UTES RISING IN POPULARITY AS ALTERNATIVE TO AN SUV
I have a confession to make. With some of my colleagues, I’ve been guffawing at Holden’s decision to undermine an iconic badge from the General Motors muscle-car division by slapping it on a dressed-up Colorado ute.
I’m referring to the Colorado Z71, which has just been launched in New Zealand. The Z71 name is, of course, forever linked to very fast versions of the Camaro coupe.
Hang on — no it’s not. In my infinite knowledge of Americana I had of course confused the Z71 name with ZL1, which is the Camaro designation. I’ve just got new glasses, if that’s any excuse. No? Well, I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. Honest.
At the very least this has been a great opportunity to learn something new. Z71 is a much-used brand for enhanced GM pickup and SUV variants in America. It started out as a model code for a tougher 4x4 suspension package, but evolved into a separate badge and then became a specification in its own right. It’s been used on a variety of models, including the Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck and Tahoe SUV.
So Holden, I’m very sorry. I’m tempted to point out that the Colorado Z71 is really just a dress-up version of the LTZ and doesn’t offer any mechanical enhancement whatsoever in order to save face, but that would be mean-spirited. So I won’t.
I quite like the Colorado Z71 anyway. This $63,990 machine is based on the former flagship of the range, the LTZ. The package brings a nudge bar, body-coloured sail plane behind the cabin, roof rails and black detailing on the headlights, mirrors and door handles. There are Arsenal Grey 18-inch alloys and black graphics, including the bonnet (looks a bit like a muscle-car graphic, actually) and tailgate. Inside, the Z71 brings two-tone leather-upholstered and heated front seats. Luxury.
If it all looks a bit over-the-top, it’s supposed to. Like American pickup-truck buyers, we’re starting to get a real taste for flagship utes with look-at-me styling and luxury equipment. Look past the stickers and the LTZ already comes with the excellent MyLink information/entertainment touch-screen and rear-view camera.
The LTZ is also of interest because it’s the model that benefited most from the Colorado’s last facelift. Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) was a weak point of the previous version, but the facelift brought extra insulation and thicker dashboard materials, as well as improved sealing around the doors. Result: the Colorado isn’t any quieter, but you can’t hear it quite so much from inside the cabin. The difference is immediately apparent if you jump from one to the other. It makes the Colorado seem less agricultural, more of an all-rounder.
There’s been another major change just for the LTZ (and therefore also the Z71): in line with the increasing popularity of double-cab utes as family and recreational vehicles, the top-line Colorado now rides on softer suspension, with a stiffer front anti-roll bar. These changes are intended to make it a much nicer on-road vehicle and they have.
Opportunity cost: the chassis modifications don’t help off-road ability and the payload has been decreased to 825kg, making the LTZ the only Colorado that isn’t strictly a one-tonner. But it still has a monster tow rating of 3500kg. So while you can’t load the tray with as much building equipment, you can still haul the family boat.
No, the Z71 doesn’t float around corners like a luxury car. No ute can, because at heart they’re still rugged off-road vehicles with the underpinnings to match. But the softer set-up does give the Colorado much-improved cruising ability and tight corners can be embraced rather than avoided. There’s still a bit of the lateral shimmy so typical of pickup trucks, but you certainly wouldn’t shy away from a weekend road trip in this model.
The best-dressed utes
Ford Ranger Wildtrak, top, and Volkswagen Amarok Dark Label, below. Pictures / Supplied
The rise in popularity of utes as substitute SUVs has led to a new fashion for dressed-up one-tonners. It’s a general trend, but if you had to point at one significant model that served as a catalyst, it would have to be the Ford Ranger Wildtrak.
The previous-generation Ranger (2009-12) introduced the Wildtrak specification, which brought a suite of distinctive styling addenda and car-like cabin equipment.
It was continued in the latest generation, which has just been updated with even more equipment. The new $67,640 Wildtrak features a comprehensive body kit with a novel roller-door over the tray, leather upholstery, and driver assistance features including front and rear parking radar with camera, adaptive cruise control with collision alert, lane-keep assist and lane departure warning.
Other utes vying for a place on the best-dressed list? The Volkswagen Amarok is an obvious choice for the lifestyle buyer and the factory conjures up special-edition models at regular intervals. The current one is the $69,900 Dark Label, which features blackout exterior detailing, special wheels, Alcantara upholstery and satellite navigation. It’s quite similar to the previous Amarok Canyon — although that model was more notable for its outrageous rooftop light bar and orange colour option.
Where the factory hasn’t yet come to the party, local distributors have stepped in. Toyota New Zealand has created a number of special-edition Hiluxes recently, including the Edge (for rear-drive models) and the TRD Sportivo (four-wheel drive), which featured a body kit, decals, special wheels and leather upholstery. You could argue that the Edge and Sportivo were more about stimulating sales towards the end of the Hilux’s life rather than enhancing the image of the vehicle overall, but the end result was the same: a dressy flagship for the range.
Mazda New Zealand also took to the BT-50 last year with a package called Arashi. It featured some wild exterior graphics and body add-ons, a rear vision mirror with built-in satellite navigation and special interior trim.