Car Video: Oversteer
I Wish the Holden Ute Had Come to the United States
I recently had the chance to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, California, which is home to a ridiculous amount of Ferraris, Maseratis, Bentleys and Lamborghinis. Normally, these cars would turn my head -- but this time, I was behind the wheel of a far more unique vehicle: a Holden Ute.
Yes, that's right: I drove a Holden Ute in America. And it had a V8. He he he he...
For those of you who don't know what a Holden Ute is, here's a little background. Remember back in the 1970s and 1980s, when car-based pickups were popular? The Ford Ranchero and the Chevy El Camino, for instance? Although that fad died out in the United States, it remains popular in Australia to this day -- and so Holden, Australia's General Motors arm, sells a modern-day El Camino in Australia as the "Holden Ute." They sell normal versions for people interested in practicality, and they also sell high-performance versions for people who are crazy.
But they're popular in Australia. Given America's strict regulations on importing cars, how exactly did I drive one in the United States?
I borrowed this Ute from a viewer, who bought it from a company in Colorado called Left Hand Utes, which imports Holden Ute bodies from Australia, and then mates them with an American-market vehicle for the engine, drivetrain and other parts as necessary. These conversions can be so thorough that the Colorado State Patrol assigns them new VIN numbers. And as for the Ute I drove, it was married to the powertrain of a Pontiac G8 GT -- meaning it had a 360-horsepower V8, and, most importantly, a 6-speed manual transmission.
In other words: I drove around Malibu in an Australian market modern-day El Camino with 360 hp and a stick shift.
Ladies and gentlemen, there are few ways to be cooler.
Before I drove it, however, I poked around it for a while, since it was my first time experiencing a Holden Ute up close -- and I primarily discovered two things. Number one, the conversion was flawless. The Ute I drove borrowed most of its interior from a damaged Pontiac G8, but most drivers or passengers would never have any idea it was anything but a factory Ute. Everything was screwed together properly, nothing looked cheap or ill-fitting, and -- aside from a few small, little, tiny details -- you'd have no idea it didn't come down the assembly line this way. The owner of the Ute I drove even took the car's originality a step further, sourcing original Holden business cards for the owner's manual pouch, and giving the OnStar Bluetooth voice an Australian accent.
The other interesting thing about the Holden Ute is its bed. The bed can haul around 1,000 pounds, which is highly impressive for a muscle car with a 6-speed manual transmission. And although I drove the Ute with a tonneau cover on the bed -- giving it a "locking trunk mode" -- the cover can be removed for extra storage room. The Ute's owner told me he uses it to transport his surfboards, thereby giving him an even cooler Malibu surf car than the one I posted yesterday.
So then you get it out on the road, and you discover that the Holden Ute driving experience is about as competent as the conversion. Given that this is essentially a marriage of two vehicles performed by some guy in Colorado, I figured the Ute would rattle and shake and generally you'd have to put up with a lot of discomfort just to look cool. Not so. Instead, the car feels totally factory: Everything is hooked up right, there aren't any weird noises and this car feels as if it was built this way by a bunch of Australian factory workers.
More importantly, it's awesome to drive. Zero-to-60 comes in five-something seconds, which sounds pretty good -- and then you look in the back and remember you're also driving a pickup truck. You have the same sensation with the handling: It drives a lot like the Australian-built Pontiac GTO, which was a rather exciting sports coupe -- and then you look in the back and remember you're also driving a pickup truck. The Ute is stable in corners, the rear end doesn't feel too light or too heavy, and handling is sharp -- or, at least, sharp for General Motors in the late 2000s. Admittedly, it's no mid-engine exotic -- but it doesn't feel like you're being penalized compared to, say, a GTO, considering you're driving around with a pickup bed in back.
This Holden Ute also had that excellent V8 rumble you'd expect from a modern-day muscle car, like a Mustang or a Corvette. And despite a heavy clutch pedal, the transmission lever felt smooth and well-designed for performance -- something I wasn't expecting, given my previous experience with a 2004 Cadillac CTS-V. Simply put, I was stunned to discover that this Ute drove like a sports car (albeit a big General Motors sports car, not a Miata) -- and you wouldn't know anything different unless you happened to glance in the rearview mirror and notice that pickup bed.
So should the Holden Ute have reached the U.S. market, badged as a Pontiac or a Chevy? Rumor has it that GM was planning to bring the Ute here just before bankruptcy struck and rendered it unfeasible to import such a low-volume vehicle. That's a shame -- because while its appeal is undoubtedly narrow (limited solely to about 14 human beings who want to carry large loads and also drive a sports car at the same time), it would've been a nice treat to see the Holden Ute on American roads. Especially the twisty ones. With a lawnmower in back.
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.