The Australian website drive.com.au says that the local arm of General Motors, Holden, has taken an early lead in the race to build a local 4WD wagon (SUV), and that the company's management team has given the ambitious $A100 million-plus ($US55.5 million), all-wheel-drive Commodore project the go-ahead.

Holden and its arch-rival, Ford's Australian subsidiary, both build a range of large, mostly right-hand drive six and eight-cylinder rear-drive cars in relatively low volumes. Both export some of their vehicles, and Holden enjoys particular success with left-hand drive models sold as Chevrolets in the Middle East and South America. Holden recently received the green light for a Commodore coupe which is also likely to be widely exported.

Holden 4WD SUV likely to be derived from current Commodore wagon

The Drive website says that it has been told that Holden's directors approved the 4WD [station] wagon project last month, putting the new model on target for a late 2003 or early 2004 launch subject to approval from GM HQ in Detroit. That, Drive claims, appears a formality.

The website also says that rival Ford has a 4WD derivative of its Falcon model in the early stages but the project, for a vehicle called 'Raptor', has yet to get the green light. But Drive says that approval is expected by mid-year and that local Ford management also wants a 2003 launch date.

The website also says that both projects are well advanced and will offer different four-wheel-drive systems. The Holden is expected to have low-range 'crawler gears' while the Ford gets more of a soft-road Subaru-style 'all-wheel-drive' system. Both are said to be currently undergoing durability testing.

Drive reckons Ford will be first to market and that both models will be based on the long wheelbase wagon versions of each car with 4WD styling cues such as macho-looking front-end treatments, more ground clearance and body cladding.

Ford Raptor is likely to be taller version of revised Falcon wagon due in 2003

However, the website says, styling approaches will vary. Ford's vehicle will have a taller, more practical cabin that will look quite different to the heavily-revised Falcon sedan and estate models due also in 2003 while Holden will take a more conservative (and cheaper) approach with a Subaru Outback-style vehicle with only a different nose and tail to that of the Commodore.

While the standard two-wheel drive Falcon and Commodore wagons are mostly sold with two rows of seats, the new 4WD models will will attack the booming family 4WD market by offering seating for seven, Drive says. That will enable Ford and Holden to stalk big 4WDs such as the Toyota LandCruiser, which is often bought in Australia for its people-carrying ability.

Both models will be offered with six and eight-cylinder engines and Ford Australia is also developing a CVT stepless automatic transmission for both the standard Falcon and the new 4WD wagon, according to the website. But four-wheel drive won't be restricted to the seven-seater, Drive says, because that car's light-duty all-wheel-drive system is also being developed for high-performance versions of the Falcon sedan.

Drive also says that both Ford and Holden have imported left-hand-drive versions of BMW's highly-acclaimed X5 soft-roader to benchmark their products.

The website reports that Holden is said to be planning to make 20,000 to 25,000 4WD Commodores a year, with some likely to be exported to the Middle East, New Zealand and South America.

Ford will make about 20,000 Raptors a year but only for the local and New Zealand markets, which are both right-hand drive. That would appear to rule out LHD exports for the moment, at least.