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Holden aims for car quality with ute

Stylish load carriers: The Holden VU utility S and SS boast performance, carrying performance and good looks.

With the VU, Holden set out to build a ute that behaves like a car. We look at the range in detail

14 Dec 2000

HOLDEN is offering three variations on the VU Ute - the base model simply called Ute, the S and the rorty V8-powered SS.

Just like the VS it replaces, the S is the only car in the range available with both V6 and V8 engine choices.

It and the Ute are offered standard with a five-speed manual gearbox, but also offer the option of a four-speed automatic.

The SS gets the choice of six-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

Ute THE workhorse of the family has the highest pay-load at 780kg in manual form and 830kg as an auto, up 18 per cent on VS It also benefits the most in terms of equipment compared to its predecessor. Additional kit includes body-coloured front bumper and door handles, tachometer, CD player, trip computer, centre console cupholders and storage box, luggage net, rear window demister and eight load area tie-down hooks.

Safety has been improved with the addition of a driver's airbag and seatbelt pretensioners. Holden claims the Ute offers around $2000 worth of features for an additional $1150.

S HOLDEN says the S is primarily driven by more image-conscious tradesmen who need a ute with more show.

In addition to the gear listed above, the S also has 16-inch alloy wheels, chrome exhaust extension and the new flush fit soft tonneau cover.

Inside there are power windows, electric driver's seat height and tilt adjuster, and steering wheel audio controls.

Holden claims the S adds over $3400 of features for only $2300.

The S can also be optioned with the Gen III V8 engine but you pay through the nose for it as a $6830 option on the manual and $6120 option on the automatic, including compulsory air-conditioning.

On the old car, the swap to the Aussie-built 5.0-litre V8 was $2840.

SS HOLDEN is calling this the new model in the range, although there has been a VSIII version of the SS around in limited edition form.

The VU SS is unique in the range in coming standard with the 225kW Gen III V8, anti-lock braking (ABS), sports suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels, power antenna, and front fog lamps and lower body kit from the SS sedan.

Inside there are standard air-conditioning and passenger airbag, the sports interior from the VX SS sedan, with leather steering wheel and hand-brake, sports seats and the colour-coded instrument panel and instrument cluster.

Incidentally, the old SS was $34,290 for the manual, or $34,990 for the auto. The VU is $36,490 with either transmission choice.

Development HOLDEN'S new VU ute is the result of a an extensive $30 million, three-year, 800,000km development program.

Like its predecessor, the VS, the VU is based on a monocoque construction and sits on a donor Commodore wagon platform, but from there they deviate in concept. Holden's plan was always to make the VU more car-like than the old ute.

The VU employs the VT/VX wagon platform and wheelbase because Holden wanted more payload capability than the VS - up as much as 18 per cent - and load floor dimensions large enough for a standard pallet and building sheet.

But using the VX means the ute also gets its semi-trailling arm independent rear suspension - and IRS on VU is a first for any commercial vehicle in the world, according to Holden.

That's far from all that is shared of course. The VU's body forward of the B-pillar is fundamentally identical to the VX sedan.

But it still has 81 major new body components, including new B-pillars, the seat back assembly and load compartment framework strengthened and reinforced to handle higher payloads. It supports a heavy duty fully galvanised steel load compartment.

The B-pillars are high-strength components integrated into the side assembly to achieve structural, safety and integrated design requirements.

Structural stiffness increases by almost 30 per cent over the VS ute it replaces.

And while the rear suspension is shared with VX, again there are changes made to address the utility's different requirements.

Lane change behaviour at curb and gross vehicle weight (GVW) were high priorities and targets were achieved by changing the roll couple distribution front to rear increasing the wheel width of the entry level model and developing a unique tyre for the entry level model refining front and rear axle tyre pressures reducing the rear wheel rate at GVW and increasing rear suspension compression travel.

To ensure durability, rear suspension cross-members and semi-trailing arms, and the shock absorber lower bush have been upgraded. The front suspension is based on the VX MacPherson strut system.

The S Ute differs by being fitted with larger 16 x 7 wheels and 225/55 R16 Bridgestone Turanza tyres. The SS Ute has a unique suspension with a lower trim height and new rear spring. Front suspension is based on the sports FE2 sedan set-up.

The braking system and optional anti-lock brakes (ABS) have been tailored to suit VU. The system includes an all-new load sensing brake proportioning device.

This has been specifically designed and calibrated to suit IRS, and it provides optimum front to rear braking balance for the varying load conditions.

While the safety story is similar to VX, sharing the same front structure designed for 'soft pulse' crash energy management, additional structure has been added behind the front wheels to manage severe, narrow offset crashes.

Holden claims the Ute offers passenger car levels of refinement. During freeway cruising, the noise level in the VU utility is 67dBA, compared to 72 dBA in the previous VS model.

This has been achieved through structural improvements, such as the stiffer lower back panel, new interior trim with high damping and by the relocation of cabin air extraction vents to floor level.

Powertrain changes also made a contribution to VU's increased refinement, particularly the rubber coupling propshaft that reduces high and low frequency noise levels.

The V6 and V8 engines and manual and automatic transmissions remain unchanged from the VX.

The tonneau cover was developed in a wind tunnel to further reduce cabin noise levels.

Drive impressions Ute (V6 auto) WITH its steel wheels and black-painted mirrors and side skirts, there is no mistaking the Ute's place in the pecking order.

And it is reinforced when you get into the car with no height adjustment for the driver's seat and no power windows.

The interior feel is more sombre and utilitarian as well.

This is understandable when you consider the intended purpose.

Nevertheless, the interior is familiarly Commodore, which means height and reach adjustability of the steering wheel, legible instrumentation, big buttons and dials for the radio and stereo, and armchair-like seats.

Space in the cabin is an issue, with only limited storage spots aside from the lockable glove-box. The Falcon scores points here.

Understandably, the drive experience was the most basic of the three cars.

Despite the transmission recalibration and sound-deadening improvements passed on from the VX Commodore upgrade, the Ecotec V6 still wheezes, gasps and vibrates when pushed along.

The transmission still is not quick enough to respond when looking for revs either, which means short, sharp overtaking moves are a challenge - particularly in hilly terrain. It would not improve with a load onboard either.

The ride is the highlight of the dynamic package - perhaps unsurprising considering this is the sedan's greatest strength as well - with most bumps and corrugations dealt with in a fuss-free manner. Grip levels are pretty high too, although it does get some bodyroll going.

The rear-end is commendably hard to dislodge even on corrugated dirt roads and when it does let go, it does so predictably - a far cry from some of the leaf spring and coil rear-ends we have sampled on utes - and sedans! The weakest points are probably the 205/65 tyres mounted on 15x7-inch wheels, which seem to transmit plenty of noise into the cabin.

The brakes lacked for feel as well, although they remained consistent without any serious fade.

S (V6 manual) THE S misses out on the sedan's front-end dress-up kit, having to make do with the standard VX look, although it does get the new slim-line tonneau, complete with clever snap-on system that works very well once you figure it out.

With bigger 225/65 tyres mounted on 16x7- inch wheels and the 152kW Ecotec V6 liberated by a surprisingly sweet five-speed manual Getrag gearbox, the S is quite a lot of fun to drive.

The engine is still no fire-breather but the decisive manual change and nicely weighted clutch allow you to keep the engine on the boil, something the auto is not capable of doing consistently.

The S sits that little bit flatter than the Ute, communicates that little better through the steering and feels a little better tied down in the rear.

A blast along some reasonably quick forestry roads confirmed the surety of the handling and grip, and some huge potholes again emphasised the quality of the ride.

It also showed that Holden's determination to build a quiet car extended to underbody protection from stones and rocks.

Inside, the ambiance takes a step up from the ute. There's more colour, more features and more comfort.

It was also noticeably quieter than a manual Ute we drove briefly, which had some transmission whine.

SS (V8 auto) QUICKER than an SS sedan and $10,000 cheaper. If you don't need rear seats why would you buy anything other than the SS Ute? Forget the driving experience as it just looks superb, particularly in gold or red and with the optional $1390 hard tonneau flattening out the rear profile.

Long, low, lean and mean. The SS is a shark which will gobble up any XR8 that gets in its way.

But this is no uncontrollable beast. The SS grips and sticks better than you'd think a 225kW rear-wheel drive utility has the right to do.

Of course the SS can be broken loose, but generally it's the choice of the driver. Traction control would still be a nice safeguard though.

The ride dissolves to buckboard quality when the roads get really bad - like dirt road corrugations - but that is the sacrifice you make for a sports suspension set-up that delivers heavy but direct steering, a flat ride and high grip levels.

The power makes it a fantastic cross-country blaster - overtaking and hills are simply no challenge. Cruise control, happily, is standard.

The automatic transmission recalibrations made for VX work well here.

The shifts are smoother, the mountain of torque means there is always urge and without the manual's moonshot final drive ratio, there is never a need to chase down several gears for attention-getting forward motion.

The interior feel is familiar to any SS owner. Bright colour-matched instruments, body hugging seats and - naturally - loud cloth trim. Could it be any other way? Basic dimensions Overall length: 5049mm Overall width: 1845mm Wheelbase: 2939mm Front Track: 1569mm Rear Track: 1587mm Cargo dimensions Load length at floor: 2193mm (takes a 2.4m sheet with tailgate down) Load length at belt level: 1820mm Load width: 1477mm Cargo width between wheelhouses: 1226mm Rear opening width at floor level: 1273mm Cargo depth: 486mm Eight tie-downs are provided in the rear cargo area to anchor heavy objects.

Maximum payload capacity Ute 830kg S 735kg SS 665kg

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