If it makes you mad that GM's most affordable performance cars are off limits to Americans, then don't read this. By Johnny Hunkins Photography: Johnny Hunkins When I first laid eyes on the 2001 Holden SS Ute, I thought I had died and gone to car-guy heaven. Stylistically, it's a cross between a Chevy El Camino and a 2001 Pontiac Grand Prix. Mechanically, it's a cross between a Camaro Z28 and a C5 Corvette. Checkbookwise, it's the equivalent of $20,000 US dollars. The only problem is that you can't buy one--here. Holden, GM's Australian division, has been making bad-ass cars for years. The fuel crunches of the '70s and '80s that so crippled the American performance car market never hit Australia, and as a result many of the tarmac pounders that crawl the streets Down Under perform like the musclecars of yore. Think of it like this: Australia is just like the United States, only it's been in a cool parallel universe for the past 25 years. There, automakers like GM and Ford make car-guy cars at a price virtually everyone can afford. The SS Ute is a member of Holden's rear wheel drive family of cars known generally as the Commodore/Calais line-up. (The current Holden range also contains a slew of other cars, which we'll explain later on.) This means they all share similar (if not identical) chassis, suspensions, powertrains, and styling. In understanding the Holden vehicle line, it helps to abandon your current notion of American platform engineering and branding; most of GM's US cars have totally different platforms, manufacturing plants, powertrains and styling, which means less economy of scale, subcontracting and shipping nightmares, lots of marketing tomfoolery, and extra cost passed on to you and me. The Aussies cut right to the meat of things: the cars are all the same, so pick your price/trim level and pick your engine (think Chevrolet circa 1957). The SS Ute is an engineering marvel, considering its modest cost. Like all rear wheel drive Holdens, it's based on the unit-body GM2800 platform, which is a highly-evolved Opel Omega chassis. Sharp readers will recall that the current Cadillac Catera is based on the GM2800, albeit with an emasculated Opel 3.0-liter engine. Among the SS Ute's technological goodies are a fully independent suspension (that's right, the SS Ute has IRS, like all the vehicles in the Commodore VX range), traction control, ABS, a 312-hp LS1 V8, and your choice of 4L60E automatic or T-56 manual 6-speed transmission. If it's starting to sound like the Ute SS is a souped-up modern-day El Camino, you'd be right. With a curb weight of 3574 lbs., the 225kW (312-hp) Camaro-spec LS1 easily pushes this little truckster to high 13s, that's with an automatic trans and numerically-low 3.08 gears according to our smug Australian friends. The unfairness of it all jumped right in our face when we had the miraculous opportunity to drive an SS Ute for most of the day. The chance came during an innocuous press junket sponsored by Vortec Powertrain. The invitation to fly down to beautiful Pasadena was ostensibly to introduce us to the 2002 Z06 Corvette (which we'll drag test for you at a later date) and to sample such inspired Vortech-powered products as industrial fork lifts and swamp boats. As an afterthought, one of the few remaining fun-loving GM techies (a Motorsports guy if you must know) had the presence of mind to snag a 2001 Holden SS Ute which had concurrently completed some hot-weather testing at the Mesa, Arizona proving grounds. Considering that this sole pilot-line vehicle was shipped to the US at great expense to GM, we were surprised that our request was granted, so we made the most of our one-day shore leave. We immediately squirted off to the Angeles National Forest near Glendora, California for some impromptu testing on some curvy mountain roads. We found out just how good the IRS and the four-wheel vented disc brakes in the Ute SS really are, and that's saying something considering that we were a bit woozy driving from the "wrong" side of the car. Within 30 seconds, I was acclimated to the right-hand drive. It's not really that hard to get used to; the position of the turn stalk on the right side of the steering column was the only freaky thing to remember. (We're guessing a manual 6-speed would take a little more getting used to--perhaps a minute or two.) Most fun of all was heading back to civilization after the photo shoot. We cruised through the streets of Glendora, West Covina and Pasadena on a Friday night and got tons of stares and compliments. The first thing people are blown over by is the Ute's good looks. Then they realize that nobody is driving the car. Then they realize that the passenger is really the driver; that's when the light bulb turns on and the questions start coming in like a Vietcong artillery salvo. The most memorable moment was pulling up to the valet parking attendant at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena. The look on the attendant's face was priceless as he mentally masticated over the thought of parking this job while sitting in the "passenger seat." Hell, the shock value of a right-hand drive alone is worth owning one here in the US!One other thing: we actually got a chance to drag test the SS Ute. A makeshift 1/8-mile drag strip had been set up in the parking lot of Irwindale Speedway. (Bad idea guys, let's stick to roundy-round!) Using a vacuum-tube timing system which was undoubtedly left over from the original Irwindale Dragway, we clocked a lackluster 9.70 at 76 mph. (That was with a really hot motor and lots of non-driving newspaper suits flogging it before us.) Did we mention no traction compound or even a burn box? Obviously, under proper testing conditions, we have no doubt that the SS Ute could pound off innumerable 13-second ETs given its power and weight. Are You "Holden" On? The parking lot of the Irwindale Speedway made for a lousy drag strip, but we gave it the old college try anyway and came away with a 9.70/76. That's way off the pace for a 13-second run, but we had to share it with about 40 other American journalists, all of whom had to do a gratuitous burnout. We must admit that our experience with the Holden SS Ute was our first introduction to anything Holden. However, we didn't feel so bad about our ignorance when we discovered that nobody at the GM press function knew a damn thing about it either. Our research data came via the world wide web, largely through www.holden.com.au. (The "au" tells your computer to look at Australian sites. Don't forget to punch it in on your browser!) What we immediately discovered is that the Australian market--and Holden in particular--is literally jam-packed with performance bargains. We became giddy with the possibilities. Literally the entire mid-size and large car range at Holden is available with a choice of two killer engines. Turns out the LS1 isn't the only performance powertrain. Just under the 225kW LS1 (called alternately the Generation III V8 or the Heritage V8 in Australia), is the Ecotec supercharged V6. Rated at 171 kW (that's 240 hp for us Yanks), the Ecotec supercharged V6 is none other than the Eaton-inflated 3.8-liter Buick V6 found in the Pontiac Grand Prix GTP and the Regal GS. The big difference is that it's driven by the proper wheels via a Hydramatic 4L60E. Even more exciting is that next year's Australian version of the blown V6 will be uprated to 200 kW (approximately 270 hp) and be available with a 5-speed tiptronic automatic trans. The combination of Holden cars and powertrains is staggering. It's like the old days when you checked off the order blank with whatever engine you wanted. You can get pretty much every car in the line-up with any engine, from the bottom of the line Executive VX, to the top of the line Caprice. Make sure you're sitting down for this next one--preferrably with a box of tissues: We priced out a Holden Executive VX (the entry-level four-door sedan) with the 312-hp LS1, automatic four-speed trans, air conditioning, power windows and door locks, dual airbags (they're optional in Australia), traction control, limited slip differential, FE2 performance suspension, standard IRS, and cop-sized 205/65R15 tires (for the sleeper look) and came up with a list price equivalent to $19,730 US dollars. Un-frigging-believable. Why so cheap? Other than a trio of econo boxes, GM's entire vehicle line-up in Australia is based on this one platform--the Opel Omega-derived GM2800. Australia being a modest-sized market (only 19 million blokes total), GM correctly decided to limit the number of platforms to keep costs down. Costs are further reduced by importing all of its engines from the US--the number of those also being limited to just three across the entire Commodore line. (The entry level is the Ecotec V6, a renamed naturally-aspirated 3800 Buick, rated here at 200 hp.) One last tidbit of heart-wrenching technical info. The powertrains for the LS1-powered Commodores are directly from the F-body parts bin, that is to say the engine and trans (both A4 and M6) are the same as Camaro and Firebird. There are only minor differences in calibration due to the reduced quality of Australian fuel. Just Call It A Commodore You wouldn't know from looking at the engine cover, but the SS Ute has a 312-hp LS1 under it. It's the same one that's in the F-body, but with a slightly different calibration. The engine cover, called a "turtle" by our Australian mates, causes heat build-up and reduced performance. Removing it is usually the first "mod" performed. Like we said before, try not to get all confused by Holden nomenclature. If you really need help, there are web sites you can go to for enlightenment. We found the "Unofficial Commodore Archive" (www.uq.net.au~zznweber/commodore/index.html) to be extremely helpful in sorting out the names and dates. Also, Holden's official site (www.holden.com.au) gave us the low-down on the current VX range. ("Range" is an Australian term for "car line," but also makes additional inference to the year or years it was built.) Here's a primer. Australians rarely refer to their Holdens by model year. They go by "range," also known as a "series." For instance, the LS1 made its first appearance in the Holden Commodore/Calais in 1998, which began the VT II series. The VT series (including VT I and VT II) ran from September 1997 to September 2000. We're now on the VX series (September 2000 to present). The next series will be the VY series. (Technically, the SS Ute is a VU series as it was designed just prior to the VX series, even though it was actually introduced to the public after the VX.) Series built previous to the VT offered Australian-specific powerplants (VP, 1991-1993; VR, 1993-1995; VS, 1995-1997), which is why until recently, Holdens rarely drew attention from American audiences. Now that GM is trying to share powertrains across its international divisions (i.e., LS1 Vortec and Buick V6), we now have reason to be curious--and envious, but we digress. There is just one rearwheel drive platform at Holden, which is broken down into a short- and a long-wheelbase variant. The short wheelbase variant (at 2788mm) is the basis for the Executive Sedan, Acclaim Sedan, Commodore S, Commodore SS, Commodore Equipe Sedan, Berlina Sedan and Calais, while the long-wheelbase version (2939mm) is home to the Executive Wagon, Acclaim Wagon, Commodore Equipe Wagon, Berlina Wagon, Ute, S Ute, SS Ute, Statesman and top-of-the-line Caprice. Both short- and long-wheelbase RWD variants share the LS1 as either standard equipment or an available option. Every single one of them, we might add, features IRS and four-wheel disc brakes as standard equipment. Now imagine if you could get a 5.7-liter LS1 in everything from a Grand Prix SE to a Cadillac STS and you've pretty much got the picture. One interesting idiosyncrasy about the RWD Holden line-up is that--with the exception of the Ute--all of them have at least four doors, a curious predilection in the Australian population towards practicality. Holden is currently readying a two-door version of the Commodore called the Monaro, whose entry into the market coincides not-so-coincidentally with the death of the Camaro and Firebird in 2003. (It also arrives simultaneously with a tiptronic 5-speed automatic which will be available on Holden's entire RWD range.) America is truly up the creek without a paddle when that happens. Rubbing Salt In The Wound It's kind of weird driving a right-hand drive car, but you get used to it in a hurry. You don't get used to the killer performance and outrageous good looks. Oh, those are leather seats, and the list price for a fully loaded Holden SS Ute is under $25,000 US. Lest you think the US can't have a version of the Commodore or Caprice on account of the export cost or the inability to engineer a left-hand drive version, you would be absolutely incorrect. We discovered that LHD versions of both are available in the Middle East. Citizens of OPEC nations can enter a Chevrolet showroom and drive off with a choice of an LS1-powered Lumina SS (basically a rebadged and desmogged Commodore SS) or an LS1-powered Caprice SS (see sidebar). Crash worthiness a problem you say? Nope. Holden has engineered side impact airbags for their RWD cars--an option which easily satisfies future US crash standards. So what in God's name is keeping GM from giving us the goods? We've asked them on several occasions, including at the Vortec Power press junket where we cornered several engineers at a posh cocktail party. As you might imagine, they were far more talkative about the Z06, which has a price tag more than twice as high as the SS Ute. But there's always hope for the new Cadillac CTS (and more affordable domestics to be spun off from the upcoming Sigma platform) which will be built at GM's spanking new Lansing Grand River plant. Sigma, which is an evolutionary derivative of the GM2800, shares many engineering elements with the Holden RWD line and will appear in Cadillac showrooms sometime in 2003. A natural you might think for the LS1. The LS1 engine is built in nearby St. Catherines, they already fit like a glove into the Holden version, and we want 'em. Unfortunately--for the foreseeable future--the only engine to be offered in the CTS is the relatively anemic, naturally-aspirated 3.2-liter Opel V6. That's a modest increase in displacement from the current 3.0-liter Opel in the current Catera, but it's a long, long way from a 5.7-liter LS1, or even the forthcoming supercharged 270-hp V6 Ecotec, which will be the mid-level engine in Holdens. We are totally miffed by this move in light of Cadillac's huge push into both motorsports and the highly-competitive European market. Will GM USA ever come to its senses and give us what we want, or will enthusiasts be driven in increasing numbers to new affordable competitors like the Subaru WRX, Focus SVT and Acura RSX? Right now, GM's affordable-performance gun is loaded with only one bullet: the Pontiac Vibe GT. We don't think it will be enough. Do you?