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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore ute - SS 2-dr utility

Our Opinion

We like
Attention-grabbing looks, spectacular ute acceleration, comfortable interior, price
Room for improvement
No traction control, agricultural automatic transmission

3 Aug 2001

COULD this be the bargain sports car of the year?

With its overtly sporting looks and an equipment list that includes a 225kW 5.7-litre alloy V8, six-speed manual gearbox, anti-lock brakes, 17-inch alloy wheels and a snug interior with dual airbags, air-conditioning, cruise control and part-electric driver's seat, the Holden SS ute makes spectacular buying in the mid-$30,000 bracket.

And with 460Nm of torque available to propel a kerb weight of 1620kg, this cross between a workhorse light truck and sports car never has any trouble asserting its authority on the road.

The SS ute is a vehicle that attracts attention, more than any other model in the Commodore range - apart from HSV creations - and certainly more than any other similar-size ute out there today. It is almost embarrassingly conspicuous, especially in Red Hot paint. When fitted with the optional, body colour rear hard cover, it's almost preposterous that it comes out of the factory looking the way it does.

The SS takes the clean, flowing lines of the long-wheelbase VU ute and adds things like 17-inch alloy wheels, a dropped-down suspension and a neat all-round bodykit that distances it almost unimaginably from Holden utes of the past.

Inside, it gets essentially the same treatment as the SS sedans, including a pearlescent instrument panel, body-coloured instrument faces, leather-trimmed steering wheel and gearshift, and a pair of shaped and decorated sports seats.

Altogether, this makes a combination well-suited the Australian psyche. It combines the machismo of a dressed-up Commodore V8 with the outback appeal of a workhorse utility. And if it leans noticeably more towards the urban, recreational side of the scale, well, that's a refection of what many buyers out there actually want these days.

In SS form, the pragmatic values of load space, payload and rough-and-tumble abilities play second fiddle to appearance, comfort and automotive athleticism.

Of course the payload area is fully functional - huge in fact - with the extended wheelbase and extra width of the new donor components. The hard tonneau doesn't do wonders for accessibility and limits the load height, but it's still a good look and practical in terms of providing an absolutely weatherproof load area.

It would be nice if Holden figured out an easy way of removing it for the odd times when the ute's full capacity might be needed. The optional polypropylene liner is a great way of protecting the inner tray area from scratches and dents - although there is an ominous warning about not storing fuel containers in the back due to the liner's ability to produce static electricity sparks.

If you're moved by the way this ute looks, you'll feel equally comfortable stepping inside and noting that it feels pretty much the same as an SS sedan. The seats are big and comfortable, there's plenty of space to settle into with more leg, shoulder and headroom than the previous ute, and there's more seat travel to cater for a varying range of physiques.

The nice touch of leather on steering wheel and gearshift knob helps too. You'll probably notice there's not quite as much space behind the seats as Ford's Falcon ute, but there's still enough for a bit of soft luggage and there's a decent-size lidded bin in the extended centre console as well as a deep, handy little opening in the back. And there's a luggage net behind the seats good for restraining small items.

In addition to the standard air-conditioning, remote central locking, power windows and mirrors, there's also a six-function trip computer and a radio-CD player so you're never left feeling at all short-changed.

The driving position is fine for practically everybody, with a wide range of seat adjustment, longitudinally and vertically. Powered adjustment is provided for both height and backrest inclination on the driver's side. The two-way adjustable steering wheel helps too.

Take the SS out onto the road and the muscular V8 is omnipresent. It might sound disappointing (it hisses rather than rumbles from the outside) but there's always the satisfying knowledge that 5.7 litres of V8 is always waiting in the wings to perform wonders like quickly dispatching a passing manoeuvre on the open road, or matching pace with freeway traffic on the on-ramp.

The six speeds seem somewhat redundant given the 460Nm of torque and in most cases the first five gears are more than enough. Only when you're cruising can you drop the SS ute into sixth without feeling you're under-revving it.

Mind you, the Gen III V8 has never been renowned for its ability to pull stumps at low rpm and doesn't really come into its own until a few revs are on board. The figures tend to tell the story here anyway: Maximum torque doesn't come in until 4400rpm, which is not far short of the 5200rpm at which maximum power is developed.

Still, the SS ute is always more than willing to light up the back tyres, given a little encouragement, and there are times when you wish a traction control system was part of the deal.

The six-speed shift is reasonable enough bearing in mind the engine size it's expected to deal with, but there are smoother, lighter, less truck-like six-speeders around in even more powerful vehicles - BMW's M5, for one. (Mind you, mentioning the M5 in the same breath as a Holden ute says a lot for the appeal of this car, especially when you consider there's a price gap approaching $160,000.)

The tall sixth gear obviously pays dividends in economy too, although Holden has taken a wise step by bumping fuel capacity from 63 to 70 litres, which is still barely enough if the vehicle is being used hard.

A further benefit of the tall sixth gear is that highway cruising becomes a very quiet business, aided by measures intended to make the ute as sedan-like as possible in terms of road and wind noise. There's none of the flapping and roaring from the back that was once a ute characteristic, even with the soft tonneau.

With the tied-down, all-independent suspension the ute's ride and handling are decidedly car-like, particularly with the 160kg or so of ballast Holden had dropped into the back of the test vehicle to simulate its operation with a light load on board.

Partly as a result of this, the ride in our test ute was free from the choppiness that afflicts some utes, while the steering remained slightly heavy in the typical Commodore sport chassis fashion. The SS steers accurately enough, but the driver needs to treat that throttle pedal with caution if the road is at all slippery.

But you never forget that there's a fundamental issue at work here, a definite forward weight bias that means the ute will always lose rear-wheel traction more readily than an evenly-balanced sedan. Wet, or unsealed roads must always be treated with huge respect.

Still, there's no other ute quite like the Commodore out there right now. Nothing with the same degree of passenger-oriented ride comfort, or street machine looks. And certainly nothing with 5.7 litres of screaming alloy V8 connected to a six-speed manual gearbox.

Like we said, it's a mechanical expression of the true Australian psyche.

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