Motoring expert Dr John Wright checks out utes - the new century Aussie sports cars.
When Ford Australia launched its AU ute range in June 1998, even key Ford executives were unaware of the implications it would have for the future of the good old Aussie coupe utility. This knowledge, or lack of it, looks even stranger with hindsight because it was Ford Australia who invented the ute in 1933. At the time, I was so impressed with the new models that I told then Ford Australia president, (the late) Geoff Polites, that however many he thought the company was going to sell, he could take that number and double it. The prediction was about right.
What was so radical about the AU ute? There were several unique features. The first and most obvious one was the extra space behind the seats for stowage. This solved a problem for numerous prospective owners. Imagine, for example, you are going to the airport with a couple of bags. If you put them in the tray, they'll slide around and won't be secure if you need to park your ute for a few minutes on the way. But with the AU, you just stick 'em behind the seats.
The second impressive innovation was the removable plastic lining for the tray surface. After years of hard work, the plastic could be replaced and the cost of the new lining would be more than made up for in reduced depreciation.
This was in some ways a modular approach to a light commercial because the entire rear style-side bed of the vehicle could be removed. What was the point of this? You could buy a cab-chassis version and fit an aluminium tray and then at trade-in time, replace the tray with a style-side bed to bring a big increase in value.
In terms of load capacity, Ford Australia's engineers literally thought laterally and widened the tray to the point where a standard pallet or building sheet (1.2 x 1.8m) could fit between the wheel arches.
Optional alloy sports bars gave an even more sporty appearance to what was already a notably attractive ute.
What were they thinking at Holden when the AU ute range came to town? By that stage work on the new VU Commodore ute was too far advanced to be changed much. So the extra space behind the seats and the removable style-side box tray would not make their way into the Holden.
Where there was a moderately sporting feel to the AU utes, they were outpointed here by the new Commodores which made their debut some 18 months later. Sleeker and sexier than the Ford, the new Holdens were promoted as full-on sports vehicles. They had independent rear suspension. And while the XR8 ute developed 185 kW, the new 5.7-litre Gen III Chevrolet V8 in the SS brought 225 kW to the B & S ball. Perhaps surprisingly, in real world terms, there was not a huge performance difference between the two.
Utes for play
Both the SS and XR8 versions of these new workhorses favoured play over work, it must be said. The standard Commodore S six-cylinder ute had a payload of 670 kg, but the SS sacrificed five kilograms of this. On the Falcons there was a much greater difference, because Ford at least had a cab-chassis variant with a capacity of 1285 kilograms. Even the standard six-cylinder XL styleside could pack 820 kilos, but the XR8 had a payload of just 550. Big differences.
The real point is that whichever brand you prefer, these are the new century Aussie sports cars and both the SS and the XR8 are great to drive with vivid performance and impressive handling. They give nothing away to their sedan counterpart - except rear seats.
There are now new models from both Holden and Ford with plenty of improvements. But this does not detract from the appeal of a ute with a few years of age and perhaps 100,000 kilometres beneath its steel belts. We can perhaps see even more clearly now that it was right at the end of last century that the full-on sports ute really came of age and with prices for pre-loved Commodore SS and Falcon XR8 variants now cruising south, this is a good time to buy. You might still have to pay $15K for a VU SS but AU XR8s are now in the $12K range which makes them sensational value.