It's the noise, I'm thinking. It's different. There's some way the human ear can give its owner an estimation of the dimensions of the space around about. My ears are telling me this is no sedan, nor any wagon either.
The sound is that of a vehicle with much less cabin volume.
The noise in question is bouncing off the metal bulkhead behind my seat and the window just aft of my head. On the other side of the glass, about 20 metres back, is a white Commodore with a row of blue lights on top. The driver's mouth is obscured by a radio microphone that's held in his left hand.
Do cops, I wonder silently, know how hard this sort of intimidation can be on a driver's nerves?
The misery ends five kilometres further down the freeway. The blue lights whirl and the headlights flash. With a sigh I flick the indicator stalk left, pull onto the hard shoulder and wind the window down.
"Licence please driver," intones the young Highway Patrolman in his best deep voice.
He scrutinises the document briefly.
"This your current address sir?"
"Yes, it is."
He hands the scruffy piece of paper back through the window. "Thank you sir."
Then, with the merest hint of a smirk, he turns from ice-cold cop into a motor-head in a blue uniform.
"Now, tell me about the car ... "
The car is actually a ute, but a ute minus any hardhat and Akubra overtones. It's Holden Special Vehicles ' version of Holden's VG Commodore VB, in fact. It's more chic than any other ute you've ever seen. And it has sufficient head turning power to rival Boris and Stefan on centre court at Wimbledon.
As well as the curious cop there was the acne-addled teenage truck driver in the middle of Melbourne, the Australian Airlines valet parking girl at Tullamarine, the garage man and his apprentice at Diggers Rest and nearly all the lunchtime crowd at the pub in New Gisborne. These were only the ones who talked to us during a day of driving in and around Melbourne. For every inquisitive soul who caught us, there were a hundred who gawped helplessly at the low, white ute passing by.
It must have been the first sighting of Holden's new ute for many of them. Considering it's the first new domestic ute on the market for a long, long time, the xenophobic display of uncritical affection was understandable. What they could not have realised is that HSV has turned Holden's workhorse into a sensitive new-age truck. While the obvious cosmetic makeover ensures a sky-high visibility quotient, the body bits are the least enthralling part of the story.What makes this thing a thoroughly modern machine is a suspension system that offers genuinely sporting levels of handling and grip and an engine that delivers muscle car performance.
HSV's starting point is Holden's VB powered VG. The stocker, like HSV's variant, isn't due on the market until October. Holden builds the VB only in S specification, which means that it arrives at HSV's workshops with a pair of bucket seats trimmed in cloth, carpets, a tachometer and a limited-slip differential. The only major choice to be made is whether to take the four-speed auto transmission or the five-speed manual.
John Mcinerney, engineering manager at HSV, says the engine receives the same treatment as that employed in the SV B9 and SV 90 sedans. That means it has a different ignition timing map, which takes advantage of the input from the knock sensor that HSV fits, a free-flowing exhaust system that's new from the catalytic convertor back and a low-restriction air · cleaner. Greater spark advance and better breathing mean 1BO kW and 400 Nm, instead of the standard engine's 165 kW and 3B5 Nm power and torque outputs.
Although the torque increase doesn't look very spectacular expressed as a bare figure, what is impressive is the way the torque curve has been fleshed out in the lower registers of the rev range.
The auto trans, like that fitted to the ute we drove, is recalibrated for crisper, sharper shifts and to give full-throttle upchanges at higher engine revs. HSV doesn't touch the five-speed manual box at all.
Mcinerney is emphatic that the 200 kW SV5000 engine will never be seen in the HSV ute. "I think, apart from anything else, it's a very sensitive issue with Holden's management . . . a performance ute is of concern to them. I don't know that I agree with that. .. "
In support of his argument, the engineer points to the weight of the ute. It's just 10 kg less than the SV B9. The mass is obviously shared between front and rear in similar proportion, too. Mcinerney admits that consideration was given, right at the beginning of the suspension development program, to measures which would shift the ute's natural weight bias rearwards. The idea never got beyond the discussion stage.
Although the basics of the suspension package were in place when Wheels drove the HSV ute, the finer details were still to be settled. Mcinerney explains that the starting point for HSV's development was a decision to try to retain the standard ute's payload. HSV's first try had basically SV5000 front suspension, with the standard springs in the back.
It was soon realised the stock load capacity would have to be dropped, for two reasons. The 225 .section tyres which had the load rating to cope with the standard payload were the first problem.
"Now the 225 tyre on that seven inch rim - which is the old VL Group A rim - on a sedan fouls the bodywork," expl ains Mcinerney. "The wagon underbody has got a smaller wheel envelope and the ute uses the wagon underbody. We put it together and drove it around and we had the tyres rubbing all over the sheet metal."
The second problem was the way the ute behaved with standard rear springs. "Frankly, we ended up saying we couldn't achieve satisfactory levels of ride comfort and handl ing and carry that load," Mcinerney admits.
The double-headed dilemma was solved by dropping the payload to 592 kg. This allowed the use of 205/55ZR16 Pirelli P700 tyres and softer rear springs from Holden's Commodore spare parts catalogue. The SV5000 front suspension was deemed satisfactory.
"We haven't finished this handling job, and definitely the shock valving is not right," Mcinerney cautions, adding that the rear anti-roll bar is almost certain to be increased in diameter by a couple of millimetres on production versions. "The biggest problem I see with the car, as it stands, is that there's insufficient damping on rebound."
Mcinerney is confident that situation will be substantially improved before the HSV ute is in the showrooms. "There's no question, we will get better," he says.
The other thing that will certainly change is the noise level inside the ute's cabin. Again, Mcinerney is blunt: "We will address the noise level in the ute. I don't believe that it's acceptable to try and market the ute without doing something."
Noise is definitely a problem with the car in standard form. Tyre noise, engine noise, wind noise; the ute has it all. And the fuel pump can be heard most of the time, whining away behind the cabin bulkhead like a puppy spending its first night out of doors. HSV will quieten the cacophony by applying spray-on sound deadening material in strategic locations.
The cosmetic additions, too, will be finessed somewhat before the ute's debut. The basic appearance of the fibreglass and plastic parts - like the cabin-top spoiler, with its integral high-mount brake light, and the rear skirt - will not change significantly. Nor will the forward-thrusting tubular roll bar in the tray. It's almost certain, however, that the black tonneau in the pictures will be superseded by one made from grey material.
"Grey, I guess, is our corporate colour - we're going to do the ute in white and red - and black just looks a bit like everyone else's ute," explains Mcinerney. If samples of grey material being tested in Holden's labs meet durability standards, it will definitely be used, he says.
Modifications inside the cabin are minimal. HSV trims the seats and door inserts in attractive red-flecked material and fits an overhead clock from Statesman/Calais instrumentation, including the useful trip computer, and a leather-bound Momo wheel. A decent sound system, probably featuring a remote magazine holding 10 COs, will be an option.
Hi-fidelity reproduction is the last thing on my mind, though, as the HSV ute nears the 400 metre marker. A clutch of Porsches are circulating on Calder racetrack, which incorporates Wheels ' usual Melbourne dragstrip. So instead we're using second best; pit lane of Thunderdome.
The steeply banked circuit's pit strip is Fred Nile straight, dead flat and a bit more than 400 metres long. It's a feat of strong neNes to keep the throttle mashed into the grey carpet for the entire distance, with a blind right hander onto the pit lane access road looming at 130 ... 140 ... 150 km/h.
There's just time to settle the ute under brakes, nailing its nose to the grippy bitumen, as the wheel is swung hard over. Needn't have worried. The ute turns in crisply, decisively. Neutral throttle midcorner, then it's possible to pour the VB's gruff power on as the exit looms. It 's beginning to push a little wide as the front Pirellis scream that their threshold of adhesion is being approached. Ease the pedal a fraction and the line tightens. Engineer Mcinerney mightn't be happy with the development ute's ride, but the handling is just fine by sedan standards. Judged against other utes, it's miraculous.
The impression doesn't fade as the day grows older. On public tarmac it proves possible to provoke fleeting oversteer, but only with brutal throttle and steering inputs.
Over typical patchwork Australian backroads the shortfall in rear rebound damping is evident, particularly on the kind of large amplitude subsidence ripples that go close to using up all the lowered suspension's travel. In conditions other than this, the ride is firm. It's not the incessant jiggling of some pseudo racer, rather the controlled motion of a well set up sporting suspension for public road use. The finishing touches that HSV will adopt should make it even more subtle.
The brakes aren't subtle at all. A couple of firm prods at very high speeds and the pedal effort begins to rise. A couple more and the four wheel discs begin to f-f-fade malodorously away. Really hard drivers may, in exceptional circumstances, find themselves wishing this seriously quick ute had better brakes.
How quick? The times from a standing start to the 1 00 km/h and 400 metre benchmarks - achieved with a young engine and 200 kg of ballast bolted in the tray - were 7.1 and 15.3 seconds respectively. The 400 metre time is exactly the same as that of the SV 89 tested by Wheels in May last year, the 0-100 km/h figure two tenths faster.
It's hard to judge what effect the 200 kg in the tray had on those times. A word of explanation here. HSV offered to hand us the ute unladen, with the 200 kg load or with full payload fitted. Since 200 kg is the load Mcinerney had used as a benchmark during his unfinished suspension development work, it seemed fairest to undertake this preliminary encounter with this weight on board. As well, 200 kg was thought to represent an average kind of load that an owner might normally carry. Our tight schedule meant it was impossible to try the ute in any other condition.
It proved next to impossible to achieve a wheel-spinning, axle-tramping departure on the Thunderdome standing start runs. The ute simply leapt off the line without giving the limited-slipper much to do. The diff might have worked harder had there been no load aboard and valuable time might have been wasted burning perfectly good rubber. But that's all speculation. Since the ute matched or bettered the SV 89's important times, it would appear that the added traction overcame the handicap of extra weight. The SV 89, remember, has the same engine and transmission and a kerb mass only 10 kg greater.
Where the HSV ute and the SV 89 diverge dramatically, however, is price. "How much is it?" everyone who saw it asked. It was impossible to answer the question then, but it can be done now. What you see before you will cost between $34,000 and $35,000, around $10,000 more than the standard VG V8, but $10,000 less than the SV 89 cost last year. But wait, HSV's ute price list will begin as low as the $28,000 mark, for Q ship versions sans cosmetics but with the important quick bits. Why, that's the kind of money even Highway Patrol officers might scrape together...