2016 will be a pivotal year for Holden’s Commodore-based Ute. Declining sales and shifting production capabilities could mean that the traditional Aussie Ute could become extinct, as both the Commodore and Ford Falcon Utes die off.
While the Falcon is slated to die within the next three years, Holden is at a crossroads regarding the Commodore. Executives from the Australian GM outpost have issued vague statements about a global platform for Australia, which could very well be a front-drive layout – if Holden even sticks around to build cars in its home country.
Ute sales have been decimated by an influx of mid-size pickup trucks built in Thailand, where labor costs are significantly cheaper. Auto makers can also take advantage of a free trade agreement to import Thai-built vehicles with zero duties. By contrast, Australia, where Utes are manufactured, is a much more expensive country to build cars in, and has seen its domestic auto industry nearly wiped out due to cost concerns.
Sales of the redesigned Commodore and its variants are up 15 percent year-to-date, but Ute sales have fallen 31 percent in the same period. While over 100,000 Thai built pickups have been sold so far this year, just 4100 Holden Utes and 3500 Falcon Utes have been sold in 2013. Trucks like the Toyota HiLux, Nissan Navarra, Ford Ranger and Holden’s own Colorado dominate Australia’s best-selling vehicle list, with the HiLux selling 40,000 units in 2012 – double that of the Holden Ute’s best year ever in 2004.
A combination of a boom in mining and a desire for a more practical family car has spurred sales of the Thai-built trucks. Unlike the two-seater Utes, the Thai trucks have four doors and two rows of seats as well as four-wheel drive, making them a replacement for station wagons and other utility vehicles.
For all the talk of the Ute being an icon of the Australian motor industry and its supposed desirability among enthusiasts, the cold reality is that nobody wants this car. And until that changes, it is on an inevitable death spiral.