The ute market moves to a new level as Europe challenges Japan.
Australia’s Tradies tend to work for themselves, grouping together when a particular job demands a joint effort. The independence of running their own show is of obvious appeal, but the nature of humans is that we like to compare new ideas and discuss options, especially over a work break.
Not so long ago it was every Tradie’s dream to drive a Commodore or Falcon V8 ute. Admittedly, there wasn’t much room for tools in the back and it meant towing a trailer, but it was the image they had cherished from school days as they looked towards an early apprenticeship.
Today there’s a different viewpoint in the workplace. Improved attitudes to safety have come along with a new focus on having the right vehicle to do the job, rather than aiming for the right image and compromising on the cargo aspect.
The latest crop of Ford and Holden utes is undoubtedly the best handling and most appealing that we’ve ever seen, but the writing is on the wall. By 2016, that particular option is all over, as the American parent companies reign in the local operations and end the Falcon and Commodore. It’s no longer a question of what Australians might like, it’s now a question of global profit.
The alternative until now has been to head for a Japanese-style one-tonner. And while they might wear a Japanese badge on their bonnets, the chances are that they were actually made in Thailand, Spain, China or India.
Notwithstanding their country of origin, the Japanese-style one-tonners are all relatively similar in size. Performance does vary, and some have excellent engines and transmissions while others are somewhat average.
Internal space is always a compromise between the cabin and the cargo, and the tray never seems to be quite long enough. The wheelbase is usually shorter than desirable, leaving the rear axle too far forwards and the overhang too far rearwards for ideal weight distribution.
Compared to the latest level of sophistication available in passenger cars, the one tonne Japanese-styled ute generally handles and corners like something your grandfather drove.
Gradually, thanks to the efforts of organisations such as ANCAP, the safety levels have come under scrutiny and we now have five-star safety on the leading brands. It’s a big move forwards, but, in the meantime, the European market has woken up to the realisation that a Tradie wants greater comfort, versatility, higher cargo carrying ability and a better deal. It’s time for a change, and for the next generation of load carriers we will be looking to Europe, not Asia.
Delivery’s team of testers has spent an interesting ten days comparing a selection of the latest Euro contenders. What has surprised us has been the level of interest our testing has received from local Tradies. Not only were they keen to climb onboard, check out the interior space and generally kick the tyres, they were quick to mention that some of their mates were actively considering stepping up to a European brand in the near future.
One vehicle in our four-vehicle comparison is the latest addition to the Renault light commercial range in the form of the Master crew cab, and Delivery was the first Australian publication to be offered a vehicle for evaluation. Literally fresh off the boat and out of the local motor registry, the distance shown on the odometer was still in three figures.
IVECO is much more on the pace these days and attracting buyer attention to its Daily range of light trucks. Thanks to the efforts of Robert Windschuttle, the ever-enthusiastic new vehicle salesman at IVECO’s Arndell Park dealership in Sydney, Delivery was able to source an equally brand-new Daily crew cab to match against the Renault.
Volkswagen wasn’t able to find a crew cab version of its Crafter range, but in its place produced an equally interesting crew cab version of the Transporter. This model has a huge amount of appeal and provides a valuable and interesting alternative from a one-tonner, such as the VW Amarok and the higher capacity Crafter.
Vehicle number four is the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. Our timing for this evaluation was just prior to Mercedes-Benz launching the latest Sprinter versions onto the Australian market. Nonetheless, the company was keen to show just why its sales are increasing and how even the outgoing Sprinter stacks up against its competition.
What we have in common with all the four contenders is that of space. The crew cabs and what they offer is a quantum leap from the one-tonne market. Seating for up to four across the back seat, seating for two front-row passengers plus driver, storage for clothing and equipment in under-seat lockers, dashboard lockers large enough to accept a laptop, shelving above the windscreen and much, much, more for not that much more cost opens up a whole different market.
When you start adding the cargo benefits of a tray deck height that’s lower than some one-tonners, and which is almost twice the length and can handle twice the payload, you quickly realise that there are going to be changes in buyer preferences in this market segment. And with further new models due for release, such as the all-new Ford Transit early next year, it’s going to continue to grow in appeal.
We’ll start with the smallest of the quartet, the Volkswagen Transporter. Interior cab space by comparison to that of a one-tonner is cavernous. Three large back seat passengers can step, rather than lever themselves, into the seats, each of which offers lap-sash seats belts. The front passenger seat in our test vehicle was single, but a dual seat is available optionally. Without the centre front seat, there is full walk-through access from the front to the rear.
It’s not unusual to find the rear seats removed and racking or lockers installed in their place. This adds to the versatility of the vehicle, if passenger space is not needed, by providing a more secure and weatherproof option for stowing tools and personal gear. For those doing courier work, items that are small enough to be stowed inside cab can be accessed quickly and easily, leaving the tray area for the bigger stuff.
Ride and handling levels are more car-like than ute-like, thanks to MacPherson struts and coil springs on the front, and coil springs rather than leaf springs at the rear.
VW offers a single-cab and crew-cab alternative, with the single-cab version powered by the TDI340 and the dual-cab by the TDI400. As our focus here is on crew-cab derivatives we’ll stay with the TDI400 model where o will get 132 kW of power at 4,000 rpm and peak torque of 400 Nm from 1,500 through to 2,000 rpm.
This 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, bi-turbo diesel engine is located transversely across the front and drives the front wheels. For those encountering muddy building sites there is an all-wheel-drive option that VW calls 4MOTION, which we know from experience works extremely well.
The on-road performance is exceptional. With a choice of either a six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG automated manual gearbox, this unit is very quick off the mark, handles like a passenger car, and offers ride comfort levels to match. Even the combined fuel consumption figures of 7.8 l/100 km are impressive, and you’ll see lower figures on the freeway down to 6.7 l/100 km.
It stops as well as it goes, thanks to 340 mm discs on the front and 294 mm discs on the rear, and there’s a swag of safety features that include electronic stability, ABS, traction control, brake assist, brake load apportioning, driver and front passenger airbags and hill-hold assist.
Payload for the Transporter crew-cab is set at 1,260 kg, but remember that includes the weight of the tray body in a combination that sees the GVM at 3,000 kg. The maximum towing limit is 2,000 kg.
Most new drivers will need instruction on how to pair their mobile phone to gain Bluetooth, but once matched it stays paired and works well. This is one model on which VW does not offer parking sensors, so, for some, it will be a chance to continue parking by feel when in a confined space.
VW does offer two suspension upgrades for rough road use, and these include reinforced standard dampers and springs or upgraded dampers and springs. We’ve not driven a vehicle with these options, but it does show the manufacturer has considered more extreme work. A second battery installation is also optional, and so too is a mechanical rear differential lock for models fitted with 4MOTION all-wheel-drive.
The 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system does not offer low-range gearing as in a standard 4×4. It does, however, ensure traction and added safety and ability on slippery road surfaces or in light off-road conditions.
The next up in size also happens to be the newest model on the market. Renault has now launched the 4.5-tonne GVM, rear-wheel-drive, Master cab/chassis into Australia in single-cab and dual-cab form.
Offering up to a 2,500 kg payload and a 3,000 kg towing limit, you get dual rear wheels, and, although there is no current all-wheel-drive version scheduled for our market, the dual-cab features an automatic locking rear differential as standard (optional on the single-cab) that will get you out of most difficult circumstances in general use.
The Master is powered by a 2.3-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged and intercooled diesel that produces 110 kW and 350 Nm of torque from 1,500 rpm. Transmission choices are between the six-speed manual and a six-speed automated manual that Renault calls Quickshift. Personally, we’d stay with the six-speed manual and save $2,500.
The wheelbase of the Master dual-cab is 4,332 mm and the interior is really impressive for its clever use of space. With four seats across the rear, there is a dual passenger seat in the front with under seat storage lockers under both. The centre front seat back folds forwards onto the seat squab, and fitted into the seat back is a swivel lap top base. It sounds a bit naff, but it really works rather well.
Although the Master has been around as a model for some years, this latest and upgraded version has the cleverest design of interior of anything currently on the market.
When it comes to safety inclusions, the Renault is a standout by comparison to the one-tonners. Bluetooth hands-free, electronic stability control, dual airbags, ABS with traction control, cruise control and a variable upper speed limiter join additional optional items such as a factory alloy or steel drop-side tray, satellite navigation and a rear-view camera.
If we have to find a gripe, it’s the control system of the TomTom Sat/Nav system that requires the use of a remote unit to make the thing work. It’s unnecessarily awkward and cumbersome, and someone will lose the thing.
A transmission driven power-take-off provides bodywork flexibility for powering a condenser for fridge pan’ work or to power the hydraulics when using an elevated platform or mini-tipper.
It’s clever thinking like this that makes us think there is a huge potential facing this kind of vehicle in our market place once buyers start thinking outside the square. Cap that off with a pricing structure that starts at $45,490 for the single-cab and $50,490 for the dual-cab, and there’s a lot of value staring the new-age buyer in the face.
For too long we’ve been running utes with oil drain intervals at 10,000 km. These Euros have extended oil drain intervals to 30,000 km and more, with 200,000 km warranty, 24/7 roadside assist, and capped price servicing for 90,000 km or three years.
Next cab off the rank is the IVECO Daily, and the unit on test was an absolute cracker. This is the only Euro to boast a full front to back chassis, as the others work on a chassis sub-frame that comes off the back of the monocoque-type cab.
The spec’ provided by Rob Windschuttle of IVECO’s Arndell Park dealership made it ideal for fitment with a fifth wheel conversion to haul a gooseneck trailer. The unit on test benefited from the top-of-the-line airbag suspension on the rear axle as an option over the more common rear leaf spring design.
Airbag suspension is common on heavy trucks and is well known for providing a softer ride. It also can vary the pressure in the airbags automatically to keep ride height constant, so there’s never any likelihood of a nose-up/tail-down attitude.
With towing in mind, this unit also came with the higher rated engine in the form of 205 hp, twin-turbo, four-cylinder diesel rather than the more common 170 hp version. Peak torque rating from this engine is an impressive 470 Nm. The only transmission at this higher horsepower level is the six-speed manual gearbox, but with lower output engines there is a six-speed automated manual available.
All the expected safety features are present in the Daily, with the ESP 9 safety system incorporating active sensors for ABS, EBD and traction control; engine speed management to prevent over-run damage; electronic stability; hydraulic brake assist; load adaptive brake control; roll movement intervention; and roll over mitigation.
It’s important to appreciate the sophistication of this segment. By comparison with what’s on offer from standard ute manufacturers, the vehicles mentioned in this feature are so out in front. If your company has a policy of placing its employees in the safest possible work environment, then, frankly, there is no case to answer, you head for European.
As a crew-cab, the available payloads extend from 1,000 kg right through to 3,935 kg, all dependent on the model chosen. Gross vehicle weights run from 3,500 kg up to 7,000 kg, at which level your drivers are going to need light truck licences.
Single-cab options are also available through the range, plus, for those getting very serious about off-road work, there is a 4×4 version available that comes with massive ground clearance and all-terrain ability that results from low and high ratio plus various diff’ locks.
Our test vehicle came with a pair of ISRI suspension seats, giving both the driver and front-seat passenger the highest level of comfort available. Fitted with a local tray, the Daily 502C21 on test offered a cargo deck dimension of 4304 mm in length and 2,200 mm in width, with a height off the road surface of 800 mm.
The Daily is also available with a power-takeoff unit to drive auxiliary systems. The PTO can deliver up to 180 Nm of torque and is installed on the side of the transmission. A rear differential lock is also available to improve traction on loose or uneven surfaces.
When comparing deck dimensions, the Renault came in with a length of 3,604 mm, a width of 2,004 mm and a height of 900 mm. The Volkswagen Transporter was the most compact with a tray length of 1,904 mm, a width of 2,106 mm, and again at a height of 900 mm.
As with all the competitors, there is abundant storage available, with under seat lockers, above windscreen shelving and door pockets that can accommodate the largest bottles of soft drink.
If there is a criticism on the grounds of safety, it’s that the Renault and IVECO are both providing lap belts for the centre rear-seat passengers. Only the outer seats offer a lap/sash seat belt. The VW offers three seats across the rear, all of which have lap/sash belts.
From a tyre perspective, three of the models tested were running on 16-inch steel rims, but aspect ratios varied with the Renault and IVECO using 195/75R16s, and the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter being fitted with 235/65R16 Continental Vanco 2 tyres. The VW comes with 235/55R17s on steel rims with alloys optional.
We have left the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter dual-cab until last, simply because with a new model just about to be launched there may well be a swag of differences in the specification for 2014. However, the Sprinter is so significant in this category it would be a significant error not to include the outgoing model, and, consequently, we added a Sprinter 316 CDI with single rear tyres into the mix.
The 316 CDI comes with a two-stage turbocharged and intercooled, four-cylinder diesel engine of 2.2 litres that produces 120 kW of power at 3,800 rpm and peak torque of 360 Nm rated at 1,400-2,400 rpm. Like the van counterpart, the manual gearbox is a six-speed unit, but for an automatic transmission it takes the five-speed, full-fluid auto and not the seven-speed 7G Tronic that is optionally available in the van models.
The factory supplied tray dimensions are 2,700 mm in length and 2,030 mm in width to provide a payload of 1,410 kg within a GVM of 3.55 tonnes. Move up to the 516 CDI and the GVM increases to 4.49 or 5.0 tonnes, dependent on the requirement for driver licencing, and offers a maximum payload of 2,600 kg. Power and torque outputs stay identical. Owners wanting the ultimate in power from Mercedes-Benz still have one further choice, the 519 CDI that features the V6 diesel that offers 140 kW at 3,000 rpm and peak torque of 440 Nm rated at 1,620-2,000 rpm. All-wheel-drive versions are available dependent on the model selected.
The four models under evaluation all compliment the market well, offering different sizes and abilities to the buyer. The Transporter is the ideal crossover vehicle for customers moving out of the typical Japanese-inspired ute, and the Renault follows as being the next logical step up the ladder. The IVECO Daily and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter are again larger and more truck-like, but still offer significant benefits to an operator.
As the Japanese-style one-tonners have become more bloated in size and pricing structure, the Europeans have just become more competitive. The Renault, VW, IVECO and Mercedes-Benz products provide significant benefits over and above what an Australian Tradie has been buying for the past couple of decades. Time will tell whether this segment is on the eve of a major shake-up.
We’ve mentioned that all-wheel-drive versions of some of the Europeans are available here, and Delivery has already driven the Transporter with 4MOTION, the IVECO Daily and the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.
The IVECO 4×4 is a real, high ground-clearance job with serious attitude and incredible ability; virtually designed for extreme off-roading as would be required by State Emergency Services, Rural Fire Service or mining companies.
The VW 4MOTION is more applicable to heading into the snow in winter and making sure you’ve got good traction on each corner when the going gets slippery.
The Sprinter is a great alternative for all-wheel-drive that fits in neatly between the two other makes. The cab is mounted some 100 mm higher than the 2WD version and there are some more buttons to push on the dashboard to bring in the all-wheel-drive system and to then take it down into a lower ratio.
We took a Sprinter 4×4 through our off-road course and found that, once the appropriate buttons had all been pushed, the performance and ability when negotiating steep climbs and descents were all handled capably. It’s necessary to flick off the traction control when on steep climbs where you might want some wheel slip to assist in gaining momentum over loose rocks etc., but that’s all easy to achieve.
The real objective of providing all-wheel-drive with a low ratio is to move the Sprinter into a category that’s ideal for local council work, maintaining fire trails and traversing over wet grass and the like. It takes five or six burly passengers in a comfortable crew-cab and still has space for stowing chain saws, tools and equipment out of sight under the seats.
The smallest vehicle of our crew-cab quartet was the VW Transporter. It also had the lowest cab floor, making it very easy to enter and leave. The driving position was excellent, despite limited driver’s seat adjustment, because the steering column tilted and telescoped through a wide range – why don’t they all do that?
We expected the Transporter to have the best driving dynamics as well, because of its compact dimensions and all-independent suspension – coil struts up front and three-quarter trailing arms with coils at the back. So it proved to be, but the unladen ride was firmer than we expected.
Handling was flat and predictable, making us think that a well-steered Transporter would embarrass many passenger vehicles and certainly out-handle most utes, with their ill-matched front and rear roll centres.
Driving ergonomics were well planned, with powered and heated mirrors providing a good rear and side view, stalk cruise control action and an easily reached gear lever.
VW’s double-clutch DSG automated manual transmissions have come in for a fair amount of criticism lately, but the driving experience with the Transporter’s seven-speed DSG was ideal: no shifting issues, no confusion with the transmission computer program, just smooth, rapid gear selection without hesitation. Maybe they’re getting it sorted at last.
No such questions hang over the powerful VW diesel that pulled happily from idle.
As a compact crew-cab machine, the VW Transporter worked well, we thought. The only sour visual notes are the ugly rear suspension trailing arm anchor points that are curved, fabricated structures with rough-finish paint – why don’t they cover them with fairings?
The market-leading large-van producer does a fine job of making a crew-cab/chassis version of this globally successful machine, but the Sprinter is developing a seven-year itch and is due for significant upgrades.
The entry/exit and driving ergonomics were fine, thanks to a steering column that telescoped and tilted, steering-wheel hub control of radio and phone, a simple stalk control for cruise control, and climate-control ventilation. However, the sound system lacked many modern functions and there were no USB or jack outlets.
Mirrors were four-pane main and spotter assemblies, with the main mirrors powered. Vision fore and aft was excellent and the Sprinter had big-truck washer outlets on the wiper blades, not bonnet nozzles.
Ride and handling were judged very good, and the unladen ‘Benz didn’t bounce around very much on rough surfaces. Coil strut front suspension teamed well with extra-long taper-leaf rears.
The aged Sprinter powerplant ran very quietly, but lacked the grunt of the IVECO diesel. Coupled to an automatic five-speed – only the vans get the new seven-speed auto box – it performed well, but is in need of an update, we felt.
French flair showed in the cab layout of the Renault, which had by far the smartest use of interior space. Driving ergonomics were also modern, with left and right-side steering-wheel hub controls for cruise, well-positioned pedals and adjustable everything. However, the aircon system wasn’t climate controlled.
Four mirrors – two powered main mirrors and two spotters – gave great rear vision, and a high driving position meant no bonnet intrusion in forward vision.
Although the Renault’s coil-strut front and taper-leaf rear suspension looked up to date, the damping wasn’t well tuned for Australian road surfaces and the vehicle suffered from bump steer at both ends on broken bitumen road sections. On smoother roads it was very good.
A six-speed manual transmission was stirred by a short lever, working in a narrow gate that made light work of ratio swapping. Clutch action was light, with good friction-point feel.
Although up to date in all other respects, the Renault diesel wasn’t the leading engine on this comparison, making more noise than the others and with some harshness. Like the other three brands on test, it couldn’t match the considerable grunt of the IVECO, but was geared for economy and happy to run at 1700 rpm in sixth at 100 km/h.
The Daily was our Van of the Year back in 2012 and the same DNA was evident in the crew-cab/chassis version we tested.
Although it didn’t have state-of-the-art driving ergonomics – no steering wheel telescoping function and no steering wheel hub controls, for example – it had the major items well sorted. Its manual six-speed transmission was easy and light to use and matched with a positive clutch system.
The mirror arrangement was four-pane, with main glasses powered and fixed spotters, and vision all around was excellent.
The Iveco engine led the pack in terms of performance and noise level and was also the most responsive – happy to pull away from 1500 rpm without fuss. It was geared to run at a relatively high 2200 rpm at 100km/h, but that resulted in excellent top-gear flexibility.
The IVECO Daily was also the best riding and handling truck, thanks to its sprung ISRI driver’s seat and optional air rear suspension. Spring rates of the coil front and air rear suspensions were well matched – almost impossible in the case of coil front and leaf rear setups – giving great ride quality even when unladen. Directional stability on rough roads was also very good.
With class-leading ride, handling and performance, the IVECO Daily was the road-dynamics champion of this foursome. The test results confirmed our original view that resulted in the Van of the Year decision.
The big question – utes or cab/chassis?
Utes are selling like hot cakes these days, with diesel 4WD crew-cab versions being by far the most popular. Prices range from around 40 grand to more than $77,000. Is that good value for money? We don’t think so!
Let’s compare two 4WD VWs – an Amarok Trendline crew-cab and a VW Transporter crew-cab 4MOTION. Both retail at around 49 grand.
The Amarok has a twin-turbo, two-litre diesel with claimed outputs of 120 kW and 400 Nm. The Transporter has the same engine, but with 132 kW. Both vehicles have a six-speed manual transmission.
The Amarok has coil front, leaf rear suspension, with disc front brakes and drum rear. The Transporter has independent coil suspension all around and four disc brakes.
Both vehicles have around 1.1 tonnes payload, but the Amarok is rated to pull a three-tonne trailer, where the Transporter is limited to two tonnes.
Interior space comparisons aren’t worth making: the Transporter has oodles more.
Ground clearance? The Amarok is a better on-site and recreational vehicle, because its ground clearance is better, but you can always upgrade the Transporter with a suspension height increase kit that’s warranted by VW.
For those who don’t need 4WD, the cab/chassis vs. ute choice gets even better.
At around the same $50,000 mark, the Renault offers a tray size double that of a typical ute and it does so with an excellently clever interior and very refined driving characteristics.
The air-suspended IVECO Daily we tested is yours for around 60-grand, with twice the payload, better performance, more tray and cab space by far, and better ride and handling than any ute.
Makes you think, eh?