Attraction that hasn’t faded

AutoTrader NZ
Published 3 September 2020

First printed in Auto Trader Magazine, May 20, 2004.

Familiarity can do strange things to the way you perceive objects.

If something’s been around a long while, you can become somewhat blase about it. You still appreciate it, but it becomes a little old-hat, a little well, yeah, it’s okay, but…

I had become that way about Holden’s Monaro, the new one not the 1960s/1970s icon.

When it first arrived motoring writers were almost all caught up in the rush of enthusiasm for it. Unveiled at the 2001 Sydney Motor Show, the two-door, Commodore-based coupe looked stunning.

Later when we drove it on Queensland’s Gold Coast it looked even more stunning and Australians of all ages and both genders were equally agog. Holden almost certainly had a hit on its hands.

In New Zealand the car attracted real attention. People stopped for a gawk and a talk when they spotted you standing near the car; gas stations where the word service had long been forgotten suddenly became populated by staff who almost fought for the right to fill the Monaro’s tank.

As I was finishing up a photo shoot of the initial bright yellow test car north of Auckland a cruising police highway patrol car swished by twice and then followed me for several law-abiding, 90km/h kilometres before peeling off in search of prey.

That was the sort of impact the Monaro had in the first few months on sale.

But two-plus years down the track I was getting ho-hum about Holden’s coupe, the car that got General Motors USA’s product guru Bob Lutz so excited that he got it re-engineered and turned into a new incarnation of the Pontiac GTO muscle car.

Nice, but getting too common; and I’m always suspicious when cars turn up a special prizes on Lotto.

The Series II Monaro never made it here. Holden was too busy selling off the Series I, retailing not far short of 500 in a year. Holden Australia also sent unsold Series Is here when the second generation was launched, so dealers had them to sell, and the Series II simply missed the NZ market.

The Series III snuck in almost unannounced. It picked up suspension and other improvements that debuted on the Series II.

But it’s not easy to differentiate a Series I from either of its successors: colour range, wheel styles, stuff a true aficionado will know.

The car still looks the same, still lacks – rightly – the bootlid spoiler some dealers and buyers insist on adding to the car.

The Monaro doesn’t need the spoiler, looks just great without it.

A Series III came our way for test recently, an extended test by the usual standard. We had the car for 10 days which turned out to be at least 1000 short of the time we’d have liked to have had the car.

Quite simply we had forgotten how good the Monaro is. Not only in the way it goes but in the way it looks. It’s little wonder so tough a critic as Bob Lutz fell in love with the Mike Simcoe-syled coupe and its blend of Chevy V8 power, superbly-tuned handling, and agility that wouldn’t shame a lightweight sports car.

The test car was in a striking shade Holden calls Impulse blue and it showed off the car’s superb lines perfectly.

It was especially effective from the rear three-quarters and it emphasised the elegant sweep of the roofline from the sharply-raked windscreen to the fastback rear screen.

The interior was accented in blue and black. Now blue and black leather seats sound garish.

But in the flesh, so to speak, they look just fine.

There’s good front seat room and the individual, bolstered bucket rear seats hold two passengers securely and comfortably, though taller occupants might like a little more headroom.

The front seats are sports-style buckets but both I and the regular passenger felt they could have offered a bit more lateral support during hard cornering.

The leather-wrapped steering is nicely-sized and nice to use with a chunky – though not too chunky – rim.

The 245kW 5.7-litre V8’s burble is muted but satisfying and its punch exhilarating. I have colleagues who swear by turbo sixes or Holden’s supercharged V6 but give me a V8 any day.

The V8’s fuel penalty is negligible but its aural and tactile delight can’t be matched.

The test car came with Holden’s smooth four-speed auto which would always be our choice over the six-speed manual. The auto is much more user-friendly for commuting – where the heavyish clutch and slow, notchy manual gearshifts can be a pain in the neck. The auto box also eliminates driveline shunt in stop/start traffic.

It can also be manually-shifted, quickly and smoothly, on winding roads when you want to hold lower ratios.

The only place the manual beats it in our estimation is when you slam the box into second gear on the way out of a tight corner and nail the throttle. The manual car snarls and writhes like a partially-tamed tiger, hurling the car forward as the 465Nm shatters its shackles. The auto gearbox car just can’t achieve the same sense of raw power.

Monaro handling is superb, noticeably sharper than equivalent Commodores’. It turns-in to corners directly and crisply and will change direction on a constantly winding road with precision and crispness.

The traction control keeps the rear end in check even on wet roads though it makes a nuisance of itself – and progress jerky – on gravel where it intervenes too much.

Much of that handling crispness results from the Monaro’s incredibly-stiff body/chassis.

The car has just done very well in Australian crash tests. There’s the usual comprehensive Holden array of safety equipment including airbags, ABS braking system – allied to very effective brakes – and well-engineered chassis and driving dynamics.

The ride is firm – firmer than we remember from the Series I – and was judged too firm by our regular passenger. She felt things got better and more bearable at speed.

There’s an argument you’ll hear that people who can afford a car like the $76,900 Monaro (both models, six-speed manual or four-speed auto are the same price) don’t really car about the cost of filling its 75-litre petrol tank. Maybe, but the argument is usually offered to excuse the big, 1660kg coupe’s thirst.

And it can be thirsty if you use all the power and every inch of throttle travel. The worst we saw from the Monaro during 10 days and well over 1000km was 18 litres per 100 kilometres when we were pressing on.

But balance that against 10.4 litres/100km on a long motorway run on which we kept the analogue speedometer’s needle smack on 100km/h, the throttle opening light but the average speed still around 96km/h.

Overall we managed around 12.5 litres/100km and 11.4 on a long country trip.

And we don’t think that’s bad. It’s not an awful lot worse than our 1.8-litre automatic Toyota Corona manages.

The Monaro is just as appealing and just as fresh-feeling almost three years after its launch.

It stands as one of the best products ever to come from the Australian automotive industry and has an appeal and style that won’t diminish with time.

Story by Mike Stock. Photographs by Holden.