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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore ute - Omega utility

Our Opinion

We like
Styling, dynamics, refinement, improved load area functionality, spaciousness, value, standard ESP, high safety and strength
Room for improvement
Only four-speeds for the auto with no Tiptronic-style function, thick B-pillar creates blind spot despite added window, Bogan image despite Ute’s newfound sophistication

25 Jan 2008

THE final quarter of 2007 proved to be a watershed period in Australia, with the changing political face giving the nation a fresh, new identity.

In the commercial vehicle world, a similar revolution has taken place.

Along with the Ford Falcon, the Holden Commodore is unique in the automotive world by offering a rear-wheel drive passenger sedan-derived two-door coupe-utility.

Arguments rage over which of the American-owned ‘locals’ invented the ‘Ute’ back in 1934, with history generally giving Ford Australia the gong.

But the latest version of the Holden – the VE Ute – hasn’t so much inched as thrusted the coupe-utility further along the evolutionary path compared to its VU-VZ predecessors (themselves somewhat more car-like than their AU/BA/BF Falcon rivals with their independent coil-spring suspension and swoopy styling).

This is all thanks to a shed-load of improvements and innovations designed to make the once-humble Holden Ute sportier, safer, comfier and more practical.

Never has there been more distance between this and a light truck, because despite its traditional coupe-utility styling, the latest Holden Ute is a two-door, two-seater passenger car with a long and integrated cargo bed out the back.

It is all part of the $1 billion global Zeta platform that Holden has been developing for General Motors, and so consequently feels, well, pretty much just like the Omega sedan that gives its name to the base model utility.

The fact that the WM Statesman/Caprice luxury car lent its longer-wheelbase platform says it all really.

The now-retired chief engineer at Holden – Tony Hyde – proclaimed that the VE is the Ute that he always wanted to make. And who are we to argue?

A handsome design (the work of a young Victorian), the VE Ute adopts the sedan’s aggressive long-bonnet silhouette, as well as the flared wheelarches, steeply raked windscreen and clean body surfaces that serve the Holden so well.

A couple of innovations lurk here – the Ute’s side panel is now a single piece running from the A-pillar to the tailgate, aiding quality and boosting “dimensional stability and repeatability” according to Holden.

This allows for a distinctive wrap-around tail-light look, while the designers have managed to conceal the tailgate’s hinges for a cleaner appearance.

Holden says that the Ute uses over 60 unique body panels.

But it isn’t all for play and no work, despite grumblings from some quarters.

Holden beefed up the rear structure with significant reinforcements to accommodate the load-bearing forces, capacity and robustness demanded from such a vehicle.

A handy heavy-duty plastic cargo liner – moulded to fit snugly – helps protect both car and cargo the floor is corrugated to allow for easy cleaning and water run-off six larger and sturdier cargo tied-down hooks have been incorporated into the sides and are far more functional in design. You gotta like that!

It’s a bit rough that the base Omega Ute tested here lacks a tonneau cover with the ‘snap lock’ clipping system. Other models get it as standard.

Moving inside, there is excellent space utilisation for both the driver and passenger to get as comfortable as they like – supported by large, enveloping seats that do their job beautifully.

You would think you are in the VE Omega sedan, so similar is the basic interior architecture, dashboard layout, centre console features, mouldings, displays, illumination colours and trim grade. There is nothing rough or ready about this Australian icon inside.

Over the old VZ Ute, there is much improved rear compartment access thanks to a quick-release seat latch on both sides.

Holden has designed in more storage space (the area behind the rear seats has expanded from 90 to 245 litres and there are two further compartments beneath the load floor), and convenience features (like MP3 audio connectivity), as well as the build quality and panel fit advances as part of the VE program.

Some of the new-to-Ute features developed for the VE sedan include a superb heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, larger and more legible instrumentation dials with Night Mode illumination, impressive Blaupunkt audio systems, a locking fuel-filler door and one-touch lane-change indicators.

And just like the sedans, the Ute suffers from too-small exterior mirrors, ill-placed power window and mirror switches (they’re down in the lower centre console rather than on the driver’s door architecture) and some flimsy plastic trim, and also introduces a frighteningly large over-shoulder blind spot that makes lane-changing a tricky affair.

Nevertheless, this may sound like a cliché, but we forgot we were driving a utility, so good is the interior experience. And the drive’s not bad at all either.

Our Omega test car was an automatic, meaning that it is the sole VE Ute variant to use the Melbourne-made LE0 3.6-litre Alloytec V6 Funnily enough, this powerplant seems to suit the Ute more than the sedan.

Delivering 180kW of power at 6000rpm and 330Nm of torque at 2600rpm, it is a no-nonsense engine that drones away innocuously but can produce the performance goods when needed.

Acceleration in this 1697kg car is quick, without the tail-out hysteria that inflicted some earlier Holden Utes. Only when exploring the upper end of the rev band did the V6 start to sound thrashy – but never really became strained.

Controversially, the Omega operates the ancient US-made 4L60E automatic transmission that has only four forward speeds and no sequential-style shift facility.

Holden Ute buyers, keep in mind that for the same dough, the manual offers six speeds and the sweeter LY7 High Output Alloytec V6 yielding 195kW at 6500rpm and 340Nm at 2600rpm.

For extra automatic ratios and Tiptronic-style connectivity you need to upgrade to the SV6 or V8 models.

On the fuel-economy front, the Omega Ute auto averaged about 13L/100km during our demanding hot city/inner-urban runs. Considering that the ADR 81/01 combined average is 11.3L/100km, this is not too bad at all.

It is especially true when you consider that the VE Ute is probably the best-handling vehicle of its type on the planet.

Check under the bonnet and you will spot the much-touted engine cradle engineered as part of the VE program.

As with the sedan, the Ute is therefore much stiffer and stronger than any of its predecessors, helping out with crash protection, quelling noise, vibration and harshness paths (the inclusion of a rubber-isolated rear suspension frame helps here too) and – most impressively – improving dynamic capabilities. This includes brakes that haul up better than before.

No Falcon-like rear leaf springs for Omega Man either.

The latest Ute also ditches the old 1970s Opel-derived independent set-up found in every Holden utility since the 2000 VU for the VE sedan’s Linear Control Suspension that is central to this vehicle’s high degree of dynamic sophistication (for a commercial vehicle).

Along with a multi-link strut and anti-roll bar-fitted front-end and forward-mounted steering rack, the Ute driver is in control of a balanced and agile handling vehicle that responds with measured and predictable confidence. As we said before, this drives like a sedan.

A huge part of the VE Ute’s impressive road behaviour is borne out of Holden’s decision to include ESP stability control as standard.

Tested globally in extreme temperature conditions, it helps to keep the vehicle in line even when the Omega Ute auto’s 794kg (manual: 775kg) payload capacity (the best throughout the range by the way) has been reached. We were extremely pleased with how sure this car drove when fully laden.

Other VE sedan program benefits that the Ute enjoys includes hydraulically damped bushes in the front suspension and rear coil-over shock absorbers and a decoupled anti-roll bar that help create high lateral stiffness for better dynamic abilities and longitudinal compliance for the benefit of ride comfort. Or, in other words, it’s a more comfy car to be in.

With less sensitivity to payload changes, the Omega Ute’s suspension is biased to higher ground clearance than the sportier set-up found in the other versions. Note also that the standard 16-inch steel wheel is an inch up from before.

After an extended period with the Omega Ute, we came away feeling more than a touch proud that this commercial vehicle is very much an evolving, Australian design icon.

Yes, there are certainly tougher light trucks out there that will out-haul the big Holden, but this is not what the VE Ute has been designed for.

In its latest guise, the compromises are so few – and the benefits so strong – that we reckon without a shadow of a doubt that the Omega Ute is far and away the best vehicle in its class on the planet.

Mind you, it’s in a class of only two, and Ford is promising some big things with the 2008 Falcon Ute.

That’s the nature of revolution for you.

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