Wide-open throttle - HSV GTS

We couldn't have been less prepared. No spare parts, no bull bar, not even a jerry can of water. We did have an ETAG and a 1996 road atlas, though.


And most importantly we had an HSV GTS complete with updated 6.2-litre V8 engine, a fuel card and the job of delivering the car from Adelaide to Perth, 2700km away, by Sunday afternoon. It was Friday morning.

This says two things. First, yours truly and my travel companion, photographer Cristian Brunelli, are dills. Second, the task of crossing the Nullarbor isn't the adventure it once was.

Our trip west came off the back of a two-day drive from Melbourne to compare, performance test, dyno test and photograph the HSV and its new FG Falcon-based opposition, the FPV GT.

Figures, photos and a verdict obtained, the GT was literally and metaphorically sent packing home via the Western Highway. Cristian and I instead faced the trek northward to Port Augusta and then west on Highway One.

It was an inauspicious start. Planning to start at 6am, we left exactly on schedule at 9.30am and immediately took the wrong road. Clear of Adelaide's northern suburbs by 11am we trickled along the flat freeway in sixth gear at 115km/h, the tacho needle barely off the peg.

Boredom was already setting in by the time we reached Snowtown, a fly speck on the map but made famous because eight murder victims were found there rotting in barrels of acid. We grabbed a pie, a drink, a choccy bar and quickly kept moving.

By mid-afternoon we hit Port Augusta and the car had its first refuel. We had travelled with the magnificent lower Flinders Ranges on our right and the Spencer Gulf, often out of sight, to our left. The GTS was performing beautifully, its luxurious power and massive torque enabling us to dispense easily with slower traffic.
Mind you, the throttle wasn't getting pressed too heavily too often. South Australia has a 110km/h limit and while previous experience had told us at least some SA coppers are good blokes there was no way they'd turn a blind eye to a low-flying V8 silver bullet.

The mild treatment of the loud pedal meant an almost impressive 12.1L/100km fuel consumption result for the big fella after the first refill. Other calculations weren't so positive. We still had more than 450km to trundle across the top of Eyre Peninsula before we reached Ceduna, the last major town before the real Nullarbor running began.

But to keep to any sort of schedule we had to go another 150km beyond that tonight to the Nundroo roadhouse. It would mean driving in the dark on a road infested with wildlife - as the ever-present roadkill kept reminding us.

From Port Augusta the highway sweeps in a slightly southward arc. First it passes the rather unfortunately (yet accurately) named Iron Knob where the land is parched red and dotted with salt bushes.

Yet, progressing westward through hamlets like Kimba, Koongawa, Kyancutta and Minnipa it becomes more pastoral and healthy. Those skyscrapers of the bush, the wheat silos, warn us of each town's proximity.

Long hours on cruise control are absorbed by minutiae, conversations and silliness. We resolve to wave at all oncoming vehicles; I challenge Cristian to a beard-growing contest, he seems unenthused. We work our way through various topics - cars, mountain bikes, Pearl Jam (all mutual addictions) - and then long, rambling conversations about life, the universe and everything.

It's literally on show by the time we reach Ceduna, the last purple vestiges of sundown giving way to a spectacularly clear, black night sky. It's pressing in as we park up on the wharf for happy snaps. Various inebriated locals wander over from the pub for a look. "Washam Fazzum, huh?" one says. "Taking photos," replies Cristian obviously. Satisfied, old mate wanders off into the gloom.

The second refuel of the trip is due before we too depart for the darkness. The GTS has notched up 12.1L/100km again. Surely, an HSV has never swallowed so much fuel for so little of its performance to be tapped. However, there is now finally a complaint; my arse is getting sore.

Our fuel economy increases as we strike out for Penong and Nundroo. At 90km/h the trip computer predicts a dieselesque 720km range. We're paranoid about errant kangaroos and other wandering wildlife, evidence of previous collisions littering the roadside.

When we can use high-beam we feel quite safe as both the length and width of the beam is good, aided by the wide throw of the foglights. But when a car is coming the other way or we get passed, the flick to low beam causes a worrying black patch to form just in front of the bonnet.

But we make it to Nundroo. If you've never seen a Nullarbor roadhouse then just imagine an oversized service station that includes a restaurant - of sorts - and motel - once more, of sorts. There are variations from one to another in detail and cleanliness, but the theme remains the same. Harry Seidler they're not.

But after 942.2km, 10.12 hours and 112 litres of fuel, welcome it is. Brunelli is struck by our host's likeness to the actor Bill Murray. I can't see it, but the bloke would probably understand the concept of Murray's movie Groundhog Day, where he repeats the same day over and over. Out at Nundroo the experience would be pretty repetitive. Hope he's making a buck.

Judging by the prices charged for the beer, steak and ice-cream he's doing okay. And then there's $90 for a room that does a good impersonation of a shonky cardboard box. At least there's a hot shower, a TV and a bed. And it's time to hit the latter considering there's still 1800km to go.

Planning to leave at 6am Saturday we depart right on schedule at 7.30am. The sign says 1053km to Norseman, our intended destination tonight. The distance is almost overwhelming. How do truckies do it each week? I'd go mad.

We stop for some photography on this eerily beautiful morning. It's not true desert, instead there is fog wending through bush and gum trees. The sun is over the horizon, the last pinkness evaporating. In the distance a bird cries 'Faaaarrrkkk'. I'm thinking the same thing.

It's my guts that are making incomprehensible noises after breakfast at the Nullarbor roadhouse. Something toxic is congealing in there. The coffee is undrinkable so it's going to stay in there for a while.

A few kays further on, the road swings to the Southern Ocean's edge. We stop at one of the lookouts to take in the immensity. You can see time etched into the cliff-edges of this ancient continent, the waves rolling quite gently into the rocks hundreds of feet below.

Among the usual "Wozza was here '07" graffiti on a rubbish bin near the car park, a fresh message in black texta reads "Marron Family + Teddy 21/4/08 Cranbourne Vic To Port Hedland New Life". It's a real Grapes of Wrath moment.

The heartbreak and hope is palpable. I hope they made it and they are enjoying a happy and successful fresh start.

Soon the WA border is breached successfully, after declaring we are honey, fruit and vegetable-free. There's certainly nothing like that in our troubled guts. The HSV's windows are being lowered regularly.

At Eucla we drop off the escarpment and for ages we chug along a plain, desert to our left and treed, rocky hills rising to our right. It's possible to see the trucks coming for miles, rectangular ships of the desert seemingly moving ever quicker as they get closer, pushing a bow wave that rocks us each time they go past.
Resolutely, we continue to wave at all traffic and average about a 50 percent response rate.

Madura, Cocklebiddy, Caiguna. Slowly we account for one settlement after another. Each is a highlight we anticipate for hours; each is behind us in seconds. Between Caiguna and Balladonia is the longest piece of straight road on the planet, all 146.6km of it. That's what passes for excitement out here.

More thrilling are the black eagles that we have occasionally seen feeding on the fresher roadkills. They've watched us more than once drive slowly up, then taken slowly to flight, flapping their magnificent wings and eyeing us balefully.

Now we're into darkness and determined not to add to the road toll - human or animal. Again, it's slow cruising at 90km/h, cursing every car heading east, forcing the flick to the uncertainty of low-beam.

But again we survive. We reach the town of Norseman. Today we've travelled 1097km in 11hr 47min, consuming 131 litres of fuel.

Our overnight digs appears to have seen better days judging by the busted flywire and large collection of cats. But the beers and ice cream are cold and the steak is well cooked. The room is clean and the water is hot. On TV Richmond are playing the Doggies and it ends up a draw. After the siren Tiger Jack Riewoldt gets a shot at a goal for the win but falls short. So near yet so far. I know how he feels.

The next day's travel is a relatively piffling 724km to Perth. The plan is to depart at 7am. Right on schedule we leave at 8.30am.

We've also left Highway One for the Great Eastern Highway north toward Kalgoorlie, before the final swing west. We've been warned this first stretch is the worst of the whole trip for roadkill. But there's nothing either alive or dead on this road this morning. Cristian theorises overnight rain has meant the 'roos haven't had to cross the road to get to water. Whatever, we're thankful.

Evidence of the resources boom is everywhere. There are turn-offs to mines, heavy-duty machinery being transported on the backs of trucks and long trains headed east loaded down with ore.

We catch a heavy, wide load. It's a diesel locomotive on the back of a truck.

"A road train," observes Brunelli. Funny.

Things are happening more frequently now. More cars, more houses, more variety to the countryside. There's even a yellow cornering advisory sign - albeit for 90km/h. It's been so long since I've had to contend with this challenge I accidentally press the brake instead of the clutch and fluff the gearchange.

The car is now entering our consciousness again after being almost invisible on the Nullarbor straights. As we head through Merredin, Kellerberren and Northam the road is getting hillier and rougher. It feels nice to turn the steering wheel. It feels good to start getting back in sync with the pedals and shifter. The engine reawakens, ready to give immensely in an instant. But the ride is struggling, even in the MRC's more compliant 'Performance' mode. That says much about how smooth those long, flat roads were, way out there.

We pop over a hill and we're in suburban Perth. Just like that. The skyscrapers of the city are visible in the distance. There's no particular feeling of accomplishment, though, more relief. With a few hours before our flight home there's time to head to Kings Park for the ritual last-scene shot. It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon and there are plenty of people about, but we jag a spot. They must be wondering what two stubbled blokes are doing photographing this
filthy car.

We head back down the hill for the airport and straight into a traffic jam. Jeez, it seems surreal after three days of open space. Love those red lights too. All of a sudden Bill Murray's life at Nundroo grows a tiny fragment of appeal.

One job remains and that's the final refuel. We've travelled 2767km in 29 hours and 49 minutes of driving time, consuming 329 litres of petrol. That's an overall average of 11.6L/100km. The car hasn't missed a beat. It's ready to drive straight back to Melbourne.

But we're not. It's the plane home for us. A four-hour flight with a beer and movie thrown in. Four hours versus three days? Like I said, dills.

THE CAR
April 2008's update of the HSV E Series V8 range, from 6.0-litre LS2 to 6.2-litre LS3 engine, has been extensively covered in Wheels: this GTS defeated the FG FPV GT in June and was bested by the turbocharged F6 in July.

Compared to the LS2, the LS3 adds 195cc (taking capacity to 6162cc) courtesy of a 1.6mm increase in cylinder bore to 103.2mm. Stroke remains unchanged at 92.0mm.

Along with that comes new pistons, a higher-flow intake manifold and exhaust ports, larger-diameter (hollow) inlet valves and a higher-lift camshaft with revised timing. Chuck in a higher compression ratio and 98RON fuel and the LS3 powers up a seemingly inconsequential 10kW to 317kW at 6000rpm. Torque remains at 550Nm, albeit delivered 200rpm higher, at 4600rpm.

Outside the engine bay, changes across the range were limited to stuff like an oil cooler for the optional automatic transmission and new 20-inch rims that are a no-cost option on GTS, but $2500 on other models.

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