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Car reviews - HSV - Maloo - R8 2-dr utility

Our Opinion

We like
It's a ute and a coupe all in one, great road presence
Room for improvement
No traction control, no rear cabin space a la Falcon ute

29 Jul 2002

THE ute tradition in Australia goes back a long way, all the way in fact to when Ford designer Lew Bandt incorporated the front half of a sedan with the rear half of a light truck to create the Coupe Utility in 1934.

Holden did not enter the market with a competitive model until 1951 when the FX-based 50-216 was released. But Holden has since established a proud tradition of two-door workhorses, right through until the WB model was discontinued at the end of 1985.

It was the last of a long line and marked the start of a half-decade without a Holden ute - in much the same way as Ford was without a V8 engine for its Falcon models during the same period.

The situation was rectified in September, 1990, when the first Commodore-based ute - the VG model - was released. A short time later Holden's performance partner, Holden Special Vehicles (HSV), released the first Maloo edition of the ute.

With a car-based front end and cabin, and a load bed out back for hauling anything and everything, the present day versions of these vehicles hold true to the original coupe utility concept - much more than their respective Ford rivals do anyway, with the Blue Oval workhorses having gone down the cab/chassis path in search of greater carrying capacity.

HSV's Maloo can also be credited with reviving the sports ute category - which faded when there were no new models for the agricultural college crowd to modify with straight-through exhausts, bullbars, spot lights, massive aerials and the usual array of VB stickers - although its price meant it was pitched at a totally different buyer to young farmhands more like self-made, blue-collar business owners and tradesman in a hurry.

At $49,450 for the Maloo and $56,450 for the R8 version, neither is exactly cheap, but there are very few other options available if you are after the unique combination of ute practicality and sports sedan performance.

The Maloo is not set up to carry much of a load in its tray - at least not in ute terms as it has less than half the capacity of its donor Holden model. But according to HSV that is what Maloo owners wanted.

They requested a high-performance vehicle with large diameter alloy wheels, grippy low profile tyres, lowered and stiffened suspension, and sports sedan-like handling.

And that's exactly what HSV has delivered to its loyal customers - the Maloo has one of the highest loyalty ratings in the HSV range - as the Maloo is remarkably ClubSport-like in the way it performs on the road.

The base package is straight from HSV's mainstream models: 255kW 5.7-litre LS1 V8 engine, six-speed manual or four-speed auto transmission, 17-inch (Maloo) or 18-inch (Maloo R8) alloy wheels and the usual interior upgrade in terms of seats, trim, instruments and equipment (audio system, trip computer, etc).

The engine and transmissions are all a well-known quantity these days with the 5.7-litre V8 lacking the low down torque of the venerable homegrown 5.0-litre V8 but compensating with a very useable, rev happy top end.

The six-speed manual is a big, heavy transmission so as to cope with the high power and torque outputs of the engine and subsequently has a fairly cumbersome shift that does not like to be rushed. Otherwise it works fine.

The four-speed GM auto, by far the most popular choice among owners, has long been a weak link for Holden V8 and HSV models despite many running improvements in recent years. Abrupt and slow shifting, and quick to downshift thanks to 'sportier' HSV calibration, it may be the best HSV can offer for some time.

As with any ute model, you are always wary of having less weight over the rear wheels than with a sedan - and when a big horsepower V8 is driving those wheels, that anxiety can be heightened somewhat.

But the reality is when you point the Maloo R8 at a winding road it behaves much like its ClubSport R8 sedan stablemate, albeit with a little less turn-in grip at the front and a little less rear end grip under power on exit. But many would be hard pressed picking the difference without mirrors.

The ride is firm, as expected of a high performance model from HSV, but without being bone jarring.

Get totally ham-fisted when it comes to throttle application, however, and you'll quickly be seeing where you have just come from when you spear of the road backwards, but that scenario is little different from most high-powered rear-wheel drive cars.

To that end, traction control would certainly be useful in wet conditions and a valuable addition all round for the extra sense of security it offers. But we'll have to wait until future iterations of the Maloo while Holden and HSV work out how to make it work effectively and efficiently in a ute application.

The difference between Maloo and its R8 sibling is similar to the ClubSport and ClubSport R8 relationship, at least from the outside - different alloy wheel size and design is the main distinguishing factor, although a hard tonneau adds a further touch of class to the R8 model, dispensing with the traditional black canvas ute cover.

While it adds a greater level of security to valuables stored in the tray area, the hard cover is very heavy to lift courtesy of its substantial size, particularly if doing it one-handed to store things like shopping bags.

Also, when the cover is wet it does not efficiently channel the water away from its forward edges, so when it is opened some water always manages to make its way into the tray area and onto any cargo stored within.

But it is on the inside that the Maloo's R8 tag does not quite justify its higher price, like it does with ClubSport. Contoured "Performance" seats are one of the few differences as the equipment package is still at the Executive-SS level.

ClubSport R8 benefits from a Berlina-level specification, making it both better equipped and therefore more desirable. If Holden and HSV could have conspired to fit the Maloo R8 with a similar spec it would have created a truly unique ute model with a level of luxury befitting its rarer status, as well as making the price hike from Holden SS ute more worthwhile.

HSV promotes the Maloo as the ultimate expression of the great Aussie ute and it's really not too far wrong. As a thoroughbred workhorse, it has had the premium ute market to itself for most of its life, until being matched by Ford during this Maloo's life by its first true rival: the XR8 Pursuit 250 Ute.

Despite the arrival of a new challenger, the Maloo remains a hotrod commercial vehicle at the top of its game, with a combination of performance and refinement that is both surprising, refreshing and highly popular.

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