Chris Harris’ recent Top Gear escapades in a Monaro have shone a spotlight on the forgotten Aussie coupe. Here’s how I’ve found four years of ownership
You might think a big coupe with a 5.7-litre V8 engine would be the worst financial decision a 23-year-old with a 150-mile round trip commute could make. Sure enough, I did wonder at the time whether this stupid car would sink me, or even be any good.
So why on earth did I buy a Vauxhall Monaro? Firstly, I love General Motors LS engines and the Monaro is the cheapest way into a car with an LS and a manual ‘box in the UK. Secondly, my childhood memories of Jeremy Clarkson professing his love for it on Top Gear were a factor. He proclaimed it was the spiritual successor to the 1990s supercharged Aston Martin Vantage, my childhood dream car.
As if to come full circle, Chris Harris recently shone a spotlight on the last Holden coupe in the latest series of Top Gear, prompting me to reflect on my ownership experiences. Let me take you through it:
It handles way better than expected
A big deal was made of how the 2015 Ford Mustang – the first global ‘Stang – finally ditched the live rear axle for an independent setup. At the time of its reveal, my first thought was, “Didn’t the Monaro have that ten years ago?”.
Even knowing this, I was still shocked at how capable this big Aussie brute was when I first bought one. Turn-in is relatively keen, the lateral grip is impressive, and when it does let go, it’s reassuringly progressive. At under 1700kg, it’s also lighter than the new M4. With a nice set of coilovers, a quicker steering rack, stiffened-up bushings, shorter gearing and tickling of that V8, this platform could be an E92 M3-beater. There are plans…
It’s cheap(ish) to run
A friend of mine once bought a twin-turbo Supra on a whim at an entirely inappropriate age as far as insurance companies are concerned. This was reflected in the terrifying amount of money he wound up paying to be able to drive it for that first year. When first hunting for a Monaro, I expected a similar rinsing, but cursory windowshopping on the usual comparison sites indicated I had nothing to worry about.
The Monaro is relatively unknown and not associated with young crash-happy types, so at 23 this 5.7-litre warbler could be insured fully-comp with two years no-claims bonus for about £1000 (in 2017). Add on £300 for tax (it’s pre-2006, making it cheaper) and shockingly good motorway cruising figures of 30mpg or more and you have a surprisingly cheap-to-run car. It’s a simple old nail, too, so the odd home fluid and plug swap is no trouble at all.
They’re weirdly quiet from stock
Here you go:
I’m an induction guy, bet even I found the exhaust note – with a stainless steel cat-back on my car – a touch muted. Sadly, stock Monaro LS engines are heavily restrained via the manifolds, chonky catalytic converters and silencers.
Happily, there are a number of remedies to a stock Monaro’s limited vocals that will also boost power. Tubular manifolds, sports cats or just a good old fashioned box chop can help with the exhaust sound. More budget? A cam upgrade will get you even more power, an addictive choppy sound at idle and a revvier attitude, though supporting mods are needed to make the most of the modification.
It’s a remarkably good GT car
That highway efficiency can largely be attributed to a hilariously long final drive supposedly only used on UK cars. That means the V8 sits well under 2000rpm at 70mph in sixth gear. Combine that with a simple on/off cruise control, sloppy steering rack, doughy ride, mushy chairs and low-down LS torque, and you have a certifiable mile muncher. Big distances disappear beneath you. If you’re sensible, 400 miles is easily achievable inside a healthy-sized tank of fuel.
There’s plenty of space in the cabin, even in the rear seats, and there’s a sizeable boot. The only change I’d make to this as a long-distance tourer is an improved sound system and maybe an aftermarket Android Auto-equipped head unit.
It’s rarer than you’d think
Well under 1000 Monaros remain from the small number sold in the UK between 2002 and 2006, with the split between the 5.7-litre CV8 and the 6.0-litre VXR being just about equal. That wasn’t for lack of demand, either – there were limited numbers available for each year of sale. Rust and hard usage have dropped the numbers from few to fewer. Pro drifters buy them up for the engine and gearbox, and there are numerous stories of Monaros meeting their doom at the hands of owners overestimating their oversteer skills.
Many have reached upwards of 100,000 miles thanks to that reliable and durable powertrain, so it’s slim pickings for original low mileage examples. As I understand it, Harris’ car was a 150k-miler with a sketchy history and an LPG conversion.
Luckily, I’ve ended up with one of the good ones. I’ve totally fallen for it, so much so that it’s got me reconsidering my plans to one day trade up to a newer faster Corvette. Thinking about going for one? I suggest you go for it.
Images via Ethan Jupp/Jordan Smith