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Power above absolutely all else: The Vauxhall Monaro VXR500

I have always maintained that great joy can be derived from a car with moderate roadholding limits. In a low-strung car, your excess of exuberance is swiftly met by tyre squeal and body roll – the magic is found in finding the limit and staying there. It’s the old maxim of ‘slow car fast’, and a refreshing alternative to supercars with limits of composure so untouchably high that anything less than a full chat mission becomes a chore.

Between the simple pleasures of a low-powered hatchback and the pure hedonism of a supercar, there lies another breed of car with an appeal all of its own. Cars that look and feel like regular family sedans and coupes but conceal deep reserves of firepower, yet have roadholding limits you can safely spend all day probing. We’re talking Muscle Cars – and this Monaro is a prime example.

The term originally described the outcome of taking an innocuous sedan or coupe such as a Dodge Coronet (though many far earlier examples also apply) and adding a colossal, multi-carbed V8 engine to achieve formidable feats of straight-line speed. However, Muscle Car is an appellation that’s often misapplied. Cars like the Mercedes-AMG E63 are often referred to by lazy hacks as muscle cars, for want of a better pigeonhole.

But Mercedes’ Affalterbach-based exhilaration squad does rather more than just drop a big, dumb V8 into a regular sedan – they give it a thorough going over to ensure that the extra power doesn’t totally corrupt the chassis that harnesses it. A real AMG – none of that mats ‘n badges AMG-Line nonsense – is a properly sorted sports machine, at home on track or turnpike.

An AMG is far from a muscle car in the old American sense. In fact, the only country close to the US gold standard for muscle is Australia, where a series of steroidal saloons hatched from Ford and Holden over the years. Somehow, a rare piece of out-the-box thinking from General Motors in the late ’90s saw the conveniently right-hand drive Holden Monaro find its way to the UK. Vauxhall badges were glued on, and the king-size coupe was sent to showrooms and jarringly juxtaposed with Astras and Corsas.

With 377bhp on tap, it was about 130bhp gruntier than the next nippiest car in the Vauxhall range. With that Griffin badge somehow lending patriotic appeal, the Monaro was heralded by marque enthusiasts as a ‘giant killer’ and ‘Goliath slayer’, as well as being the first Vauxhall in memory that Jeremy Clarkson approved of. It could flow smoothly along a sinuous A-road and had truly monstrous pulling power. Easy to drive fast, it flattered its driver and drifts were a speciality.

More power was surely not something the Monaro needed, but that didn’t stop Vauxhall dealer Greens of Rainham perching a Harrop supercharger kit Atop that 6.0-litre LS2 V8. This conversion used an Eaton TVS blower to increase power to 493bhp, or 500PS to justify the VXR500 tag, and was performed on just 15 cars. It was sanctioned and warrantied by Vauxhall and, by extension, Holden, but was it a good idea?

My first impression wasn’t helped by an electric driver’s seat recliner that had handed in its notice and refused to let me assume anything other than an incumbent posture. Driving would be tricky, I thought, but not impossible. I positioned my rucksack as an ad-hoc backrest and turned the key, awakening a sound that’s more exhaust than engine. At tickover those big pipes exaggerate the commotion under the bonnet – rather than the thunder of armageddon to come, this LS2 ticks over like an industrial sewing machine that’s overdue an oiling.

The interior ambience is even more underwhelming. The Monaro doesn’t want for standard equipment, it has enough electrically operated this, that and the other to satisfy the most demanding switch fetishist. It also has a dual zone climate control system that can cope with the Australian outback, so dealing with a warm day in Bedfordshire really didn’t tax it at all. It’s just all presented in a horribly unappealing way. The centre stack, with its shiny silver highlights, looks like something from a budget SUV. The materials may well last until the sun burns out, but tactile or attractive they aren’t.

Although the interior treatment may put you at risk of enjoying your lunch a second time, but from a less pleasant direction, hope is restored when you tread on the pleasingly hefty clutch and eased the six-speed manual stick into first. The gearbox has a fantastically industrial-revolution feel to it, you can feel shafts full of bevelled gears moving to and fro as you manipulate the lever. Things are looking up.

My test route took me through some very charming villages and none took very kindly to the Monaro’s arrival. Despite the benign tickover, all HSV Monaros emit a hard-edged LS2 bark when provoked, and the VXR500 adds a chainsaw rasp to the top end whenever the supercharger is on duty. Out of respect for the natives, I waited until beyond village limits before putting my foot down. Mostly.

The standard VXR manages 0-60mph in 5.7 very pleasurable seconds, but perhaps less immediately than you’d expect from 377bhp. The supercharger sharpens thing up notably, dropping the 0-60 time to 4.8 seconds, but still doesn’t deliver the haste 493bhp ought to. That initial sprint, though, turns out to be only a small part of the story.

First gear is really best used for close quarters car park maneuvering or coating the road surface with a Goodyear veneer. Second is far more useful and rather well suited to showboating. Thanks to the wonderfully progressive way the Monaro’s power is delivered, you can steer the Monaro using any combination of steering wheel and accelerator. T-Junctions can be dispatched with a flick of the wrist and a stamp of throttle, while roundabouts are handled just as neatly whether you drive forwards or sideways.

The Monaro’s body control has just enough “puddingyness” to make it a delight. It’s not razor-sharp like an M3 or roly-poly like a Jensen Interceptor (I’m looking for quantifiable V8 extremes here). There’s a modicum of wrestling involved in keeping it on an even keel when pressing on, but understeer is easily checked by just shoveling more coal on the fire. Rather wonderfully, there’s a constant readout on the trip computer that allows you to keep tabs on the precise volume of fuel your journey has burnt. I can confirm that this car vaporized the fastest gallon I’ve known in my life.

Any muscle car lives and dies on the straights and here the VXR500 is at its best, yet most frustrating. Remember the Monaro’s 5.7-second 0-60mph time? Well, the acceleration curve steepens dramatically as the revs rise. Just under six seconds to 60mph isn’t impressive, but 13.3 seconds to 100 is – and a standing quarter mile is dispatched just half a second later. Since there are no changes to the gearbox and its ratios when the Monaro receives its supercharger, the VXR500’s acceleration curve remains the same – albeit rather tighter in the x-axis.

This means, unless you’re in a far less cluttered county than Bedfordshire, you’re never anywhere near getting the VXR500 into its stride. You’re trying to shed huge speeds at the end of every straight, having been fractions away from an exponential wave of acceleration like bodyboarding in a tsunami. Internet figures suggest a low 12-second quarter and sub ten-seconds to 100mph. No matter how you use the gears, 0-60 is over long before you’ve reached peak power. British roads are like a cage to the VXR500, it really needs a wide, flowing circuit to on which to be unleashed.

The question of whether supercharging the Monaro improves it is tricky to answer. Does extra chilli make a Vindaloo better, or just more memorable? 493bhp means a bigger rush than 377, but doesn’t make that rush any easier to enjoy. If it came with different gearing, perhaps a lower final drive to drop the 0-60 at the cost of that hard-to-reach top end, the VXR500 would be a true great.

As it is, it’s a muscle car of towering potential, but too compromised for me to fall in love with. I need my car to reward me even when I’m standing still. It needs to be a pleasure to look at and feel, inside and out, and not only thrill during moments of mischief. Like a hard-drinking Australian sheep-farmer turned Olympic athlete, the VXR500 is as honest and focused as anybody could ask, and makes damn good company down the pub as a mate. But a mate is all it can be. When I’ve had my fill of Fosters and return home from the pub, I’m relieved that my wife is more nuanced and well-rounded.

(All images copyright Chris Haining / Redusernab 2017. With huge thanks to Newspress for the use of the VXR500, which I spent rather longer with than they might have preferred)

  • Land Ark

    Boy would I love to get my hands on those wheels for my GTO. And the brakes too.

  • longrooffan

    Another excellent and entertaining offering Rusty. I still question GM’s decision to drop the Pontiac and Holden offerings. Someone on a whole nother pay scale made those decisions.

  • outback_ute

    Nice report Chris, good to hear you enjoyed the car. A shame that the seat wasn’t working although it doesn’t sound like you were able to get on any twisty roads where it would have been an issue – I had the same ‘problem’ (roads not seat) when I had the chance to try a 2015 HSV GTS.

    Based on the 377hp number, the Monaro VXR was based on the HSV GTO not GTS, which cost 25% more and had the 300kW/405hp Callaway built 5.7L engine. With fees and taxes your GTS would be over AUD$100k on the road, and I knew a guy who bought one.

    It is ironic that Vauxhall did this, but HSV and Holden only ever did ‘sticker packs’ to mark the end of the Coupe/Monaro production. At least they are doing a better job for the end of local Commodore production.

    • I’m glad you’re here! I know the first Monaros to come here were of the 377bhp variety, but later ones were 398, with the LS2, so yes, GTO not GTS. It all gets a bit vague to be honest as we knew them only as Monaro VXRs. Gone but not forgotten!

      • outback_ute

        Apparently something like 800 were sent over, not a lot but decent for what they were IMO. And I imagine more than the later VXR sedan.

  • Rover 1

    Not quite as rare as the HSV Coupe 4. AWD but auto only. 132 made.

    • Dang. I wouldn’t kick it out of the garage for drinking auto trans fluid.

      • Rover 1

        It is a very strong auto, it’ll take 800 hp and AWD.

        • I was just trying to find a witty way say I’d happily take an automatic to get that.