2011 is a very special year for two Australian motoring icons. For one, it’s the 50th anniversary of Queensland’s first permanent, purpose-built raceway: Lakeside Park. It’s also marks the 60th anniversary of Holden’s FX Utility, a vehicle widely considered by enthusiasts to be the forefather of the home grown Aussie “ute”. In recognition of these historic occasions, we took a Holden VE Series II SS Ute for a test drive and headed north to attend the first of Lakeside’s three 50th anniversary events. Part one of this feature will cover my impressions of the Ute, whilst part two will take in the event itself. So let’s get cracking.
The VE Ute is already an attractive vehicle and in SS guise this is complemented with 18-inch alloys, front fog lights and a lowered sports suspension. With its 6.0 L V8 the SS is certainly powerful, but it’s also safe with a maximum 5-star ANCAP rating thanks to its six airbags and electronic stability control.
Our particular car also came with Holden’s Active Fuel Management (AFM) system – essentially cylinder deactivation – and a 6spd automatic transmission.
The VE Ute is based on the same floorplan as the Commodore sedan and, as such, is quite a long vehicle. It’s not noticeable on the open road, but from the outside or when parking it becomes increasingly apparent, especially if you’re used to driving subcompacts. On the plus side, there’s plenty of storage space in the tray area and front leg room is more than ample.
From the front seats forward, the SS Ute is all sedan. The pews are supportive without being restrictive and even a big bloke like me had no trouble getting in and out. The steering wheel is big and meaty and, in SS guise, leather-wrapped to boot. The centre console is logically laid out with Holden’s multifunction touch screen iQ system at the top and the climate controls at the bottom. The SS comes with dual-zone climate control and everything about the system is intuitive and easy to use.
The driver’s seat is partly electrically adjustable (straight up and down and tilt), though still requires you to manually slide it forward and adjust the backrest. It’s okay, though personally I’d have preferred an all-or nothing approach. The interior is made of high quality materials and is very well put together and there’s the usual package of trip computer, cruise control and steering wheel controls – all pretty standard in this day and age.
You also get Bluetooth and iPod integration, which is nice. I don’t have too much to say about the iQ system except it requires you to punch the onscreen prompts rather than tap them, which can be frustrating at times. It can also be somewhat distracting on the move, though you can configure it to lock out certain functions. Overall, I was fairly impressed at how simple and intuitive it can be.
One thing I found disappointing was the sound system, which is very tinny and not at all fitting with the SS’s character. In a car that can cost upwards of AU$45,000, I had expected a bit more in this department.
The rear tray area is quite expansive by Australian standards and there’s more than enough room for fishing rods, surfboards, camping equipment or whatever else you’d care to put in there. It also has a nice rugged, non-stick surface not unlike a Teflon frying pan that I thought was very good.
On The Road
The journey to Lakeside Park Raceway covered driving across suburban, inner city and rural roads, as well as a jaunt up the motorway. The SS’s 6.0L V8 was more than capable, and even though it packs 362HP (270kW) and 530Nm (390.9 lb-ft), it never became intrusive or overly noisy. In fact, it surprises with its refinement and relaxed performance in even the most strenuous of driving conditions. The ride was good also, if a little bouncy on poorly surface roads. This is hardly unique to the SS though, and all told provided a decent mix of both sportiness and comfort.
I found the AFM cylinder deactivation system to be utterly non-invasive and, strangely, unnoticeable. The SS is happy to hum along at 2,500 rpm even at 100 km/h on the motorway. Turn in is very good and steering has a nice weighty – even purposeful – feel. On the twisty back-roads around Pine Rivers Shire the SS was a real pleasure to drive.
The 6sp transmission shifts smoothly and appropriately (i.e. when I, driving a manual, would have shifted) and there’s even the option to manual shift up and down. I have to say though that paddle-shifters would have been more fitting with the Ute’s character.
All around vision is very good except in two places: behind (where the view is obstructed by the long rear tray) and out the driver’s side. Thanks to the thick B-pillars, I found it very difficult to perform a shoulder check, which makes merging into traffic somewhat scary. You have to rely on the side mirrors, which are on the small size.
All told, the SS Ute was not the uncouth, brutish leviathan I expected it to be. Acceleration is smooth and consistent, the ride is (mostly) smooth and the V8 is – dare I say it – refined. I went in with a lot of preconceptions about this car, but came out with a new found appreciation for this motoring sexagenarian.
The Holden VE Series II SS Ute is a highly capable, comfortable cruiser. Though lacking in some areas – the sound system and seat controls, for instance – it is well equipped and pleasant on the road. And at AU$52,161 in 6sp automatic SS guise, its good value for money to boot. With the exception of Ford’s XR8 Falcon – which we are yet to test – the SS Ute has no other real competitors on the Australian market and as such remains highly desired among both tradespeople and enthusiasts alike.
By Tristan Hankins