The Perfect Compromise

Delivery checks out four of the most popular space cabs.

Choosing the right ute for specific types of use is always going to be a compromise. In country areas, the aim is always to go for the longest tray option, but then you might need room inside the cab to carry the kids to and from the school bus pick-up point.

Where recreational aspirations at weekends take over from load-carrying duties, then the crew cab has greater appeal. If you need space for the kids over short distances, the space cab might be the perfect choice.

Delivery has been comparing four different space-cab versions and came up with some surprising results, not least being the almost identical interior space on offer, but the wide variation in performance.

For courier use, there’s no need to move to the more expensive and less fuel-efficient 4×4 space cabs, but, for the purposes of this comparison, that’s exactly what we evaluated as available from the various manufacturers.

Mazda was first cab off the rank with its BT-50, closely followed by Isuzu with a D-Max, Nissan with a Navara and Holden with a Colorado. There’s still a lot of confusion in the market about the association between Holden andSpace-Cab-Ute_P4 Isuzu, with many buyers still presuming that the only difference is the badge on the bonnet. The same thought process largely applies to the Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50.

As far as the Holden and Isuzu are concerned, the similarity between the two makes extends through the chassis and body with subtle differences in sheet metal such as the bonnet and headlamp areas.

Each model is made in a separate factory in Thailand, and the thirty degrees of separation come into play through each having a totally different engine and transmission. Holden uses a VM engine with Italian origins and mates it to an Eaton transmission. Isuzu uses its own engine and adds an Aisin automatic transmission that is also used by Toyota.

If you talk to the General Motors people, they claim the Colorado as their own design. Meet up with the Isuzu people and they tell you it was a joint venture with the majority of the design work completed by Isuzu.

Meanwhile, pretty much the same attempt at the smoke and mirrors treatment occurs when you compare the Mazda BT-50 with the Ford Ranger. It’s harder for each manufacturer here to claim overall competence and responsibility as even the engines and drivelines are identical. It’s just once again sheet metal that varies, with Mazda going for a more swooping style treatment and Ford relying on its Super Heavy Duty F-Truck appeal to sway the hearts and minds of buyers. Dashboard styling is also slightly different.

Not every manufacturer has graduated its product range in Australia to include a space-cab version. Even the market leader, Toyota, has kept out of this segment, although space-cab versions of the HiLux are available in different global markets.

So, with Mazda taking up the challenge on behalf of Ford, and with Holden and Isuzu going head to head, we add in the Nissan Navara to make up our duelling quartet.

There is actually very little difference when it comes to interior cabin space. We ran a tape over the length from the face of the dashboard to rear bulkhead at waist height and found that all of them are basically identical at around 1,408 mm. Interior height and shoulder width measurements are also pretty similar, leaving the buyer to select which seat or dashboard design is most pleasing on the eye.

Annoyingly, none of the quartet manages to offer reach adjustable steering, with only rake variation in each vehicle.

The Ford/Mazda interior is certainly the best when it comes to design ability, with more storage space available, even up to having locker room for a laptop. The Isuzu and Holden cab interiors are pretty much identical and are more utilitarian, with a standard passenger drop-down glove box and door pockets.

Each of the four alternatives offers a flap down pair of seats in the rear section accessed by rear hinged “suicide” doors. Passengers here are protected by lap/sash diagonal seat belts for two, but it’s worth noting that occupants in these seats are not considered by the testers in the global crash safety test ratings. For utes, the occupant safety quoted only relates to those in the front seats.

A fold-down seat squab does not make for a comfy armchair-type ride, and, with limited legroom, this area is at best only for small passengers that travel a short distance. The only way an adult can climb onboard in the rear is for the front seats to be slid forwards until everyone onboard experiences the same degree of discomfort. Either way, it’s not going to provide a good experience, but it does get the job done.Space-Cab-Ute_13

Where this rear area does become valuable is when you do the shopping. Instead of having to lean in over the back of the front seat, the access provided by the rear quarter door is ideal for stashing away groceries. It’s also ideal for the dog, or dogs. There are other space benefits in this rear section, with underfloor lockers providing room for ropes, load binders and somewhere to store the tow bar extension tube and towball.

Three of our contenders in this comparison came with factory tubs, leaving the Isuzu as the only tray back, cab/chassis version in this evaluation.

Our personal choice is always to go for a tray back, as this adds load space and ease of access when working with the ute. Admittedly, tub looks smarter, but, as the sidewalls have started to rise on the new models, the access to the interior for anyone trying to reach over the sidewalls has diminished. It might be okay for someone sporting the arm length to body relationship of a gorilla, but for the average short-armed Homo sapien, it’s almost impossible now to reach over the sidewall of the tub to retrieve anything off the cargo deck floor.

When it comes to ride comfort, the standard on any ute is, at best, only average. Some of the front suspension systems are soft, some are harder, but none appear to be able to perfectly match the compliance rates of the cart-sprung rear semi-elliptical leaf springs.

Admittedly, the manufacturer is faced with the dilemma of having to provide for a variation of loading from nothing to 1,000 kg, plus facing the possibility of adding a trailer weighing up to 3,500 kg hanging on the back of the chassis. Low cost and reliability dictates the use of the same type of spring system that appeared first on a hay cart. At speeds of the average horse, it worked relatively well. Today it doesn’t.

The driver and passengers are going to bounce around, no matter to what extent the vehicle is loaded. Replacing the rear semi-elliptical leaf springs with coil springs and air bag suspension that adjusts its pressure to suit the load would fix the problem. Is it available? No. So just get used to bouncing about and finding that the rear end steps out of line when it hits a bump, and this consequently affects straight-line stability as well as cornering stability.

So, having accepted that the ride comfort is not going to even approximate that of a cheap sedan, the next objective is to find a ute with an engine that does the job with power to spare. You might think this would part of every ute spec, but it isn’t. Some engines and transmissions are well up to the task, while others are woefully inadequate.

We’ll start here with the best performers, and up to the top of the list comes Mazda (and by association Ford) with the 3.2-litre diesel, closely matched by Isuzu with its 3.0-litre diesel. Both are turbocharged and intercooled, but the Ford boasts five cylinders, one more than the Isuzu with four.

Both these engines pull strongly. The five-cylinder, 3.2-litre Mazda/Ford engine raises 147 kW at 3,000 rpm, with peak torque of 470 Nm rated at 1,500-2,750 rpm. The latest version of the 3.0-litre Isuzu diesel comes in with 130 kW at 3,600 rpm, and a peak torque rating of 380 Nm at 1,800 through to 3,000 rpm (manual) and at 2,800 (auto).

In the 4×2 segment, Ford offers a space cab (Super Cab) with the four-cylinder 2.2-litre diesel in cab/chassis form only. Power and torque figures here are 110 kW at 3,700 rpm and 375 Nm rate at 1,500-2,500 rpm. This engine is not available in ute spec, where the engine option increases again to the 3.2-litre. Mazda stays with only the 3.2-litre version in its space cab (Freestyle) 4×2 and 4×4 versions, and also keeps to Hi-Rider suspension heights.

Holden’s Colorado with the VM 2.8-litre, four-cylinder puts out 132 kW at 3,800 rpm and 440 Nm at 2,000 rpm (manual) and 470 Nm at 2000 rpm (auto).

Nissan’s 2.5-litre Navara is only available as a 4×4 space cab (King Cab) and produces maximum power of 126 kW at 4,000 rpm and peak torque of 403 Nm rated at 2,000 rpm.

As we start to compare the power and torque outputs on paper, things all look relatively similar, but, out on the road and when negotiating steep hill climbs, there’s a world of difference in the ability of the different engines and drivelines.

The Mazda BT-50 pulls strongly right through the rev range, and there’s strong ability from 1,000 rpm upwards. The six-speed manual gearbox does take time to appreciate as the shift positions are close together, and at first introduction it seems a stiff and notchy shift quality. The more we drove the Mazda we came around to thinking that it is something to which the driver becomes accustomed.

The same compliments about power and torque also apply to the Isuzu, which portrays its trucking heritage and slogs away with a strong display that is well matched to both manual and automatic transmissions.

The Navara engine at anything under 2,250 rpm is unimpressive. Unless you’ve got a lot of momentum happening with rpm to match, the performance nose-dives. Towing is definitely not an option with this engine, and turbocharger boost only seems to come in around the 2,500 rpm area.

The Colorado VM engine lets down the Holden in terms of performance, and Delivery is also receiving reports from users of driveline problems in vehicles with low kilometres. One customer still awaits resolution of a driveline vibration first reported some nine months ago, dependent on the replacement of a clutch that remains on back order.

In terms of a pecking order, our finalists showed that Mazda and Isuzu lead the charge of the space-cab brigade, and personal choice with either model will come down to likes and dislikes of trim levels and design. Price also plays a significant role here, tending to point the buyer to Isuzu first, for a solid workhorse, but to Mazda for the greater sophistication of its interior equipment and cabin design.

Nissan Navara ST-X manual six-speed

Like all current Nissans, the Navara diesel has quirky engine characteristics: the Renault-derived V6 3.0-litre has significant turbo ‘lag’; the Patrol 3.0-litre four-cylinder needs to rev above 2000 rpm before much happens; and the latest iteration of the European-built 2.5-litre is another rev-head.

Coupled to the optional automatic transmission, the Navara diesel is a much nicer drive, because the auto’s fluid coupling allows the engine to rev up to its optimum band. However, in the case of the manual, the engine needs constant stick-stirring to keep it above 1800 rpm. Even there, the response is doughy and the engine doesn’t hit its straps until it’s revving around 2500 rpm. A common-rail, turbo-intercooled diesel shouldn’t feel like that.

So, given that the auto box is by far the best choice for Navara buyers, how does the rest of the package work out?

The Navara has always had good ute-quality ride and handling, and the current model continues that tradition. The front end is softly damped, allowing front-end bump-steer on rough road surfaces, but the back end is well tied down. On smooth roads the Navara has flat, predictable handling and accurate, nicely-weighted steering.

However, the test vehicle’s brake pedal had excessive travel and the pedal feel was insecure.

The Navara’s driving ergonomics are okay, with a dashboard dial for 4WD selection and steering wheel cruise control, but the steering station is showing its age – most of Navara’s competitors have radio and Bluetooth steering wheel buttons and 4WD controls closer to the driver’s left hand.

Mazda BT-50

Ford-owned Mazda developed the five-cylinder, 3.2-litre, common-rail diesel that powers the BT-50 and the Ford Ranger. This engine size is an increase on the previous 3.0-litre four that was the power and torque leader in its class, so it’s no surprise that the new five retains that output leadership status.

We reckon this engine capacity is about right for the new ute class that’s grown in size, and in load and towing capacity in recent years. The BT-50 is a clear performance leader in this quartet of extended-cab utes. It’s quiet, responsive and flexible, and geared to cruise economically at 1800 rpm at 100 km/h in sixth hole.

The same praise cannot be lavished on the manual six-speed transmission, which is notchy and heavily weighted in the third-fourth plane, meaning it’s necessary to give the lever a fair tug to the right to select fifth and sixth. As with the Navara, we’d opt for an auto BT-50, not a manual.

The BT-50’s suspension was developed co-jointly by Ford, but Mazda has opted for slightly firmer settings than the Ranger features. The BT-50’s front end was the best of all the evaluation utes – being well damped, with great bump control – but the rear end was wayward, with spring bump-steer overriding much of the damping effect from the shock absorbers. On our rough-course road the BT-50’s back end bounced around, affecting directional stability.

Ergonomics are very good, with all controls well positioned and steering wheel controls for radio/phone and cruise control.

Holden Colorado auto

The latest Colorado is General Motors’ ‘go it alone’ exercise, departing from the previous Isuzu-operated, joint development of D-Max and Holden light commercials. In place of the Isuzu 3.0-litre that powered the previous Colorado – and Rodeos before that – is a VM Motori 2.8-litre, four-cylinder, common-rail diesel that also powers some Jeep models. (VM is jointly owned by GM and Fiat-Chrysler.)

This engine lacks the flexibility and response of the previous 3.0-litre, but works well enough, albeit somewhat noisily, with the five-speed automatic fitted to the evaluation vehicle. Prior testing shows it isn’t as much fun in front of the manual six-speed. The auto dropped engine revs to 1600 rpm at 100 km/h in lock-up mode, but quickly unlocked the converter clutch and raised revs to 2000 rpm when any top-gear accelerator was applied.

Ergonomics are okay, but the test vehicle had a power-adjustable driver’s seat that lacked sufficient cushion-height variation. The steering wheel controls operated radio/phone and cruise control, and the 4WD dial was well positioned on the centre console.

The Colorado rode and handled quite well, because, although front and rear suspensions were underdamped, the spring rates seemed well matched. On rough surfaces there was some loss of directional stability, at both ends. Handling was flat and balanced on smooth roads and the steering felt accurate.

Space-Cab-Ute_P2Isuzu D-Max auto

The Isuzu D-Max was our Ute of The Year in 2013, and this comparison of the D-Max with its competitors hasn’t changed our minds.

The D-Max is powered by the latest version of the venerable Isuzu 3.0-litre, turbo-intercooled, common-rail diesel that isn’t class leading in terms of power and torque, but is a proven performer. In front of an automatic five-speed transmission, the engine lopes along at a relaxed 1800 rpm at 100 km/h in top gear, but has plenty of gradeability and excellent response when asked for more urge at that speed.

Like all utes in this class, the D-Max matches a variable-rate, leaf-spring rear suspension with a coil-sprung fixed-rate front end, and it doesn’t work ideally when the vehicle is lightly loaded. However, front and rear suspension reactions are reasonably matched, so it’s more directionally stable than the more potent BT-50.

On smooth roads the D-Max has flat handling, powerful braking and accurate steering.

The D-Max is a tad underdone in the interior equipment department, not offering phone and radio steering wheel controls or a large info screen that can be adapted to display a nav system, but it’s practical.

Why an auto may be the better choice

Nearly all modern utes with manual transmissions have dual-mass flywheels, because their highly turbocharged engines, with common-rail fuel injection, generate around twice the killer wasps and Newton thingies they used to do. All this grunt generates torsional vibrations – nasties you don’t want mashing up your transmission – that must be ‘damped out’ as much as possible.

Enter the two-piece – dual-mass – flywheel, with internal springs sandwiched between the engine side and the clutch side. This assembly limits the vibration ‘spikes’ that pass into the transmission, and also cushions the vibrations that cause rough, jerky response at low revs. Much larger springs than the little ones used on traditional clutch driven-plates are designed to absorb much larger vibrations.

The down side is that a dual-mass flywheel is a wear component that can’t be machined, like a single-mass flywheel can, because the two faces are around half the thickness of a sold flywheel. When the clutch side face is worn or warped, the entire flywheel must be replaced – read ‘expensive’.

If you drive a manual ute correctly, the dual-mass flywheel/clutch assembly should last the same distance as a solid arrangement, but, any abuse, such as slipping the clutch, lugging the engine excessively, or chipping the engine so it produces more power and torque, can shorten flywheel life.

The jury is still out on whether a solid flywheel replacement for a dual-mass one will shorten transmission life. To be on the safe side we’d buy an auto, with its inbuilt fluid coupling to damp out the nasties.

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