Chevrolet Utility review

The Corsa Utility probably rates as one of the most understated success stories on the South African market, as hardly anyone takes note of the little three-quarter tonner (although people still align it with the half-tonne segment).

But when you begin taking cognisance of the number plying our roads, it’s actually quite astonishing. From couriers to flower shops, plumbers to security companies, you’re likely to spot one on just about every corner.

It has become the light commercial segment’s equivalent of man’s best friend, calmly and dependably getting on with the job of ferrying all manner of goods, services and people far and wide.

Beyond its working role, it has also developed a strong and committed following among private and recreational users. Unlike its primarily workhorse rivals, the Corsa Utility has played the leisure card like no other, being widely adopted by regular drivers that want the comfort of a small passenger car with the part-time versatility of a bakkie.

As a result, on any given day you’ll find them hauling everything from shrubs to surf-boards, rubble to off-road motorcycles . . . all with the load bay remaining largely pristine and unabused.

This venerable and versatile vehicle first hit the South African market in 1997, mirroring the then first-generation Corsa hatchback’s funky styling and trendy image. It also set new benchmarks in terms of load-lugging ability.

Generation two arrived in 2004 and simply continued the trend, matching affordability and efficiency with do-it-all capability. InMay 2009 General Motors SA delivered its 100 000th locally produced model, thusentrenching its status as a truly firm SA favourite.

A year later, Opel’s lightning bolt badge mutated into Chevrolet’s bow-tie badging, yet demand has continued unabated with almost 15 000 units sold between January and October this year. With a running average of around 1 400 sales per month, it has been the segment leader for close on seven years, and is among the top selling vehicles in SA – outright!

November 2011 signalled a major step-change for that model range, as it shifts even further away from its Opel heritage with an all-new platform based on the Brazilian-designed and engineered Chevrolet Montana.

The basic concept remains the same, offering compact dimensions, a car-like driving environment, segment-defining features andsuperlative versatility. But out goes the ‘Corsa’ nameplate, and it’s now simply the Chevrolet Utility. Give it a couple of months and ‘Chev Ute’ will be the norm – although it’s clearly worlds apart from the company’s hairy-chested Aussie-sourced V8 Lumina Ute.Aside from dropping the well-known and revered Corsa tag, South African buyers will also have to adapt to the far more . . . well . . . expressive styling.

My initial impressions, based on internet sourced launch images were less thancomplimentary, as it looked like a real mixed bag of design influences had been thrown into the pot, totally undiluted. Yet, if you’ll excuse the age-old adage, the styling really does seem to grow on you.

Granted, there are more curves, slices and contours than there are hairs on my head. And the combination of Chev’s two-tier grille and the elongated headlights won’t appeal to all. Plus the shoulder line of the load area has been extended and exaggerated compared to the outgoing model, and now envelopes the trademark side step rather than just nudging it as before – all of which is intended to give it an apparently ‘sharper look’. Different it certainly is, and it instantly makes the current model look totally introvert by comparison.

It was rather fitting that our first taste of the newcomer on local shores was in GM’s hometown in SA, Port Elizabeth. Following a R1-billion investment in GM’s Port Elizabeth plant, it will continue to be manufactured locally, and has been engineered for the SA market with revisions to the suspension in particular, to cope with our variable road conditions, and prevalence for gravel surfaces.

Our two fresh-off-the-line units – the silver 1.8 Sport and an appliance-white 1.4 Base – attracted a significant amount of attention wherever we went, from the buzz of theFriendly City all the way to the rural hinterland of the Hankey area.

Some people (including a couple of first- and second-generation Corsa Utility owners we came across) approved of the front, but found the square and angular rear off-putting. Others weren’t entirely convinced by the edgier front end treatment, but one thing’s for certain – it turns heads.This was particularly true of the top-spec 1.8 Sport derivative, with its black headlamp surrounds, more extensive colour-coding, neat five-spoke 15-inch alloy wheels, and its trademark roof spoiler, which is now finished in polished aluminium.

As before the Utility boasts impressive load-carrying numbers, with the capacity for hauling up to 763kg in the deep-set load compartment. Strangely though, this rating applies only to the entry-level 1.4 Basederivative, with the loadbox capacity – according to the supplied spec sheet – declining progressively in relation to the specification level: 743kg for 1.4 Base AC and 1.4 Club, 733kg for the 1.8 Base AC and 1.8 Club, 713kg in the 1.4 Sport and 703kg for the fully-featured 1.8 Sport.Interestingly, the rear edges of the side sills are smoothly curved to set the tone for a lower tailgate that finally addresses the restricted rearward visibility that plagued the outgoing Corsa Utility.

Head indoors and the cabin is instantly familiar, yet now with a higher level of sophistication. It retains the spacious execution of the current model with a useful 164-litres of storage behind the seats.A particularly eye-catching feature is the sophisticated new digital ventilation panel, with chromed-ring dials linked to an upmarket electronic display for fan speed, temperature and airflow.

The instrument cluster employs a similar design for the LCD display. However, I simply can’t reconcile the quirky retro design adopted for the speedometer, rev counter and fuel gauge which seems more 1985 Sierra than sharp 2011 trend-setter. Or is it just me?

Nevertheless, the specification levels are decent across the seven-model line-up, and all feature power steering as standard, height adjustment for the steering wheel and driver’s seat, as well as an immobiliser. The mid-level Club derivative gains the likes of remote central locking, as well as a six-speaker MP3-compatible sound system incorporating USB and auxiliary inputs, plus Bluetooth functionality for audio streaming and cellphone connectivity, and even voice-activated dialling.

The range-topping Sport boasts numerous cosmetic enhancements such as the 15-inch alloy wheels, roof spoiler, front fog lamps and additional body mouldings, plus electric windows, heated rear view mirrors and multi-function computer.

Although driver and passenger airbags are commendably now fitted across the board, ABS with EBD is exclusive to the Sport – a trend I still fail to understand, as it would be preferable to avoid an accident in the first place.This is clearly driven by the fleet buyers who prioritise impact protection overcollision avoidance.

The Utility has an interesting new suit, but it’s much the same under the bonnet. Only the two familiar petrol engines are available at launch, with a small-capacity diesel likely to follow. With 68kW of peak power and 120Nm of torque, the 1.4 eight-valve engine boasts marginally improved outputs (up from 66kW and 115Nm). At the coast the performance is more than acceptable, retaining Opel’s (um, Chev’s) keen ‘rev-ability’ and useful low-down punch, matched to well suited gear ratios. Fuel consumption is rated at 7.2ℓ/100km, down from the current 8.0ℓ/100km.

The 1.8-litre also retains the eight-valve configuration, with actually slightly less power (77 vs 79kW), while torque is fractionally up at 161Nm. Against-the-clock performance is likely to be unchanged, and this engine remains eager and gutsy across the rev range. Notably, consumption drops from 9.2 to 8.1ℓ/100km.

If there’s one idiosyncracy that annoyed during the driving experience, it was the fact that the gear lever rests right up against your left leg when fifth is engaged. And thetransition from Brazil’s left-hand-driveconfiguration to RHD seems to have resulted in a slightly offset steering wheel angle from left to right. Overall though, the level ofperformance, comfort and refinement makes the Utility a pleasure to drive and to live with.

Ultimately the new Chevrolet Utility matches tried, tested and much-loved attributes with an established reputation for segment-defining features. The edgy styling might create some debate, but it actually delivers much-needed character in an otherwise extremelyconservative market sector.

It remains one of the most competent, appealing and versatile compact pickups on the market, and will no doubt sell in copious volumes to further firmly entrench its position as one of SA’s most popular all-rounders