Are you ready for a car-based pickup truck? There's nothing new in that concept, although it's been 16 years since Chevrolet sold the El Camino. After being on the market for almost three decades, the El Camino disappeared in 1987 because people apparently no longer wanted a truck based on a car. The upcoming Chevrolet SSR revives the idea, albeit in an expensive, limited-production variation. Could there be a market for a genuine new El Camino? We might soon find out.
Down Under GM sells the Holden Ute, a pickup based on the Holden Commodore sedan. It sells well and is highly regarded by Aussies and New Zealanders alike. Rumor has it that GM is looking at importing the Ute for sale in the U.S. Pontiac is importing the Holden Monaro, a hot-rod version of the more mundane Commodore sedan, and selling it as the Pontiac GTO, so the precedence has been set.
On a recent trip to New Zealand, I got the chance to try out a couple of versions of the truck.
The most exciting model is the SS. Under the hood, you'll find essentially the same engine that powers the Camaro (or used to): a 5.7-liter LS1 V-8 producing 320 horsepower. The Ute tips the scales at around 3400 pounds, slightly less than Camaro.
On the highway, its performance is certainly exhilarating. Floor the gas pedal, and the truck instantly accelerates. Watch your step on wet or slightly damp roads, as the back end is prone to leap out of line without much provocation. It's a problem with a vehicle that doesn't have much weight over the rear wheels.
Ride and handling are different from a regular body-on-frame pickup. The ride is smooth and the handling, thanks to the lower center of gravity, is much better than the majority of traditional pickups. The rear suspension is independent with semi trailing arms, and the SS model gets a sports suspension with revised spring rates and a lowered ride height. The big 17-inch wheels and tires help the SS grip the road better in the dry, but they do produce a slightly stiffer ride.
Like a regular two-door pickup with a standard cab, space in the Ute is limited. There's no storage behind the front seats, and the center console is small. The dashboard is identical to that in the Commodore sedan and comes complete with Saab designed cupholders. The SS model gets red-faced gauges to differentiate it, as well as drilled-alloy foot pedals.
The bed is a full seven-feet long and almost five feet wide, which is much the same as in many regular pickup trucks. In its stock form, the bed comes with a flush-fitting canvas tonneau cover that stretches tightly across two support brackets and clips along the sides like a ziplock bag. It's a bit of a chore getting it attached, especially when it's wet or cold, but it does stay firmly attached even at 200 kph (125 mph). However, I'm not sure how long it would be before the edges start to wear out compared to the more traditional tie-down rope system used on older models. Bedliners are a factory-installed option.
Sports-car enthusiasts, who need a pickup, appreciate the handling and utility of the SS model. On the other hand, for the majority of buyers, the standard Ute or the S model with a V-6 engine still delivers a decent level of performance. If GM imports this Aussie vehicle, it'll be fascinating to see if it becomes popular once again, just like the El Camino of old. Production will be limited as the factory in Australia is not that large. If it goes on sale it'll be a relatively scarce vehicle.