Although almost impossible to imagine a decade ago, year to date sales show the small Holden Cruze outselling the traditionally popular large Commodore in Australia. The writing has been on the wall for some time, but it has taken aftermarket-tuning specialists Walkinshaw Performance to put the dots together and create a performance package for the popular small car.
Walkinshaw Performance has been in the tuning scene since 2006 and has largely involved itself with the Holden Commodore range. But unlike HSV and FPV, the smaller size of this operation has allowed it to quickly adapt to the changing environment and expand its product range beyond just the once-popular large cars.
With the announcement of the Walkinshaw Holden Cruze last week, many of our readers were wondering what you’d actually get if you added $19,995 to a price of a $29,490 Cruze Sri-V 1.4-litre manual. To find out, we got behind the wheel of the current, one-off, Walkinshaw Holden Cruze.
To get 180kW of power out of a 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine takes a great deal of work. Particularly when it started with just 103kW and 200Nm of torque. Walkinshaw has given its Cruze an extra 77kW (75 percent increase) and 110Nm of torque (55 percent increase). But is 180kW of power and 310Nm of torque worth the extra 20k asking price? No chance in hell.
Before dwelling too deep, it’s important to realise where that $19,995 actually goes and what the cost breakup is between the different modified components. There’s no doubt that for around the 50k mark (which is what the fully-featured Walking Cruze would cost you) you’re going to have a lot of choice in the hot hatch performance car space. There’s the Renault Megane RS265, Volkswagen Golf R, Volkswagen Scirocco R and a range of other performance cars from the Japanese.
Nonetheless, the all important engine upgrades do not make up the bulk of that price increase. For just $6,900 you’ll get a much larger turbo, bespoke turbo manifold, twin tip 2.0-inch exhaust system, larger fuel injectors and a retune. That’ll get you that significant power boost. So if you want to compare apples with apples, start thinking this car costs around $36,000 which puts it around the Hyundai Veloster Turbo price point and just below that of the Volkswagen Golf GTI, two popular hot hatches.
$4500 is for the AP Racing 4 pot front brakes upgrade, a worthy investment if you intend to match the uprated performance with stopping power. $4,000 will get you the 18-inch Irmscher wheels and Toyo Proxes T1 Sport tyres (235/40), $3000 goes into the German built Bilstein front and rear suspension system and $1,600 pays for the improved leather trim on the inside. Put all that together and it better explains the 20k price increase.
As of last week, 32 buyers have already put their hand up to take the full $19,995 kit. So there’s certainly no shortage of interest in this car, regardless of price point.
When the Walkinshaw Holden Cruze arrived in our Sydney office, the editorial team quickly ran outside to inspect. Our test car was wrapped in white and did very little to hide its credentials. Walkinshaw had gone to the trouble of painting nearly all-exterior details white. That included the Holden logo, wheels and foglight surrounds. On the looks side, it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea and you can comment on it as you will, but none of it is mandatory and absolutely not essential. In fact, it’s not even included in the price tag.
Although our test car was a manual, Walkinshaw says it can also provide the same power upgrades for the six-speed automatic 1.4-litre turbo Cruze. The manual gearbox and its accompanying clutch remain largely unchanged, but the distance between gears has been reduced so you can quickly shuffle through the six gears.
First impressions? Where’s the 180kW! Although it’s clearly more powerful than the standard Cruze, it’s hard to feel all those extra kW and Nm straight off the bat. Walkinshaw says its Cruze can go from 0-100km/h in 6.6 seconds, which felt somewhat achievable. It took us a bit of time before we could come to understand its character and power delivery range. Unlike the standard 1.4-litre turbo which is largely tuned for economy and hence delivers its might down low in the RPM range, the bigger turbo has created a rather significant lag before the boost comes on.
It’s only around the 4,000 RPM point that you feel the full might of Walkinshaw’s work. That means you’ll have all of 2,500 RPM left before the Cruze hits is rev limiter and you have to shift up. In first and second gear, that becomes a bit of a nuisance, as the boost sensation is short lived but highly desirable. Around the twisty mountainous roads of Akuna Bay, we found ourselves changing between second and third gear constantly to extract maximum performance.
Second gear is brutal if you keep it in the right rev range but unless you’re flat-out, shifting up to third will mean you’ll have to work to get it back in the right zone. If the boost came on even 500rpm lower, it would noticeably improve the car’s driving capabilities.
Meanwhile, torque-steer is (surprisingly) largely absent. This is mainly due to the late arrival of boost and good suspension setup. As a result, it’s very easy to drive the tuned Cruze around town and although you’ll have to get to 4,000 RPM before the party starts, power still comes on progressively, which all but eliminates sudden torque-steer.
On those same roads we felt the Bilstein suspension upgrades a tad unsettling. Although the Walkinshaw Cruze sits very flat with absolutely no sign of body-roll, the harder suspension seems to take its time to settle and you’ll feel even the smallest of bumps. Then again, this is an after-market performance tuned hot hatch, if it didn’t have a hard ride, there’d be something wrong.
The AP racing brakes are top notch and despite almost two hours of heavy testing, they never missed a beat. A worthy upgrade for $4,000 asking price.
The biggest setback of the Walkinshaw Cruze is simply a problem with the standard Cruze, now amplified. Unlike the rest of the range, 1.4-litre turbo models make use of electric power steering (instead of a hydraulic system) that is lifeless at the best of times.
As mentioned in our Holden Cruze review, the steering itself is not an issue if you spend a lot of time in suburbia and treat your car as a means to get from A to B. However, when you’ve strapped 180kW to the wheels and find yourself tackling hard corner after harder corner in a spirited drive, it’s not an overly enjoyable experience. There’s almost no feel through the steering wheel and even if you were understeering, your only hope of knowing it would be the tyre sound and direction of the car.
The folks at Walkinshaw have not modified the steering system and although one can’t blame them for an inherent underlying issue with the Cruze itself, it’s obvious the electric power steering was not tuned for a hot hatch.
In saying all that, once you get a long stretch of road to unwind its might, the power and torque delivery of the Walkinshaw Cruze becomes smoother, more consistent and easier to extract. The setup of the Walkinshaw Cruze is better suited to the long smooth roads than to the winding mountainous roads that some hot hatches crave for. It’s also important to note that our test vehicle was a prototype and still undergoing final stages of tuning, which may further improve linear power delivery and ride.
The point of the Walkinshaw Holden Cruze isn’t necessarily to sell thousands of the 20k upgrade kits per year. It’s mainly to emphasis the credentials of Walkinshaw Performance and its ability to tune the popular small car. Most would be more than happy with the engine and brake upgrade, leaving the rest stock. Walkinshaw recommends that with the engine upgrade, customers also get the suspension and wheels package. Perhaps the most popular choice will be the $1,195 ECU-only tune that will boost power and torque by around ten percent.
What is obvious to us after our time behind the wheel of the Walkinshaw Holden Cruze, is that the performance company has big ambitions and the technical ability to meet them. It’s likely to expand its range further into other Holden products and given it has no direct link to any one manufacturer, it may even expand its portfolio horizontally.