Buying Used: Holden V6 Ute VU-VZ (2000-2006)

words - Cliff Chambers
The humble ‘ute’ has moved from workhorse to status symbol and even motor sporting hero. So how do load-carrying Commodores stack up in the 21st century market?

Holden had been building ‘utes’ for almost 70 years before it broke the mould and produced a load-carrier with independent rear suspension. Three years later brought back the highly-regarded One Tonner configuration that had been absent for 18 years and then added an advanced engine design that delivered a hefty boost in performance and efficiency to the six-cylinder commercial range.

HISTORY
More than two years had elapsed following Holden’s release of the Commodore VT passenger car range before a revamped utility finally arrived. Much of the delay had been caused by the desire to make this the first-ever Holden ‘ute’ with independent rear suspension replacing the time-honoured live-axle.

The VU model that appeared in December 2000 came with a distinctive new nose; including the VT’s altered front panels, larger headlights and split grille.

Two V6 versions were available; the base model Utility selling at $23,330 and a more opulent ‘S’ version at $27,690.

Holden began its 21st Century sales chase giving away a huge margin to Ford’s Falcon. During 2000, just 6361 commercial Commodores were sold, against 13,700 Falcons. Five years later, with both brands registering more than 18,000 sales, the Commodore had its nose in front and owned 23.7 per cent of the segment against the Falcon’s 23.1.

Tweaking the ancient but still willing V6 extracted 5kW more than had been available from the preceding VS III. Five-speed manual transmission was standard with four-speed automatic adding $730 to the basic price and air-conditioning a hefty $2200.

Slick styling and sporty suspension settings took a toll on practicality. The basic ute had a rated capacity of 780kg, but that was cut to 735kg for the ‘S’ version. Installing an LPG tank robbed users of the handy section of tray beneath the rear cabin window.

Commercial versions of the VU ‘S’ included alloy wheels, power windows and seat adjustment, multi-function steering wheel, cruise control a trip computer and a standard limited-slip differential.

Almost two years after the VU range appeared it was replaced by the revamped and more costly VY. Despite Holden spending plenty on new front panels, improved lights and wind-noise reduction measures, the VY didn’t look significantly different from the VU.  

Most important for Holden during the VY’s lifespan was the return to its range after of the sadly-missed One Tonner.

Available in base and ‘S’ trim but only with four-speed automatic transmission, the new tray-back Commodore used a completely different chassis from the car-based utes.

In place of the independent rear end, ‘Tonners’ reverted to leaf-spring rear suspension and with it came the ability to carry up to 1280kg. Complementing the ‘Torque Arm’ chassis design were stronger wheels and tyres, a heavier tailshaft and retuned front suspension.

The VZ model launched in August 2004 brought significant mechanical improvement to the entire six-cylinder Commodore range. After almost two decades of the US-designed, overhead-valve V6 engine, Holden introduced a vastly improved twin overhead-camshaft replacement.

With 3.6 litres, the new ‘Alloytec’ motor was smaller in capacity than the version it replaced, lighter and more efficient. With 175kW, delivered 15.2 per cent more power than the previous 3.8-litre engine.

During 2003 the ute range broadened to include a four-door Crew Cab model. When the VZ range arrived, the price of a 3.6-litre base model was cut by $200 to $32,290 and included the new six-speed manual transmission. During 2006, standard ABS brakes were added and the price rose by $700.   

From mid-2005, 4WD Cross 6 versions of the Crew Cab and One Tonner became available, with the tray-back starting at $31,990 and a basic four-door costing $44,990.  

ON THE ROAD
With its persona becoming increasingly car-like, the ‘ute’ is viewed by many buyers as a sports car with a really enormous boot.

The configuration inevitably provides chassis engineers with the problem of designing a suspension that will deliver acceptable handling whether the tray empty or strained by a 700kg load.

Without weight over the rear axle, utes have traditionally bunny-hopped over bumps as their compromise springs struggled to maintain grip. Holden’s independent rear suspension deals better than most with changing road conditions, steers well and handles with reasonable predictability.

The ute cabin has plenty of shoulder room but very tall drivers might find it a little cramped for length.  Seats in later models improved considerably and there is reasonable front and rear vision, especially when compared to the later VE version.

Storage space is limited to a narrow shelf behind the seats with an oddments bag. Some owners opt for a removable box in the tray to keep valuables safe and out of the weather. A hard tonneau cover was optional when the vehicles were new and a lot have been fitted with fibreglass canopies that properly enclose the tray.

Six-cylinder Commodore utes are most likely to have four-speed automatic transmission, which is more durable than the manual when consistently carrying heavy loads or towing a trailer.

If you aren’t using your Commodore for serious haulage then the manual gearbox – five or six-speed – delivers quicker acceleration and considerably better economy than the auto.

With automatic transmission, a standard VU utility would take around 10 seconds to accelerate from stationary to 100km/h. Choose a VZ ‘S’ six-speed and that time will drop to a tick over eight seconds. Average fuel consumption with auto transmission is around 12L/100km, but a load can affect that significantly.  

Although lighter and better engineered than its predecessor, the Alloytec V6 doesn’t match the smooth power delivery of a V8 or even Ford’s in-line Falcon six-cylinder. Maximum power doesn’t arrive until 6000rpm and the engine gets rowdy well before that figure is reached. Styleside versions develop maximum torque at 2800rpm but in the ‘workhorse’ One Tonner and Crewman it arrives at 2400rpm.

That change can make a significant difference, especially to 4WD versions which benefit from low engine speeds when negotiating mud or sand.
A completely new braking system introduced with the VZ model cut several metres from stopping distances. The stopping problems that dogged earlier models can be minimised by choosing a vehicle with ABS installed. This significant feature was standard to the ‘S’ version but optional on base-models and well worth some extra dollars when choosing a used ute.

CHECK POINTS
>> Ask to see the service book and original delivery details. Many will have been sold new as business vehicles – hard workers for sure but also religiously serviced. If subsequent owners have not maintained the vehicle and its recent history is sketchy, be wary.
>> Bed-liners weren’t standard and one that looks reasonably new may be concealing rust-promoting dents and scrapes. Look especially at the panel beneath the rear window for impact marks.  Check underneath ‘styleside’ utes for damage to the long overhang and One-Tonners for loose or damaged tray attachments.
>> Older six-cylinder engines are known for intermittent stalling behaviour. Various causes have been suggested including loose coil connections and even a failing battery. Ensure that the test drive is long enough to check for unexpected engine shut-down or stuttering under light throttle.  
>> Manual-transmission utes can suffer premature clutch wear and failure. Accelerate in top gear from around 40km/h to check for clutch slip.
>> IRS problems such as sagging springs and worn differential cradle bushes can be caused by overloading or abuse. Edge-worn tyres indicate problems that need to be checked by a suspension specialist.  

USED VEHICLE GRADING
Design & Function:
14/20
Safety: 12/20
Practicality: 14/20
Value for Money: 15/20
Wow Factor: 10/20
TOTAL SCORE
65/100

ALSO CONSIDER: Ford Falcon Ute, Mitsubishi Triton V6, Mazda Bravo

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Published : Monday, 19 March 2012
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