By now, everyone knows that General Motors turned to its Australian brand--Holden--in search of a new Pontiac GTO. It found a good one in the Holden Monaro.
The Monaro will require and will receive considerable remodeling to make the transformation from Holden to Goat. Fortunately, this morphing process will go beyond just moving the steering wheel to the left side of the car and the application of new badges. It's interesting that Holden reached out to Detroit for the 5.7L LS1 V-8 engine needed to create the muscled-up Monaro coupe in the first place.
The message here is "global platform and powertrain sharing." The fun question becomes "So, what else they got?" In fact, they've got plenty. Holden makes smart use of GM's midsize, rear-drive E2800 platform, which saw duty here as the '97-'02 Cadillac Catera. These same underpinnings form the basis of a multitude of Holdens, and we got hold of three of them. They're not only great driving cars, but each can be crystal-balled as potential North American product. Common among them are a variety of V-6 and V-8 engine options, fully independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, power rack-and-pinion steering, and the same firewall/instrument panel packaging.
First up, the Ute. The concept is simple: Start with a sedan and turn everything aft of the front seats into an open cargo bed. This basic idea had been available for decades in the form of Ford's Ranchero and Chevy's El Camino. The Ute SS packs a powertrain that could have come right out of a Z28: 302-hp Gen III OHV V-8, backed by a six-speed manual transmission. The cabin, done up in funky colors, resembles the one in the last Catera Sport we drove.
Long-legged gearing means the Ute isn't as quick as the aforementioned Camaro, but it still serves up plenty of punch and a wonderfully wide torque band. Holden's pipe benders have tuned the exhaust system for less rumble than Americans want in a musclecar, but it still sounds terrific. The Ute clearly outdoes the old F-bodies in terms of chassis rigidity, ride quality, and suppleness. Holden's firmly tuned and well-damped independent suspension glides over mid-corner bumps that would have a Firebird stepping sideways. Our only gripe is some flapping and drumming from the cargo area's plastic tonneau cover.
The Caprice (remember that name?) is Holden's long-wheelbase sedan variant; at 206 in. overall, it's a half-foot longer, though a bit narrower, than a BMW 745i. This car is sold not only in Holden's home market, but in several Middle-Eastern countries (it's the police car of choice in Dubai, by the way). Most of the added room is found aft of the B-pillar, which makes the already adequate rear-seat area S-Class large and comfy. The fake wood trim and interior plastics aren't up to the levels set by premium German sedans, but the Caprice is a lot less expensive. A GM four-speed automatic replaces the six-speed stick in this application.
In spite of the greater weight and automatic trans, the Caprice's acceleration is still plenty quick. Aggressive gear ratios and the torquey V-8 combine for impressive mid-range passing prowess. This model's suspension is tuned more for suppleness than cornering ability; the ride is luxury-car smooth, yet never mushy. It feels like what a modern American full-size rear-drive luxury sedan would feel like--if GM made one. Is there a Buick Roadmaster to be found here? HSV is to Holden what AMG is to Mercedes-Benz and SVT to Ford. In this case, the Holden Special Vehicle group has applied its treatment to the Commodore sedan (the one most closely related to the Catera) to create the HSV 300. The recipe is much the same as that employed by Ford and Mercedes: Performance-tuned suspension, rolling stock, and brakes combine with a high-output engine, a sportier interior, and a snarkier exterior package to make a limited-edition supersedan.
Callaway has been cranking extra horsepower out of Chevy V-8s for decades, and that's where HSV goes for its powerplants. Cylinder-head work, a cam change, more compression, revised engine-management calibrations, and a burbling dual-exhaust system equal a rating of 400 hp as installed in the M5-size HSV 300. While it doesn't feel quite like 400 horses to us, it's at least a healthy 350, reminding us of the standard engine in the Corvette. Painting black streaks of rubber onto the pavement is as easy as putting the six-speed stick in first, giving the engine 3000 rpm, coming off the clutch, and flooring it.
The HSV 300's chassis doesn't invite you to pitch it sideways and drive it sprint-car style--it begs you to. This piece is predictable, communicative, and so controllable. Its steering tells you exactly what's going on, the well-damped suspension stays in contact with the road surface, and its cornering limits feel inspiringly high. There's a bit of a ride penalty, as you'd expect with aggressive 18-in. wheels and low-profile tires. Without getting into the intricacies of price/value ratios, exchange rates, and "what would it cost here?" analysis, suffice it to say that the HSV 300 delivers about 85 percent of the BMW M5's driving thrill for less than 70 percent of the cost. A true Impala SS if there ever was one.
Nothing's as easy as it looks, but the Monaro-becomes-GTO case study proves GM is willing and able to go beyond existing boundaries in search of new product opportunities. And the Ute, Caprice, and HSV 300 also demonstrate there's a lot of life left in the small-block Chevy V-8.