Flinders Keepers

Can you really take a workhorse from the building site to a proposed World Heritage site for a holiday? Stuart Martin goes trekking in the Flinders Ranges with a mob of Mitsubishi Tritons.

Australians are not – generally speaking – a nation of workaholics, and its adoption of 4WD light commercial utes has not come about purely because we have a plethora of boggy worksites.

It’s a lifestyle choice where we need a vehicle capable of carrying and towing tools – sometimes to areas of limited traction – as well as taking toys and tykes to similarly-slippery situations.

There’s no better demonstration of this side of the LCV equation than a recent trip to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia’s mid-north, piloting a mob of Mitsubishis, the main focus for Delivery being the Triton 4×4 dual-cab utility in varied guises

A finalist and contender for Ute of The Year for the past two years, the current crop of Tritons wear competitive price tags that would please the bean counters, as well as capabilities and capacities that won’t shame it at a boat ramp or building site.

Starting the road trip north from Port Augusta in a $40,990 GLS manual dual-cab, the transport stage was a 300 km sealed-surface jaunt that demonstrated the refined in-cabin experience – wind, engine and road noise all well-quelled, or, in the case of the powerplant, not overly intrusive anyway.

The six-speed manual gearbox in the GLS was consistent with previous examples of the breed, delivering a clean shift and a solid feel to the action, although the powerplant didn’t demand an excessive number of shifts on the open road, happily lolling along in 5th and 6th in the bottom third of the tachometer, just below the beginnings of the boost range.

The alloy intercooled 2.4-litre with 16 valves – eight of which are variably-timed intake – also has a variable geometry turbocharger to offer up power of 133 kW at 3500 rpm, but the lack of apparent effort on the open road cruise is more due to the peak torque of 430 Nm at 2500 rpm.

The laboratory-derived fuel economy number of 7.2 l/100 km (7.6 for the five-speed auto) is a highway-biased figure that wasn’t simulating Australian outback driving conditions. Real-world fuel economy in the mid-to-high single digits is not out of the realms of possibility in this sort of terrain, although less likely if the back seat and tray are laden to the point of getting close to maxing out the payload, for this spec being 950 kg.

Braked towing capacity of 3100 kg – obviously when not sporting 950 kg of payload – and an overall gross combined mass of 5885 kg equates to the shouldering of a solid load when required. The ride quality, via 17-inch alloy wheels and Bridgestone Dueler H/T tyres, suffers for the lack of a load in the tray, but not as much as some. Nor does it drop its rump toward the road like others such as the Nissan Navara NP300 (although its maker has recently released a model update with changes to the underpinnings, including the coil-sprung rear suspension).

The Triton is within segment norms when hitting the rougher stuff, juddering only a little and rumbling quietly across corrugations in the unsealed roads, but refinement is one of its selling points.

Another attribute is the flexibility of its 4WD system, which offers rear or four wheels operating on the bitumen by way of an unlocked centre differential – it allows the security of extra traction in sealed surface driving, as well as wet or unsealed surfaces.

The changing road conditions in the Flinders Ranges amply demonstrate the usefulness of this variable system – rear-wheel-drive on the fast dirt can be amusing but not always wise, but loose gravel on verges or in between wheel tracks can be a trap, and, while the stability and traction control are worthwhile back-ups, not having to call on them at all is a more relaxed manner of travel.

More testing terrain is in store at Willow Springs station, a pastoral lease of 70,000 acres that also offers some challenging 4WD tracks and some of the region’s (if not the nation’s) most panoramic and stunning 360-degree vistas along its Skytrek 4WD route.

But it takes a decent 4WD with decent clearance, underbody protection and low range to get there, and the Triton does it without fuss. In fact, much of the climb was completed with zero throttle – as an experiment, the GLS was left in first gear low range and left to idle up a loose, steep, rock covered ascent.

It completed the task, dropping on occasion to as few as 600 rpm but it never shirked the task given.

 

Keeping things clear of the hard rocks strewn throughout the journey is a 30-degree approach angle, ramp-over measurements of 24 degrees and a 22-degree departure angle, although the latter is hampered by the low-slung towbar installation.

Ground clearance is listed at 205 mm, which isn’t class-leading, and neither is the 500 mm wading depth, but it didn’t cop too many knocks during the Skytrek run.

The manual gearbox doesn’t run away downhill either, delivering solid engine braking without the need for an electronic hill descent system; switching to the top-spec Exceed automatic and there’s one less cog on offer, but the upgrade in equipment is accompanied by a jump in price to $47,790.

The GLS already has a features list including a leather-wrapped steering wheel with phone, audio and cruise switchgear, xenon headlights, dual-zone climate control, side steps, mud flaps, cruise control, power folding exterior mirrors, a touchscreen USB/Bluetooth equipped sound system with digital radio reception (not much good in the outback but nice around town), and reach and rake steering adjustment.

If you want to step up further, the Exceed gets leather trim for the seats and around the cabin, keyless entry and ignition and power adjustment for the driver’s seat. It’s also equipped with a larger (seven-inch) touchscreen displaying 3D satellite navigation, rain-sensing wipers and dusk-sensing headlights, and a rear diff lock, but there’s no rear vents in the dual-cab range, which would be an issue in searing summer conditions in this region.

Safety gear includes seven airbags – the standard six plus one for the driver’s knees – antilock brakes, stability, trailer sway and traction control, hill start assistance, and a reversing camera (standard on GLS and Exceed), but no rear sensors as standard.

 

The Mitsubishi’s warranty covers five years or 100,000 km (whichever comes first), with four years or 60,000 km of capped-priced servicing required every 12 months or 15,000 km – the first service for a 4×4 diesel is $350 and subsequent services jump to $580. Included in that price is a year of roadside assist that – on new vehicles – is extended for an additional 12 months each time the vehicle is serviced at an authorised dealer.

The chance of getting off the beaten track on holiday in a tool-of-trade ute is a far easier ordeal than it once might have been – a more refined, car-like package doesn’t erase the chances of queries from the back seat about estimated times of arrival.

The Triton is not the most powerful ute on the market, nor does it have class-leading towing or load capacities, but sharp pricing, decent features and much-improved driving characteristics make the Mitsubishi a worthwhile addition to any tradie’s shopping list.

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