More showpony than workhorse...
More showpony than workhorse
When Holden released the VE Holden Commodore Series II, the big news was its flex-fuel capability. To reduce reliance on fossil fuels, the new Commodore can run on petrol blended with anywhere up to 85 percent ethanol, giving Holden a level of credibility as a company which takes its environmental responsibility seriously. Except this is true of only two out of the three engines in the Commodore.
This week, we had Holden's Commodore SV6 Ute on test, and under the bonnet is the 3.6 litre SIDI V6. This engine is still not flex-fuel capable, and according to Holden, it won't be for the best part of two years. Why so long? Well the only answer we could get from Holden's Senior Product Communications Manager, Jonathan Rose, was "Our 3.0 litre V6 and 6.0L V8 were engines that allowed us to bring flex-fuel technology to market as fast as possible." It'll be the fourth quarter of 2012 before the 3.6-litre can run up to E85.
The question is whether this would be a deal breaker for the Holden SV6 Ute buyer. Probably not, because a person who buys a Commodore Ute is not necessarily after fuel savings, nor are they after a huge carrying capacity.
While the on-paper figure of the SV6 Ute is 9.9-litres/100km, what we actually achieved through normal day-to-day driving was in fact 12.8-litres/100km. Add some weight to the tray, and you could comfortably climb higher than that. Perhaps part of the reason is that the SV6 Ute is still a heavy beast: 1749kg. Compare that with the sedan SV6, which doesn't require the same bracing for loads: 1729kg.
If you're after a ute and after fuel savings, then the Omega Ute betters the SV6 by 0.3L/100km, however the Toyota Hilux and Mitsubishi Triton outclass the SV6 by a comfortable margin (8.1L/100km) and they will carry a heavier load in their tray.
With its sports suspension, the SV6's maximum payload is 634kg. If you loaded up ten bags of cement and carry a few weighty toolboxes, you'll easily exceed that. The SV6 ute is also unable to carry a standard 8ft x 4ft sheet with the tailgate shut, meaning cladding, corflute or signwhite (Colorbond) sheets will have to be picked up with a van.
The tradeoff, of course, is a decent handling load lugger that has the convenience of shifting cargo that isn't going to fit into your regular passenger car. So on the weekends, you have a semi-sporty car, but during the week, you can carry boxes and bags and other work-related paraphernalia.
The Series II upgrades work well. From the outside, the changes soften the front end plus aerodynamics have been improved through subtle tweaks of the bumper and undertray. The most notable Series II differences are the headlights which now curve slightly upwards at the inner bottom edge, plus there's a new 18-inch wheel design. In the Poison Ivy green of our test car, the new Ute still looks tough with its wide front arches and lowered stance.
Inside there's much more that's changed. While the dashboard still uses the dimpled soft plastic that annoyingly collects dust in each concave dip (a problem with all VE Commodores), the air-con vents at the top of the centre stack are now round and bordered with a metallic accent. Below them sits the new Holden iQ infotainment system which gives touch screen functionality and intuitive control over various settings. It's quick to respond, easy to navigate (though there are quite a few menus to get through) and pairing your phone on the standard Bluetooth is a snap.
While the lower dash fascia plastics are still quite hard and the door trims still scuff very easily, the view ahead of the driver is a long way removed from the bland Omega. The instrumentation is nicer to look at with a more modern font and red needles - though reflections are still a problem - and the steering wheel wrapped in leather and with silver spokes looks very nice, as well as being good to hold.
The centre console now features a piano black finish that looks a lot classier (although it does show up fingerprints, it must be said) and there's a silver surround for the gear selector that breaks up the continuation of black. There's dual-zone climate control (a little pointless in a ute, with its tiny cabin) and on ultra hot days the air-con reaches blizzard levels very quickly.
The seats have excellent comfort and good bolstering, and feature a good quality cloth trim. On long trips, these pews are among the best for keeping backache at bay. A small lever on the upper shoulder releases the seat back to reveal storage areas behind. There's room directly behind the seat on the floor, plus there are two stowage areas which extend rearward under the tray; handy for books, magazines, street maps, etc.
On the road, the SV6 Ute feels just like a Commodore. That's no surprise, really, but it means there's little difference between the Series II SV6 and the Series I SV6.
The engine is still a willing performer, with torque instantly noticeable at the bottom end (it produces 350Nm at 2900rpm), something the 3.0-litre V6 Omega Ute is severely lacking. It does get a little coarse at the top end, but that's where it makes its 210kw of power, and it's pulling hardest above 4000rpm. The engine would shine a little more with a more competent automatic, though.
In low to mid throttle applications, it's smooth enough, but it's when you ask it to think for you that it comes unstuck. Backing off halfway through accelerating reasonably hard and it will shunt, and sometimes it will thunk audibly in downshifts. On a twisting country road that undulates, the SV6's auto struggles to keep up with incessant changes of throttle position. Switching to sports mode by knocking the lever to the left does help a little, but then it holds onto each gear for an uncomfortable length of time.
Thankfully, Holden's excellent steering is still a feature of the VE Series II, and the SV6 still responds well to inputs, with a good turn in - though there's no disguising the car's mass - and brilliant weight and feedback. The SV6's brakes are also consistent in feel and speed retardation.
An area where the big ute shines is on unsealed surfaces. Its ABS calibration on gravel is brilliant for a two-wheel-drive ute, and with its long wheelbase it telegraphs its intentions very well if the back end decides to slip. Even when it does, there's plenty of time to correct it before the ESC cuts in, as it allows for a degree of slip-angle before reigning you in. It's one of the best ESC setups around, especially for the keen driver.
That means it's well suited to our vast country, where we come up against all sorts of road conditions. And even when encountering rough and split tarmac, the sport suspension doesn't punish your kidneys. Instead, it gives a solid ride, but without harsh crashing or rigid uncompliance.
It scored extremely well in ANCAP testing, too, receiving the maximum five star rating, meaning in the event of a crash, you're going to be well protected. That's one of the reasons why the ute has such thick A-pillars, but it does obstruct your view when entering roundabouts. The thick B-pillars also hinder over-the-shoulder visibility. Add to that tiny mirrors and you'll find your head darting and bobbing to get the best view when changing lanes.
If you are in the market for a Holden ute, be aware you'll need a fair bit of room in your garage - this car is over 5m long. Add a towbar to that, and some modern garages will struggle.
While the Series II changes certainly make the VE ute a better car - most notably the Holden iQ system - they don't necessarily improve the value of the SV6. The interior is nicer with its black applique and circular vents, and you'd definitely pay the extra $3000 over the lethargic Omega, but to step up to the fantastic 6.0L V8-powered SS (in manual guise) is the same amount of money again. So going from the Omega to the SS you'll double your engine capacity, gain sports suspension, better brakes, a body kit and a receive a nicer interior. That, and the sound improves ten-fold. The fact that it only costs $6000 to do that is icing on the cake.
Really, it's worth skipping the SV6 altogether and going straight for the SS. That's the real bargain of the Holden Ute range. And at least then you can run it on E85...
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*Pricing is a guide as recommended to us by the manufacturer and does not include dealer delivery, on-road or statutory charges.