Holden Colorado: Only soft on the inside

Does the see-me-out update for the Colorado leave Holden's biggest rig setting the pace or simply catching up?

DAY one, we towed and hauled contracting gear around the city – day two, we drove that sucker along a risky road to a remote rural valley and then, gasp, attacked a rutted and muddy farm track that ended at the top of a 914-metre high hill.

After all that? Another huge challenge: Crossing a river that was, I kid you not, potentially knee-deep in places.

All up, surely a huge abuse to deal to any fashion funky vehicle, not least a type increasingly favoured as an all-in-one family fun-mobile.

Get real. It’s the Holden Colorado. A truck born to muck, regardless that it is increasingly being used for anything but dirty work.

Holden’s decision to put their MY2017 range to real work for the media evaluation event was a good un, providing a timely reminder that this increasinngly glammed model is still, even in an age of enforced attunement to the whims of an important soft-handed audience, still a workhorse.

That includes the doublecab turbodiesel auto variant that comfortably accounts for more than half the Colorado volume. It says much abut the era we're in that, even within the motoring media, we need reminding that utes are still ... well, utes. And that the LTZ and flagship Z71 are still toilers, regardless that these have become preferred by weekend warriors. Though not as preferred as two rival rigs that have been giving it the bash, big time, in sales this year.

We’ve previously outlined detail of what appears – by my reckoning – to be this generation's fourth (coming after an initial facelift in 2014 then a couple of minor remedial actions in 2013 and 2015) rework, one that this time completely ignores enhancing its already considerable muscle and instead focuses more on improving its manners.

While there are significant mechanical changes that, operationally-speaking, will suit the rough equally as well as the smooth, it’s the updates to issues that never once mattered in utedom – refinement, ride quality, street-driving smarts and even safety – that take higher priority.

It’s pretty obvious that the changes within the cabin – notably the inclusion of more car-like trims in the high-end rigs and the implementation of a swank infotainment setup affording the in-vogue Apple CarPlay and Android Auto abilities (which, admittedly, is a Holden-wide initiative) were more to keep sweet with jetski/moto-cross running owner set than with the contractors’ federation.

Still, this 'car-cification' is core tothe traydeck trend so it’s easy to understand why the doublecabs, which dominate and almost certainly generate the most profit, now dress more aflluently.

Holden New Zealand’s managing director, Kristian Aquilina, is certainly a believer in taking every opportunity in this direction.

He cites that it would be mad not to do everything possible to ensure increased volume when we’re in a time when consumer desire to use these as car and sports utility substitutes – his words, not mine - is driving interest to unprecedented level.

Improving the refinement, active and passive safety systems and comfort level; making the truck more car-like, to suit changing consumer tastes, but without losing its inherent toughness or impinging on engine outputs that were already class-leading for a four-cylinder turbodiesel. That’s the impetus, he says.

So, is it good enough now to chase down and beat those two rivals that, year to date, that have left Holden’s offer holding a generally lonely third?

Some media colleagues came back from the initial taster drive in Australia reckoning this Colorado has the right stuff to run down Ford’s Ranger and the second-placed Toyota Hilux. After all, it always had the power: It just needed more polish.

However, if Colorado is to set the sales standard, first it has to seriously pick up the sales pace. That’s why Aquilina is not overly swayed by such journalistic jingoism, as you will see in the video interview above.

The gap is too great to make it so this year. With 2339 registrations as at the end of August, Colorado is two percent down on its volume for the same period of 2015 whereas the Ford, with 5646 registrations, and Toyota (on 4235) have increased their year-on-year gains.

Colorado is hardly a loser. It remains comfortably ahead of the Mitsubishi Triton, Nissan Navara and Mazda BT-50, is still selling well enough to be Holden’s top performing model and will likely beat its 2015 total of 3586 units.

But even with that best case scenario, it might yet end the year 3000 units behind Ford, whose offer has already reset monthly records at least three times over the past two years and is now also undergoing a refresh.

Aquilina is not dis-satisfied with his volume, reminding that the ute market has trebled in size since 2006, and expresses confidence that a process that Holden says gives Colorado “Swiss army knife-like” functionality and improved all-round value will raise its stature.

“Out of the top 10 new vehicles this year, five of them come from this segment.

“Yes, we’re No.3, so currently the bronze medalist. We have greater aspirations, of course, that we hold privately but from our perspective (the update) was all about investing heavily in the product at this point in its life cycle to make sure we were truly meeting the expectations of our customers.”

Holden is saying little about how long the current rig has to go, but potentially it’s four years at most given that Isuzu – which has co-developed the current model – has already signaled that it will, in 2020, quit marriage with General Motors to begin a new partnership with Mazda. This change of relationship is expected to see the next Colorado become a fully in-house GM job, probably a global offer out of America.

Anyway, back to the present and last week’s media days, which showed the MY17 range in good light, though the heroics were really all in an ordinary day’s work and were, in fact, merely repeating feats from past media events for this rig.

The challenge of hauling a variety of weighty contractor-style items were lugged by the models, either off the tow hook or in the tray, to showcase their load-carrying ability on a mainly city-based drive around Christchurch and Lyttelton was a good one. It reminded that Colorado is a sector leader with its 500Nm torque and 3.5-tonne towing capability.

Mind you, we did the same thing – with even, from memory, heavier loads – when the Holden was introduced back in 2012. Ford also ran the same kind of demo drive when it launched Ranger.

Next day’s 200km expedition through the remote and picturesque Lees Valley was also enjoyable. As mentioned, this involved traversing the tightly twisting single lane gravel access road interspersed with fords and a decent river crossing, and also threw in a farm trek to one of the highest points of the valley; a real mud-slug with lots of ruts and bumps to challenge the powertrain, suspension and body structure.

Déjà vu or something new? Past launches for previous updates have also included off-roading, but a genuine NZ farm is a new twist. The previous Colorado expedition I undertook was a run in forests and on beaches north of Brisbane.

I’m not suggesting this stuff shouldn’t be done: It’s great fun off-roading a Colorado because it especially feels born to smash this sort of stuff. That includes the most street-savvy of them all, that Z71 flagship, which I and Aquilina rode in to the top of that massive hill. Conjecture that its lowish-profile 18-inch rubber is more Gucci than gumboot was undone: It simply cruised up as easily as the more sensibly shod LTZ alternates in our 10-rig convoy.

So, if these exercises were expected to reveal a complete change of character, then tough luck. It continues – thankfully – to trade on great strength and durability. It’s still one of the best choices for those who want to knuckle down and get on with the job.

But, yeah, maybe there’s a bit less Swanndri and a bit more Rodd and Gunn about the high-end models now. Electric power steering with a faster steering rack, digressive front and rear dampers, revised spring rates, a thicker front stabiliser bar and different tyres are among the major chassis changes.

While the 2.8-litre diesel retains the same level of performance as previously, powertrain engineers not only found a 0.4 litres per 100km economy improvement and Euro Five compliance but also improved noise, vibration and harshness. Measures include shifting the balance shaft, a new automatic transmission torque converter, revised engine and transmission mounts and anti-noise shielding on the diesel injectors, timing cover and oil pan.

The torque converter is now what Holden calls a central pendulum absorber (CPA) type that is usually seen on premium diesel passenger cars. This, Holden’s lead development engineer Amelinda Watt told us, reduces engine noise and vibration by cancelling out torsional vibrations normally felt in the cabin.

How does this translate to road and rutted track? Holden’s engine has never been the quietest in class yet, while it still roars heartily when the rig is rushing through ankle-deep mud in low range, it is not so vocal in highway running and the idle chatter, while still obvious, is no longer so loud as to dominate.

Making more improvement to refinement is the addition of a lot of extra noise insulation. The drive to quieten it down even stretches to the implementation of extra-fat door seals, so effective that the side glass has been engineered to auto retract whenever the doors open or close. This is to allow air to escape. Otherwise the doors don’t close properly.

Adoption of the same power steer system that went into the latest Commodore is a good score. It makes it easier to drive around town – and also when you’re trying to reverse a big trailer – and doesn’t affect the feel that comes in handy when you’re driving off-road.

As expected, the facelift delivers the same styling revisions that came to its same-named Chevrolet-badged equivalent that went public in April. A look that will also transfer to the Trailblazer seven seater wagon communicates strength and delivers coherent association with the Acadia and Equinox sports utilities coming in 2018.

The inclusion of the MyLink system with colour touch screen and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, auto headlights and LED daytime running lights are all pluses for a working truck. All versions save the cab chassis types take a reversing camera – and reversing sensors.

Providing the top of the range LTZ and Z71 with 18-inch rims, Front Park Assist, Forward Collision Alert, Lane Departure Warning, tyre pressure monitor, power folding exterior mirrors and rain-sensing windscreen wipers are all sops to the recreational buyer, but nothing wrong with that.

Personalisation is big business that Holden intends to tap more extensively, with 77 accessories – 28 of them new -  including a safari bar, fender flares, LED driving lights and all-terrain tyres. Many of the add-ons were previewed on the Colorado Xtreme concept vehicle brought in for the Fieldays. A pity the concept’s impressive wheels don’t make the showroom.

First impression? On the strength of my time at the wheel, I’d suggest it still lacks the dynamic dexterity that has been engineered into the Ford and Toyota. On the other hand, it’s also potentially the rig that might pull those city slick rivals out of the muck when your off-roading day turns bad.

I’m not unhappy about that.