Home grown manufacturing may be shutting up shop, but Aussie design and engineering is still hard at work. The new Colorado gets a second chance to prove itself a worthy fleet option.
WORDS SCOTT MURRAY | IMAGES EDDIE PAN
As Australian production lines slowly flick off the lights, draped sheets over equipment and line workers begin clocking off, it has never been more important for Holden to prove itself. For fleet buyers, the first-generation Colorado was a little out of its depth, sometimes considered underdone or lackluster in the highly-competitive pick-up/LCV segment.
When manufacturers do a model update, which seems to happen every 45 minutes, often it means a new grille, extra chrome on the dashboard and some intangible software update that is more complicated than the original. Nothing that today’s fleet manager needs on their shopping list.
GM Holden was eager to show fleet managers its new MY17 Colorado now has talent to match its flaky glam-rock reputation. To prove its potential as a dependable workhorse in our market, GMH’s top Australian engineers were thrown at the global Colorado project, logging thousands and thousands of kilometres, hours and inputs into the final result. It’s all been about making a ute for Australian conditions, not just selling one.
At Holden’s Proving Ground in Lang Lang, an hour and a half from Melbourne, AFMA was shown first-hand some of the prototype testing vehicles and protocols used to
produce a substance-before-style second-gen Colorado.
Speaking to Lead Development Engineer Amelinda Watt and Dynamics Engineer Rob Trubiani who share a combined 40 years’ experience working for Holden, it’s apparent that this wasn’t just a cosmetic affair.
“We worked very closely with our Brazil team to get all the right content in the car, and the ride and handling package needed to suit what we needed in the vehicle for the Australian public,” Rob said.
“Colorado is a very difficult vehicle to tune because it’s got to carry a full payload and still be comfortable unladen. Finding that balance is the skill in the job and we worked really hard to deliver on that. From a vehicle dynamics perspective, and we’ve spent lots of time testing the car fully laden and empty, we’re quite happy with the more fit-for-purpose vehicle we now have.”
“We’ve made big improvements in the Colorado’s off-road abilities, but also made a big step with its on-road drivability. It’s much more refined to drive now with that car-like feel people need in a ute. The new electric steering is easier to use but with better feedback and a faster ratio, it’s also quicker from nearly 4 turns to 3.29 turns lock-to-lock,” he said.
“For those who spend a really long time in the car-based workplace, especially in fleets when you’re on the road all day or moving from site to site, we’ve worked specifically on making it a better vehicle for those users,” said Amelinda Watt, known in the Holden camp as ‘Ammo’.
“We’ve worked on payload getting back to one tonne across the range – because we lost that on the early car – and to increase off-road ability. Our rear differential is a helical differential called TracRite which means you can have the front left and rear right wheels off the ground and together with a traction control calibration, it will apply enough effective braking to drive the car through using the available traction. The old car would fight it and spin the wheels in the air. Effective braking will send drive to the wheel with the most traction.”
Ammo explained that changes to the gearshift and drivability have improved in previously lacking areas. “You don’t have to row the boat so much with the gears,” she said, “particularly in the manual thanks to its improved final drive ratio – you can hold gears more effectively without having to gear down or search for gears. But the highlight from a fit-for-purpose point of view is the Centrifugal Pendulum Absorber (CPA) torque converter which allows utilization of the 500Nm in the engine when it’s needed.”
“The current auto is known for flaring, so you’ll put your foot down expecting the gearbox to respond, the revs will pick up and then it’ll start to drive. Whereas it’s got quite a wide torque band, but is much more immediate to respond now. The ratios haven’t changed but the way it’s calibrated to drive has.”
Perceptions suggest Australian engineers don’t get much say in the final product that goes on sale here, that it’s just a Chevrolet truck with a lion badge slapped on the front. But Watts assures that Holden’s team of brilliant minds definitely didn’t draw the short straw. In fact, Australia was one of the biggest and most surprising hurdles of the development program – if Ammo and her team weren’t happy, the car wasn’t ready.
“There are three key checkpoints where everything is assessed and everyone makes sure a change is correct. We ran the final engineering sign-off on the Colorado here in Australia,” she said. “On top of our extensive and punishing development work in the Brazil homeroom, we covered about 1000 grueling kilometres in three days here in Australia.
There were people from Thailand, India, Brazil, Europe and North America here to see how tough our driving conditions can be. Many were of amazed at the punishment levels we expect our vehicles to be able to cope with, they could understand why we were fighting for the changes we demanded. They’re used to hearing from us now.”
These requirements translated into some impressive demonstrations of the limits the Colorado could handle. The 2.8-litre Duramax diesel engine puts out a haulage-focused 500Nm with the automatic six-speed gearbox, however some pricing niggles continue as it’s a $2200 extra for the auto. Likewise, the active safety devices Forward Collision Alert, Lane Departure Warning, front/rear parking sensors are available on higher-spec trim levels despite the inherent blind spots, size and weight that come with a pick-up the size of the Colorado. At 1.78m high, over 5.3m long and weighing a GVM of 3150kg (kerb weight 1872kg for cab chassis/2023kg crew cab with heavy towing), missing these crucial safety features on a vehicle already ranging from $30,000 to over $56,000 without paying extra, sends a less desirable safety message. The redeeming safety feature is that rear-view camera is standard across the crew cab range, but again is extra on the cab chassis despite engineers telling us the wiring harness is in place ready to be plugged into.
Fortunately, although by legislation and not choice, Electronic Stability Control and Traction Control are across the entire Colorado range, and chassis and stability tuning genius Tony Metaxas demonstrated how well-heeled the Colorado is under emergency scenarios.
He begins with the steering input ‘robot’ device which is used as part of ADR compliance testing regulations. The contraption, which looks like it belongs on the set of a Terminator film, with hydraulic arms connected to the steering column, suctioned militarily to the windscreen and cables draped across the facia to a laptop, has an unassuming joystick for the operator to execute instant turning maneuvers with the vehicle. Subjecting rear occupants to violent forces akin to a rollercoaster. This is to measure and re-calibrate the Electronic Stability Control and Traction Control, which Tony explains, with today’s technological capabilities could virtually stop the two-tonne Colorado pick-up from deviating even slightly from its path, so good are the electronic systems now.
“You want ESC to allow you to turn around the obstacle to avoid it, but still keep stability,” he reminds. “There are vehicles in the segment which not long ago were so aggressive on the dirt they wouldn’t allow you to avoid the object and you’d pretty much go straight. Rollover Mitigation also detects the certain natural deceleration and it clamps on your brakes to ‘overslip’ the wheels so they don’t dig into the ground,” he said.
But it’s not always so simple. “So, you might make a change to improve gravel performance, but then you need to ensure you haven’t compromised something on-road and if so you ask, ‘How can you get it back?’ Even when we get cars from Korea or Europe, we make sure they’re verified to work on gravel.”
Anybody who has found themselves engaging ABS in an emergency braking situation understands the chest-squeezing nature of these scenarios. The ability to keep two tonnes of high centre-of-gravity vehicle straight and true with minimal drama is impressive. It feels like The Hulk performing ballet – unnatural, but fascinating.
A deliberately unevenly-loaded and unbalanced box trailer weighing close to two tonnes encourages trailer sway in order to test the system. Tony has an override button which kicks in in an emergency. Trailer Sway Control (TSC) detects whether a trailer is connected, looks at vehicle yaw characteristics and applies asymmetrical braking to correct that ‘yaw moment’ which pulls both vehicles off-line, and then applies all brakes, car and trailer, to slow the vehicle.
“There are a few ways trailers can sway. A side load like cross-winds can instigate it, or swerving to avoid something on the road, or simply having an unbalanced trailer at speed,” Tony explains while preparing to rock the vehicle. He begins by applying gentle left-right steering inputs. In an instant the trailer begins shoving the car around, getting noticeably worse, and your body shuffles with it. A long low-frequency burble emerges from the car like the hinge on a heavy bank vault door, the brakes ease on and the systems reign in the entourage. Correct training and procedures should prevent such dangerous situations, but having that safety net is reassuring.
“With Aussie tuning, we didn’t want TSC coming on too early in the case the vehicle starts oscillating slightly on a dirt road – you don’t want it cutting in when it doesn’t need to. But we did recalibrate the system to come on earlier (than the previous Colorado) to reduce that oscillation sooner, but it’s also steering dependent, so we’ve allowed a little more steering correction for the system to continue working because in the past it needed your input to be more exaggerated before kicking in.”
“In terms of gravel work with this car we’ve optimized the stopping distance,” Tony elaborated, “by getting it as close to locked wheels as possible by rejigging the system’s internal metrics. You can get a lot of vehicles manufactured and designed overseas where they don’t concentrate on the gravel as much as we do. So we’ve made that a priority to improve the chassis control to make it more predictable than the past.”
“Same with Hill Descent Control which can be held at desired low speeds much easier with either throttle or brake, and we’ve had conditions where we could get over obstacles with the new differential that we couldn’t with the previous car,” he added.
Rob Trubiani says the Bridgestone Dueler tyres are now a new tread pattern, construction and compound for improved wet weather, handling and fuel economy by lower rolling resistance.
Rob has spent most of his working life punishing vehicles and driving them to their limits and beyond, and explains that changes were made to make long and
particularly rural trips in the Colorado much more comfortable and safer. “Damper tuning has been refined to ride better, body mounts have changed in design and location with more reinforcement, engine mounts, trans mounts all revised. The new ABS modulator means braking is done more efficiently, with better stopping distance on gravel roads which we demanded in our vehicles because so many of our customers use dirt roads every day as will fleets.”
Trubiani demonstrated numerous examples of how pliable the new Colorado is, including high-speed swerves at 180km/h, flying around the durability and handling course at full tilt hammering over simulated railway tracks and atrocious potholes, ploughing over acute crests, crunching the tough three-piece ‘manta-ray’ bash plate numerous times and plonking the truck into 600mm of muddy water without a snorkel. Yours truly was still able to write this story.
Fleet procurement is a tricky affair, so be prepared to haggle for that added safety equipment in the new Colorado – Holden are touting it as a legitimate Ranger/HiLux competitor this time around, so use this to your advantage. It was clear the latest, Aussie-engineered Colorado was significantly better than the first iteration and might at least warrant another test drive.