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Delivery puts six single-cab utes under the spotlight with interesting results. (Words by Allan Whiting and Chris Mullett. Images by Keryn Williams).

The single-cab ute or cab/chassis with a tray back is part of the inventory of any tradesman. There are good reasons for this that don’t only revolve around the overall dimensions of the tray or ute tub. The longer the distance between the back of the cab and the centre-line of the rear axle, the better the load distribution and the safer the vehicle.

For this comparison test we assembled a Ford Ranger and Isuzu D-Max in 2WD form, plus 4WD versions of a Mazda BT-50, a Great Wall V200, a Toyota HiLux and a VW Amarok.

What we found as we went through the process of comparing each of the vehicle was that while the concept of a single cab might be the same for all manufacturers, the way each fulfils that concept makes for an interesting analysis. While they might look similar, they are all far from being identical, and provide varying solutions for the buyer.

Most utes being sold in Australia are built in Thailand – the largest per capita ute market in the world.

‘Thailand’ usually conjures up images of elephants, street-front bars, temples and fake Rolexes, but it’s also the world’s largest producer of 1-1.5-tSingle-Cab-Utes_9onne utes. The attractions are ASEAN centrality, low-cost labour rates, a skilled workforce and tax breaks.

The popularity of the ute in Thailand is due in no small way to the fact that there are thousands of ute-based mini-cabs plying the roads.

Taxi owners fit mesh cage bodywork with a vestigial roof panel, slot in a pair of inward-facing benches and, presto, a 10-seat mini-cab. Greedy operators drop the tailgate and bolt a pair of seats on top of it to gain extra passengers. No passenger gets to sit in the cab – that’s for the driver and his sidekick, who collects fares and touts for business.

One of the major design restrictions imposed in Thailand is the strange Excise Department definition of a ute. Thai law requires that utes must have leaf rear springs, or they’re classified as passenger-carrying vehicles and attract much higher registration and road tax fees.

However, it’s not just Thai practice that keeps the leaf rear spring going – it’s a brilliantly simple piece of engineering.

The leaf spring is a marvellous invention, which is why it’s been with us for centuries. A semi-elliptic pack can be made stronger or weaker simply by adding or taking away leaves. A leaf-spring pack has variable-rate action, because the shorter, ‘helper’ leaves don’t do anything until the spring is compressed. Tight clamping and shaping of the leaves creates inbuilt self-damping as well.

So, why is the leaf spring relegated largely to utes these days? Ride quality and handling are its limitations, mainly because the spring has the job of locating as well as suspending the axle. If the spring is made to a short-travel design to improve axle location and smooth-road handling, the ride quality suffers. Extend the spring and reduce the number of leaves, to give it a softer ride, and the load carrying ability decreases.

Given that the reason for purchasing a single cab is usually because of the need for the largest size of the cargo area available, we’ll start this comparison by looking at the variation in dimensions of our assembled vehicles.Single-Cab-Utes_4

All our evaluation vehicles were short-cab models; four were cab/chassis, fitted with tray bodies and two were utes. Common to all were ladder frame chassis with independent front suspensions, leaf-sprung, live rear axles and disc-front/drum-rear brakes.

There’s a definite trend by ute manufacturers to make their products look bigger and beefier than the competition, and this actually works to the detriment of practicality.

When buying a 4×2, there’s no need for extra high ground clearance as it makes loading and unloading more difficult the higher the tray becomes from the ground. It’s also more difficult to access the cab.

Mounting the rear axle under the leaf spring pack is the usual way for a manufacturer to gain ground clearance on an off-road 4×4. There’s no justification for this axle location on a 4×2, but some manufacturers believe that the more “macho” look adds credibility. The right way here is to have the axle mounted over the leaf spring pack, lowering the tray height and the centre of gravity to improve handling and stability.

No matter which ute or tray back you choose, there’s one common denominator, and that’s the low level of ride comfort. All the models tested have poor ride quality, it’s just that some are better or worse than others. The amount of bounce or bumpiness that each inflicts on the driver will moderate as the load increases, but if the load distribution is not correct then the roadholding suffers. While there’s no way a car buyer would accept the ride quality of the average ute, the reality is that it goes with the territory.

Our six-pack of utes and tray backs produced a variation in ride comfort, deck height, performance and sophistication. We also had an interesting mix of driving appeal, with engine capacities of the four and five-cylinder diesels that varied from 2.0 litres to 3.2 litres, five and six-speed manual gearboxes and a four-speed automatic.

We measured the different contenders at the centre line of the rear axle from the ground and found the HiLux and Mazda BT-50 tray decks were 960 mm high, and the D-Max and Great Wall were set at a much more reasonable 840 mm. The remaining two models, the Amarok and Ford Ranger, were both ute based and therefore not directly comparable.

Tray size for the chassis/cab versions came in at 2550 x 1780 for the HiLux, with an overhang from the axle centreline of 1370 mm; 2550 x 1790 for the D-Max with an overhang of 1470mm; 2400 x 1780 with an overhang of 1360 for the Great Wall; and 2550 x 1790 with an overhang of 1400mm for the Mazda.

There’s obviously a big variation in the diesel engine and driveline performance offered in all utes. Engine capacities varied from 2.0 litres in the Great Wall and the VW Amarok, to 2.2 litres for the Ford Ranger 2WD, 3.0 litres for the HiLux and D-Max, and topping out at 3.2 litres for the Mazda. Only the D-Max had a five-speed manual gearbox, the HiLux was matched to a four-speed auto and the others all had six-speed manual gearboxes.

Interestingly, the on-road speed versus engine rpm comparison showed that all the utes on test, with the exception of the Amarok, were identical, with 100 km/h in top gear at 2000 rpm and 110 km/h at 2200 rpm. The Amarok engine technology shows just how far small capacity, high performance diesels have come, by dropping engine rpm to 1,800 rpm for 100 km/h and 2,000 rpm at 110 km/h.

The fact that the D-Max matched the same engine rpm and road speed with a five-speed manual transmission also shows the benefit of high torque output, nullifying the preconception that an extra gear will provide a lower maximum speed cruise level and correspondingly improve fuel economy.

Great Wall V200

Single-Cab-Utes_P3

The Great Wall’s 2.0-litre diesel is both turbocharged and intercooled and produces 105 kW at 4,000 rpm with peak torque of 310 Nm rated at 1,800-2,800 rpm. There is also a 2.4-litre petrol four-cylinder available that offers 100 kW at 5,250 rpm and peak torque of 200 Nm rated at 2,500-3,000 rpm.

Suspension differences see the Great Wall with a double wishbone front end and disc-front/drum-rear brakes. The tow capacity is 1,700 kg and fuel economy is 8.3 l/100 km for the combined consumption figure. Payload is 1,178 kg from a GVM of 2,885 kg.

If the Great Wall bodywork reminds you of the previous-generation Rodeo, there’s a good reason for that: it’s a reasonably accurate copy. However the Great Wall 4×4 model has been brought rather more technically up to date, thanks to the common-rail, 2.0-litre, turbo-intercooled diesel. The petrol engine couples to a five-speed manual, and the diesel to a six-speed.

Mechanically, the Great Wall seems well bolted together and the engine bay is accessible. However, the engine looks like it’s been shoehorned in, rather than purpose-designed: the sump is at the front of the engine, behind a modest plate that might not offer adequate protection on some construction sites.

The Great Wall has ABS braking, but no stability or traction control system.

VW Amarok

 

The only commonality that links the VW Amarok to the Great Wall is that both vehicles have 2.0-litre engines. Nothing else is even remotely similar.

Our evaluation Amarok was the long-term test vehicle we’ve been checking out over the last six months. It’s a single-cab diesel 4×4, but the Amarok range starts with 4×2 petrol and diesel models.

The turbocharged petrol four-cylinder is also of 2.0 litres and has claimed figures of 118 kW at 3750 rpm and 300 Single-Cab-Utes_8Nm at 1600-3750 rpm. The turbo-diesel 2.0-litre has claimed figures of 90 kW at 3750 rpm and 340 Nm at 1750-2250 rpm.

Amarok 4x4s are powered by a series-turbocharged, twin-turbo version of the diesel 2.0-litre that has claimed figures of 120 kW at 4000 rpm and 400 Nm at 1500-2250 rpm. The only transmission in single-cab Amaroks is a six-speed manual.

Standard equipment includes stability and traction control, and hill-start assist. Towing capacity is 3000 kg.

VW is the only ute maker to specify different rear-suspension ratings, resulting in gross mass ratings of 3040 kg (standard) and 2820kg (comfort). Our test vehicle was fitted with harder-riding standard springs, but still had the best ride quality of all the test vehicles.

Ford Ranger

 

For the next progressive increase in engine size we turn to the Ford Ranger 4×2 single cab.

There’s a 2.5-litre petrol variant, but our evaluation Ranger came with the 2.2-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged diesel engine with common-rail injection.

The big advantage of the Ranger 4×2 as tested was the lower overall height, thanks to the location of the rear axle being above the rear leaf springs, rather than underneath them. The lower centre of gravity makes for a more comfortable on-road experience, and most owners will be able to lean over the sidewall of the tub, something that is not easily accomplished on the higher overslung axle versions.

The 2.2-litre diesel engine produces 7.6 l/100 km combined fuel consumption figure with the standard six-speed manual gearbox, increasing this figure to 8.9 l/100 km when mated to the six-speed automatic. The 2.5-litre petrol sucks more fuSingle-Cab-Utes_2el at a rate of 9.8 l/100 km with a five-speed manual gearbox. And there’s no auto option here. Ford fits traction control as standard to all 4x2s and offers an optional locking rear diff on high-ride 4x2s. Dynamic Stability Control is standard on all Ranger 4x4s.

The power output of the 2.2-litre diesel is 110 kW at 3,700 rpm with peak torque of 375 Nm running from 1,500-2,500 rpm. It may not look like it’s supremely more capable than the Great Wall engine on paper, but the driving experience confirms that this engine is much stronger, happily lugs down lower, and doesn’t appear breathless – all aspects that see the Great Wall engine struggling to compete on anywhere near equal terms.

Ford does offer a Hi-Rider version with auto only that features overslung axle location, and we would suggest steering clear of that for all the reasons already listed. It’s simply something that the marketing gurus believe gives the buyer the appearance of having larger cohones.

Toyota HiLux

 

You don’t get to be the ute market leader and stay there for years if you’re not doing things right, but Toyota is working harder these days to keep the HiLux ahead, with the rest of the pack snapping at its profitable heels.

The HiLux doesn’t lead in terms of engine performance, manual and automatic transmission ratios, cab room, load space and chassis dynamics, yet remains on top of the sales charts.

The company’s strengths are its dealer network, strong resale values and model range: the HiLux is available in more variants than any of its competitors.

Examples are short-cab Workmate 4×2 available with petrol or diesel power and five-speed manual or four-sSingle-Cab-Utes_5peed automatic transmissions, and 4×4 diesel with manual or auto. All 4×2 models have low-height chassis for ease of loading, and 4x4s have by far the best laid-out engine bay for off-road work, incorporating space for an auxiliary battery.

The 2.7-litre petrol four has claimed figures of 116 kW at 5200 rpm and 240 Nm at 3800 rpm. (For SR-spec models there’s also an optional four-litre petrol V6 with claimed figures of 175 kW at 5200 rpm and 343 Nm {manual box} or 376Nm {auto box}.)

The 3.0-litre diesel has figures of 126 kW at 3600 rpm and 343 Nm at 1400-3400 rpm. It’s the only ute engine these days with an above-engine ‘pancake’ intercooler – all other makes have adopted the more efficient front-mounted intercooler design.

Stability and traction control are not available on any single-cab HiLux model, and towing capacity is a maximum of 2500 kg. The combined fuel consumption figure is 9.3 l/100 km.

Isuzu D-Max

 

The heart of the D-Max is an updated version of the proven 3.0-litre diesel that powered the previous D-Max, Colorado and Rodeo products. It is no longer available in the Colorado, where Holden has replaced it with a VM-Motori engine.

Now with a front-mounted intercooler and common-rail injection, the Isuzu engine has claimed figures of 130 kW at 3600 rpm and 380 Nm at 1800-3000 rpm. (The torque curve is clipped off at 2800 rpm in the case of automatic-transmission models.)

Our evaluation vehicle was a Low-Ride 4×2 SX manual, and the buyer benefits from the same advantages as those that choose the low height Ranger 4×2, those being better stability and easier tray and deck access.

A five-speed manual transmission is the only box offered on Low-Ride and High-Ride SX single-cab D-Max, but a five-speed auto is optional on the EX version.

Stability and traction control are standard on all D-Max models. Towing capacity is 2,500 kg for 4x2s and 3000 kg for 4x4s.

The D-Max engine bay is well laid out, with regular check items easily reached and the engine air intake is located safely in the inner mudguard.

As the product range was the winner of Delivery’s Ute of the Year Award for 2013, we rate the Isuzu product very highly, in the context of being the tough, no compromise work ute that has a reputation for longevity and durability. The engine technology comes from Isuzu Trucks, and it doesn’t get much better than that as a heritage claim.

Mazda BT50

 

For our single-cab comparison Mazda produced the absolute top-of-the-line tray back version of the BT-50, with more options than we can mention, but including the 3.2-litre, five-cylinder, turbocharged and intercooled diesel.

Jointly developed with its Ford cousin, the Mazda BT-50 comes in fewer variants than the Ranger, but both brands have 4×2 models with low-height chassis.

In Mazda’s case, the only low-ride height version comes with the 2.2-litre, four-cylinder diesel that we experienced in the Ford Ranger. A high-rise version of a 2WD variant makes little sense to us as it serves to complicate everything the vehicle will do in its work life.

Dynamic Stability Control is standard on all Ranger 4x4s and on all 4×2 and 4×4 BT-50s. A locking rear diff is standard on all BT-50 4×4 models and optional on Ranger single-cab 4x4s.Single-Cab-Utes_7

The Ranger and BT-50 shared 2.2-litre, four-cylinder diesel has figures of 110 kW at 3700 rpm and 375 Nm at 1500-2500 rpm. The shared 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel has class-leading figures of 147 kW at 3000 rpm and 470 Nm at 1500-2750 rpm. Mazda 2.2-litre models can tow 2500 kg, and 3.2-litre models 3350 kg.

Interestingly, Ford and Mazda have removed the noise covers from their engines, but you can see the attachment pins still in place. (VW has done the same with the Amarok.) Ford fits covers in the recreational XLT and Wildtrak model engine bays, but not to the XL models. To the technically-focused Allan Whiting, this raises the inference that Ford-Mazda and VW might have a heat issue with hard-working vehicles. This is where our readers might like to comment if they have personal experience of such a problem.

Conclusion.

 

There is no overall winner here, as with each model there comes a series of variations, plus there’s a huge difference in overall pricing.

The ride comfort of all utes is way behind that of virtually any car, thanks to the rudimentary leaf spring rear suspension.

The VW Amarok provides the best level of ride comfort, has five-star safety (as does the Mazda BT-50 and Ford Ranger) and is terribly clever, thanks to its sophisticated electronics. Where it misses out is by having a 2.0-litre capacity engine that’s easy to stall at start-off from rest. Once on the move, it pulls with all the enthusiasm it can generate from its dual turbochargers. To its detriment, it comes with a very high ride height and deep tub sidewalls.

The Ford Ranger 2WD Low-Ride was very impressive and did not in any way suffer from having the four-cylinder 2.2-litre diesel rather than that 3.2-litre five-speed.

The BT-50 with its 3.2-litre diesel is extremely smooth in its power delivery, but we found the six-speed gearbox unimpressive in its shift quality, an observation that also applies to the Ranger 2.2-litre.

The HiLux is now the elder statesman and is definitely awaiting a much-needed upgrade. Resale value is its great advantage and so too is the backing of the Toyota sales and service network.

The D-Max also impressed thanks to its strength and ease of use, again being able to offer a Low-Ride tray height. In this category, we keep finding very satisfied customers that appreciate its ability to cope with hard work.Single-Cab-Utes_3

The Great Wall has to be taken at face value. It’s the lowest priced model on the Australian market and takes its technology from the Chinese manufacturer being able to copy someone else’s designs from a decade ago. At first sight, it’s a better purchase bet than a five-year-old HiLux for much the same outlay. But it comes with an unknown pedigree and yet to be proven durability and product support from the importer.

That said, we found the Great Wall V200 very easy to live with. Its lower performance levels require a different driving technique, with the driver being prepared to keep the engine spinning at over 2,000 rpm. Drop under that rpm and you’ll find that the performance and torque output drops like a stone in a well, producing a small ripple rather than a tsunami of power.

Competition in this segment continues to increase, and Great Wall has now been joined in the Australian market by fellow Chinese manufacturer, Foton Ute. This Chinese newcomer is also unable to boast a strong heritage and already appears to be struggling as it sets up distribution channels in this country.

But, not all “known names” are entirely absolved from criticism. Delivery readers have been complaining about problems with the drivelines of the latest Holden Colorado.

Delivery understands that Holden Australia is currently developing an upgrade to the transmission that could be released this year, but its customer service division has been very unresponsive to calls for solutions. And, for those that are wondering, the latest recalls of Volkswagen products do not relate to the Amarok models, as these do not share the same DSG transmissions with the passenger car line-up.

A final comment on all vehicles tested relates to night driving and headlamp performance. Great Wall, Mazda and Ford have excellent headlamp capability, the D-Max is at best considered average, but the Amarok is by far the worst.

Time for Change

Along with high-pressure diesel injection, turbocharging and intercooling, the trucking world pioneered air suspension. Heavy trucks and buses have been using air suspensions for 40-odd years, and virtually all on-highway heavy trucks use drive-axle air suspensions.

Single-Cab-Utes_4Because of the height-adjustability of air suspension, a vehicle can be designed to have a low centre of gravity for optimum on-road handling and higher chassis clearance for construction site driving. No mechanical suspension can duplicate this design feature.

Other benefits of air suspension include progressive-rate springing, automatic height and levelling control, and less mechanical vibration transfer to the chassis and bodywork.

Currently, the only light commercial vehicles to offer air suspension are some of the European vans. Given that the ute is so popular and profitable for vehicle manufacturers, especially in the Australian market, it’s time for some forward thinking for the next generation of ute design to adopt these systems and improve ride comfort and drivability.

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