Car News

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?

We will regularly update this post with new views, specs, links, teasers and whatever else will help inform ute buyers about the state of the market.  Last update 11/10/2015.  The vehicles in red have been released to market since the last update.  Can you identify them all?  Scroll to the end to see the answer. ]
 
2015 has been a good year for the ute.  We’ve had a new version of the already new-ish Ford Ranger, a new Navara, a new Triton and now a new Hilux.   All of these updates are significantly more than a few panels – improved efficiency, capability and safety across the board.
 
No wonder the modern ute is attracting more and more buyers who would who appreciate the load-carrying versatility, simplicity and relative good value compared to wagons. The historic ute disadvantages of handling, safety, performance and comfort are fast disappearing, so it’s no surprise the ute market is rapidly growing and will continue to be an exciting space to watch in the next few years.
 
Bottom line is that anyone who is thinking about a 4X4 wagon should now also consider a 4X4 ute.

Utes on the market NoW

The Big Eight

Think of a ute, and it’s one of these that springs to mind.  The figures in brackets are the sales to date for 2015 including September, and the list is in that order.
  • 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.
  • Mitsubishi Triton – (16,741) the only ute out of the major sellers to offer both low range and all wheel drive, it’s just been updated as the MQ.  We have a full review here, and more on it here and a manual test here.
  • 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

There’s more to the ute world than the top sellers though. How about these, again listed in order of sales to date for 2015:
  • 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.
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Buy these while you can!
 

Which one to buy?

On the face of it, the Big Eight are somewhat interchangeable, with fairly similar specifications and designs, favouring part-time 4WD, independent coil suspension at the front with leaf springs and live at the rear, disc brakes on the front with drum brakes on the rear – notable exception for the NP300 which has coils in the dualcab.  And they look fairly similar too, as the cover photo for this article shows.
 
Still, there are significant differences when you drive them and use them.  As a guide, the more expensive utes are better across the board.   That said, even the ‘worst’ of these is still a good vehicle otherwise it wouldn’t be up there with the leading sellers.   As usual when faced with a lot of choice you need to decide what’s best for you on the specs front – this might be towing, tub depth or length, rear seat comfort, safety, maneuverability, price or just the deal you happen to find.  Generally, the bigger tubs combine with the smaller second rows, or you just end up with a larger vehicle overall – compare Triton to Ranger for example.  Don’t overlook the poverty pack models as today’s base model has the trim level of yesterday’s luxo-barge, and that may be enough for many buyers.

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.

 

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VW Amarok TDI is one of only two utes in the big eight to offer all-wheel-drive (other is the Triton in some variants). It lacks low range, but is amazingly capable nevertheless with an 8-speed auto. Expect to see other 4X4s follow suit, sooner or later
 

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.

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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.

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Rear bar – improves depature angle, has a towbar, side protection.
 
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Tailgate struts allow you to open the tailgate and let it drop without a bang. Essential for some, very handy for everyone else.

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

IMG_2001 

Diesel or petrol?
As a general rule, there’s no difference these days in offroad capability or onroad speed. Diesel is preferred because of range, especially when working hard as utes do, but if you don’t need the range and do lighter work then petrol can save money.  Increasingly, utes are moving to diesel-only so your choice is made for you.
 
Why do most of the utes run old tech like leaf springs, part-time 4WD and drum brakes?
The answer is to some extent because the market of ruff, tuff blokes doesn’t much care for new fangled gear like full time 4X4, coils and disc brakes.  Many of them still think coils can’t take a load, but that’st just not true.  Just look at the Unimog, Defender 130 and various military vehicles for proof of how wrong that thinking is.  However, the big reason for keeping utes archaic is overseas tax laws, particularly in Thailand where in order to be classed as a commercial the vehicle must have some of those old, old features.
 
How good are the utes compared to wagons now?
Not as good, and won’t be until the old features above are ditched.  But ‘not as good’ is not the same as ‘not good enough’, and many people (myself included) reckon a ute is just what we need in our lives.  Wouldn’t have said that ten years ago, but today’s utes have all the mod cons, and the new Ranger will even have autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and active cruise control.  The modern ute is powerful, capable, safe and user friendly, just not quite up to wagon standards.  The major advantage wagons have is the option of 7 seats.  If you don’t need that, then you should be considering a ute any time you think about a wagon.
 
Which is best for towing, wagon or ute?
As a general rule, wagons.  They tend to have tow ratings that are less compromised by payload, are often all-wheel-drive and handle better.   More on this – all you need to know about towing heavy trailers, and why the 3500kg tow rating may not be real.
 
Why are all these engines getting smaller?  Mate, only milk comes in two litres!
Get with the times you dinosaur!  Modern turbodiesel engines have a huge range of design features which means they produce more grunt out of two litres than older engines managed out of four.  Common rail, sequential turbocharges, improved intercoolers, computerised fuel delivery…you name it, they’ve got it.  Yes, it’s complex but that’s the way it has to be in order to meet emissions standards which is why just about every new engine is a smaller capacity than its predecessor.
 
And don’t think these ‘little’ engines are doing it tough either, drive these modern utes and it’s not like you’ll need to change gears at redline.  Speaking of which, the automatics now are very clever too, highly efficient and offering up to eight speeds which makes a big difference to effective power as the car can choose exactly the right gear ratio.  Yes, we all know the early ZD30s in the Patrol were a problem and everyone preferred the 4.2, but that was just the one engine, years ago now and it’s been since well and truly fixed.
 
Rear lockers – yes or no?
Many utes have rear differential locks, which is great but the older ones disabled traction control on the front axle when they engage, which is definitely not great (watch for an article on this soon).  An aftermarket locker wouldn’t have this limitation, so if your ute doesn’t have a rear locker in your chosen trim level, then consider an aftermarket unit.
 
Also, in many cases you’re better off leaving the locker disengaged and relying on traction control instead.  The rear locker is best kept for climbing steep, rocky terrain.
 
The Ranger PX 2 Mk 2 and the NP300 allow traction control to work on the front axle while the rear locker is engaged.  The PX did not.
 
We have an explanation of traction control vs stability control here.
 
These new electronics, any good?
They’re mostly pretty good.  Just recently I did some work with 4WD instructors who were much impressed with the Ranger’s hill descent control system. Traction control is awesome, it’ll get you places you just can’t drive without it.  Stability control makes every vehicle much safer – you know that feeling you get as punch on out of a wet rounadbaout and you end up facing the traffic?  Fixed with stability control.  And once you try some of the more advanced features like active cruise control you won’t want to go back.
 
Got a top tip?
Yes.  The Big Eight utes are very close in design and specification so they’re all cross-shopped.  Manufacturers know this, and they also want to charge the most they can for their vehicles.  So if you look at the sticker price for any given ute relative to its peers that’ll tell you where the manufacturer thinks it is relative to the competition.

New utes  – 2017 and beyond

This is a bit of crystal ball gazing, but we can be sure the new Land Rover Defender will have ute variants, and Toyota will eventually replace the LC70.  Both are likely to significantly shake up the ute market with some actual innovation, offering premium and heavy-duty options respectively.  It’ll be interesting to see how much of a workhorse the Defender will be, perhaps straying from its roots and follow the rest of the Land Rover range upmarket and away from the bush.  
 
We can also look forwards to the Mercedes-Benz ute, which given Mercedes’ experience in heavy-duty vehicles – think Unimog, G-Wagen, trucks and vans – may well be a very interesting vehicle to consider.  It is however going to be based on the NP300 chassis, which has caused some comment around the traps but I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing, having driven an NP300.  Speaking of Nissan, we cannot however see a Patrol ute any time soon.
 
Sketch of the new Mercedes-Benz Midsize Pickup; Skizze des neuen Mercedes-Benz Midsize Pickup
Official concept of the Mercedes-Benz ute. No release date set.
 
It is also possible Jeep may include a ute variant of the Wrangler when it is replaced in 2017 or so.  Certainly they’re talking about it, and Australia is seen as a big driver.  There are Wrangler conversion kits already from aftermarket specialist AEV, with a few examples seen in Australia via Jeep Konnection
 
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By the time 2017 comes around expect minor to medium improvements across the board from all current utes, particularly in the areas of electronic safety and probably also even more powerful engines with more gearbox ratios.  We’ve seen spy spots of the 2016 D-Max, for example.  But for something radically new keep an eye on the Defender and the Mercedes.
 
Various other manufacturers are dancing around the ute question.  There may be a Brumby-class light ute from one of them, but if so it’ll probably be more hipster than high country.  Here’s a few:
One-off MINI Paceman Adventure
Mini Paceman ute, just a concept at this stage.

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.

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Pajero, Challenger and Triton. Pajero is the top-end wagon, Triton is the ute and Challenger is the cheaper wagon but no less capable and perhaps more bushable than its more expensive stablemate.

What we really want in a 4×4 ute

Every journalist is not only a brilliant driver but also a gifted product planner.  Just ask any PR staffer.  So with that in mind, here’s what I’d like in a 4X4 ute for offroad touring.
  • 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.

Want to know more?  Check back on the site for regular 4X4 news and views including roadtests of the latest models.  Subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates.

water-crossing
For our family a ute is the perfect vehicle for long-range camping. Carries everything we need with ease, and it’s close enough to wagon comfort for our needs.

Here’s the answer to which ute is which:

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/ or buy his new ebook!