8.
If you’re a Ford fan, you may want to skip this section. The LS2 rules the strip. We tested the R8 when it was fresh out of the box and it managed a 5.78-second 0-100km/h time. When we got it back for this comparison it had been well run in by other motoring journos, so we retested it. And sure enough, the LS2 had loosened up, knocking a couple of tenths off its FPV-whacking time. Just be careful off the line (we didn’t call this car ‘the Shredder’ for nothing) and the R8 will nip to 100km/h in 5.61s.
It’s the LS2’s low-down grunt that helps it see to the FPV. The GT-P isn’t on the case as quickly, waiting for that engine to spin up to 3500rpm before it really gets going, to return a time of 6.41s – again quicker than last time we ran it thanks to a looser engine. Once roaring, the FPV is able to peg a little time back but the Clubbie is still the hare in the 80-120km/h sprint, recording a best 3.41s run to the GT-P’s 3.67s.
The R8 now comes standard with the premium brake package. The rotors measure 343mm up front and 315 at the rear, with four-pot calipers acting on both. For those serious about stopping, the R8 can be optioned with an AP Racing set-up, with 362mm discs and six-piston calipers on the front and 343mm and four-potters on the rear. The GT-P gets the Brembo set-up as standard, with 355mm and 330mm cross-drilled discs and four-pot calipers. Despite a weight disadvantage, the GT-P pulls up in the same 35 metres as the R8. The HSV requires a good prod on the pedal to get it to stop. But after 5000km of hard testing at the hands of the motoring press, this R8 seemed a bit under the weather in the braking department.
Both these machines know how to rumble. Even at idle they shake and growl, sending tremors through the cabin. Nail the throttle and it’s the Ford that appeals to the mongrel inside. It emits a deep rumbling burble that gets louder as the pistons pump faster. The HSV is a bit of a letdown in this area. Despite HSV’s ‘tuned’ 63mm dual exhaust, it is muted in comparison to the chest-beating, vine-swinging animal caged in the FPV.
HSV claims to have improved the old four-speed auto for the Z series and while it may swap the cogs a bit quicker, it’s no less violent. It hooks second with a shunt during a full-bore attack whereas the Ford is a little more civilised, but neither gearbox really does an A-grade job. Let’s hope the rumours are true and the replacement models for each of these cars get a six-speed automatic ’box. Ford’s auto, with its sequential mode and smarter protocols, is the better operator. Given the stonk of that HSV motor, the old 4L65E four-speeder gets away with its slow-to-kick-down behaviour. Where you’d be cursing the box if it were hooked up to an LS1, the torque of the new motor lets the box run lazy. That’s where the FPV is found wanting: the four-speed hunts for the right ratio on an uphill winding road – but its saving grace is the manual sequential gate.
Whereas the HSV rules the roost in sheer grunt, the FPV holds an edge in the chassis department. True to their names, the GT-P is the Grand Tourer, the Clubsport more suited to smooth surfaces and the race track. A more comforting ride quality is apparent in the FPV when swapping between the two. Not to say the R8 is uncomfortable: it’s just firmer than the GT-P and you feel more of the bumps. When it comes to corners, the FPV manages to cut through them with more assurance, it feels solidly connected to the road and handles the cut-and-thrust action of back roads better than its arch rival, feeling easier to place and steering more faithfully.
The R8 is no slouch though, with much the same abilities, but you have to be on your game, especially with that thunderous V8 hurtling you into the corners. The front end has grip aplenty and turns in well. It’s the other end you need to watch on the exit. Even though it has huge tyres, the reserves of LS2 torque will overcome them in an instant. Those brakes get a hammering as you try to cool off the pace before diving into a bend, so it’s money well spent if you opt for the AP Racing set-up, especially considering the R8’s newfound straight-line performance. The Brembos on the GT-P do a fine job. The braided lines keep the pedal feel constant, making it one of the best-braking Fords there is.
Release the V8s from their electronically guarded penitentiaries and they rejoice in their freedom, sacrificing their rubber to the altar of tyre smoke. Many quip that that’s the only thing a V8 is good for, but both these Aussies make a strong case as genuine performance cars.
Being based on big Falcons and Commodores, these two have plenty of real estate on offer inside. The sheer amount of interior space makes them an attractive proposition for buyers. There are the large back seats with generous leg- and headroom (the HSV feels a tad more spacious), cavernous boots (the FPV swallows more), and those lucky enough to ride up front get ample legroom and comfort.
Those so-called performance seats are easy to relax into, despite the extra bolstering, but you’re likely to catch your butt on the higher and firmer bolsters of the FPV, which hold you in tighter. Drivers with extra girth might prefer the HSV because of this. And as far as driving positions go, the HSV lets you hunker down lower but the FPV has a wider range of movements, including adjustable pedals.
Ford’s pushbutton start-up sequence is an unnecessary marketing-driven dalliance. It would be more bearable if, like on some German machinery, you could merely press the button for an instant and let the electronics do the rest, but not here – and the big V8 takes some cranking. With the new ECU, the HSV ticks over instantly, a welcome improvement.
What’s not so convenient are the large, tail-mounted spoilers. The FPV’s cuts down your view of following traffic, while the low-mounted wing on the HSV makes a ute easier to back and it sorely needs the GT-P’s parking sensors.
Before the LS2 came to town, these Ford vs Holden comparisons were relatively easy to decide: the Ford’s chassis would win the day, given that the engines and gearboxes were so similar in their performance. But the LS2 delivers an argument that’s up there with David Lange’s famous Oxford Union debate. It thoroughly outguns the Boss. The HSV’s chassis is still a step behind that of the FPV, but inhale a few brave pills and the R8 can be made to dance to the same tune.
In a perfect world, we’d be driving an LS2-powered GT, but then Schapelle’s got a better shot at freedom than that ever happening. In the end, we’ve been corrupted by the LS2’s sheer grunt, giving the R8 the narrowest of victories. We await FPV’s reprisal.
|Model||FPV GT-P MkII|
|Drivetrain||4-speed automatic, RWD|
|Stability systems||ABS, EBD, TC|
|Model||HSV Clubsport R8|
|Engine||5967cc, V8, EFI|
|Drivetrain||4-speed automatic, RWD|
|Stability systems||ABS, EBD, BA, TC|
This article was originally published in the July 2005 issue of NZ Autocar Magazine.