The ute market is the most hotly contested segment in the Australian new vehicle market, making the decision of what rules the roost all that more difficult
Eight utes fronted up for the Delivery Magazine annual contest, with two models, the Mitsubishi Triton and Nissan Navara NP300, literally arriving fresh onto the Australian market.
Getting to the test on time meant a rapid drive from the media launch venue of Fraser Island for the Mitsubishi Triton, direct to the NSW Southern Highlands, home of the event.
Nissan was hamstrung by not being able to front up with a fully Australian spec’ NP300, for the back-to-back drive programme. With its national launch yet to take place at the time of our testing, its supply of Australian spec’ models was still on a boat bound for Perth.
The lack of supply problem meant having to settle for providing an early production model that was close, but not equal, to the final engineering sign off, in order to have a presence during the Delivery UOTY photography sessions.
As an example of how important the new Navara NP300 is to the Nissan Australia line-up, as soon as the boat docked in Perth the first dual cab down the ramp was registered and then driven directly to the Delivery Magazine test circuit in the NSW Southern Highlands.
On a better late than never basis, this meant that it was able to be evaluated and compared to the other contenders.
The introduction of Euro 5 and later Euro 6 exhaust emissions has resulted in a downsizing of engine capacity, but this has been achieved without losing expected power and torque levels.
Fronting up for the challenge were the two total newcomers, the Mitsubishi Triton Exceed and Nissan Navara NP300 ST-X, joining the segment leading Toyota HiLux in SR5 guise, the Isuzu D-Max, Holden Colorado LT-Z, Ford Ranger Wildtrak, Mazda BT50 XT-R and VW Amarok TDI420.
All the utes tested were fitted with fluid automatics, the majority of the five-speed transmissions being the Aisin unit with adaptive logic. Ford and Mazda use the ZF six-speed, Nissan its seven-speed and VW the eight-speed ZF.
Engine capacities range from the 2.0-litre of the Amarok, through the 2.3-litre of the new Navara NP300 and the 2.5-litre of the new Triton, to the 2.8-litre diesel in the Colorado, peaking with the 3.2-litre, five-cylinder in the Ranger and BT-50.
For those with a direct line for heavenly intervention, it’s worth mentioning that Nissan in the US is dabbling with the use of a 5.0-litre, Cummins V8 diesel. Certainly something to put on the future wish list for our market.
Prospective buyers in this segment can browse through the Delivery specification charts to compare basic data and power and torque figures, but of course they can’t determine the ability of each vehicle under a ride and drive comparison.
That is where this year’s test parameters were aimed, to establish what our judges believe are the best examples of performance, ride and handling, safety and desirability. This evaluation was in no means intended to determine the best performer off-road in rugged conditions. The aim was to find which vehicle, in the unanimous decision of our judging panel, stands out from the pack.
Last year, more than 130,000 4WDs were sold in Australia, which outsold every SUV segment in the country and every passenger car segment except small cars, so it’s no illusion that there are more of these vehicles towing tools during the week and toys on the weekend.
So far this year the trend looks like continuing unabated – up over 9.0 percent so far with key new products to further boost the sales.
What were once rough and ready workhorses now have to contend with commuting and family duties, which brings the dual-cab four-door versions of these utes to the fore.
Much like the country has ridden on the sheep’s back, so too has Toyota in the tray of the HiLux, but the new model scheduled for late this year can’t come quick enough for HiLux to maintain its ranking.
Toyota’s top-selling ute is due for a new powerplant and rumoured to have a host of active safety features, but you’ll need to ask Santa for one as it’s not due until year’s end.
An upgrade to a five-speed auto (when the rest of the serious contenders are sporting six or seven-speed automatics), not to mention a dozen extra kilowatts and 100 Newton metres of torque, puts the current HiLux out of the race, albeit wearing a distinguished service medal.
Isuzu’s D-Max sits in a similar patch of turf – a low-stressed 3.0-litre powerplant and a five-speed automatic also does the job, but it trumps the Toyota for towing capacity, ranked to pull 3.5 tonnes – as Isuzu (and Ford as well) likes to point out, that’s a tonne more than the HiLux.
Holden’s Colorado was given the once-over by GM Holden and it has brought it up to near where most think it should have been when launched – it has the power and torque on paper to compete but the six-speed auto has only recently been given the smarts to make good use of it.
Some experience in the manual suggests the automatic should enrol for Mensa, but the Holden has gathered fans on price and looks.
Mazda probably can’t wait to get the visual issue sorted, as pricing on its BT-50 range (mechanically identical – suspension tuning aside – to the Ford Ranger) is sharp. But it has inherited the looks of the smaller Mazdas and the styling fails to make the journey in the LCV realm with any success.
Nissan’s Navara NP300 was certainly anticipated to be a key contender for Ute of the Year. Early drive programmes took place last year in Thailand where the company was able to showcase its claimed class-leading fuel economy figures of between 6.3 and 7.1 l/100 km.
The new Navara is fresh to the Australian market and promised much, with a features list that is topped by a 2.3-litre twin-turbo diesel four-cylinder, a seven-speed automatic, a sunroof, automatic headlights, parking sensors front and rear, reversing camera, dual-zone climate control, sat/nav, leather trim and a sunroof.
Another new model arrival is the upgraded Triton, boasting a little more power and torque and a reduction in thirst.
The revised styling doesn’t stand out as being distinctly different from the previous model, but reduced cabin noise and greater refinement from the flexible powerplant give it appeal.
The big Volkswagen, last year’s winner, might be lacking the curves, but more than makes up for its popularity with cabin comfort, quietness, capacity in the tray and a smooth drivetrain.
The smallest in overall capacity, the 2.0-litre twin-turbo is among the most frugal here, despite a two-tonne vehicle kerb weight. It produces 420 Nm and 132 kW of power and channels it smoothly through all four wheels all the time.
But the top spot has been reserved for the Australian engineered and developed Ford Ranger – equal with the Mazda and Holden for power and torque, but well ahead of the Holden and its Mazda cousin for suspension control and compliance.
The ZF six-speed sport-mode-equipped automatic is smooth and smart, making the most of the 147 kW/470 Nm strong outputs without undue shift shock, and it rarely requires a manual shift.
The Ford Australia engineering team’s efforts in cabin insulation and refinement have paid dividends, as has the company’s desire to put it at the top of the list for safety features, with the active lane departure warning, automatic emergency assistance and adaptive cruise control soon to be seen on the top Ford workhorse.
Only in the dying stages of Delivery’s exhaustive 2015 Ute of the Year testing programme was VW’s impressive Amarok dethroned
After early laps of Delivery’s demanding, real-world test route in Volkswagen’s handsome Amarok it seemed we already had our hands-down 2015 Ute of the Year. Even 12 months on from its resounding 2014 DUOTY romp, the still-impressive VW already appeared to have ‘back-to-back winner’ written all over it.
After all, the Amarok set the bar at giddy heights last year. Back then, we’d revelled in its car-like agility, robust build quality, cosseting ride comfort and undeniable value for money. And here it was, a year later, still exhibiting all those award-winning credentials in seemingly unassailable fashion.
Yes, that’s the way things easily could have panned out, and we would have felt comfortable proclaiming the Amarok a repeat worthy winner.
However, for 2015 things were different. Among a stellar line-up of obvious contenders corralled in Delivery’s test-vehicle marshalling area was a handful of stand-out new ute offerings, and, in terms of both their physical presence and on-paper aptitude, the newcomers were tantalising, to say the least.
First challenger – no pun intended – was Mitsubishi’s revamped and impressively capable Triton Diesel. Even partway round our 25 km test loop, the Triton loomed as a worthy pretender to the Amarok’s crown. It was quiet, willing and obviously well sorted. And, like the Amarok, the Triton proved car-like in its ability to soak up the worst of our notoriously bumpy 100 km/h downhill section even the locals studiously avoid by lane changing at the crest of the hill.
The fact that each of our judges emerged from the Triton wearing a smile proved it was a potential game changer – and 2015 Delivery Ute of the Year contender.
This was going to be good…
Next up came the latest iterations of the Isuzu D-Max and it’s next-of-kin Holden Colorado. As any avid student of the Australian ute market will tell you, the D-Max and Colorado share underpinnings and panels, but that’s where the buck stops. There are significant differences under their bonnets – 3.0-litre vs. 2.8-litre diesel motivation, for starters – and markedly dissimilar interiors.
We’re unabashed fans of Isuzu’s honest and proven ‘twins’, but it was soon obvious that, even updated, they were no match for the Amarok and Triton, especially in terms of their ride quality. Put simply, they were soon relegated to ‘Honourable Mention’ status.
Ditto Toyota’s almighty HiLux, here in SR5 spec. It has long ruled the Australian ute market roost, and for good reason. In fact, ongoing strong HiLux sales mean it regularly earns a podium finish among Australia’s top-selling new vehicles overall, let alone dominating the ute market. When you consider the strength of the small-car market, the HiLux’s long-standing popularity is a staggering achievement.
On Delivery Magazine’s revealing, all-bitumen test loop, it soon became obvious why the HiLux still sells so well. Sure, it’s showing its age when pitched against the upstart opposition we’d assembled this year. It may not have the levels of ride, handling, technology and general refinement that are immediately obvious in its newer-tech competitors, yet in many ways the HiLux still holds its own. It remains a viable work-and-play ute with an enviable record for reliability and resale.
The new Navara looks good inside and out. And its specs and equipment lists read well. The actual drive comparison for the NP300 was delayed as mentioned earlier by factors beyond not only our control, but those of the manufacturer. We continued to carry the baton until we were able to put the Navara through the same evaluation programme and it placed closely to the Triton, making cost perhaps the overriding factor in the decision making process.
Then came the second set of shared-platform ‘twins’ in this year’s Delivery Magazine Ute of the Year shootout. Mazda’s BT-50 XT-R proved a strong performer in terms of its on-road demeanour, sheer grunt and in-cabin refinement. However, there was general agreement among the judges that, although obviously more impressive and newer-gen than the stalwart HiLux, D-Max and Colorado, the Mazda was another Honourable Mention, especially when measured against the Triton and Amarok.
Which left one ute standing, so to speak, and perhaps capable of upsetting VW’s march towards a consecutive Delivery UOTY title.
And, boy, did that final contender prove a revelation!
Ford’s Ranger outsells its BT-50 ‘cousin’ roughly two-to-one. And after our judges lapped the Blue Oval-badged Ranger – here in top-spec Wildtrack form – around Delivery’s no-nonsense test loop, it was easy to understand why it was winning that particular sales race (and, incidentally, currently is Australia’s fifth best-selling vehicle overall).
From its rock-solid 3.2-litre diesel, seamless six-speed auto, exemplary on-road composure and uncannily low in-cabin noise levels, the Ranger impressed the hell out of all our judges.
Adding the impressive list of safety features announced for the Ranger 2015 creates an unmatched level of competence that enables the Ranger, with its car-like inclusions, to leapfrog ahead of its competitors.
At long last, and undeniably, the Amarok had met its match.
The new Ranger builds on its already impressive strong record and the 147 kW of power at 3600 rpm and 470 Nm of torque at 3000 rpm (rated 600 rpm lower than the Colorado).
The new Ranger also comes with a raft of driver assistance technology, including electronic stability control (ESC), lane keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control.
Also helping to keep things safe are tyre pressure monitoring, forward collision warning, and an interesting feature that controls trailer sway by adjusting engine output and selectively braking to maintain stability. Front and rear parking sensors, along with the reversing camera, are also on hand to help in those tricky situations, or the supermarket car park.
The next generation Ranger also features electric power steering assistance, making for lighter low speed steering while still promising good road feel at higher speeds. The electric power steering pump is quieter than a traditional unit, and is claimed to provide a fuel saving of up to 3.0 percent.
The higher level of safety inclusions puts the Ranger ahead of the pack, aided by strong on-road ability and sure-footed ride and handling.