When you spend week after week test-driving “average” cars, it can all get a bit tedious. Every car starts feeling similar – V6 engines, automatic gearboxes, front-wheel-drive – there can only be so much variation in a common theme. But once in a while, something comes along that makes you sit up and take notice. The CSV CR8 is one of those things.
Sure, the CSV CR8 is a practical package with four doors, tons of legroom and a huge luggage trunk. But all the hidden bits are the ones which ultimately define it. How many family cars have a big V8, rear-wheel-drive and — horror of horrors — a manual transmission?
The exterior is very attractive, thanks to its inherited proportions from the donor Chevy Lumina SS. However, HSV has done well to differentiate it from the regular car, with a bigger spoiler, larger rims, aggressive front and rear bumpers, extra side vents, different tail-lights and a unique front grille. If you haven’t heard of HSV, or Holden Special Vehicles, it is the in-house tuning arm of GM-owned Holden, the Australian manufacturer that builds the Lumina. The term “CSV” is a variation of that abbreviation, seemingly standing for “Chevrolet Special Vehicles” around here.
To step inside the big cabin of this huge car, you have to leap over the massive side-bolster of the sports seat. Once inside, everything looks painfully similar to the standard Lumina cabin, including the dull dashboard design. However, the bits unique to the CR8 are very special. After noticing the heavily-bolstered sports seats, you’ll grab what happens to be the thickest steering wheel ever. Look down and you’ll then notice the silvery manual shifter knob and three pedals. And that’s it really, in terms of upgrades. While our tester came with leather, rear roof-mounted DVD screen, cruise control and multiple airbags, there is no sunroof, no digital a/c and no standard navigation.
What there’s no shortage of is cabin space. Acres of legroom and headroom rival that of any fullsize car, with a huge flat luggage area, tons of cup-holders and numerous storage bins. The stitched leather seats look great, with embroidered CSV logos. Rubbery-soft materials cover the dash and doors, with hard plastics for lower cabin areas, some of which feel cheap, especially the loose lids for various storage bins. Other oversights include the lack of padding under the luggage-trunk lid, although it could be a weight-saving measure.
The a/c with front-rear vents as well as the CD stereo are simplistic, but above-average in performance. The stereo also has a built-in CD changer, steering-wheel buttons and Bluetooth phone, and its monochrome display is mounted at the top of the centre-stack. The rear DVD player operates separately, with wireless headsets. There is no other gadgetry worth mentioning, besides the red-lit gauge-cluster computer screen, and all power-window buttons being near the handbrake.
But all minor complaints disappear once you get on the open road, for the CR8 has to be the most involving car in its class we’ve ever driven. Firing up the 6.0-litre V8, the fact that this motor is capable of spectacular numbers — 411 hp at 6000 rpm and 550 Nm of torque at 4400 rpm — always remains at the back of your mind. The short-shifting 6-speed manual is much slicker than the one in the Corvette Z06, so combining that with a moderately-firm clutch made it the easiest manual “sports car” we’ve ever driven in traffic. Every traffic signal became a special event. Rather than simply pushing one pedal with the right foot and letting an automatic do all the work, we were instead actually getting to use our right hand and left foot to make the car lunge forward, and that too without it feeling like an exercise machine. Oddly enough, you cannot go into fifth or sixth gear when sitting at idle, instead going straight to reverse with a warning beep. The beep is particularly useful because the knob sometimes refuses to slip into reverse easily.
There is strong acceleration in all the lower gears and the traction control even allows some initial wheelspin. Still, we only managed a poor 0-to-100 kph time of 6.0 seconds with the traction control on, and we didn’t bother running it with the electronic nannies off due to the lack of safe venues. We weren’t about to try launching a 400-horse burnout-machine in public without ample practice, which we certainly didn’t have time to get totally familiar in only four days of testing. No doubt it can go quicker. Nevertheless, during this time, our fuel consumption was an awfully high 19.1 litres per km in mixed driving.
Handling is seriously good, with intensely-entertaining chassis tuning. With stiff suspension, low-profile tyres and very sharp steering, it is hardly possible to understeer. As we circled an empty roundabout, we gradually pushed harder, and instead of pushing outwards, the rear was actually coming out very slightly in the most controllable fashion. No doubt, stability control would’ve kicked in if we were to spin out, but no electronics were needed. A good driver can easily play with this thing, and even though it cannot match our tiny BMW M Roadster in manoeuvrability, its limits are still impressively high, with solid grip from 245/40 front and 275/35 rear tyres and the body staying largely flat in any turn. The big ABS-assisted four-wheel-disc brakes are also very strong, with a mildly-weighted pedal that makes it easy to modulate with pinpoint accuracy.
Riding on 19-inch wheels barely brings about any penalty in highway compliance. It rides firm, but never too firm, and feels a lot like BMW’s legendary ride-handling balance. Wind hush and road noise are about average for the midsize class, but there is always a burbling V8 sound in the background, even at idle. Forward visibility is perfect, but the rearward view is hindered by the big trunk spoiler and the small mirrors. Parking is dependent on beeping rear sensors, and our big tester already came with curb rash on the wheels and front bumper, so watch out for high footpath edges.
When you consider that all its competitors, including Chrysler SRT models and the overpriced Germans, offer nothing but an automatic gearbox, it becomes apparent that the Australian CR8 will always be rare in this lazy part of the world. In today’s inflation-ridden climate, the CR8 will be expensive to run, but it drinks no more petrol than a snail-paced V6-powered Land Cruiser. When was the last time you actually went off-road or even needed seven seats? If you can afford that shoebox, the reasons to pick up a CR8 are easily justifiable. All you need is to get out of your unoriginal Toyota/Nokia/iPod mindset and work out that left leg.