With competition that increases every year, which ute ranks up as the best for 2014 on the Australian market.
Unlike the plethora of 4WD and off-road adventure magazines that extol the virtues of suspension lift kits, never travel anywhere without a high-lift jack and like nothing better than bouncing from rock to rock, that’s not how Delivery magazine views the ute market.
In fact, it makes little difference to us whether the ute in question is 2WD or 4WD. The big question for Delivery is whether the ute we recommend is the right vehicle for the job.
There are reasons why ute buyers that drive on bitumen through the week would go for an all-wheel-drive version, and some of that hinges on whether there’s a wish to head off-road for camping or recreational activities at weekends. The other reason to opt for 4WD is where the nature of your work requires an off-road ability, such as when working on building sites or travelling to locations in the snow.
Given that most ute manufacturers create both 2WD and 4WD products, the choice of which driveline to adopt comes down to intended use and cost. Don’t get carried away and order a 4WD if you have no intention of heading off-road. You’ll be paying much more, in most cases suffering a harsher ride, and you’ll definitely be paying more for fuel as the extra weight and mechanical components contribute to higher fuel consumption.
Lovers of Falcons and Commodores still have a couple more years of indulging their passion before both manufacturers shut up shop locally. Both brands are probably producing the best versions of their models right now, and yet, ironically, it’s almost a swansong that the great Aussie ute is on the way out.
Nobody will contradict the country attitudes to utes that result in Bundy Rum stickers, three-metre radio antennas, and hosts of driving lamps across the front, mounted fair and square on a bull bar and complimented at the rear of the ute by twin or quadruple big-bore exhausts that echo the sound of a burbling V8 wherever you may wander. In fact, secretly, we all probably fancied one at some stage in our lives, be we male or female.
The world of the ute is changing. For years Australia has embraced the Japanese-style of cab/chassis, complete with tub or tray. In recent years we’ve seen 2WD as well as 4WD models hoisted up on springs mounted over the axles, instead of being underslung, in order to create a high-ride version. For those that are not trying to climb a mountain, what they have to then live with is more difficult access and egress from the cabin, greater difficulty in reaching the contents of the tray or tub and a worsening of road holding and handling due to the higher centre of gravity.
Some of the high-ride versions available, such as Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50 and Volkswagen’s Amarok, have tubs with sides so deep that only those with the genes of an orang-utan, and arms to match, will be able to reach over the sidewall to retrieve something from the tub floor. Normal folk will be crawling on hands and knees over the tailgate into the cargo area to grab their objective. Not a good look, and sometimes quite painful on the knees.
Into this mix of Japanese and Thai-built utes are coming an increasing number of light trucks from Europe. Fitted with single and dual cabins, the “Euro Ute” is perhaps more of a light truck derivative, but it offers a conventional car-like cabin interior with similar driving experiences and roadholding capabilities.
Models such as the Renault Master, IVECO Daily and Volkswagen Transporter single and crew-cab tray backs have the potential to become serious rivals in this area, and are sufficiently different from the next step up to heavier-duty light trucks that they provide another option to buyers. Not so the Japanese-style cabover light truck, that is a precursor to moving into the world of trucking that requires light-rigid or medium-rigid driving licences.
Ford’s Ranger and Mazda’s BT-50 are recent developments from a technical perspective and provide a well-specified selection of trim levels and options. There is a difference in the suspension settings, with the Mazda a little softer than the Ford, and, of course, there are cosmetic differences to the appearance.
We particularly liked the XL single cab Ranger that is lower to the ground, easy to live and work with, and has a capable four-cylinder, 2.2-litre, diesel engine. Mazda prefers the High Rider look, even for its 2WD versions, which in our view panders to the influence of the marketing department rather than those using the vehicle as a practical workhorse.
Adding another cylinder to the Ford or Mazda engine produces 3.2 litres of turbocharged diesel, and this is a strong and eagerly performing engine. It’s let down a little by the often notchy six-speed manual gearbox, and with this pick we would suggest taking the six-speed auto option in preference.
Foton Ute hails from China and has the benefit of a well-proven Cummins diesel, albeit this 2.8-litre, four-cylinder is built in Beijing rather than the US. With a new distribution deal involving ATECO, it’s a better bet than Great Wall, also marketed through the same distributors. Foton has yet to get its products out properly in the marketplace, but there is strong potential there for the brand in the future.
Foton’s first foray with the Tunland ute could be stronger if the next round of imports have some work done on the rear suspension to control stability a bit better as it is prone to jumping about when unladen on bumpy roads. There’s also an anomaly that needs to be fixed that sees different gearboxes and a variation in power and torque ratings from the same engine when switched from 2WD to 4WD models. It would make sense to standardise on the higher performance version.
Great Wall came to prominence as the purveyor of a new vehicle at second-hand pricing. That’s was all well and good until early buyers tried to offload their utes after a couple of years and found they were worth as much as a used lottery ticket. The Great Wall is something you buy and then hand down through the family like an old sock. Eventually you will leave it in the barn.
For years the Holden Rodeo and the Isuzu D-Max were just badge engineered identical twins, with the Isuzu powered by the 3.0-litre Isuzu diesel and the Holden version also offering the not very fuel efficient 3.0-litre V6 petrol.
Not so today. Isuzu’s D-Max is the ute you buy if you want a hard worker that won’t let you down. Holden’s Colorado has been plagued with problems, through using a different engine and gearbox from the Isuzu version, and suffered from low-level customer service on the part of General Motors. Perhaps poor customer service is not just confined to the US and GM ignition switches.
Delivery has personally owned and operated two Isuzu D-Max models on its fleet and has never had a breakdown or moment of concern. Our current model is the D-Max Space Cab with heavy-duty alloy tray, and it’s a top performer.
Indian manufacturer, Mahindra, has floated on the fringe of the Australian ute market for a number of years now, but has never indicated any serious intent to become a major importer. The Pik-Up CRDe ute is quite a good all-rounder, even though ranking low on the crash safety scoreboard.
There’s a smaller ute called the Mahindra Genio, which has been promoted at rural country farm days, but Delivery’s concern would be related to customer and service support. Most calls to head office seem to be directed to voicemail that nobody monitors, and that doesn’t make the prospective buyer very comfortable.
Mitsubishi is preparing to launch a brand new version of the Triton ute range later this year, and it promises to be worth waiting for, even if only because of the tremendous reputation this brand has internationally. The Pajero engine was always a better bet in the earlier Triton than the current 2.5-litre, and one hopes that we see a return to 3.2 litres in the next model.
Nissan is another well-established ute maker that is aiming to launch a totally new product with the Navara nameplate potentially later this year. The brand will finally settle on one model rather than the two that have been selling alongside each other for years.
Delivery has never understood why a company would market an inferior product alongside a superior product when both wear the same name. All it did was confuse the buyer, and, in many cases, the dealership sales staff.
The 2.5-litre diesel in the Navara is, frankly, gutless, and with a five-speed manual gearbox it requires a serious effort to keep up with traffic on anything approaching a hill or when towing. The V6 3.0-litre diesel with seven-speed auto solves that problem, but at close to $60,000 even that is not the perfect solution.
SsangYong is the unsung Korean manufacturer that neither has an image nor a market presence. Its ute offering is the Actyon, and as a dual-cab it works well. Once again, at Delivery we tend to fight shy of importers that put little investment into the brand and don’t seem to have a marketing plan. It could always be a case of here today and somewhere else tomorrow, leaving owners with something that nobody else wants to buy.
Indian manufacturer TATA is a different kettle of curry from Mahindra, and its parent company has a huge resource available as it prepares to launch a range of vehicles, including medium weight trucks, onto the Australian market.
The TATA Xenon has a strong 2.2-litre, four-cylinder, Euro V diesel, but the driving position is a little strange, with pedal heights more suited for short-legged drivers. It can be fixed easily, and we expect TATA to do just that and come back stronger with the next round of its products.
Now we come to the market leader, and of course all thoughts turn to Toyota and the HiLux. With the highest resale of any ute on the market, Toyota has continued the HiLux dream as being the perfect tradies’ vehicle as well as the best off-roader for weekend warriors.
Somewhat long in the tooth these days, HiLux still does what it needs to do to a very high standard. There’s a new model in preparation for launch as early as next year, but, in the meantime, you can’t go wrong checking out pricing in your local Toyota dealership.
Now we come to Volkswagen and two products: the Amarok and the Transporter.
Transporter offers the largest cabin dimensions when compared to typical Japanese-style utes, and its crew-cab interior is very impressive. The tray size is also larger. VW seems to have forgotten just how versatile the single or crew-cab can be, and when fitted with 4MOTION all-wheel-drive this is capable of getting across any muddy paddock that can be covered by a conventional 4×4 ute. Once again, we would choose the manual gearbox in preference to the DSG AMT.
Amarok is instantly impressive for its more modern approach, with European styling and very high build quality. The six-speed manual version is not perfect for Australian conditions if you really want to potter about in the paddock or tow a trailer. At low engine rpm the available torque is lacking for start up from stationary until the revs rise and turbos kick in. If you don’t get it right, you stall the engine due to the high gearing.
The jewel here is the Amarok matched to the eight-speed ZF automatic, and the combination cannot be faulted. We would go further and suggest choosing the cab/chassis version in order to have lower tray sides that will enable easier access.
The electronics that control the all-wheel-drive system enable the Amarok to outperform any other standard low/high mechanical system, and it’s so good that you need to experience it to believe it.
The ride quality on the highway, fuel economy around 8.3 l/100 km, and the general feel of the Amarok, made the dual-cab 4MOTION with eight-speed automatic transmission at $44,490 the best deal on the ute market.
2014 Delivery Magazine Ute of the Year is Volkswagen Amarok Automatic