We compare seven dual-cab utes, and put Japanese, Indian and Chinese alternatives under the spotlight
Take five drivers, put them on a rotation basis behind the wheel of seven different utes and then have them travel the same route repeatedly. That’s the basis for this comparison where Delivery examines just what works and what doesn’t when it comes to the dual-cab market.
This segment is slightly different from our normal perspective of being focused on a work ute, as, with dual cabs, especially those with a high-end specification, there’s obviously an element of family use as a recreational vehicle.
Our timescale saw our test team being the first to drive the TATA Xenon and 2014 model Foton Tunland, and seeing how these newcomers performed against the market leading HiLux, plus Mitsubishi’s stalwart the Triton, Mazda’s BT-50, China’s Great Wall, and Delivery’s Ute of the Year the Isuzu D-Max.
With such a diverse range of products all competing for the crew-cab segment, but differing greatly in price and performance, this report does not produce an outright winner. It’s more a case of positioning each product where it best sits in the market and then letting the buyer determine whether it’s the right vehicle for their needs.
There’s never been a better time for considering the old phrase that you get what you pay for.
At the entry level in pricing terms comes the Great Wall. A current price reduction with the intention of rekindling sales interest sees the 4×2 dual-cab in 2.4-litre petrol form with a drive away price of $20,990, with a further $2,000 for a 2.0-litre diesel and then a further $3,000 for a 4×4 diesel, making a total of $25,990.
Our last experience of a Great Wall was in 2WD single-cab form, and we found that its 2.0-litre diesel, with 105 kW of power at 4,000 rpm and peak torque of 310 Nm between 1,800 and 2,800 rpm, was adequate for a patient driver that wasn’t going to flog it to within an inch of its life on every outing.
Certainly not a match for a HiLux, it nonetheless provided a low cost entry-level option that would hopefully provide five or six years reliable service but would not be expected to return a high resale on disposal.
We expected similar performance from the 4×4 dual-cab version, but that was not to be. Given that we report what we find, the Great Wall provided for evaluation was let down by what we presumed to be a fault in the engine control module.
Engine performance was no match for the previous model tested, making the ute sluggish and unresponsive to the throttle. The behaviour of the engine suggested it had been de-rated, with usable power output only available when the engine reached a minimum of 1,800 rpm and was then subsequently kept above 2,000 rpm for any gear change.
A day later, and with the ECM seemingly of its own volition having reconfigured its instructions to the engine, the Great Wall suddenly decided to supply the correct level of power and performance, returning its ability to what was the expected norm.
With a 2.0-litre diesel this was the smallest engine in the comparison, but when performing correctly it is sufficient for its size and weight. But, with full power restored, things were still not 100 percent.
Although featuring 4WD, this was not selectable and refused to connect. Despite our repeated attempts to find either 4WD high range or low range, the ute stubbornly stayed in 2WD. What this suggests is that reliability comes with a price. Delivery has discussed durability concerns with some Great Wall owners and our experiences do not appear to be unique.
Staying with a similar size of cabin and ute tub, but moving from China to India, brings in the TATA Xenon. This is an altogether newer design of vehicle than the Great Wall and comes from the fourth largest vehicle manufacturer in the world.
Covered extensively elsewhere in this issue, the TATA benefits from an excellent 2.2-litre, turbocharged and intercooled diesel engine that features a variable geometry turbocharger. Showing its recent development, this is the only engine amongst the evaluation vehicles able to boast Euro V exhaust emissions compliance.
The Xenon shows in its DNA that this is a model destined for use in less developed countries. By comparison with the high level Japanese-styled utes, the driving position and general appearance will suit those using it for short distances, perhaps as a farm ute, rather than as a recreational 4WD for weekend excursions.
TATA is also the only manufacturer in this comparison to get a workable wheelbase that gives load space before the rear axle in the tub. It’s possible to load heavier weight ahead of the rear axle location, which significantly improves handling options.
Stand by for some interesting future models from TATA, as with its ownership of Land Rover there is bound to be some crossover of technology, and it will come from the masters of off-road vehicles. It’s our bet that the next round of TATA branded utes will be much closer to the spec of the current market leaders. They’ve got the resources available and the financial backing to make it so.
Back to China again and here we encountered our first experience of the Foton Tunland. The background to Foton is again covered elsewhere in this issue, but, on first impressions, this Chinese ute is built to a much higher level of sophistication, in both interior equipment and appearance together with the overall appeal.
The key to the success of Foton in the Australian market lies under the bonnet, with the 2.8-litre Cummins diesel and five-speed Getrag gearbox. This is potentially a winning combination, combining the experience of Cummins in building exceptional diesel engines. This North American engine builder has been producing class-leading engines for nearly a century, and has subsequently become very good at it.
There is room for improvement in the form of much needed revisions to the rear suspension. Without a load in the tray, the Tunland does react harshly to potholes and bumps, throwing the back of the vehicle out of line on the road. Australian aftermarket suspension experts could undoubtedly improve how the Tunland handles our sometimes not so perfect road surfaces, and once this is achieved the Foton would become considerably more attractive.
Mitsubishi has a very strong following in the Australian market and current pricing of the Triton makes this ute particularly attractive. Years of success on the international rally circuit means that suspension systems are always well worked out. The Triton handles well, absorbs road shocks and generally supplies a compliant but well controlled ride quality.
If there is an Achilles heel for the Triton, it’s the 2.5-litre, four-cylinder engine that doesn’t quite stand up to the challenge from some of the other models. A much better fit would be for Mitsubishi to slot in the 3.2-litre from the Pajero, making it on par with the Mazda with an identical power output and just 30 Nm behind on torque. But until that happens the Triton will remain slightly underpowered, in our view.
The interior is well equipped, seating is comfortable and all other points of reference for the Triton are impressive. Rear seat comfort also came in for comment as being of the highest standard.
Mazda’s BT-50 is of specific interest as it is one of the more recent models, and with five-star ANCAP safety it has an extremely well thought through design. The interior is cleverly designed to provide lots of storage, and when cruising on the highway it can undoubtedly claim to have the quietest interior noise levels.
The 3.2-litre, five-cylinder engine outranks all the other competitors on this comparison, and, with 147 kW and 470Nm of torque, it not surprisingly offers excellent long distance ability. That said, when starting from rest the engine does seem to be slightly hesitant at low rpm before producing the necessary performance that one expects from an engine of this calibre. Once on the move, though, it settles down comfortably.
Mazda has obviously tuned the suspension of the BT-50 for freeway work, rather than for lesser quality rural roads, and it shows in suffering from an overly soft front end. A series of bumps and adverse cambers can easily persuade the front of the BT-50 to wallow about, restricting the precision and handling until the road surface improves.
Toyota has huge experience when it comes to making utes, and the HiLux encompasses all that ability with a well-built, solid, all-round performer. Regularly able to claim the title of the number-one vehicle sold in the Australian market, it also benefits from higher than normal re-sale value.
The HiLux does everything asked of it to a very high standard. If there is a criticism it is that the engine and transmission are showing their age, especially when compared to more recent releases.
Where the HiLux excels is how well sorted it has become throughout its specification. The engine and transmission interact well together, the suspension suits all types of Australian conditions without seeming to be a compromise and the overall styling still makes it one of the best looking from a visual perspective.
Finally we arrive at the Isuzu D-Max, the current Delivery Magazine Ute of the Year title holder. Like the HiLux and the Triton, the overall design results from manufacturers that have been producing utes for a long time, and during that period all three have become very good at what they do.
Solid engineering ability doesn’t just happen overnight, and, in the case of Isuzu, the D-Max feels the strongest of the seven and is probably the most workmanlike. The suspension control doesn’t allow the vehicle to roll about on the road, keeping its position wherever placed by the driver. The latest upgrades to the 3.0-litre engine enhance what was already an extremely strong and capable driveline.
There’s an obvious comparison between five and six-speed transmissions, and it pays to consider the ratios and engine speeds at set road speeds to understand that one more gear doesn’t necessarily mean a better performance outcome. It all comes down to the ability of the engine to provide the right level of torque where it is needed.
Checking our chart for road speed correlated with engine rpm explains what we mean, and shows how some engines with high torque can hold a gear longer.
When buying a ute, not many purchasers have the advantage of being able to compare like with like, over the same terrain. Just because they all look similar doesn’t result in them all possessing the same abilities, ride and handling characteristics and durability.
Safety doesn’t come at the same level as one expects with today’s breed of passenger cars, so make sure that your choice comes with stability control, traction control, ABS and EBD together with as many airbags as necessary to improve driver and passenger protection.
Wherever possible, make your selection on practicality and intended use, rather than emotion, as a lower initial purchase price may not translate in vehicle terms to having bought the right vehicle.
The Alternative Viewpoint
It’s been a mystery to us why Mitsubishi removed the excellent, fuel-efficient 3.2-litre Pajero diesel from the Triton range in 2010 and put in an asthmatic 2.5-litre that drinks fuel more deeply than its competitors.
Our previous loaded testing has shown that the Pajero 3.2-litre engine outperformed the 2.5 and used less fuel in the process. On top of that, the GLX-R’s five-speed auto has a torque limit, forcing Mitsubishi to cut peak torque from the manual-box version’s 400 Nm to only 360 Nm.
On this evaluation, the Triton rode and handled very well, apart from some front-end under-damping that showed up as unwanted bump-steer and ‘kick’ through the steering wheel. The rear end was well tied down and didn’t suffer from directional stability issues on our rough course.
A powered, height-adjustable driver’s seat gave good support in concert with tilt-only steering that allowed a comfortable driving position. Cabin ergonomics were judged very good, with steering-wheel controls for audio/Bluetooth and for cruise control.
The 4WD driveline controls worked well and the Triton has an advantage over its competitors in having selectable full-time 4WD, as per the Pajero, where all other utes, apart from the Land Rover Defender, have only part-time 4WD operation. The Triton also boasts a rear-axle diff lock.
At 30-grand drive-away we had to cut the latest Tata crew-cab 4WD ute some slack. Its weird ergonomics don’t compare with the control layouts of mainstream utes, but you can buy two TATAS for the price of one fully-loaded, top-shelf established-brand ute.
So, while you’re struggling to see the speedo and tacho, because the tilt steering wheel rim is in the way, or trying in vain to get the Bluetooth dashboard button make your phone work, or sliding around a bit on the flattish front seats, or squeezing long legs into a cramped rear-seat space, you can have the warm feeling of having saved plenty.
There’s also no cruise control, but there is plenty of urge from a state of the art turbo-intercooled diesel, and the five-speed manual box has an excellent action. The 4WD system works promptly from a knob control.
Underpinnings are as strong as it gets, as you’d expect from a vehicle that comprises Indian buyers that blithely ignore gross mass ratings: a sturdy torsion bar front end is matched by taper-leaf rear springs with massive helpers. The suspension works fine, but would benefit from beefier dampers front and rear.
Although Chinese-made and bargain-priced, the Foton Tunland has a US-brand powertrain, topped by a Cummins engine that pulls lustily from around 1500 rpm and a Getrag five-speed manual box that shifts sweetly.
There’s no cruise control fitted, but driving ergonomics are very good, with tilt steering adjustment, driver’s seat height, and slope and lumbar adjustment. Steering-wheel buttons control audio and phone functions.
The Tunland’s handling and ride quality were quite good on smooth surfaces and over mild bumps, but potholes and major bumps sent the back end out of line, in concert with a rear spring rebound action that the dampers couldn’t restrain. We think the rear leaf springs need a redesign, with a stronger main pack and helpers that come into play only when the load increases to near-GVM.
Toyota HiLux SR5
The HiLux may be off the pace in power and torque terms, but it’s a well-refined package that continues to dominate the market. The engine and transmission electronics speak fluently to each other and the results are lag-free, instant engine response and rapid ratio changes.
The test vehicle had balanced handling, well-damped ride and well-weighted steering with no kickback issues.
HiLux ergonomics are very good, with audio and phone steering-wheel controls, Toyota’s trademark stalk for cruise control and a height-adjustable driver’s seat. The only control that required a reach was the 4WD lever, which in our opinion is a more reliable control than the popular dials and buttons seen on competitive vehicles.
Toyota won’t lightly relinquish its number-one position in the ute market.
On paper, the Mazda (and its badge-engineered Ford Ranger stablemate) should be blitzing the crew-cab ute market, because the five-cylinder engine and six-speed auto box lead the powertrain stakes. However, power delivery is marred by some turbo lag.
Ride and handling are good on most surfaces, but the front end is a tad soft and the rear firm, making progress erratic over our rough course. Directional stability was poor on country roads, with step-out at both ends.
Ergonomics are excellent, with steering-wheel controls for audio, phone and cruise, and driver’s seat height adjustment.
Like the Triton and HiLux, the D-Max had well-matched front and rear suspension settings and adequate damping. Ride quality and handling were judged very good.
The proven 3.0-litre continued to impress us with its response and good economy, but it’s noticeably noisier than the HiLux powerplant.
One quirk we discovered was that the 2WD-4WD engagement light in the instrument panel illuminated on engagement and then went out. It’s too easy to drive in 4WD without knowing it, and that can cause transmission damage if the vehicle is manoeuvred in this mode on high-friction surfaces.
The Great Wall was very attractively priced, but we found that you get what you pay for – there was no cruise control, no driver’s seat height adjustment and no phone control.
Ergonomics weren’t bad, but the short gear lever required a reach if the driver’s seat was at its rear travel limit.
Front and rear spring rates were well matched, but the Great Wall had poor bump damping, so too much road shock found its way into the chassis and cabin.
The engine lacked competitive grunt, but a six-speed manual box gave progressive shifting and the ute was happy to cruise at the legal limit, with overtaking power a quick downshift away. Reasonable performance and value for money, we feel.