FIRST CALLED THE Opel Corsa Utility, then the Chevrolet Corsa Utility, and soon to be just plain Chevrolet Utility, this little bakkie is one of the rock stars of the local motoring scene. If the chart-topping Toyota Hilux is Elvis on the local light commercial hit parade, the current Corsa Ute is Johnny Cash – with less flash but reliably delivering between 1200 and 2000 sales every month for the last five years and claiming the Number 2 spot as its own.
If it was classified as a passenger vehicle (and many South Africans own one as their everyday car) it would comfortably be one of the top five selling cars every month.
It dominates the half-tonne segment, consistently selling more than all its competitors (Nissan NP200, Ford Bantam, Fiat Strada) combined. It’s not hard to see why. The Corsa Ute offers a bakkie-mad nation a cheap, reliable, capable vehicle that’s fun to drive. For the young crowd that’s more into looking good than lugging things around, it’s a car that lends itself perfectly to personalisation.
And now General Motors wants to change not only the name, but the car itself. The new Chevrolet Utility, to be assembled locally at GMSA’s plant in Port Elizabeth with 30% local content, goes on sale in the fourth quarter this year. As the company’s volume seller, to say they’ve got a lot riding on it is a massive understatement. The Brazilian designed and engineered bakkie has to solidly hit the sweet spot as far as GMSA is concerned.
Which is why Topcar is in Brazil, painstakingly threading our way through the concrete mayhem of Säo Paulo, one of the largest and most congested cities in the world? We’re in something called a Montana which has a 1.4-litre flex-fuel engine under the bonnet, which means it’s perfectly capable of running on either petrol or sugarcane juice (ethanol) as are most Brazilian cars.
Sure, our Montana will morph into the Chevrolet Utility once it reaches our shores and ethanol won’t fly here since we don’t have the Brazilian luxury of millions of acres of fertile soil on which to plant sugarcane. But by the end of our trip we’ll have a pretty good idea if the bakkie is as good, if not better, than its predecessor.
Since the Chevy Ute is such a big deal for GMSA, the engineers worked closely with their Brazilian counterparts in developing the bakkie. Testing has taken the best part of 13 months and covered more than a million kilometres. Changes for the South African market include the obvious (but essential) switch from left- to right-hand drive, the tuning of the suspension for our more plentiful gravel roads, some tweaking to reduce emissions, the addition of a steering lock and preparation for SA-specific accessories.
The basics of what made the Corsa Utility such a hit are thankfully still present, with specific improvements to the interior and the load bay. These include a bigger cabin with more space behind the seats (164 litres) to store bags and briefcases, more holders for keys and coffee cups, a passenger seat that folds flat with an indent for a laptop or iPad, and Aux-in as well as USB slots.
The load bay has the same dimensions as the current car, but it’s now deeper and capable of carrying 758kg. The tailgate has been lowered so there’s a better view when looking rearward and visibility has been further improved by paring down the B-pillars.
This proved to be quite helpful in Säo Paulo (imagine Johannesburg on steroids) as hordes of Ayrton Senna wannabees on scooters with their girlfriends on pillion came hurtling towards us from all directions. Once we’d left the madness of the massive city behind, the road opened up and started to twist down through beautiful forested mountains to the tropical coast almost 80km away.
Dynamically the Ute is still fun to drive, with a slick five-speed transmission, sorted chassis and direct steering. When it launches in South Africa, we’ll initially be offered either a 1.4-litre or 1.8-litre petrol engine (fundamentally the same engines as in the current car). A 1.3 diesel will be added to the line-up at a later stage.
GMSA is keeping the starting price at R107000, with four different spec levels on offer: base, base plus air-con and Club in the 1.4, with a Sport version added in the 1.8 range. The 1.4 won’t blow your socks off. It’s willing, but you’ll have to stir the four-pot with the shifter quite frequently, especially on the Highveld.
I’ve left the 10-tonne elephant in the room for last, and that’s the exterior design of the car. The Ute is based on the stylish Agile concept, but somehow the same look on the pick-up polarises opinion. It’s higher off the ground and it looks bigger, which immediately neuters the dynamic stance of the car. It’s not an unattractive design, though conservative bakkie buyers might need a beer or two to be convinced they’re not buying a ‘lifestyle’ vehicle but a workhorse that doubles as everyday transport. We’re thinking an advertising campaign featuring Jessica Biel in a bikini operating a jackhammer should do the trick. Beautiful girl. Bikini. Powertools. Bakkie. The average guy’s brain will do the rest.