March 30, 2004


Eight-cylinder engines are a powerful force for good. Remember the 1980s, when V8s were unfashionable with local manufacturers? Remember how society suffered? Remember the hair? The music? All these things are connected, people. You can’t base a society around sixes and fours without certain unpleasant consequences.

Times have changed. Holden, unlike Ford, never completely banished the V8 from its range, and now offers V8s in almost everything except the micro-sized Barina -- and mentioning that has probably inspired Holden’s next concept car.

Among various alarmist folks, however, the V8 will always cause, well, alarm (broadcaster Derryn Hinch once urged a V8 ban, apparently unaware that the Rolls-Royce he then owned was powered by, yes, a V8). So a market niche exists for what we might call the polite V8; something combining rugby league strength with a rugby union accent.

Enter the Holden Calais, pitched at the BMW-aspiring executive market. Equipped with the optional 5.7 litre 235kW V8, the Calais is tuned to conceal muscle; a single exhaust outlet deliberately mutes any tell-tale eight-cylinder rumble, in keeping with the car’s refined, non-winged, spoilerless appearance. Not that the Calais is without visual impact, an opinion supported by a young Albury drive-through bottle shop attendant I’ll call Dave:

Dave: “Mate, in a car like that, you should do some laps of Dean Street. See if you can pick up.”

Me: “You think so? But I’m almost 40 years old!”

Dave: “Doesn’t matter, mate. Let the car do the talking.”

Thanks, Dave. The Calais is more of a whisperer -- you’ll rarely wander above 2000 rpm under normal driving conditions -- but it carries a big stick. It’ll righteously stomp most anything encountered on even the briefest Hume Highway overtaking zone. Aggressive freeway driving tends to cover the lameness of the ageing four-speed auto, too, which is calibrated (in power mode) to change up at around 6000 rpm. Around town it gets a little fussy, hovering over changes and making those curious dual-clunk downshifts Commodore owners have learned to ignore.

No such complaints about the handling. The previous Calais was criticised by some as a “yank it and bank it” device; that is to say, it was better manouvered by force rather than finesse. The current machine, riding on wider tyres, and with suspension revisions all over the place, responds best to fingertip-level inputs. Gone is that awkward feeling in previous models that the car must first be “settled” into high-speed corners before proceeding.

Look, we’re talking about a $55,000-plus luxo-sport unit here, but the handling is so good, the power steering so direct, and the torque so abundant you feel you’d be easily able to steer it with your right foot, speedway-style, were it not for an overly-intrusive traction control. When activated it kicks back hard through the accelerator. Excuse me, but the driver is meant to be pushing you, Mr Grouchy Pedal. Absent any means of overriding power cuts to the rear wheels, genial understeer prevails.

Brakes the size of Bert Newton’s face make sure all this energy is easily contained. Trying to find the point at which fade begins is a fool’s errand, so I tried, several times, and couldn’t locate it. Pedal feel isn’t great, but remains unvarying.

So much for the sport side of the equation. The luxo half is where most sales will be made. Ride is brilliant, masking most of the lateral thump usually associated with low-profile wheelware. Electronically-adjustable front seats can be configured to suit all but those whose tax returns list main source of income as sideshow attraction. Standard equipment includes just about everything. Finish and fit is summarised by the German-quality sound that accompanies door closure.

Speaking of sound, that V8 roar can still be enjoyed if the windows are down and the revs are high. Think of it as an aural antidote to the ‘80s.

(Originally published in the Sunday Telegraph, March 28. Next up: the Chrysler Crossfire)

Posted by Tim Blair at March 30, 2004 05:57 PM

A barina with a V8 - hmmm, a 1.5 litre v8 - perhaps Honda could supply the technology - and it would be Blap Blap Barina :-)

Posted by: Louis at March 30, 2004 at 06:50 PM

A 1.5 litre V8? I like the way you think!

My current favourite engine configuration is the H-24, as exemplified in the 36-litre Napier Sabre built in World War II.

Posted by: EvilPundit at March 30, 2004 at 07:48 PM

Pack one up and send it over here.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at March 30, 2004 at 08:18 PM

You didn't write that review, did you?
If you did, damn your good!

Posted by: Papertiger at March 30, 2004 at 08:51 PM

What I really love about your blog Tim is just trying to translate it, " yank it and bank it " that's precious.

Posted by: t-rex418 at March 30, 2004 at 08:52 PM

Tim, don't diss the eighties. It was the golden era of heavy metal. And give me a ten year old japanese turbo six any day of the week.

Posted by: taspundit at March 30, 2004 at 09:43 PM

Great car. Great review!

Gettin' misty here, Tim. I remember when some mates and I rented an earlier Calais from Avis, to go pigshooting out at Collarenebri. Not sure which model it was, but I know it was the first one with the digital dash. We had it on 220, cruise control, almost the whole length of the Narrabri-Wee Waa road. The faster we went the better the car handled. One can only imagine how much they've improved it, by now. I'd love one! Why anyone would get one of those bland Teutonic buggies in preference to a Calais has got me buggered. Maybe some Robert Hughes-type cultural cringe thing?

Posted by: Byron_the_Aussie at March 30, 2004 at 10:03 PM

Hey, that's a Vauxhaul Omega by another name. There's a 5700cc V8 that'll fit in my car? As the Todster might say - dude!

Actually, right now I'd be grateful for the suspension revisions. As much as I appreciate the Omegod's sofa-so-good ride around town or up the motorway, going around the bends can be utterly terrifying. It never trips and falls but it always feels like it will.

Posted by: PJF at March 30, 2004 at 10:21 PM

By the look of Dean Street, Albury, all one would pick up there is depression.
Whoah, Byron! Last time I travelled the Wee Waa road it was gravel. But that was the eighties.
Imagine how PJF's Omega feels coming off the Mountain at Bathurst !

Posted by: jafa at March 30, 2004 at 11:26 PM

the Napier Sabre was a disaster- used to sieze constantly. What the fuck was wrong with the Rolls Royce Griffon? 32 litres and 16 cylinders- smoother than a ten-inch turd. (And they stole the progressive fuel injection from Daimler Benz which was why the ME109 could fly inverted and didn't engine stall on verticle climbs).
As to V8s, there hasn't been a decent bent eight buit since MOPAR went to V10s. Chevrolet is pussy iron.

Posted by: Habib at March 30, 2004 at 11:26 PM

oh and by the way- I brought out a Lotus Carlton a few years ago; it was a VH Commodore body on a Vauxhaul chassis, with a Lotus 3.4 litre twin turbo V6 and assorted other good Lotus gear; it was then the fastest 4 door sedan in the world (and embarassede so many Australian V8 muscle Commodores). V8s are fun, but there's a lot of shit out there now that makes a 350 Chev look like a Vespa.

Posted by: Habib at March 30, 2004 at 11:31 PM

Sir, you have offended my sensibilities. The 80s happened to be the last time anyone produced any music worth listening to. In fact, I suspect they outlawed (worldwide, apparently) the production of quality music at some point around 1992.

Ah, those were the days.

Posted by: monsterdog at March 31, 2004 at 12:24 AM

I've heard about australian speed enforcement. What do you need horsepower in a road car for?


Posted by: Fred at March 31, 2004 at 12:36 AM

Fortunately in the states, Ford was pretty much the last place you could get a decently priced rear wheel drive V-8 (5.0 L) in the 1980s, after Chrysler and then GM hopped on the front wheel drive bandwagon with excessive zeal. Combined with being the first U.S. automaker to dump the horrendus "box" styling in 1983 with the T-bird and Cougar, that might also explain in part why Ford was the most successful car company in the States in the 1980s (of course when the next generation of environmentally-friendly and all-too-PC execs took over Ford in the 1990s, things went straight into the dumpster...)

Posted by: John at March 31, 2004 at 12:44 AM

If your blog was "the footy show", they'd be playing that cash register noise right about now.

Posted by: Yobbo at March 31, 2004 at 01:49 AM

235KW??? Darned French measurement system... Multiply by 1000 ... divide by 746... Ah, 315 HP. Not bad. The price is a little high (~42K $US), but far less than a Bummer would cost.

We're starting to turn around. GM is starting to place V8s in their (still FWD) cars like the Bonneville GXP. The 300C is here with the New Hemi and the Magnum is about to come out (and I'll buy it when it does). Ford is trying, but their engines are too small yet; the Marauder was a big disappointment.

As long as we can avoid a Kerry presidency, we should have some really nice cars by the end of the decade.

And the state legislature just passed a bill raising the speed limit by another 5 MPH.

Posted by: Gary and the Samoyeds at March 31, 2004 at 01:59 AM

I have a .6-liter I-4 that will do 0-60 mph in 3.2 seconds. And it cost US$6,000 brand new.

Cars. {yawn}.

Posted by: Dave S. at March 31, 2004 at 03:00 AM

All those great Jags had sixes. That was a *great* engine.

Posted by: chuck at March 31, 2004 at 06:08 AM

Indeed it was, but the V12 was a greater engine. ;-)

Posted by: PJF at March 31, 2004 at 07:15 AM

Evilpundit, wacking a 308 into a Barina crossed my mind and the only place I could think of was the passenger's seat :-) Certainly not under the bonnet. Crikeys, and the suspension - eeek and the handling, would understeer like a Renault R4 which Romsey Quints reckoned handled like a drunk marshmallow.

Posted by: Louis at March 31, 2004 at 07:58 AM

Oh, I should say I tend to be in Kunnurra when the GMH lads do the hot climate tests for the units each year. Interesting cars they bring up.

Posted by: Louis at March 31, 2004 at 08:00 AM

Looks a lot like the car marketed here in the US as the latest coming of the Pontiac GTO. We knew it was Aussie built. Great rig, great ride!

Posted by: Spuds at March 31, 2004 at 10:04 AM

I couldn't give a shit sandwich whether this heap of junk is "good" or "not good". But at least the bloghead is cutting and pasting his own copy for a change.

Posted by: Miranda Divide at March 31, 2004 at 11:08 AM

Louis -- I can't believe someone here has mentioned Romsey Quints! Fantastic.

Posted by: tim at March 31, 2004 at 11:33 AM

"Holden, unlike Ford, never completely banished the V8 from its range..."

Another reason why I'm proud to be an American...

Posted by: JohnFNWayne at March 31, 2004 at 11:39 AM

Spuds: That's called the Holden Monaro over here.

Posted by: Yobbo at March 31, 2004 at 02:19 PM

Is Romsey still kicking? He must be 179 years old if he is; I remember reading him in Wheels (or was it Modern Motor?) when I was a mere motoring wanna-be in Rockhampton in the late 60's/early 70's. He was a bit of a hoot, and got to hoon around in some pretty spiffy motors.

Posted by: Habib at March 31, 2004 at 04:48 PM

The early mass production Sabres were unreliable because of poor manufacturing. Once the quality control was established they were fine.

Not that there's anything wrong with a V-8, 12 or 16 - buit since owning a couple of Subarus I've come to appreciate flat engines.

Posted by: EvilPundit at March 31, 2004 at 06:51 PM