Australia’s own HSV faced an existential crisis at the end of Holden’s manufacturing plant in Adelaide. What future did it have without rear-drive V8 Commodore sedans, wagons and utes to modify?
Swiftly moving to re-engineer and market right-hand-drive conversions of the Chevrolet Camaro coupe and Silverado truck was a smart play, fomenting a relationship with General Motors international and providing its enthusiasts with a sweet muscle-car hit.
But the third piece in the puzzle brought both the biggest risk and biggest potential reward. The Colorado-based SportsCat competes with OEM models like the Ford Ranger Wildtrak and Toyota HiLux Rugged X, plus product given a work-over by the likes of ARB and Iron Man.
The Series 1 version had a production run of 1400 units over 18 months, setting the foundations for this even more stylised Series 2 model that brings more gloss-black add-ons, new seats and steering wheel, HSV stickers, lighter forged alloy wheels, and additional choice of options.
The rationale behind the relaunch 18 months into its running life is really more about reminding the market that the SportsCat exists, because word of mouth only goes so far.
Naturally, HSV lacks the means to develop a car from scratch, so life for each SportsCat begins as a Colorado Z71 imported from Thailand without the factory alloy wheels and bodykit. From this point, HSV gets to work making it as different as possible within its constraints.
It does so at a swish new Walkinshaw Automotive Group (HSV’s parent) headquarters in Melbourne’s east, comprising a 24-hour factory line keeping a grateful supplier base and several hundred line workers, engineers, fabricators, CAD operators and white-collar types employed on a myriad of products, also including RHD Ram trucks.
The SportsCat comes in two grades, the SportsCat V ($62,490 before on-road costs, the same as a HiLux Rugged X) and SportsCat SV ($66,790), plus $2200 for a six-speed automatic (about mid-way between the Ranger Wildtrak and Raptor). Put another way, the SportsCat SV wears a sticker price $11,800 higher than the Colorado Z71.
Changes in the interior stretch to highly supportive heated front bucket seats trimmed in leather and suede, more leather and suede padding all over the dash, and a much nicer thick-rimmed steering wheel wrapped in perforated leather, alas still without telescopic adjustment.
While it didn’t revolutionise the Colorado’s cabin, HSV has taken things up a notch simply by axing the cheaper trims. Standard tech includes climate control, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, digital radio, satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a rear camera, and seven airbags including curtains for both seating rows. As with the Holden, back-seat space is above average.
On the outside, the SportsCat rocks glossy black highlights on the front fascia, grille and lower inserts. There are also fender flares over 285/60R18 Cooper Zeon all-terrain tyres and new forged alloy wheels, a tacked-on bonnet bulge, tubular side steps, lifting hard tonneau with alloy sports bar attached, and lots more HSV-branded stickers and appliqués.
It looks tough, with a far more macho stance than the Z71. And while it’s far from understated, to my eyes it avoids devolving into aftermarket tackiness. HSV employs its own in-house design team, which adds some resolve and sheen.
There are changes beyond the cosmetic, however. Up front, HSV has increased the spring rate and added strut bracing, and tuned the MTV dampers to suit. The ride height up front is 45mm higher overall than the Colorado Z71 (from the tyres and springs combined), taking ground clearance to 251mm and the approach angle to 32 degrees.
There’s also new rear suspension, standard on the SportsCat SV and $2795 on the SportsCat V. Load-lugging leaf springs remain, but body control is tightened by a new 22mm-diameter rear swaybar. The real party trick is how it decouples when you select 4L (low-range), meaning you get flatter body control yet don’t lose out on potential rear-wheel articulation off-road.
The Colorado Z71 is actually somewhat underrated among ute rivals, but the SportsCat outguns it. It’s much more agile and balanced against cornering loads, yet rides over corrugations smoothly thanks to big tyre sidewalls and light wheels, and settles down when unladen really quickly. You can also hang the tail out by 20 degrees on dirt before the retuned ESC wakes up.
It’s no Ranger Raptor, granted, but nor is it a sticker pack. HSV’s team conducted thousands of hours of tweaking at Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground, alongside global-market Cadillac and Chevy development vehicles. It’s done a nice job adding some dynamic verve.
Those who want the full monty can option the iconic GTS-R W1’s SupaShock linear-style dampers for $2990 extra on any SportsCat derivative. These units are larger in diameter and are claimed to deliver better roadholding again. We are yet to test this set-up, however.
We should quickly touch on safety tech. The SportsCat comes with a forward-collision monitor and a system that tells you if you’ve strayed outside the road lines, but lacks increasingly common features such as autonomous emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring.
Off-road it proved its worth, with the chunkier tyres and trick rear suspension helping the ute dispatch the offset moguls, muddy trails, steep drop-ins and water crossings at said test track. That said, the rear LSD isn’t a patch on a proper diff lock on slippery hills. We’d like HSV to offer one. We’d also note that the detaching rear swaybar only adds a few centimetres of extra articulation.
The front brakes also came in for some attention, uprated with four-piston AP Racing calipers with 362mm by 32mm rotors, and a bigger master cylinder. These are standard on the SV and $2295 on the V. Unfortunately, HSV’s budget did not allow for the fitment of rear disc brakes in place of the manufacturer-standard drums.
Nevertheless, repeated hard stops from 80km/h with hands off the wheel demonstrated good bite, pedal feel and stability. The bigger optional units show far less fade upon repeat application.
The main disappointment is the lack of engine tuning, even symbolic. On the upside, the carried-over VM Motori 2.8-litre turbo diesel is a strong, albeit gruff, unit with an above-average 500Nm of torque and 147kW of peak power that allows 3.5t braked towing and far quicker acceleration than a HiLux’s 2.8 manages.
At the same time, we'd have loved some higher outputs to stand the HSV apart, be it from software updates, exhaust fettling or something else. This would cement the SportsCat as sufficiently different from its source material, and despite HSV’s insistence to the contrary, we can’t help but be certain many prospective buyers would appreciate it.
One thing that HSV has over tuners without a factory relationship is a five-year/unlimited-kilometre (200,000km for fleet owners) warranty, with full roadside assistance across that period. There’s also an HSV network of nearly 60 dealerships nationwide for servicing.
Look, the HSV SportsCat is not a complete rework like a Ford Ranger Raptor, which was developed by Ford's global R&D team instead of an outpost in Melbourne's ’burbs. But nor is it a cynical sticker pack. HSV has done a commendable job tweaking the donor Colorado and giving it some real macho lustre and dynamic nous, with a 'made in Australia' angle as the cherry on top.