Aussies can’t seem to get enough of utes.
The cars that were once purely used to haul heavy things often make up one in five sales in the Australian market.
Blame it on versatility. The average ute can do a lot more than carry bulky items these days. Most can tow 3.5 tonnes and carry five people in relative comfort while also tackling some pretty rough terrain.
As well as a work vehicle and family car, modern utes are seen by many as the ultimate adventure machine.
Here are the best.
The current Ranger is coming to the end of its life but is still towards the top of the ute game. That’s indicative of how good it was when it went on sale way back in 2011. Designed and engineered in Australia, the Ranger has one of the largest and most comfortable cabins in the class and backs it up with good driving manners. The 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel is not the quietest engine around but it’s impressively responsive and delivers on performance. A newer 2.0-litre twin-turbo four-cylinder diesel has more grunt and matches up to a 10-speed automatic for those who want more refinement and better performance.
As a new car the Hilux never really holds up as well as its rivals on a features-per-dollar basis. But that all changes in the used car market, where Hiluxes are highly sought after. A well-earned reputation for reliability and ruggedness makes the Hilux a favourite for those looking for a tough ute, albeit one that is slightly narrower in the cabin than some rivals. Indeed, it’s toughness that defines the Hilux and it’s off-road where it really excels. An excellent traction control system and great 4WD credentials help it devour some seriously challenging terrain. Much of the development driving was done in Australia where Hiluxes are regularly used for work and play in some of the toughest conditions on the planet. The 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel that has been with the current car since it arrived in 2015 was undernourished but received a much needed power boost late in 2020.
Mazda doesn’t build its own utes, instead it relies on others to do the manufacturing work. For decades Mazda’s partner in ute crime had been Ford, with the BT-50 a cleverly reskinned Ranger. But that all changed in the middle of 2020 when Mazda unveiled its all-new BT-50, built by Isuzu. The only proper off-roader in the Mazda lineup is identical to the Isuzu D-Max underneath but comes with a smoother Mazda look. A fresh injection of technology and safety kit with that mid-2020 arrival added to the appeal of a ute that is also immensely capable in the rough stuff. The 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel may not win the on-paper comparisons, but it muscles along nicely. Inside, there’s plenty of space and the BT-50 has a toughness inherent in the breed.
The current NP300 Navara (as it was initially marketed) has taken a while to find its feet. Early iterations that arrived in 2015 struggled with a load on board, in part because of the coil spring rear suspension setup that is a rarity in the ute class. But Nissan has been hard at work engineering more suitable setups that make newer versions more convincing. Early in 2018, for example, Nissan introduced “dual-pitch” rear springs, which used two different coil spring windings within the one spring. It helped make the rear-end compliant when unladen but tougher when you loaded it up. Better for towing, too. The Navara also has an interesting 2.3-litre twin-turbo system that uses a smaller turbo at low revs and a larger turbo for grunt as speed builds. It works and the Navara is also among the more economical of utes.
Who would have thought a brand known for Golfs and Euro wagons would build such a convincing ute? That’s exactly what Volkswagen did with the Amarok that appeared in 2011. It stuck to a well-trodden formula but Volkswagen added some of its dynamic prowess to create a ute that managed to be enjoyable to drive on road while still providing the go-anywhere off-road ability ute buyers love. The availability of a permanent 4WD system also separated the Amarok from most utes. Amaroks with an auto transmission don’t get the dual-range transfer case many see as essential to serious off-road work. But it’s still highly capable across rocks, sand and mud. The 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel suited the character of the car nicely, but it’s the V6 that joined the range late in 2016 that helped build the Amarok reputation. It’s a seriously grunty engine that provides a new level of ute performance. Not all is perfect with the Amarok. Despite its boxy body – with one of the broadest ute trays in the business – rear seat space is awkward for adults. And there are no rear side airbags.
The Triton has long sold on value and it’s something that flows through to the used car market. Being more affordable than many rivals when brand new typically makes a Triton that little more achievable once it’s being sold second hand. It also means you may be able to get more features – leather trim or power-adjustable seats, for example – for the same money as a lesser model from a rival. Like others, the Triton is a proper ute, albeit one that’s slightly smaller than the mainstream. And while it’s solid off-road, the positioning of the rear wheels – with a lot of overhang behind them – means you have to be careful not to drag the tail over rocks. A 2.4-litre engine is nicely suited to the car and it’s a pleasant ute to drive. Aim for the better-equipped 4x4 models and you’ll also get Mitsubishi’s Super Select four-wheel drive system. It allows you to engage 4x4 on bitumen (most utes don’t).
If there’s one word that encapsulates the D-Max it’s “tough”. It’s never been the sexiest or the slickest and it’s never been bulging with fandangled features. But none of that matters to the Isuzu faithful, who buy a D-Max for its toughness and suitability to the task at hand. The 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel has its origins as a truck engine. So it’s not exactly a model of refinement, but it grunts away with an intent that suggests it’ll be doing that for many years to come. That toughness comes at the expense of comfort elsewhere. The D-Max that was replaced by a new model late in 2020 had a basic cabin and lacked some of the active safety features of rivals. But the reality is it’s a solid ute that devours rough roads and does what it says on the box. Job done.
Remember Holden, the brand that once dominated the market? The brand is no longer, but plenty of its cars live on and the Colorado is one worth a look. The nameplate stepped in for the Rodeo in 2008 and ushered in an all-new model in 2011. That RG version was underdone to start with but improved over time as Holden engineers progressively stepped up things such as the suspension and drivetrain. The 2.8-litre four-cylinder diesel never lacked grunt while the sizeable body makes it one of the more accommodating utes in the cabin. It was also one of the first utes to pick up Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (from 2016) so you can enjoy the latest connectivity.