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Hyundai Santa Cruz concept proves there's life in the car-based ute yet


Australia's long love affair with car-based utes appeared doomed until Hyundai dropped a bombshell in Detroit last month.

The South Korean company rolled out the Santa Cruz concept, a car-based ute that could arrive here in about three years' time.

It probably won't generate the kind of sales of a workhorse body-on-frame ute such as the Toyota HiLux, but the city-friendly Santa Cruz could soon have a cult following of its own. History certainly suggests it could find plenty of fans in Australia.

If the Santa Cruz does lob in 2018, it will arrive here just months after Australia's last car-based ute rolls off the Holden production line in Elizabeth, South Australia.

The Commodore-based ute will die in 2017, a year after the Falcon-based ute is killed off.

These two once represented some serious sales volume for the two brands, but they are not the only car-based utes that have been loved by locals.

Subaru's Brumby put the company on the map after it was introduced here in 1978.

It was sold in the US as the Brat and gained a solid following there — president Ronald Reagan even used one for a decade on his ranch in Santa Barbara.

Subaru Australia spokesman David Rowley says: "It was huge in terms of building our all-wheel-drive brand as were the other niche vehicles Subaru came up such as the Forester, the WRX and Outback."

The Brumby was discontinued in 1994, but Rowley says he still gets the odd call from Brumby owners asking when Subaru plans to release a new one.

"I have let them down gently and explain there are no such plans," he says.

Rowley attributes the Brumby's appeal to its durability, especially the body, the fact it had 4WD and its keen pricing.

Hyundai reckons there is fertile ground for its new offering

It might be a long way away from showrooms, but the Santa Cruz looks like it could well emulate some of the Brumby's success, even if it does appear aimed more at city slickers.

Australia's love of car-based utes even extended to the Proton Jumbuck, a cheap hauler based on the small Persona, that was introduced in 2003.

It was front-drive, could only carry 550kg and the quality was ordinary, but it still sold in reasonable numbers and was Proton's best selling vehicle until it was killed off in 2010.

There were plans to replace it with another car-based low-cost ute, but nothing has surfaced yet.

Ford and Holden both shifted as many as 2000 Falcon and Commodore-based utes per month a decade ago before sales started to slide as more customers moved to the ever-improving workhorse utes such as HiLux and Ford Ranger. While the VFACTS numbers suggest Australians are falling out of love with car-based utes these days, with monthly sales of the Holden Commodore Ute down to 466 and monthly Falcon Ute sales slumping to 232, Hyundai reckons there is fertile ground for its new offering.

Hyundai Australia chief operating officer John Elsworth says: "We see great opportunity going forward for car/SUV based utes locally."

We know it will be a hit with Australians if the vehicle does make it into production

He says the car could create a new segment of crossover AWD utes.

"Twenty years ago a market didn't exist for crossover 4WDs, now SUVs are common place on Australian driveways. Likewise the crossover ute has the potential win over Australians with its versatility, a one vehicle for all occasions philosophy," Elsworth says.

The ex-Holden executive has no doubt the Santa Cruz would be a success should it be approved by Hyundai's top brass.

"We know it will be a hit with Australians if the vehicle does make it into production," he says.