IT’S DIFFERENT, that’s for certain. When HSV released the first pics of its restyled E Series 2 range of sedans and utes, opinions on internet forums were sharply divided about HSV’s new design direction. It’s easy to see why. Compared to the line-up it replaces, HSV’s E Series 2 range is bolder and far less likely to be confused with garden-variety Commodores. It’s also a bit… well… radical. With entirely new bumpers, chunky styling and bright LED daytime running lamps, it is much less subtle than some we’ve seen in years past from HSV. Ask a teenager to draw a performance sedan, and odds are he’d sketch something similar to this. But pictures alone don’t tell the full story. So, when HSV threw the keys to a brand-new Clubsport R8 TMR’s way, we weren’t going to argue. Some long hours of quality time behind the wheel gave us the chance for a good ‘first look’ at the Melbourne-based company’s newest product. When we picked up our R8 from HSV’s Clayton headquarters, it was instantly apparent that the E2 looks much better ‘in the flesh’. The new bodywork looks a lot less boy-racerish and adds a substantial dollop of visual menace to the R8’s front. The LED light strips are nicely integrated into the puffed-out ‘cheeks’ of the front bumper and the upper grilles appear larger thanks to black trim pieces on the bonnet’s leading edge. However that twin-nostriled bonnet (the same as that used by the Pontiac G8) is perhaps a bit overdone, the non-functional ‘vents’ being one visual element too many. According to these eyes, things don’t quite work around the R8’s rump. The thick horizontal bars on the corners of the rear bumper are too hard-edged to be pleasing, and the black graphic that ties the chunky exhaust outlets together is a bit heavy. Our tester was fitted with the SV Enhanced performance pack, which, among other things, brought with it some external badging and a set of 20-inch alloy wheels with a design nicked from the outgoing R8’s options list. The wheels, with their deep spokes and polished edges, have an aggressive look and nicely complement the rest of the car. Interestingly though, a few curious bystanders didn’t entirely approve of the R8’s rolling stock. Opinions were also mixed about the bodywork. The general consensus was that the new bumpers and detailing looked much better in real life than on a computer screen, but more than a handful of people thought the outgoing R8 was the more handsome model. So, the looks are polarizing, to say the least. But what of the driving experience? The changes to HSV’s sedan range have not just been cosmetic. The new car has come in for its share of mechanical tweaks to complement its purposeful new lines. Key among these is the addition of a “Competitive Mode” to the E2’s electronic stability control system. This feeds out a little slack and enables greater yaw angles and more wheel slip than the regular ESC program before reining things in. Translation: it gets sideways, but not too sideways. Accessed by a quick stab of the centre console-mounted ESC button (holding it for five seconds fully deactivates the system), Competitive Mode is the perfect tonic for drivers who’ve never been confident about holding a powerslide. On a racetrack, it also aids laptimes by delaying the power-sapping intervention of traction control and ESC. Fully deactivated, the R8 is as strong a handler as it ever was. Our car also had the optional performance suspension fitted, which provides a slightly firmer ride. The E2’s well-tuned chassis dynamics however, and the linear power delivery of its LS3 engine, make attacking corners a delight. There’s another electronic aid that’s been added to the E2. All manual-equipped models now come with launch control as standard, making consistent drag-strip launches a cinch. With ESC in Competitive Mode, the clutch pedal fully depressed and first gear slotted in, the car’s ECU pegs engine revs to 4600rpm when the driver floors the accelerator. Side-step the clutch and the car launches smartly off the line, albeit with a generous amount of wheelspin. In fact, it seems launch control produces too much tyre-melting wheelspin. We’ve got a hunch that faster launches are possible with more delicate footwork. Still, if the ability to pop noisy peel-outs with (very) little effort rates highly with you, odds are you’ll love HSV’s Intelligent Launch Control system. The Clubsport R8’s LS3 V8 engine carries over from the old model, with output remaining a stout 317kW and 550Nm. It’s a grunty thing - and we’ve raved about its virtues before - but it’s a slight pity the Clubbie misses out on the 325kW LS3 used by the range-topping HSV GTS. It does sound fantastic though. The R8 we tested came fitted with HSV’s Bimodal exhaust system (part of the SV Enhanced package), and when that bypass valve opens in the rear muffler the R8’s LS3 sounds truly glorious. With the throttle pinned, the R8’s note quickly changes from its regular muscle car beat to a full-blooded bellow – a roar that is felt as much as it is heard. If you don’t warm to the looks, you’ll definitely appreciate the sound. In fact, we neglected to turn on the radio during much of our time with the E2 Clubsport. Such was the intoxicating appeal of the car’s soundtrack. We also forgot to test the Extended Cruise Control system, which now controls braking as well as acceleration – a potential license-saver. On the inside however, there’s not much that’s terribly new about the R8. The interior is virtually identical to the last-gen model, and it’s a sea of black plastic, black headliner and (in our car’s case) black leather. So, after our first experience with HSV’s updated range, it’s safe to say that it’s different… but not. The styling is an obvious departure from the more conventional E Series models and there are a number of performance-enhancing additions beneath the skin. But, it has to be said, the overall experience hasn’t changed much. That’s no bad thing though, this ‘Clubbie” is a monster when you open the taps. The styling may be radically altered, but do yourself a favour and check one out in person before you decide whether it’s hot or not. Some will love it and others will hate it. However, having spent some time in the saddle, we’re confident that most will approve of the new body once they scope it with their own eyes. Our first impression of the HSV E Series 2 has been a positive one, and we like what we see. We’ll be bringing you a comprehensive test of HSV’s new line-up soon, so stay tuned.