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Holden Colorado takes on Thai jungle

  • By David Morley
  • 21 January 2020
  • 18 min read

Timing, they say, is everything. But it cuts both ways.

A group of Australian journalists were headed for the airport, bound for Thailand when news of the abdication of Holden boss Dave Buttner broke this month. By the time those same motoring writers were in the air, the bombshell had dropped at Holden and the fallout was raining down.

Suddenly, the invitation to drive Holden Colorados in the Thai jungle, about 200km south of the Laos-Thailand border, was taking a back seat to questions over the very future of Australia's favourite car brand. The vultures were circling.

Meantime, as speculation raged over the brand-name's extinction, that same group of journalists were told that, as well as the Holden-badged product, we'd also have the chance to sample the same vehicle but with a Chevrolet badge and Thai-market specification (all Colorados and their variously-branded variants are made at GM's Thai factory). Suddenly, the jungle drums were beating double-time.

As speculation raged over the brand-name’s extinction, that same group of journalists were told that, as well as the Holden-badged product, we’d also have the chance to sample the same vehicle but with a Chevrolet badge and Thai-market specification. As speculation raged over the brand-name’s extinction, that same group of journalists were told that, as well as the Holden-badged product, we’d also have the chance to sample the same vehicle but with a Chevrolet badge and Thai-market specification.

Think about it: less than 48 hours after the news hitting that Holden's great hope, highly regarded ex-Toyota boss Buttner, was on the move against a backdrop of Holden's sensational sales slump and questions over its future, Aussie journalists were being invited to sample a Chevrolet-branded dual-cab ute. Two and two was suddenly becoming four. Or was it five? As it turns out, reports of Holden's death may have been premature.

The facts, as we know them now, include that Buttner's claims of leaving for personal reasons were true. The actual reasons are none of our business, but at least in this case, the expression was not a smoke screen for anything else.

Secondly, Holden's Thai counterparts had decided to allow us a taste of the Chevy-branded utes long before Dave Buttner had made his announcement. And, thirdly, the trip to the jungle to sample the Colorado in rather more trying circumstances than the average building site or boat ramp, had been in the planning for weeks beforehand. So, just bad timing then? It was looking like it.

Designed as a reintroduction to the Holden Colorado ute, the actual product didn’t hold too many surprises. Designed as a reintroduction to the Holden Colorado ute, the actual product didn’t hold too many surprises.

But, boy, there's unfortunate timing and then there's this.

Designed as a reintroduction to the Holden Colorado ute, the actual product didn't hold too many surprises. There's no doubt the vehicle is capable and Holden's claim that the ute really deserves to be in the top-three sellers in Australia in its class are hardly fanciful. The problem is, of course, that the competition in this increasingly important sector of the local market is fierce.

At the moment, the Colorado is well behind the two star performers, the Toyota HiLux and the Ford Ranger (the Mitsubishi Triton is third), while the Colorado lurks around, swapping with the Isuzu D-Max for fourth and fifth position most months. Fourth or fifth ain't bad, but the Holden generally claims less than half the showroom scalps that the Ranger and HiLux achieve.

Regardless of any sales pecking order, the Colorado made pretty light work of our off-road expedition to the summit of Pha Tad Hill, and while Thailand is known for its jungles and tropical climate, way up in the clouds in this part of the world, there's another Thailand to discover.

From Loei Airport (about 125km from the Laos capital of Vientiane) the main roads taking us south are quite heavily trafficked and there doesn't seem to be a consensus speed. Some cars travel a lot slower than others, so you need to be on your toes. The bigger towns can be crowded and bustling, too, and there are plenty of tourists getting lost and in each other's way.

The main roads taking us south are quite heavily trafficked and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus speed. The main roads taking us south are quite heavily trafficked and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus speed.

The Phetchabun mountain range dominates much of this region, so the air is vastly cleaner than in Bangkok and the temperature and humidity are also much lower. In fact, it can be quite chilly up in this area, but that doesn't stop the more intrepid tourists enjoying a spot of camping; tents and sleeping gear can be hired for not much money.

The terrain we climbed to Pha Tad Hill was pretty steep and would be virtually impassable in wet weather (let alone the violent rain storms the area receives), thanks to the red, volcanic clay that forms this part of the planet. Even in the dry, the tracks are often deeply rutted and wash-aways are not uncommon. But while there were small sections of heavily treed jungle, the rest of the landscape was amazingly similar to parts of Australia, including the odd Eucalypt.

Regardless of any sales pecking order, the Colorado made pretty light work of our off-road expedition. Regardless of any sales pecking order, the Colorado made pretty light work of our off-road expedition.

The organisers' decision to drive to the top of Pha Tad Hill in daylight and then drink coffee until it was dark for the drive out was a bit disconcerting. As an Aussie off-roader who travels off-road at night only when there's absolutely no other option, this was a bit confronting. The steepness of the terrain, meanwhile, also made the Colorado's standard headlights a bit of let-down, if only because they spent a huge proportion of the trip down the hill pointing into the clay, only about a metre in front of the vehicle.

The model featured below is the 2020 Holden Colorado Z71

This part of Thailand is largely populated by the Hmong people. Many of the villages dotted along the main road and hidden in little valleys are, indeed, homes to the Hmong; a race that was driven out of southern China in the 18th and 19th centuries in the face of a Chinese-settler-led attempt to commit genocide against them. Many Hmong clans fled to Laos, Vietnam and Thailand and remain there to this day. Yet they remain a race without a homeland and the Hmong have been listed on the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation since 2007.

The terrain we climbed to Pha Tad Hill was pretty steep and would be virtually impassable in wet weather. The terrain we climbed to Pha Tad Hill was pretty steep and would be virtually impassable in wet weather.

These days the Hmong are mostly farming families, but they're also known to have been recruited by the CIA during the Vietnam War last century where as many as 60 per cent of Hmong men joined up to fight (or at least resist) the communist Viet Cong. Many a downed US airman was rescued by the Hmong people and lived to fight another day. And if the name sounds familiar, the family portrayed in Clint Eastwood's film Grand Torino, was Hmong.

The villages in this part of the world have a pretty laid-back feel and nothing seems to move too fast. That said, there is always business being done (the Hmong are farmers by tradition) and tourists are more than welcome. As a drive, this was a transport section and although there's plenty of to see, there was no off-roading. But it did give us a taste of how the other half drives.

Coming out of the same Thai factory as the Holden version, of course, was the Chevrolet-badged Colorado. What's a bit puzzling is that we were allowed to sample the Thai version, despite it never coming to Australia as a replacement for our own Colorado or in any other form.

The villages in this part of the world have a pretty laid-back feel and nothing seems to move too fast. The villages in this part of the world have a pretty laid-back feel and nothing seems to move too fast.

That's mainly because the 2.5-litre engine is compliant only with Euro 4 emissions standards, and to modify it, to get it over the line for Euro 5 or even 6, would probably incur a penalty on its towing capacity, payload or, indeed, its fuel efficiency. And given Australia's preference to rely on a big engine and spin it slowly, the 2.8-litre unit in the Holden is not under threat from a smaller unit at this stage.

But if GM was to take the 2.5-litre unit and make it Euro 6-compliant, it probably wouldn't attract many complaints. Fundamentally, it's a good engine with a zingier, revvier feel compared with the 2.8-litre unit we get in Australian Colorados. The capacity does become a slight issue when taking off, and the Thai-spec engine feels slightly laggier when moving off from standstill. On the move, though, the six-speed auto does a good job of masking any holes in the torque graph.

 As a drive, this was a transport section and although there’s plenty of to see, there was no off-roading. As a drive, this was a transport section and although there’s plenty of to see, there was no off-roading.

On paper, it has the goods, too, and the variable-geometry turbocharger and 16-valve layout help it produce a maximum of 132kW at 3600rpm (147kW at 3600rpm for our variant) and 440Nm of torque at 2000rpm (470 at 2000rpm). To be honest, the difference between the two engines on the road is pretty much nothing. Interestingly, Chevrolet claims the exact towing capacity of 3500kg for the Thai-spec truck, and it also has the identical GCW to our Holden at 6000kg.

Perhaps the biggest difference is in the suspension. Although the Holden and Chevrolet share the same basic layout, the Thai vehicle feels a bit more stiffly sprung and doesn't seem to ride corrugations quite as well.

What’s a bit puzzling is that we were allowed to sample the Thai version, despite it never coming to Australia as a replacement for our own Colorado. What’s a bit puzzling is that we were allowed to sample the Thai version, despite it never coming to Australia as a replacement for our own Colorado.

The rest of the vehicles compare very similarly, too. They look the same (the popular-in-Thailand stick-on graphics aside) and inside, it will be little things like the fixed, rather than folding, grab-handles that separate the pair.

While Holden's fall from grace among Aussie car buyers is now a matter of record, the same fate has not befallen Holden's other market, New Zealand.

That may change now, of course, with the demise of the Commodore and Astra badges, but New Zealand has weathered the storm much more successfully to this point.

According to a Holden New Zealand spokesperson, while it still trails Toyota and Ford with about 20 per cent and 10 per cent of the NZ car market respectively) Holden is holding on to its traditional third or fourth place (along with Mitsubishi) with around eight per cent of the total passenger and light-commercial market in that country.

While there were small sections of heavily treed jungle, the rest of the landscape was amazingly similar to parts of Australia, including the odd Eucalypt. While there were small sections of heavily treed jungle, the rest of the landscape was amazingly similar to parts of Australia, including the odd Eucalypt.

To put that into perspective, the New Zealand car market is about 150,000 cars per year and, like here, total sales are falling annually, although only by about five per cent compared with 10 per cent in Australia.

By contrast, Holden's Australian fortunes are far less rosy: From the country's best-selling brand for most of the 19050, 60, 70s and part of the 80s, Holden has now slipped out of the top-10 car brands and in September this year held just 3.2 per cent of the market, behind Honda and Subaru.

Even against a total Australian market that is about 10 per cent down on 2018, this plunge is astonishing.

If GM was to take the 2.5-litre unit and make it Euro 6-compliant, it probably wouldn’t attract many complaints. If GM was to take the 2.5-litre unit and make it Euro 6-compliant, it probably wouldn’t attract many complaints.

Since the product lines in Holden's two markets are very similar and the New Zealand market has also swung around to SUVs and dual-cab utes as the main course, there's only really one explanation: The Kiwis simply aren't experiencing the cultural cringe that has put the brakes on Holden sales in Australia.

Apart from periods of local assembly by various brands, the New Zealand scene has always been a fully-Imported one, so there's simply not the resentment among buyers over the withdrawal of Holden as a local car-maker. Because, simply, it wasn't local to New Zealand anyway.

While Holden’s fall from grace among Aussie car buyers is now a matter of record, the same fate has not befallen Holden’s other market, New Zealand. While Holden’s fall from grace among Aussie car buyers is now a matter of record, the same fate has not befallen Holden’s other market, New Zealand.

Kiwis have grown up with imported Holdens, so there's no angst over, say, the new Commodore being made in Germany. That said, Holdens such as the Colorado, Astra, and all of Holden's past SUVs (the unloved Adventra aside) have been imported to Australia anyway, so it's a bit tricky to see how this local demarcation-line of resentment is calculated.

Nevertheless, it shows what we always suspected; Australians are a parochial bunch and never is that more evident than in the cars we hold dear. The big question now is what Holden's new boss does to arrest this sales slide and save the brand now that the Commodore has gone the way of the selfie-stick.

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