4X4 utes in 2015 and beyond (October 2015)…
The last few years have been big for 4×4 utes, and the rate of development shows no signs of slowing. What’s here now, and what’s on the way?
Utes on the market NoW
The Big Eight
- Toyota Hilux – (18,479) managed to keep ahead of its competitors, and now with a new version out looks set to remain the market leader, at least by sales volume. We have a test here and a tech analysis here. A huge array of combinations of engine/transmission/body, and some can now tow 3500kg.
- Ford Ranger – (16,599) a significant update with the PX Mk2 – our test is here. They boast 5-star safety, are powerful, a good drive on and off road, ticks all the boxes and do very little wrong. No major problems identified so far, and a lot are used for tough offroading. Tech analysis can be found here. We think it’s the best ute on the market.
- Holden Colorado – (11,875) solid performer but doesn’t have the specs or capability to match the market leaders.
- Nissan Navara – (8,559) finally, the D22 and D40 have been retired and now we have the much improved NP300 with the option of a coil-sprung rear end. Test of a Thai-spec version here, tech analysis here, and road test here.
- Isuzu Ute D-Max (8,272) – sharing common heritage with the Colorado, now a bit more of its own vehicle but still not the up there for handling or performance. Tows 3500kg braked.
- Mazda BT-50 (6,779) – very close in design to the Ranger, but doesn’t sell as well perhaps because buyers prefer the Ranger’s tougher looks, and great range of trims and styles. Just been updated on the same base as the Ranger PX Mk2.
- Volkswagen Amarok – (5,914) straight in to a market leading position with superb traction control for offroading, 8-speed auto and all-wheel-drive but no low range in some variants. A superb all-round ute, would probably sell even better but there’s a bias against the small motor and VW don’t have a ute track record.
A note on twins – very often manufacturers co-develop vehicles. In the ute world the Ranger/BT-50 is the prime example, and there have been others. Elsewhere, Subaru and Toyota collaborated on the 86/BRZ. Twins share share common mechanicals for the most part. But that doesn’t mean to say they’re identical apart from a few body panels, far from it. Pricing, specifications, suspension, interior design, tune and more will separate them more than you might think. In some cases even engines are different.
The Others – Utes You Forget
- Toyota Landcruiser LC70 – (5,002) the standard Outback ute, the Cruiser was last significantly updated in 2007 with a V8, and before that it was about 1960. Solid, reliable, capable, much loved and much outdated. Toyota spent so little money on the last upgrade they didn’t bother make the rear axle as long as the front. Toyota have just announced some basic safety upgrades, particuarly for the single cab. Read more here.
- Foton Tunland – (715) Paul Murrell has described this having “seats covered in leather even the cows would have been happy to get rid of.” But it’s not expensive.
- Nissan Patrol PU/CC – (297) the Y61 Patrol lives on as a singlecab ute (and indeed so goes the Y61 wagon), offering a choice of leaf or coil rear ends and is one of three heavy-duty utes along with the Cruiser and Defender. Towing is 3200kg braked compared to the others which are 3500kg.
- Ssangyong Actyon Sports 4X4 – (59) Paul Murrell says “Last time I drove one of these, I watched the rear tray moving in different angles to the cab, and never knew which way the brakes would pull. Took it back to the dealer after driving it a scary 5km.” Never caught on. Has a a coil rear end though.
- Land Rover Defender (44) – all wheel drive, hugely long travel suspension, massive payload. Nothing else comes close for ability to carry a heavy and bulky load across very rough terrain using very little fuel. Aged interior, but modern engine with a 6-speed manual. An acquired taste. The last models will be produced in 2015 with an all-new replacement…maybe next year, maybe the year after. Does seem set to have ute variants though. Many people are buying Defenders now because this is the last chance, and so much so Land Rover have increased production.
- Great Wall V200/240 – (39) at the lower end of the price scale, basic but capable.
- Mahindra Pik Up – (numbers not known) another very inexpensive ute, but one we’re starting to see around more often and even some fully kitted out for offroad touring. I have tested one and everything was pretty well commensurate with the price.
- Big American Iron – (numbers not known) there’s numerous importers of Ford F-trucks, RAMs, Silverados and the like such as Performax International. These trucks aren’t cheap, but they offer massive space and towing capacity.
Which one to buy?
Once you have your priorities straight then you can start to select based on those criteria. It’s not easy, each of the eight top sellers has between 20 and 30 combinations of trim, drivetrain, engine and cab style to choose from! Consider especially the extracab instead of a dualcab if you’re really buying the vehicle for two people with an occasional need for more, the lighter weight, cheaper cost and extra tub space are always attractive. However, even with many combinations your preferred setup – for example diesel automatic extracab – may be not an option, forcing you into a manual or a dualcab.
Aftermarket accessories and how do I set up for oFFROADING?
All of the Big Eight are well supported for aftermarket accessories. Here’s TJM’s development vehicle, photographed very shortly after it appeared on the market and complete with bullbar, sidesteps, snorkel and rear bar.
Every ute is set up uniquely, but here’s some common ute-specific items you need to budget for
- Canopy – most tourers run a canopy in order to create a storage area at the back. Basic canopies are under $3k, higher quality well above and some of those include central locking. Look for “hi-roof” canopies, and one tip is to ensure the side windows are big enough to accept a bag. You can also option slide-back or lift-up window It will be a much larger area compared to a wagon, but you will also need a….
- Dust sealing kit – because no ute tailgate is even remotely dustproof. Aeroklas have one for the Ranger, and there are other options elsewhere. Otherwise, it’s a bit of work with rubber and weather lining!
- Tailgate strut – once you’ve had one you won’t go back.
- Rear bar – the factory towbar is often a bit too low, especially given the ute’s long rear overhang. Look for one that combines a towbar and side protection.
- Storage system – utes have a lot of storage space, but it can be hard to get to. Hence a storage system.
These extras tend to wipe out the cost difference between a wagon and a ute, which as utes improve is becoming smaller. One interesting option is to remove the tub and just invest in a service body, which may be cheaper and probably more re-sellable later on.
Some ute buying FAQs
Auto or manual?
Autos are better in every way now, and even starting to beat manuals for engine braking downhill. We’ve got more on this subject on the Triton MQ manual test, but in short you’d only buy a manual because you enjoy shifting gears yourself, or because you want to save a bit on the purchase cost
New utes – 2017 and beyond
The 4X4 market – SUVs, Wagons, utes and wutes!
The ute is definitely becoming more and more popular for offroad touring, eating into the market share of the traditional offroad wagon. In turn, the wagon is attempting to move upmarket and become more city friendly, which begins to enter the domain of the SUV. The SUVs are trying to become even more carlike in terms of efficiency and handling.
This leaves a bit of a hole for offroad wagons, but happily that hole is being being filled by ‘wutes’. These are wagon developments of the ute, such as the Challenger/Triton, Navara/Pathfinder (previous model Pathie, the current one has gone very soft), the D-Max/MU-X and what is likely to be the king, the Ranger/Everest. The wutes aren’t as refined or capable as the wagons, but they’re cheaper, and more bushable which is much more important.
So it’s still good news for offroad buyers, just that the market has shifted a little and will probably continue to do so.
What we really want in a 4×4 ute
- All wheel drive – utes would be so much better if they weren’t part-time 4WD. Let’s have a nice Torsen centre and a 40/60 front/rear torque split, and low range too. The Triton is on the right lines here.
- Lockable centre diff – so far, after years of testing, I’m yet to find anything better than a nice old fashioned centre lock. This is one feature the AWD Amarok could do with.
- Skid steer – utes have long wheelbases, so in low range have the inside wheel lock up a bit for a better turning circle. This is pretty much what Toyota have done with their Turn Assist.
- Disc brakes all round – time to ditch those rear drums!
- Coil suspension all round – coils can certainly carry a load, so let’s use them.
- Long-travel front suspension – most utes are a bit ordinary, a little more flex would be good
- Disconnecting front and rear swaybars – that’ll free things up nicely offroad
- Independent suspension – you read that right. Better handling, and better ground clearance. And it’s not as if that rear axle flexed very much anyway. Combine that with good traction control and you will beat live-axled cars, especially with the swaybars loose. Refer to the Discovery 4 for details.
- 200kw / 700Nm – that should be enough without getting silly.
- 8 speed auto – that should be enough speeds. And manual shift. Add paddleshifters, but keep them static relative to the wheel so they’re easier to get to with a full lock on. Just like Ferrari.
- True 3500kg towing – a proper 3500kg rating which is valid when the ute itself is at GVM. Unlike the Ranger PX! And a 300kg towball mass.
- 1150kg payload – utes are all about payload, and this is about right. Stop creeping the payload down.
- Space in the engine bay – even just a bit for a second battery. Extra for a compressor would be just great
- Effective traction control – some utes like the Ranger have systems that are a bit slow to kick in
- Twin lockers – much as I like traction control, front and rear lockers remain the way to go for rock crawling.
- Second row sense – make it a 40/20/40 split, so if you need to lift a seat up to get under it you don’t need to lift everything up. And then you can remove one or more of the seats and put a storage box in there instead. A small fridge in the second row would be sweet.
- HID headlights – much better than halogens
- 150kg roof rating – so we can put stuff up there
- Tailgate – dustproof it and put drainholes in the tub. That way when we add a canopy it’s one less job. Oh and put a gas strut on it too, and only one latch to undo (Hilux!)
- Under tub storage – most trays come with lockers under the tray, often behind the rear wheels. So how about that as standard, it’d be a great place to put tools or recovery gear. Tubs are just expensive body panels anyway.
- Tub lighting – how cool would it be to put some LED striplights on the back of the cab? It would be very cool. So do it.
- 100L fuel tank – ute tanks are mostly too small, especially once you’re towing a decent load. It’s not as if there’s a lack of space under the body.
Yes, a big ask. But here’s the biggest one – keep it simple, reliable and robust. If a CV snaps, we don’t want to have to find some sort of special tool to do the job. The battery should be easily accessible, not hidden away. Leave handy holes in the firewall for wiring. This ethos of bushability doesn’t mean we need to ditch the electronics, it just means focusing on real-world reliability and modifiability. This is one reason people are leaving wagons, and we don’t want to see utes go the same way.
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Here’s the answer to which ute is which: