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You could call it Ute-opia rather than Thailand, but dodgy puns aside it's pick-ups such as the new Chevrolet Colorado – or Holden Colorado as we'll know it in Australia, of course – that account for every other car on the road in this part of Asia.
It's a staggering statistic, and possibly a conservative one.
As CarAdvice finds itself in rural, northernmost Thailand, in the region of Chiang Rai, for the international launch of the 2012 Colorado, passenger cars are almost a rare sighting.
We should be driving a Holden Colorado back at home at this point, but devastating floods that afflicted Thailand last year pushed back the ute’s arrival until June.
But this is an opportunity to drive a vehicle in the country in which it is built for markets such as ours, and a vehicle that is for all intents and purposes the same model that will be sold in Australia.
The Colorado nameplate is still fairly fresh in Australia, replacing the well-established Rodeo name that General Motors, and therefore Holden, had to drop in 2008 due to a naming rights issue with partner Isuzu.
This mid-sized ute, however, is a General Motors product that, while shared with an Isuzu (the Isuzu D-Max), is the first to be designed from the ground up in the company’s 101-year history. And at a not inconsiderable US$2 billion development cost.
The perfect time, then, to join the improved band of utilities – such as the Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50 and Volkswagen Amarok – that have responded to both pressure for increased safety levels and burgeoning demand from customers – in markets such as Australia – for dual-role vehicles: utes that can be tough workhorses during the week but refined family cars at the weekend.
So there’s an all-new body-on-frame with a stiffened chassis that GM says elevates ride and handling levels, better noise insulation, a more feature-laden interior and myriad other improvements designed to make the Colorado appeal to “a wide bandwidth of customers”.
You can click here to read more details about pricing and trim levels for the 2012 Holden Colorado, but a quick summary is that the new ute starts at $26,990 for a 4x2 single-cab manual, stretching to a $51,990 starting point for the all bells and whistles LTZ Colorado Crew Cab (or dual-cab, as it’s also popularly known).
We found ourselves primarily in high-spec LTZ versions of the Colorado, though the variant’s higher cost is essentially derived from the larger cab sizes of the Space Cab (extended cab) and Crew Cab (dual cab) and the extra features they come with.
The LTZ models we drove still employed the new GM 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel that will power 25 of the 26 Colorado variants Holden will offer from mid-year.
The entry-level DX Single Cab Colorado goes it alone with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder diesel.
Ironically, this means Australia will be one of the Colorado markets that doesn’t offer the 3.6-litre V6 petrol engine that’s built in Port Melbourne.
Holden says with diesel versions of the old model comprising 93 per cent of sales, it was simply a case of no business case to import a Colorado with the engine that it exports to four countries, including Thailand.
The extra torque diesel engines typically provide makes them a far more logical choice for vehicles that are commonly required to tow boats and caravans.
And if you want pulling power, the Colorado’s 2.8-litre, with up to 470Nm of torque, delivers – with a segment-topping 3500kg braked towing capacity.
GM engines don’t always convince when the cylinder count is below eight, but the common-rail (direct injection) 2.8 proved to be a highlight during a long day on and off road.
There’s little cabin vibration or diesel clatter at idle, and even as revs climb the engine never gets unpleasantly rowdy.
Performance is not what you would call storming, but it is muscular – comfortably pulling not far from above idle in fourth gear, before that peak torque arrives at 2000rpm. It means buyers who opted for the five-speed manual won’t have to row through the ratios frequently, though they won’t mind with the easy gearshift action.
GM’s new six-speed auto is tempting, however, despite asking an extra $2000, and not just because it copes with more torque – 470Nm versus the manual’s 440Nm (produced at the same 2000rpm).
Throttle response is not quite as immediate as with the manual, but it’s still impressive, and from there the auto delivers smooth shifts whether you’re accelerating lightly or aggressively. The kickdown action, in fact, is remarkably subtle for this type of vehicle.
It makes for a drivetrain that makes easy-going of various scenarios, whether tootling around town, cruising on the freeway, or tackling steep ascents (more on which in a bit).
The 2.5-litre diesel - employed only in the base Colorado - has a similar level of refinement to the 2.8, but there's a much narrower sweetspot for the engine, meaning the five-speed manual (there's no auto option) will be kept busier. The 90Nm torque deficit to the manual 2.8-litre diesel is also obvious, whether you're in the lower or middle part of the rev range.
GM doesn’t provide any official figures yet (Thailand doesn’t require them), so all we can say is that averages of between 8.5L/100km and 10.0L/100km (2.8L) and 8.0L/100km (2.5L) we recorded on the trip computer in bitumen driving suggests the Colorado will be competitive in this respect.
From here, it’s important to note that the Australian version of the Colorado will have slightly modified underpinnings.
Thai-spec Colorados have a softer set-up, we’re told, whereas Holden says Australian-spec versions have had their suspension tuned for more emphasis on “a great drive”.
While the leaf-spring rear suspensions of these types of vehicle will always bring limitations to their on-road manners, Holden engineers will have a fair bit of work to do to bring the Colorado up to the handling mark of the Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50 and VW Amarok.
The Colorado leans noticeably in corners and lacks the relative composure of those aforementioned rivals, if similar in its behaviour to a Toyota HiLux.
The tall-series (255/65) 17-inch tyres - which may well differ for Australia - can also protest with a squeal under minimal cornering duress.
Ride quality is improved, but the new Colorado can still be bouncy and jiggly over poor surfaces - and again no match in this form for the benchmark Ranger, BT-50 and Amarok.
As is the case with the steering, although the Colorado is still likeable in this respect, with good weighting and consistency, despite being slower than the helms of the Ford, Mazda and VW.
There’s also a bit of steering kickback on rutted off-road trails, but this is the kind of surface where the Colorado is more in its element than the bitumen.
With 217mm of ground clearance on our 4x4 LTZ dual-cab, and low-range (selected simply by stopping, putting the gearlever into neutral, and rotating a small dial on the centre console), the Colorado – with that diesel engine again coming to the fore - breezed along and up 25km of track riddled with ruts, mini boulders and tricky, steep inclines.
And when you just need to carry stuff, the Colorado’s tray can carry a tonne of it – and in an area that’s 1.48m long and 1.53m wide (1.12m where the wheelarches intrude).
It’s inside where the biggest disappointment of the Colorado is to be found.
The fit and finish in a number of different Colorados we checked was consistently average – with loose plastic sections in places such as the door trim and instrument binnacle.
There’s no finesse, either, to the damping of compartment lids, push-out cupholders, glovebox hatches or dials.
Storage options aren’t in short supply – ranging from 16 in the single cab to 30 in the dual cab – but they’re not necessarily all useful. The door pockets are small and accommodate only small bottles, and the console bin isn’t that generously sized, for example.
The seats, whether cloth or leather, are flatter than ideal.
And even if there is a fair argument that durability is more important than quality in a ute, the virtual absence of any soft-touch, or even pleasant-feeling, plastics is a surprise for a model that GM has acknowledged is now as much a lifestyle vehicle.
It’s also a level of quality that particularly sits uncomfortable in the range-topping Colorado that will cost not far from $60,000 once on-road costs are added.
There are good points to the cabin. A longer wheelbase has created a bit more cabin space – whether it’s extra storage space behind the front seats in the Space Cab or plentiful head, knee and foot space for even tall adults in the back.
The interior design also has a touch of flair, with features such as the scuba mask-inspired instrument binnacle that’s similar to that seen in the Chevrolet Camaro, and the large circular heating and ventilation control section (pictured above) found in the higher-spec models.
Colorado owners and occupants have more creature comfort features than before and are also better cared for with stability control and four airbags standard, including dual front bags and curtains that extend to the second row, but not front side thorax bags. A potentially life-saving reverse-view camera is still a little way down the pipeline and unlikely to be standard across the range.
As with other rebadged Chevrolets such as the Holden Barina, Holden Cruze and Holden Captiva, the lure of the Lion badge is sure to again have a magnetic attraction for Australian buyers – no doubt a factor that has encouraged Holden to decide against pricing the Colorado below most of its competitors.
How much Holden’s suspension tweaks will improve the overall package to help close the gap to the segment benchmarks is a question we will answer in June. For now, the Colorado is a ute that has clearly stepped forward, but not in as many areas as some key rivals.