Utes are hot property in the used car market right now. A broad range of buyers love them for their wide range of uses. Utes can tow, lift heavy things, carry plenty of people and – in four-wheel drive guise – tackle some very gnarly terrain.
Utes have also come a long way over the past decade. What were once basic utility vehicles with an emphasis on worklife basics have morphed into family vehicles that come equipped with all the latest trimmings. That includes luxury and safety gear.
Three of the favourites in the ute market are from Toyota, Ford and Volkswagen.
Here we details the pros and cons of each.
The Hilux is the unofficial king of the ute market. It’s long been the top seller and it has a well-earned reputation for ruggedness and reliability. Much of the testing and development work for Toyota’s long running ute was conducted in Australia, something that shows in the way it deals with local conditions.
It’s particularly good off-road. That reputation for capability meant engineers spent plenty of time preparing it for the worst Australian roads could throw at it. Excellent ground clearance and an ability to fend off washouts and corrugations with ease make it great for outback touring or doing work in the bush. And it doesn’t mind a heavy load on board.
Of course it comes with compromises and the Hilux isn’t as sophisticated as its rivals on the bitumen. There’s a little more noise from the tyres and the suspension tends towards firm. The cabin also isn’t as spacious as its rivals here.
The arrival of the 2.8-litre four-cylinder engine in 2015 brought improvements to efficiency, but it’s not a particularly inspiring engine. Mid-range flexibility is only OK, which translates to acceptable performance, but the sort that requires more forethought for overtaking. An update in 2018 boosted power and torque to 150kW and 500Nm and brought the Hilux into line with key rivals.
That update also brought changes to the DPF, or diesel particulate filter. Many owners had experienced failures with what is a self-cleaning filter, so Toyota upgraded the system and extended the warranties covering the DPF on some cars for peace of mind. Toyota also added a manual DPF regeneration switch, which allows the driver to activate a cleaning phases for the DPF.
Safety systems were also stepped up for the 2018 update, adding more of the crash avoidance tech across more models.
Finding the right Hilux for you could be something of a challenge due to the vastness of the lineup. At the entry point there’s the Work Mate with black bumpers and vinyl floors, or you can step up to the SR that adds luxuries such as carpet but still gets steel wheels.
Then there’s the SR5 with more bling – alloy wheels and a sports bar – that was once the top of the range.
But in moving with the ute times Toyota expanded to include the even more luxurious Hilux Rogue and the ready-for-adventure Hilux Rugged X, complete with a snorkel, rock rails and a steel front bar.
The Ford Ranger is pretty much as Australian as a ute can be these days. While we’ve witnessed the demise of local manufacturing, Ford has maintained a large design and engineering team in Australia – and they’re the ones responsible for the Ranger that has been such a hit for the brand.
Whereas Toyota typically leads outright ute sales, Ford often sells more dual-cab 4x4 models – and they’re the ones that have accounted for so much of the growth in the ute market.
Like its Hilux rival, the Range is available in a range of flavours, although Ford doesn’t focus on the cheaper end of the market as much as Toyota.
The XL marks the entry to the lineup and gets the basic steel wheels and vinyl floors work-focused buyers prefer. The XLS adds more fruit and, like the XL, is available with a stout 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel for 4x4 models.
The XLT builds further on those equipment levels and throws in the option of a 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel mated to a 10-speed automatic. It’s a better engine and is noticeably quieter than the 3.2.
The FX4 adds a tougher look, or you can go the whole hog with the Wildtrak, once the pinnacle of the Ranger lineup. A metal roller cover to keep whatever is in the tray undercover is a nice touch that teams with the unique sports bar and black styling highlights to make the Wildtrak that little more special.
But if it’s special you want then look no further than the Ranger Raptor. Major suspension modifications and bigger tyres that are spaced further apart create a desert racer-inspired tough truck that not only steps up the off-road performance but makes it better on-road. That’s in part due to the coil spring rear suspension that lowers the load rating and tow capacity.
Inside, the Ranger has one of the most spacious cabins of any modern ute. The layout of the back seats, in particular, is well thought out and close to car standards, making long trips easier.
And Ford has kept the Ranger fresh with the times, injecting modern safety features and connectivity to keep it relevant.
Until 2011 Volkswagen wasn’t known for selling utes, but the German brand has come blasting onto the scene with its Amarok.
And what an arrival it was. The Amarok instantly set the benchmark for ute driveability. Now anything that can carry a tonne and tackle serious off-road tracks is never going to drive like a sports car, but the Amarok got closer than its dual-cab ute rivals.
Even in the twilight of its life the Amarok is at the pointy end of dynamic ability for ute.
Elsewhere it’s showing its age. While the cabin layout is practical and there are some nifty storage solutions, the infotainment screen is small-ish and the plastics dated. And for such a big truck, the Amarok somehow makes the back seats more cramped than they should be. Of the three tested here it has the least adult-friendly space for those riding in the rear.
There’s also one big omission for those back seat occupants: airbags. While curtain airbags are commonplace in utes to protect against head injuries in a side impact, the Amarok has none in the rear. It’s the first of various safety deficiencies. Modern utes have adapted active safety systems such as autonomous emergency braking (AEB) but the Amarok misses out on all models.
Early in its life the Amarok again rewrote the rules with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel. Smaller in capacity than rivals, it still delivers on performance.
Adding to its appeal is a permanent four-wheel drive system for Amaroks with an auto transmission. It means no thinking is required about when you may need all four wheels driving for added traction.
At the same time, there’s no dual-range transfer case. It means less control in very slow speed, highly technical off-road conditions. But for most four-wheel drive situations the Amarok works fine and is remarkably capable. Its inherent chassis capability makes it a winner on loose gravel, too.
But it’s the 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 diesel that gives the Amarok a point of differentiation against all others. There’s a big power advantage over rivals and it translates to a more convincing drive that makes overtaking, towing and hill climbing that little easier.
The V6 has been used across a broad range of models – including Core, Sportline and luxury-focused Highline and Aventura - in three basic tunes, the most potent of which punches out 190kW and 580Nm. Like the four-cylinder, the V6 autos have a permanent four-wheel drive system.
There are also W-Series Amarok models for those wanting more. With engineering and design improvements from the Walkinshaw Group – which once created Holden Special Vehicles – the W-Series models sit at the top of the Amarok lineup.
There’s not a bad choice among this trio. But, equally, while each has its strong points, each also has deficiencies.
The Amarok is the best to drive and has the most power. But its rear seat is the most compromised and the lack of safety systems is disappointing given the advances in the ute class.
The Hilux wins on off-road ability and mounts a solid argument for longevity and causing fewer issues down the track. But it’s not as well endowed as its rivals in terms of cabin size and standard equipment. As a general rule you’ll have to pay more to get the same amount of gear you’d get in the others.
Which leaves the Ranger, which blends good ute driving manners with a well thought-out cabin and a broad range of models that caters to all tastes.