Let’s say you are a car maker and you would like to join a motor show. How do you plan on standing out from the crowd? Bring more cars to the show? Make an elaborate display? Hire more showgirls?
Although we would like to think that we have benefitted from over a century of cultural development enthusiasts still fawn over two things; improbable engine swaps and utes.
Forget the Black Box flight recorder, Wi-Fi, and Hugh Jackman, Australia’s most well-known contribution is probably the ute. Everybody loves utes. Ditch that stuffy sedan shape for a flat-bed that is ready to party. What’s not to love about that? Well, the idea of it at least.
It was an idea that some bright executive at Volkswagen America latched onto for the recent New York Auto Show. There the German giant unveiled two concepts based on their new Atlas SUV.
One was yet another SUV coupe behemoth that not many news outlets gave a toss about because, firstly it was another derivative idea, and secondly, it had to share the limelight with a ute offshoot, the Atlas Tanoak pickup concept.
Clearly built to woo New York’s American audiences with an eye on the market’s heavy haulers like the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado, the Tanoak is a flat-bed conversion of the Atlas family SUV that was rolled out in New York to serve that most vague of concept car purposes, “testing the market”.
It is with all likelihood that the Tanoak might never go further than being a concept, whereas its less attractive sibling, the Atlas SUV coupe, would be greenlit for production. Still, the internet gushed with excitement over the Tanoak, as sites who normally wouldn’t give two pickup truck sized dumps about an SUV concept had a change in heart as they pored over its macho details and pumped up kicks.
I can understand the excitement. Even with the loutish majority in its owner base, utes as a whole are impossible to deride. You just cannot help but admire a genuine blue-collar working car for the working class. Better yet if it was converted from a white collar car. All that implied sophistication hiding beneath a nondescript and purposeful shape.
The trouble with the dream is that, unless you do intend to use it for proper blue collar work like hauling and working a trade, a ute is a terrible thing to have. Especially in a white collar, city-dwelling context.
But first, a caveat. Since the death of the much-celebrated Ford Falcon ute and Holden ute, I will be referring to its spiritual successors, the one-tonne pickup trucks. And while the utes of today make do with ladder frame chassis, high ride height, and diesel power, the same “limitations” described still applies.
Don’t be mislead by that huge defining characteristic of every ute, its flat-bed. Despite the amount of carrying capacity it has, it is completely useless when it comes to carrying anything that isn’t a two-by-four or a refrigerator. Allow me to elaborate.
I’m the first to admit that being a born and bred city kid I’m apprehensive of the great outdoors where I have to venture into the great expanse of wilderness and all its accompanying wildlife for both food, lodging, and toilet needs.
I like modern amenities like modern plumbing and nearby convenience stores. As such grocery shopping would often consist of nothing more than a few shopping bags, maybe an entire trolley or two full of things, at the most. Although that amount of shopping would easily fill a whole car’s boot, it would barely be a drop in the vast space of a ute’s flat-bed, and all that space presents a strange paradox in itself.
While space is aplenty, the moment you start driving your groceries is going to be rolling all over the place. That doesn’t sound like a problem until you have to retrieve them again, or remember you had something that could bruise or break easily back there.
If you have a dual-cab or an extra-cab ute you can just lump the groceries into the cabin, which would solve the problem. However, if you need to carry more valuable stuff like a laptop or something equally fancy looking, there isn’t a hiding place to store it should you need to pop out for a quick errand.
A tonneau cover would resolve that issue, but if you leave it inside and drive off without taking it out, surprise, you are going to have a fun time fishing for it later. Better pack a long rake for that.
Now I’m not a bourgeois swine taking a dump on the working man. Despite all I’ve said, utes still get my imagination fired-up and pulses racing. Even as writing this I’m still measuring the empty gaps in my garage to see if I could reasonably fit one in. There is an unexplainable and at times irresistible allure to a ute.
But for the life of me, I can’t use it as a reasonable real-life replacement to my tiny compact, with all the usefulness of having a carpeted boot with luggage nets, covered spaces to store any valuables, and flexibility of folding down the rear seats to load in a bicycle.
Utes were created to serve a purpose and that purpose is to carry anything and everything. But for city folk, where you don’t need to haul whole pig or supplies for a few month’s worth of sustenance for a household, the utility utes offer suits a city slicker’s life needs like a square tie behind oily overalls.
So before you wish for a ute conversion with the intent to make your car a whole lot more usable, keep in mind that some dreams don’t live up to expectations. And carmakers know that, which is why ute concepts will always be for show and tell while SUVs in all shapes and sizes continue to make the dough and sell.