The WP Cruze is a performance sedan that can double as a daily driver. Photo Gallery
Craig Duff road tests and reviews the prototype Walkinshaw Cruze.
This is the Cruze missile Holden won't admit it is working on. The Red Lion doesn't — yet — have a performance version of the small sedan, so Walkinshaw Performance has stepped up to give Holden's best-selling car a serious shot of testosterone in hatch form.
It is still refined enough to do duty as a family sedan for school pickups and shopping runs — and then go hunting hot hatches on the weekend. WP attributes Holden's engineering input on the Cruze as one of the reasons why its aftermarket tune-up was rel atively quick and easy.
"We've turned a good car into a great one without sacrificing driveability. That's down to the basic package being so good and the expertise of our own team in taking it to the next level," Walkinshaw Performance general manager Tony Harris says.
The prototype Carsguide drove is expected to cost $15,000 more than the $29,490 Sri-V donor car. That's adding 50 per cent to the price — and putting it into all-wheel drive Subaru WRX Premium territory — but shifts the Cruze into another dimension in terms of acceleration, braking and handling.
Harris says a big part of the WP Cruze's attraction is the fact it still looks like a regular sedan, rather than a pocket rocket. Harris plans to sell a graduated series of performance upgrades for the Cruze, with prices starting from around $2000. "It's like a restaurant menu," he says, "some people only want an entree, others will go for the banquet."
Long-time Walkinshaw partners the Horsepower Factory were given the task of upgrading the Cruze. Rob Vickery started by replacing the "hairdryer" turbo on the 1.4-litre engine and fitting a pair of exhausts to improve its breathing. He says the basics of the Cruze engine are fairly robust but he shortened the throw on the six-speed manual and made the gear changes more direct.
"The standard gearbox feel was a bit rubbery for a performance car, so we tried to give it a more precise feel," he notes. It is under the chassis where the real upgrades ar e, from Irmscher/Bilstein suspension parts to AP Racing brakes. There aren't many cars this side of $100,000 that sit as flat or stop as well as the WP Cruze.
At rest, the Walkinshaw's design tweaks are intentionally discreet. "It's about performance, not pose," Harris says. The WP badges are the only items on the exterior that are purely cosmetic. The car has been lowered 15mm and wheel size is up from 17 to 18 inches, the chrome Holden badge and grille surrounds have been repainted in the car's colour — white in this case — and there's a small lip spoiler and a pair of exhausts at the rear rather than the single unit on the standard Holden.
It's the same inside, where quilted inserts in the door panels and seats, along with a Walkinshaw Performance logo high on the seat back are all that distinguishes it from a conventional car.
The Cruze was already one of the safest small cars on the road, with a five-star ANCAP rating and an overall score of 35.09/37. The Walkinshaw Performance upgrades have improved that again, at least in real-world terms of how it can handle to avoid an accident — and stop before it is potentially involved in one. Early testing indicates the WP Cruze will put up from 100km/h in around 32 metres.
To paraphrase another marque, the WP Cruze is sheer driving pleasure. Torque steer — where the engine's grunt overwhelms the wheels — is the bane of high-powered front-wheel drive cars. It can barely be felt here. Ditto for understeer. Eight-inch wide rubber and the race-spec suspension have dialled all the bad traits out. There is some trade-off in low-speed ride quality compared to a "normal" Cruze, but it is nowhere near as much as Carsguide was expecting.
And that's more than compensated for by the WP's whippet-like ability to change direction at any speed, on any road camber and with absolutely nil pitching fore or aft when braking or on the gas. 2011 Australian Rally Championship runner-up Ryan Smart was on hand to help shake down the Cruze and, aside from the performance upgrades, was a big fan of the (untouched) electric steering and chassis stiffness.
Hard-edged without being too hard-core, the WP Cruze is a performance sedan that can double as a daily driver. It also highlights a gap in Holden's line-up that needs to be fixed before Opel builds a business case for its Astra OPC.
Price: $45,000 (estimate)
Warranty: provided by Walkinshaw
Engine: 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder, 180kW/310Nm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Body: 4.63m (L), 1.8m (W), 1.46m (H)
Weight: 1.4 tonnes
Thirst: Not available