AFTER two popular versions of its threequarter- tonne bakkie under both Opel and Chevrolet badges, General Motors has now released the third generation with the sensibly concise title of Chevrolet Utility.
Size-wise, the new Ute is 78 mm longer but the wheelbase is a touch shorter. To improve rearward visibility, the tailgate has been shaved down. As far as styling goes, some mumble that the outgoing model looks neater, while others prefer the new shape. One thing is clear: the large, doubledecker grille now slots into Chev’s corporate appearance, so it firmly becomes a bona fide member of the family.
The rear bumpers have horn-like shapes, reminiscent of the Lumina Ute, and even the frontal aspect uses similar protrusions to give, especially this red example, a fiendish appearance that one team member likened to a Chinese dragon. The Ute sits high with large wheelarch gaps that make the 15-inch alloy wheels of this Sport version look undersized. No doubt some owners will try to fill them with aftermarket bling.
Our test car was the 1,4-litre (there is also a 1,8 Sport) that features front foglamps and darker headlamp surrounds than the cheaper Base and Club versions. Other standard features include electric windows (one-touch) and mirrors, remote central locking, auto lights-on, ABS with EBD (not fitted to the cheaper versions), a fuel-consumption computer and alloys.
If the exterior elicits mixed feelings, the interior fares better, with a zooty, PlayStation-like instrument binnacle with reducedsweep speedometer and rev counter surrounding a clear central display. Does the execution work?
It is well designed but does present a few issues. With the reduced needle-sweep, the vehicle and engine speeds are difficult to read. Also, the binnacle hood is too small, which allows sunlight to intrude and reflect off the panel. The fuel gauge is analogue and a digital coolant temperature gauge is included.
Loads of storage bins and cupholders are scattered throughout the cabin. The door pockets have removable partitions and there are two large bins in the side panels behind the seats, hidden out of sight of prying eyes. One of the best features, carried over from the Corsa Utility, is the excellent space provided behind the seats – enough for bags and parcels. Aiding the use of this space is decent legroom for driver and passenger, so the seats can be moved forward sufficiently if more luggage space is required.
Unfortunately, our resident 1,9-metre beanpole simply could not get comfortable in the driver’s seat. There is insufficient steering adjustment (minimal height only) and the seat does not drop low enough. However, shorter members of the team reported no such qualms.
Some of the cabin trim is flimsy and the door rubbers can easily be dislodged by feet on exiting the vehicle. The audio system is a basic rectangular, slot-in unit, but performs well enough with aux-in and USB ports to supplement the radio/CD. The USB slot sits close to the gearlever, especially when the gearbox is in fifth gear, so it would be wise to use a short memory stick for your music.
With no visible signs of this being a 1,4- and not a 1,8-litre model, your first drive might have you thinking that it has the larger engine. Only on opening the bonnet is the secret out.
The driveability of the s-o-h-c, eight-valve engine is impressive and around town the Chev performs well. We also feel that it should just manage to hold its own at higher altitudes and the gearing seems set up accordingly, as at 120 km/h the engine is spinning at a touch over 4 000 r/min, making for buzzy progress. There is little difference in the gearing between the 1,4- and 1,8-litre, incidentally (in fact, the final drive on the 1,4 is 4,19 versus 3,94 on the 1,8).
It is only when you try 0-to- 100 km/h sprints that you realise that this is no fire-breathing dragon. The best time we achieved was 14,5 seconds, which is on the slow side, but the performance figures do not do it justice, as the low-down torque is excellent and makes cut-and-thrust driving a relaxing affair. At higher altitudes, customers may prefer to opt for the 1,8, however. The fuel tank capacity is 56 litres, which is good for 648 km based on our fuel-index figure of 8,64 litres/100 km.
We quickly noticed an issue in congested traffic: the fuel cut-off on overrun causes some jerking when you re-apply the gas after backing off. Although a common problem in these times of striving for fuel efficiency, it’s a pity that this cannot be eliminated using the intelligent engine-management software. Furthermore, gearshifts could be more positive; a grating of the gears can result if you don’t use enough positive muscle. At first, the brake pedal is somewhat disconcerting because it is low-set and has a longish travel, making one wonder whether there is a problem. Braking times, however, were not too poor for a bakkie, with an average stopping time of 3,38 seconds, or 50,4 metres. Unfortunately, only the Sport models feature ABS. This is a pity, as this technology is a far more important feature in daily use than the dual airbags fitted to all models.
The steering is well weighted and positive, thanks to hydraulic power assistance, but the directional stability at higher speeds could be better as the vehicle tends to wander, especially in windy conditions. Suspension is compliant at the front end and firmer at the rear to take a full load without bottoming out. To test this, we loaded our dusty old concrete blocks onto the load bay, 750 kg in total, which is 13 kg shy of the maximum payload allowed. There was still around 70 mm of suspension travel left and the tyres seemed happy enough under the strain.
In addition to the load test, the Chev was also put to good use transporting all sorts of items, including a chest freezer, bunk bed, a scooter and three loads of grass sods, the latter requiring some cleaning out of the load bay. This proved tricky, since the sand had to be swept into the gap at the base of the tailgate. On closing the gate, sand would accumulate in the inner corner of the rear step, where access to remove it was awkward. The best solution would be to use a vacuum cleaner with a narrow nozzle.
The load-bay dimensions are 1 340 mm wide (1 119 mm between the arches), 1 680 mm long and 525 mm high, and tiedown brackets are located about 100 mm above the load-bay floor to suit most cargo loads. Black plastic load-bay surrounds also have eyelets for further straps and the rear window incorporates a sliding section; just don’t leave it open with the car locked as a strong breeze will set off the alarm system.
The Chev Utility is bound to carry on from where its predecessors left off – as a market leader in this segment, especially with the recent demise of the Ford Bantam and the Nissan NP200 starting to show its age.
The design may prove questionable to some and we have quibbles with interior comfort, but these are outweighed by the acceptable performance and strong loadbearing ability, not to mention good storage space in the cabin and an established and widereaching dealer network. We see no reason why buyers would not again be bowled over by the Ute’s charms.