Holden VY SS Ute

AutoTrader NZ
Published 3 September 2020

I’m not sure what the appeal is, but it’s very real.

Maybe it’s to do with childhood memories: an uncle’s 1937 flathead Ford V8, the neighbours’ 1949 Ford V8 sedan and 1940s V8 Ford Pick-up trucks.

Even more evocative, another uncle’s late 1940s Mercury (the one based on the 1941 model which was continued after World War 2) with its elaborate grille and even more elaborate dashboard.

The uneven bass beat of the flathead Ford, a sort of a dzhigg-a-dzhigg-a, as it accelerated away from you, especially if the motor was working a little while climbing a hill.

An evocative sound, a reassuring sound; a sound that lingers in the mind all these decades later.

A sound that – to a kid whose family car was a Morris Oxford which struggled along with a tiny flathead four cylinder – meant power and speed.

Like rock music, it’s the beat that counts with a V8, so much so that Chevrolet calls its V8s the Heartbeat of America.

And it was one of Chevy’s V8s that triggered this reverie – the 5.7-litre, Corvette-derived Gen III that powers Holden’s current Commodore V8s.

The Gen III in question was in Holden’s new SS Ute, the stylish Commodore pick-up that is rounding up buyers in drove on both sides of the Tasman.

Aside from a brief drive of a V6-powered Ute during the Commodore VY launch near Canberra, Australia, last year this was the first time I’d driven a Commodore Ute.

We’ve driven plenty of Ford Falcon Utes, especially the various permutations of the SS’s nearest rival, the XR8; but till this January the Holden Ute had eluded us.

Holdens are seen as the iconic Australian light truck, establishing the wellside utility style with the still good-looking late-1940s FX and early-1950s FJ.

They were car-like light trucks, an adaptation of the FX and FJ four-doors and Holden kept the Ute going right through the HQ and its derivatives. There were even cab/chassis versions of the Kingswood Utes, with one-tonne carrying capacity.

Holden has surrendered the cab/chassis market to Ford nowadays, with the Blue Oval marque offering full wellside style bodies on its AU/BA chassis or custom load-carrying spaces.

Holden, however, has gone for the lifestyle rather than workhorse market, making its Ute more car-like with independent rear suspension (though not, says the Lion-branded marque, at the expense of load-carrying ability). Ford retains a solid rear axle, though it is impressively located and endows the Falcon with excellent road manners.

Holden’s Ute is in the tradition of Chevrolet’s handsome El Camino – indeed there’s talk of a version of the Aussie light truck being marketed in the USA as an El Camino.

The roofline flows seamlessly into the topsides of the luggage deck. The vehicle has a wedge-shaped profile that gives it a powerful, purposeful look.

The SS rides on stylish 17-inch diameter alloy wheels shod with 235/45 low profile radial tyres.

It has the new Monaro-derived single-opening grille with horizontal bar that set the VY Commodore range apart, at a glance, from its VX and VT predecessors.

The SS gets a deep, chiselled front spoiler with a wide air intake flanked by twin driving lights.

A side skirt runs the length of the wheelbase.

The SS Ute is as stylish as it is businesslike; it looks fast and hard-charging even when sitting still.

On the road it’s as well-mannered as its sedan counterpart with a firm though comfortable ride.

The driving position is good and we were able to easily achieve our favoured low seat/high steering wheel relationship.

The steering wheel is the usual Ford Mondeo look-alike VY unit, in the SS’s case with silver-finish spokes. Its diameter is ideal, the leather-wrapped rim nicely chunky.

The sports-style bucket seats are strongly bolstered on cushion and backrest, though the usual front seat passenger complained that she kept sliding down in the seat. We noted a similar thing and frequently had to hoist ourselves back upright. It’s not something we’ve noticed in other Commodore bucket seats.

The test Ute came with the smooth-shifting four-speed automatic gearbox. It responds quickly to demands for a lower ratio, kicking-down without fuss. It can also be shifted manually in winding going where you want complete control over which ratio you’re in.

The steering has good feel and is pleasingly firm at speed. It’s accurate and you can turn the car into corners with great precision. The suspension refinements introduced with the VY make for much crisper turn-in.

Chassis grip is very good and the car hangs on well during brisk cornering. Contrary to popular belief, the Commodore Ute – like its Ford counterpart – is not tail-happy, the rear end staying in firm contact with the road even when the load tray is empty.

People who drive these big powerful trucks for the first time are amazed at how securely they handle – and how seldom they oversteer. Generally you have to want to induce oversteer before you can get the tail sliding, even on a wet road. A limited slip differential is standard on the SS.

The 5.7-litre V8 pumps out 235kW at 5200rpm and 465Nm of peak torque at 4400rpm, though there’s a huge amount of torque available from much lower in the rev range.

The test Ute came with the soft tonneau cover. It’s easy to remove but less easy to refit if you haven’t read the handbook first. Fortunately the test car still had its handbook – not always the case in a press car – and once I’d checked out what to do the tonneau went back on very easily. It uses a system of bows one at the rear and one on each side. The trick is to stretch the tonneau and attach the rear face (above the tailgate) first and then the side ones.

The tray can carry useful loads and we made good use of it.

The cabin is roomy for two, but unlike the Falcon doesn’t have extra space behind the seats. However, you can wedge a fair amount in there.

Of course, the SS Ute comes with air-conditioning, a good sound system, electrically-wound windows and electrically-adjustable exterior mirrors.

Though Holden says the Ute is now intended more as a lifestyle car, it’s more than capable of a day’s hard work.

In SS form it’s an appealing blend of truck and V8 sports car with strong performance, agile handling and masses of street cred.

The SS Ute sells for $49,000 with a choice of six-speed manual or four-speed auto.