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2008 Holden HSV GTS

Barry HaydenphotographersSteve Cropleywriter

The wacky idea that General Motors had a few years ago--use a rebadged Holden coupe from Australia to bring back the Pontiac GTO, a true American classic--might have been bold, but it was essentially half-baked. The Aussie two-door was no slouch, but it simply didn't look special enough to carry such an iconic name.

Now GM is trying again with an Australian-built Pontiac, but this time, it has a better plan and a better machine. And it won't be saddling the new arrival with an impossible reputation to live up to. Whereas the GTO was a Holden Monaro coupe that used a chassis and suspension whose bones had been around for ages, this latest effort is an all-new four-door sedan distinguished by some of the best GM family styling around. The base G8 will come with GM's 261-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 hitched to a five-speed automatic. The top-spec G8, the GT, has all the right enhancements: a 6.0-liter, aluminum-block V-8 packing 362 hp at 5700 rpm and 391 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm, the choice of six-speed manual or automatic gearboxes, a limited-slip differential, and eighteen-inch aluminum wheels with optional nineteens.

We recently had a chance to drive the Holden version of the G8 GT in England. Our HSV GTS test car featured a few additional performance enhancements--including some extra power--and the chassis tuning surely will need to be adapted for American roads, but the drive gave us an excellent idea of what to expect when Pontiac's version goes on sale in early 2008. Initial tests of this HSV have been so promising that some international automotive journalists have been mentioning it in the same breath as the hardest-charging German four-doors--the Audi S6, the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG, and even BMW's mighty M5. And it hasn't escaped their attention that these German creations cost far more than the Pontiac G8 GT (estimated at about $35,000). If it ever went away, cheap muscle is back.

Comparing the Holden with the magnificent, 500-hp, V-10-powered M5 is especially interesting: even though the Bimmer is more powerful, the HSV's superior torque helps account for the fact that the sheer grunt of the two cars feels very, very similar.

For GM, this new sedan is extremely important, too. It's the first application of an all-new chassis, suspension, and components set that GM intends to use worldwide, including underneath the next-generation Camaro due in 2009.

Pricing and grunt aside, the similarities between the new GM sedan and the M5 go even deeper. The Pontiac version is only five inches longer and two inches wider, and it's nearly identical in height. Its wheelbase is a shade longer, too, which means that, like the BMW, its footprint is generous and its engine sits well back in the car. GM claims that its front-to-rear weight distribution is very close to 50/50. Both cars use a strut-type front suspension and a multilink independent rear suspension, and both have impressive, vented disc brakes at each end.

Our Holden test car's all-black interior feels much roomier than that of a BMW 5-series or a Mercedes E-class. The driver sits low in a wraparound bucket seat that's partially upholstered in leather. The instrument cluster is straightforward, with two white-faced dials grouped under a big eyebrow, plus three smaller gauges above the center stack.

On the road, the HSV's tweaked power is predictably impressive. So is the noise it makes. There's rolling thunder, muted, from the long-legged V-8 when it's turning anywhere above 2500 rpm, and a nice grumble is audible even below that. It'll pull from 1000 rpm without protest, even in the highest gears. However, this Holden sedan's story isn't all about power and torque. Its chassis refinement supports its performance far better than the last GTO. With lots of rubber on the road, decent suspension geometry, impressive weight distribution, firm spring rates, and one of the stiffest GM sedan bodies in history, it's no surprise that the car grips and corners brilliantly, with very little roll and just a whiff of understeer. The brakes always feel light and powerful--and, wonder of wonders, the ride comfort is even pretty good.

So for now, the HSV GTS shows us that the G8 has great potential, and the performance value should make it a real standout. The Pontiac GTO from Down Under may have been strike one, but this new G8 sedan could be a home run.