UTE TEST 2018: Class WARFARE

MERCEDES-BENZ’S NEW X-CLASS HAS ADDED A NEW EDGE TO THE DUAL-CAB 4X4 MARKET, BUT HOW DOES IT SHAPE UP IN THIS NINE-WAY STOUSH?

WORDS FRASER STRONACH PHOTOS ELLEN DEWAR & ALASTAIR BROOK

SINCE THE LATE 2015 TEST, FIVE OF THE NINE UTES ARE NEW OR HAVE UNDERGONE SIGNIFICANT MECHANICAL REVISION

WELCOME to 4X4 Australia’s Ute Test, where we have put all of the popular 4x4 dual-cabs through their paces off-road and on-road. Plus, we tested each vehicle carrying a 900kg total payload. The last time we gathered all utes together was in late 2016 for our Max Load and Tow Test. Before that, back in late 2015, we gathered them together for an on- and off-road comparison test. This time, we have effectively combined the two with on-road, off-road and load testing all in one.

Since the late 2015 test, five of the nine utes are new or have undergone significant mechanical revision. Only the Hilux, Ranger, BT-50 and Triton are effectively mechanically unchanged; although, all have undergone equipment or style changes in that time.

The Mercedes-Benz X-Class is all-new to this class; although, at the same time, a little familiar as it uses the Nissan Navara as a starting point in its design. Then there’s the Amarok, which sports a new and much more powerful engine in the form of a 3.0-litre V6 diesel in place of the 2.0litre bi-turbo diesel tested previously. In between the 2015 test and the 2016 Load and Tow test, Holden’s Colorado has undergone a complete top-to-bottom rebirth, and in many ways is a ‘new’ vehicle. It certainly feels like it to drive.

The Isuzu D-Max has been revised twice since the last test. For the 2017 model year the changes were led by an engine upgrade and the addition of a six-speed automatic replacing the previous five-speeder. For the 2018 model year the D-Max has undergone a minor but not insignificant chassis revision.

The Nissan Navara has also been updated twice since the 2016 Load and Tow test, with changes to the suspension – especially at the rear – on both occasions.

The Hilux SR+ variant tested here, which adds alloy wheels and sat-nav and slots in between the work-spec steel-wheeled SR and the recreational-spec SR5, didn’t exist the last time we gathered all the utes together. It only appeared in late 2017 as part of a shake-up of the Hilux range.

The on-road test involved ride and handling evaluation as well as performance testing; the off-road test involved set-piece hill climbs, obstacle negotiation and water fording; and the payload test involved a total payload of 900kg, made up of 650kg in the tub, driver and two passengers (and towbars/bullbars where fitted) – so close to max payload for the utes, especially those with the lighter payload ratings.

AN AUSSIE BLOKE’S UTE

Ford’s PX Ranger is proof that Australia is the perfect place to design and develop a ute. Hopefully, there will be more of it.

DESIGNED and developed in Australia as part of a global Ford effort and arriving in late 2011, the Ranger has gone on to do the near unthinkable and challenge Toyota’s iconic Hilux for Australia’s most popular ute. In fact, last year it knocked off the Hilux as both Australia’s best-selling 4x4 ute and best-selling 4x4 overall, only falling to Hilux in overall ute sales thanks to the popularity of the Hilux 4x2.

Before year’s end the next upgrade to Ranger will be here, offering, among other things, the option of a more sophisticated and more powerful 157kW/500Nm 2.0litre four-cylinder bi-turbo diesel engine that will also power Ford’s upcoming ‘hero’ Raptor ute.

POWERTRAIN AND PERFORMANCE

THAT’S in the future. Now we have the familiar 3.2litre inline five-cylinder, with a performance and character that defines the very essence of what it’s like to drive a Ranger. This is a lazy, slow-revving engine, but one that’s bursting with torque right from the get-go and gets any job done with very little fuss.

Being a ‘five’ it can be a little lumpy at idle, but it quickly smooths out nicely and, along with its offbeat sound, is very different to the typically more revvy and buzzy fours that dominate this class. In this company only the V6 Amarok has a sweeter engine. However, despite a significant improvement in refinement for the 2016 model year, it’s still somewhat gruff and noisy. Generally smooth and well-timed shifts from the gearbox, too, and final-drive gearing that’s tall enough to be relaxed out on the highway but not that tall that the engine is looking for a lower gear at the first hill. The only negative is that the Ranger’s ‘big’ five-cylinder is typically heavier on fuel than most here.

ON-ROAD RIDE AND HANDLING

IN MANY ways the Ranger’s on-road steering and handling posture reflects the engine’s relaxed character in as much as it’s stable and steady rather than darty and agile. This is perhaps in part due to having the longest wheelbase here, along with the closely related – but not identical – Mazda BT-50.

One area where the Ranger varies notably from the BT-50 is with the electric power steering it gained in the MY16 updates. The main benefit here is incredibly light steering at parking speeds; although, Ford’s engineers have also done a fine job of dialling in plenty of feel and confidence at highway speeds. By ute standards, there’s a nicely supple ride, too, and the front-to-rear suspension match, even unladen, is as good as it gets.

WHAT YOU GET

ALL Ranger 4x4 dual-cabs have six cabin airbags, cruise control, auto headlights, rear locker and trailer-sway control as standard. The XLT (tested here) has sat-nav, dual-zone climate, centreconsole cooler, rear park sensors, auto wipers, tyre pressure sensors, a 230-Volt outlet in-cabin, 12-Volt outlet in-tub, a sportsbar, side-steps and a 3500kg-rated towbar as standard. Radar cruise control, forward-collision warning, lane-departure warning and a driver-impairment monitor are available as an optional ‘technology pack’ on XLT.

THE RANGER’S ‘WORKING’ CREDENTIALS ARE ABOUT AS GOOD AS IT GETS

ROAD RUNNER

Among practicalites are 17-inch wheels and tyre spec.

RANGE DIAL

A twist of the dial shifts between 2WD and 4WD High on the move.

OFF-ROAD

THE Ranger’s star continues to shine off-road, thanks in part to the generous suspension travel at both ends of the chassis. Only the Toyota Hilux has more travel at the rear and this, along with the similar Mazda and Volkswagen, sets the Ranger apart from the rest of the utes here.

The Ranger’s long-travel suspension means the wheels are on the ground longer and more often in gnarly going, which means less reliance on its rear locker and electronic traction control (ETC) to get you where you want. And in what is a major bonus in this company, if you engage the Ranger’s rear locker the ETC stays active on the front axle, all of which puts the Ranger on the top shelf in terms of off-road ability.

In tight situations, where manoeuvrability is paramount, you notice the Ranger’s length and size and the somewhat compromised vision from the driver’s seat; although, any back-and-fill wheel twirling you need to do is made easy by the lightness of the electric power steering.

LOAD CARRYING

THE Ranger’s ‘working’ credentials, namely its Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM) of 3200kg, its Gross Combined Mass (GCM) of 6000kg and its 3500kg tow capacity, are about as good as it gets in this class, and that promise is paid out when the Ranger is put to the test.

With a 900kg payload onboard, no ute bettered the stable and reassuring feel offered by the Ranger’s chassis. Sure, you could feel the extra weight onboard, but not to the detriment of driving confidence. No nose-up attitude or excessive swaying or pitching, and no bottoming out over the bumps.

The grunty five-cylinder engine also dispensed with the load without fuss; again, you could feel the extra weight, but the engine didn’t need to work that much harder to get the job done. In our previous Load and Tow test, the Ranger also proved to be a top towing ute.

The Ranger’s tub is also deeper than most and boasts six tie-down points (four of them mounted low in the tub, as they should be) and a 12-volt outlet.

CABIN AND SAFETY

THE Ranger’s cabin is among the most spacious here. None better it (and the BT-50) for combined front and legroom, and only the Amarok is wider though not as long. That means the driver and front seat passenger are treated to lots of room, comfortable seats and a generally well-appointed interior. Plus, there’s decent space for five adults. However, there’s no steering wheel reach adjustment or smart key entry and start – and, while the lack of road and wind noise is a bonus in the cabin, the engine’s noise doesn’t go unnoticed.

The Ranger offers five-star ANCAP safety across all dual-cab models, while XLT and WildTrak have some optional safety kit to build on that.

PRACTICALITY

THE Ranger ticks all of the practicality boxes, starting with an 80-litre fuel tank to help offset its above-class-average thirst. The 17-inch wheel and tyre spec are the same as the Hilux, as is the good range of aftermarket support and dealer network, especially away from the major cities.

SECOND COMING

The Colorado arrived in 2012, but it’s the rebirth it underwent in 2017 that really counts.

IN DESIGNING and developing this generation Colorado for release in 2012, GM didn’t piggy-back off Isuzu as it had done for all previous Rodeo utes and even the original Colorado. Instead, GM marshalled its global resources to design a ute from the ground up, with its VM Motori four-cylinder diesel from Italy, the six-speed auto from GM in the USA, and the whole thing pulled together by a design team headquarted at GM Brazil.

The trouble was that it wasn’t quite right on many fronts and was tweaked in 2013 and then again in 2014, before being pulled right apart – almost down to the last nut and bolt – and put back together with a host of new or revised parts for its 2017 rebirth. Australian Holden engineers were instrumental in all this, and models for local consumption received additional NVH, an auto gearbox and manual gearing upgrades in addition to the broadbrush global changes.

POWERTRAIN AND PERFORMANCE

THE Colorado 2.8-litre four-cylinder diesel claims 500Nm, which is more than the notably bigger five-cylinder engines in the Ranger and the BT-50, and only 50Nm less than the potent V6 in the Amarok.

Often on-paper engine output figures don’t translate into real-world get-up-and-go, but that’s not the case with the Colorado, which edges out all of the other utes here, bar the Amarok, for pedal-to-the metal performance.

In general driving, too, the Colorado delivers on its 147kW/500Nm promise and offers plenty of punch, even if it needs to rev harder than the Amarok’s V6 and the bigger five-cylinder engines in the Ranger and BT-50, which also claim 147kW, to get the same job done.

All the while Colorado’s four-cylinder, complete with counterrotating balance shafts relocated in the MY17 engine upgrade, is smooth enough but still a little on the noisy side, despite being much quieter than it was before the MY17 changes.

The Colorado’s six-speed automatic was also much improved for 2017 and is the pick of the six-speed automatics here in terms of shift quality and its proactive rather than reactive shift protocols.

ON-ROAD RIDE AND HANDLING

AMONG the raft of improvements implemented for the 2017 model year, the Colorado gained new springs, dampers and swaybar at the front, and new springs and dampers at the rear.

Electric power steering was also introduced, replacing the hydraulically assisted steering used previously. The end result is light steering and good manoeuvrability at parking speeds, yet a very confident and composed feel at highway speeds. Good ride quality, too, for a ute on most roads – even unladen – and the front-to-rear suspension match is well sorted.

Alone in this company the Colorado has a rear limited-slip diff, which, according to Holden’s engineers, helps particularly on wet bitumen in situations where you need to put your foot down, as when joining a fast-moving traffic stream from a side street. The LSD prevents the inside rear wheel (remember, part-time 4x4 means rear-drive only on the road) from spinning up and activating the ETC and potentially cutting the engine’s power… not what you want when you have a truck bearing down on you.

WHAT YOU GET

ALL Colorado 4x4 dual-cab pick-ups have seven cabin airbags, a reversing camera, cruise control, rear parking sensors, a digital radio, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and trailer-sway control. The LTZ, as tested here, then adds 18-inch alloys, an eight-inch touchscreen, sat-nav, auto wipers, front parking sensors, tyre-pressure monitoring, electric-adjust for the driver’s seat, a soft tonneau, a sports bar, lane-departure warning and forward collision alert.

THERE’S A DECENT LEVEL OF SAFETY AT THIS POPULAR LTZ SPEC LEVEL

WHEEL CHOICE

The LTZ runs 18-inch wheels, but 17s from the LT fit, too.

INNER FACELIFT

The interior had a much needed interior makeover in MY17.

OFF-ROAD

COMPARED to the best off-road utes here, the Colorado needs more wheel travel to be truly competitive. It also doesn’t have a rear locker and is one of only two utes here without one. Not that all lockers are created equal, as some cancel the Electronic Traction Control (ETC) on the front axle when they’re engaged, while others don’t.

Thankfully, the Colorado makes up for its modest travel and no locker with its now very effective ETC, another significant improvement that came with the MY17 upgrade. Where before the Colorado was a tail-ender in this class in terms of off-road ability, it’s now very much a competitive mid-fielder, and while it worked hard to negotiate our gnarly and steep set-piece hill, it still made it to the top.

LOAD CARRYING

WHILE the Colorado’s 3150kg Gross Vehicle Mass is a nominal 50kg less than the Ranger and BT-50, it’s a little lighter, so it doesn’t suffer at all in terms of payload limits.

With our test 900kg total payload onboard, the Colorado’s chassis coped well and didn’t feel under any particular duress. One of the best here, in fact, even if it’s a notch down on the chassis stability of the Ranger and the very similar BT-50. Plenty of power, too, for load hauling, even if you notice the Colorado’s propensity to rev harder than the bigger engines in the Amarok and Ranger/BT-50 than when not carrying a load.

In our recent Max Load and Tow test (which didn’t include the Amarok V6) the Colorado was second only to the winning Ranger and on an equal footing to the BT-50. As with the Ranger and BT-50, the Colorado has a 6000kg Gross Combined Mass and a 3500kg towing capacity.

Negative marks for the Colorado’s tie-down hooks in the tub – the problem is that the two front hooks are mounted high in the tub, which means they are only useful to restrain tall loads.

CABIN AND SAFETY

AMONG the many 2017 upgrades, the Colorado received a much needed interior makeover which saw the previous (rather cheap-feeling) dash replaced by something far more classy and presentable. Plenty of room, too, in the Colorado cabin, even if it’s not as big overall than the Ranger and BT-50, nor as wide as the Amarok – something you notice most with three adults across the rear seat.

There’s a decent level of safety at this popular LTZ spec level, and it comes with a five-star ANCAP rating.

PRACTICALITIES

A GOOD spread of dealers – especially in country areas – and plenty of aftermarket accessories are Colorado positives. And while the LTZ wears 18-inch wheels, the 17s from the LT fit and will open up the tyre choice as well as improve ride quality on bumpy roads.

BLUE COLLAR

Isuzu’s D-Max is more stayer than sprinter, but isn’t that what utes are made for?

THIS generation D-Max first arrived here in 2012. Most notably for a manufacturer with a long history of designing and building its own utes, this D-Max wasn’t a 100 per cent Isuzu product as was its predecessors. The starting point for this D-Max was, in fact, a GM design, at least in terms of its basic chassis and body shell, even if Isuzu engineers were involved in the design process from early on.

Taking the basic chassis and body shared with the Colorado, Isuzu added its own engine, gearbox, transfer case, rear axle, springs and dampers, interior fit-out and exterior body panels, grille, lights and other details, to end up with what is a very different ute to the Colorado.

Things stayed much the same until 2017, when a heavily revised engine came along, as did six-speed manual and auto gearboxes (replacing the previous five speeders), more NVH control measures and enhanced equipment lists. For the 2018 model (as tested here) further revisions have brought suspension and equipment changes.

POWERTRAIN AND PERFORMANCE

THE D-Max’s 3.0-litre four-cylinder diesel engine can trace its roots back to 2006 when it first appeared in the Holden Rodeo, effectively an Isuzu wearing a Holden badge. The latest update to this long-serving engine for the 2017 model brought higher-pressure common rail injection, a new variable-geometry low-inertia turbo and new pistons. A diesel particulate filter (DPF), the key Euro 5 technology that is found on all the engines here, was also added.

Despite all these MY17 engine changes, maximum power remains at a modest 130kW (the lowest here along with Hilux) and the maximum torque figure is now 430Nm, up from the previous 380Nm; although, 430Nm is still a class-low figure shared with the Triton.

On the road things play out better than this suggests and, while the D-Max is no powerhouse, it’s still a relaxed engine and doesn’t need to be revved particularly hard to get the job done. It may, for example, have similar power and torque to the Triton, but it does the same job at lower engine speeds.

In its latest iteration the D-Max’s engine is far quieter than before; although, the general engine-running refinement still isn’t anything special. The fact it’s the largest-capacity four-cylinder here, and also runs a relatively high compression ratio, both work against its refinement and make it the harshest and nosiest engine here.

The six-speed automatic (an Aisin unit shared with Hilux) offers reasonably smooth and proactive shift protocols without ever being a sporty gearbox. The two very tall overdrive ratios (again like Hilux) also mean the gearbox is more about economy than performance, and the D-Max shuffles back and forth between fifth and sixth on undulating country roads, as does the Hilux.

As ever, fuel economy is a strong point with the D-Max and it proved the most frugal in this particular test, which is usually the case when it’s run up against any of its competitors.

WHAT YOU GET

ALL D-Max dual-cab 4x4 utes have six airbags, a reversing camera, eight-speaker audio with a CD slot and USB and iPod inputs, a seven-inch or bigger touchscreen, cruise control, and trailer-sway control as part of the chassis electronics package. The as-tested top-spec LS-T, which is auto only, has leather, electric adjustment for the drivers seat, proximity-key entry, push-button start, an eight-inch touchscreen, sat-nav, side steps, a reversing camera, projector headlights with DRLs and 18-inch alloys.

IF IT’S SPACE YOU’RE AFTER, D-MAX BETTERS HILUX, NAVARA AND TRITON

MID CLARITY

Dash features an electroluminescent multiinformation display (MID).

ALL ABOARD

Our three beefy test dummies shoehorned into the back seat.

ON-ROAD RIDE AND HANDLING

PART of the MY18 upgrade, all SX, LS-U and LS-T dual-cabs have revised rear suspension, with three-leaf springs at the rear instead of the five-leaf springs used previously. The LS-M models retain the five-leaf springs.

The end result is a more comfortable ride at the rear than before, which is something most noticed when the D-Max is unladen. Not that it rode poorly before, nor was the front-to-rear suspension match unpleasant in any way. In fact, before Holden completely revised the Colorado’s suspension for the 2017 upgrade, the D-Max’s suspension tune on the same basic chassis was the more acceptable of the two.

Unlike the Colorado, the D-Max relies on conventional hydraulically assisted steering, which offers more assistance and a lighter feel than the other hydraulically assisted systems here, but it could offer more feel and feedback.

OFF-ROAD

THE D-Max’s off-road armoury is underdone in this company due to a chassis that doesn’t offer the same sort of wheel travel as the best in class, nor does it have a rear diff-lock as any sort of compensation. It’s also not helped by a notably effective traction control, the saviour of post-2017 Colorados which suffer the same modest wheel travel and lack of a rear locker.

Point the D-Max up a gnarly hill with deep holes and, along with the Triton, it is the first to struggle. In fact, only the D-Max and the Triton failed to make it up our set-piece hill climb.

But not all is lost, as the D-Max is still a capableenough 4x4 for typical recreational off-roading. And, unlike several utes here, the engine air intake is via the inner guard instead of under the bonnet lip or in the engine bay, which is a far better arrangement for deeper water crossings.

LOAD CARRYING

DESPITE the D-Max getting more compliant rear springs for most models in the MY18 upgrade, the GVM of 4x4 models has been increased by 100kg to 3050kg, which seems counterintuitive. And with the 900kg payload, the D-Max didn’t feel as stable or secure chassis-wise than it did when previously payload tested, which was disappointing.

On a positive note the MY17 engine revisions, where more torque is available at lower revs, help carrying heavy loads, even if its modest 130kW doesn’t make the D-Max a frontrunner when it comes to heavy-duty load-carrying performance.

CABIN AND SAFETY

THE recent D-Max upgrades result in a noticeably better finished cabin and more equipment (such as sat-nav) on lower-cost models. This LS-T even extends to smart-key entry and start, but no reach adjustment for the steering wheel.

Still, the D-Max is comfortable enough and, if it’s space you’re after, it matches the Colorado and betters the Hilux, Navara and Triton. Five-star ANCAP, too, but no high-end safety features.

PRACTICALITIES

DESPITE Isuzu Ute only setting up shop in Australia in 2008 (even if Isuzu utes wearing Holden badges were sold here for decades before that), Isuzu now has 142 dealers nationally. When you consider Toyota has 206 dealers nationally, that’s a fair effort. In the meantime the D-Max has a good reputation for reliability, simplicity of service and low service costs. The fact that the D-Max sells in solid numbers (more than 3500 4x4 models YTD) also means good aftermarket support.

ALTER EGO

There’s a lot of Ford Ranger in Mazda’s BT-50, which by and large is a good thing.

THIS is Mazda’s new-look 2018 BT-50, complete with a front-end styling treatment that, quite unusually, is exclusive to Australian models. It comes with extra equipment, especially for the entry-level XT, but also includes the addition of the popular smartphone apps across all models. This refresh follows the MY16 upgrade that also saw a front-end restyle and equipment additions.

This ongoing restyling of the BT-50’s front-end says what every Mazda dealer in the country was thinking when the BT-50 and the co-developed Ford Ranger first arrived here in late 2011: namely, “Bugger… wish our ute looked like their ute!”

Despite being as-good-as-mechanically identical when they both first arrived and still very similar following their respective MY16 upgrades, the BT-50 has never sold in the numbers of the Ranger despite being less expensive. Right now, for example, the Ranger 4x4 outsells the BT-50 4x4 about four to one.

For Mazda, the 2011 BT-50 represented a design about-face, as up until this time (and even with the first ute to carry the BT-50 nameplate) Mazda designed and developed its own light commercials, which Ford then rebadged. In this case it was Ford leading the design and development and Mazda following on.

POWERTRAIN AND PERFORMANCE

AS WITH many things, the BT-50 shares the same basic engine as the Ranger, namely its 3.2-litre inline fivecylinder diesel, which is a major positive in a market dominated by smaller capacity four-cylinder engines. Bigger capacity always means more easily developed torque, which is always a good thing when there’s work to be done.

Significantly, for the respective 2016 model, Ford carried out a number of upgrades not adopted by Mazda. While both engines still claim the same maximum power and torque (147kW and 470Nm) the Ford achieves its 470Nm earlier and produces it for longer.

This BT-50’s engine is still low-revving, lazy (in a good way) and generally effortless; although, it’s not quite as flexible as that of the Ranger. It’s also a little noisier than the Ranger and one of the gruffer engines here. But, aside from a being a little lumpy at idle, it’s also smooth running given that an inline five is inherently smoother than an inline four, despite having an odd number of cylinders.

The engine is also well served by its six-speed automatic (originally a ZF design) transmission and final drive gearing that’s tall and relaxed, without being too tall that the engine struggles to hold top gear at highway speeds on undulating roads.

WHAT YOU GET

ALL BT-50 dual-cab 4x4 utes have six airbags, a reversing camera, Trailer Sway Control, a seven-inch (or bigger) touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a rear locker. The top-spec GT, as tested here, has leather, eight-way electric adjust on the driver’s seat, a chrome sports bar and a tub liner in addition to sat-nav, an eight-inch touchscreen, auto headlights and wipers, and the 17-inch alloys it shares with the mid-spec XTR.

NO UTE HERE HAS MORE COMBINED FRONT AND REAR LEGROOM

LOCKED AND LOADED

The BT-50’s deep tray features low tie-down points – perfect!

CLIMATE CHANGE

No bickering over cabin temp, with dual-zone climate air-con.

ON-ROAD RIDE AND HANDLING

LIKE the Ranger, the BT-50’s handling characteristics are more about stability than agility and come with well-sorted suspension that’s well-matched front to rear, even when unladen. As with the Ranger, the BT-50 feels like a big ute mainly because it is. One key difference to the otherwise similar Ranger is that the BT-50 has conventional hydraulically assisted steering rather than electric power steering (EPS) that the Ranger adopted as part of its 2016 mid-life upgrade. The BT-50’s steering at highway speeds still offers good feel, but you notice the extra effort at parking speeds compared to the very light steering effort of Ranger. The counter argument is that hydraulically assisted steering is a well-proven, robust system, which is the reason given by Toyota in not adopting EPS with its latest generation Hilux.

OFF-ROAD

IF THE engine upgrades and EPS are key features that distinguish the current BT-50 from the Ranger, so too is the way the chassis electronics, namely the electronic traction control, work on the two. When the driver engages the rear diff lock on the Ranger, the ETC remains active on the front wheels. With the BT-50, however, engaging the rear locker cancels ETC completely. This upgrade to the Ranger in 2016 was not adopted by Mazda.

The wash-up here is that engaging the rear locker on the BT-50 doesn’t necessarily help in difficult off-road conditions. On our gnarly and steep set-piece hill, for example, the BT-50 got to the top without the locker but didn’t make it with the rear locker engaged.

Thanks largely to its generous wheel travel (the same as the Ranger), the BT-50 is still amongst the more off-road capable utes here, even if it’s a notch down from the three top-tier performers: Hilux, Amarok and Ranger.

LOAD CARRYING

FOR all the same reasons the Ranger is a very good heavy-duty work ute, so is the BT-50. With our test 900kg payload onboard, the BT-50 was largely unfazed in terms of chassis stability and engine performance. Likewise, when tested with 3500kg tow weight hooked behind in our previous load and tow test, the BT-50 was one of the best performers. The BT-50 falls a little short of the Ranger with its noisier and slightly less responsive engine.

CABIN AND SAFETY

MORE similarities to the Ranger here, with the BT-50 offering a comfortable, spacious and notably long cabin. No ute here has more combined front and rear legroom, and only the Amarok is wider. The bottom-line: if you wish to accommodate five adults, the BT-50 is as good as you’ll get here. Five-star ANCAP safety, too. On the negative side are no reach adjustment for the steering wheel and no smart key entry and start, even on this top-spec GT model.

PRACTICALITIES

THE commonality with the Ranger means many service parts are interchangeable and are often cheaper when they come in Ford wrapping. There’s also a good range of factory accessories, and the same practical wheel and tyre spec as the Ranger and Hilux. Like the Ranger, the BT-50 is a little thirsty by class standards; although, the 80-litre tank helps cover for this in terms of fuel range.

BENZ TAKES AIM

Dual-cab 4x4s are booming – not just in Australia but across the globe – and Mercedes-Benz wants a slice of the action.

IT’S NO secret Mercedes-Benz’s new X-Class is based on Nissan’s Navara, but don’t think for one minute it’s a Navara carrying a ‘Three-Pointed Star’, as the X-Class has been re-engineered from the ground up. And you’d expect nothing less from a car company that prides itself on engineering excellence.

Were Benz’s engineers happy to design a dual-cab ute without a clean sheet? Probably not, but with pressure to come up with a market-ready product as soon as possible using the Navara as a starting point saved two or three years of development time. Mercedes-Benz has a technology-sharing agreement with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, so the Navara was readily available.

In creating this X-Class, Benz’s engineers took a Navara and removed the body and the powertrain from the chassis. Then the ladder frame was strengthened with extra cross bracing and reinforcement, the track widened via longer wishbones up front (+62mm) and a longer rear axle (+55mm). Disc brakes were fitted to the rear and linked to high-end safety kit including autonomous braking.

New springs, dampers and swaybars were added, as was a revised steering system for less turns lock-to-lock. Then the Navara’s powertrain, remapped no doubt, was reinstalled.

In the meantime, Benz designed and built a wider body that was then fitted on the re-engineered chassis. This is not badge-engineering, this is re-engineering.

POWERTRAIN AND PERFORMANCE

THE X-Class Renault-sourced 2.3-litre four-cylinder bi-turbo engine shares the same 140kW/450Nm numbers with the Navara and comes close to matching it in performance, despite being 160kg to 180kg heavier depending on the specific spec level. The extra weight comes from the frame strengthening, the wider body, equipment variations and extra sound deadening. That means in this company, Amarok aside, the X-Class is one of the stronger performers.

The extra sound deadening is especially significant as the X-Class is much quieter than the Navara and, in fact, is one of the quietest utes here alongside the Amarok and Hilux. Refinement was obviously a design objective that Benz placed high on the priority list.

ON-ROAD RIDE AND HANDLING

THE same can be said for the chassis, as the X-Class offers what is the most comfortable ride here, combined with very little road or suspension noise. The X-Class also feels very solid and tight – far more so than most of the utes here and a world away from the Navara.

The X-Class not only offers a relatively supple ride, it handles with a confidence that eludes all but the Amarok (and possibly the Ranger) in this company. The wider track (wider than all but the Amarok) would no doubt help here, as would the increased torsional rigidity and suspension tune.

WHAT YOU GET

ALL three X-Class grades – Pure, Progressive and Power – have seven airbags, Automatic Emergency Braking, Lane-Keeping Assist, a reversing camera, tilt-and-reach steering wheel adjustment and fourwheel disc brakes. The as-tested Progressive adds 17-inch alloys, auto wipers, sat-nav, seveninch touchscreen, tyre-pressure monitoring and adjustable load rails on the sides of the tub. The top-spec Power then adds leather, keyless entry and start, 18s, and LED headlights and tail-lights, among a host of other features.

THE CABIN IS MORE UPMARKET PASSENGER CAR THAN WORK UTE

STEPPING UP

Factory add-ons include grippy aluminium side bar steps.

TECH PLUS

The large screen for audio and navigation stands tall like a drive-in theatre.

OFF-ROAD

LIKE the Navara, the X-Class has a rear locker and engaging it keeps the electronic traction control active on the front axle, which is good news. Like the Navara, the X-Class scaled our steep set-piece climb with the rear locker engaged, but did so with considerable difficulty and couldn’t make the climb without it.

The X-Class did a little better than the Navara, and its suspension feels a little softer and more supple, which is a bonus off-road. The fact the X-Class sits a bit lower than the already low Navara is a negative, though. Off-road the X-Class isn’t up with the front runners here, but it’s also not the worst. Interestingly, the X-Class claims a deeper fording depth (600mm) than the Navara’s 450mm, even though the engine air-intake arrangement looks the same.

LOAD CARRYING

THE extent of the re-engineering involved in turning the Navara into the X-Class can be seen in the 340kg increase in Gross Vehicle Mass and the 220kg increase Gross Combined Mass. That puts the X-Class’s GVM at 3250kg and GCM at 6130kg, which means it betters all of the utes here (Ranger and BT-50, the previous class champions, included). In turn this means good payload numbers (even if the X-Class is relatively heavy) and a class benchmark 3500kg towing capacity.

With our test 900kg payload the X-Class didn’t live up to the expectation of those numbers and its chassis felt the least composed of the nine utes. It was reasonable enough to drive, but it simply felt the weight the most in terms of steering confidence and general stability, even if it’s not far behind the Navara and Triton in chassis load performance. More positively, the flexible engine and short-geared seven-speed auto meant a much better performance from the powertrain with the big load onboard.

A work light and 12-volt outlet in the tub are positives and, as per the Navara, there are high-mounted adjustable tie-downs.

CABIN AND SAFETY

THE X-Class’s cabin presentation is much more upmarket passenger car than ‘working-Joe’ ute, and it stands out from all here thanks to features like the high-tech centre-console touchpad and rotary-dial control for the nav, entertainment, phone and media. The ‘tablet-style’ touchscreen also adds to the passenger-car feel. Tilt-and-reach steering wheel adjustment is also a nice touch and one that’s lacking in nearly half the utes here.

The X-Class’s cabin is wider than the Navara but it still isn’t a notably big cabin, while the rear ‘stadium’ seating isn’t ideal for taller adults as it compromises rear headroom.

All models have five-star ANCAP safety and advanced safety equipment, notably autonomous braking, a feature unique in this class.

PRACTICALITIES

THE X-Class comes in three equipment levels: Pure, Progressive and Power, where the Pure is very much a work-spec ute. The range includes cab-chassis variants, a lower-spec (single-turbo) 120kW engine and the option of a manual gearbox. There’s even a 4x2 model.

Right from launch Benz offered some factory accessories, but it will take a while for aftermarket accessories to come on-stream, and even then that will depend on how well the X-Class sells. A thinner spread of dealers in country areas compared to big-volume car companies is another practicality consideration.

ON BUDGET, ON TIME

With ongoing factory discounts, the Triton is the cheapest of the mainstream 4x4 dual cabs available in Australia.

MITSUBISHI’S fifth-generation (MQ) Triton arrived in Australia in mid-2015, replacing the MN that first went on sale in 2009. In designing and building the MQ, Mitsubishi didn’t attempt to match the notably bigger size of the newgeneration utes led by the Ford Ranger and VW Amarok, but instead reworked what it already had in the MN, which means a smaller ute. The main changes from the MQ centred around an all-new Euro-5-compliant 2.4-litre four-cylinder diesel, a new six-speed manual gearbox, a revised five-speed automatic available on all models and not just the Exceed, various chassis changes, and a restyled body. Thanks to very sharp pricing and ongoing factory discounting the Triton is only outsold by Hilux and Ranger. And if you want a less expensive ute than the Triton, you’ll have to look at either a Chinese or an Indian ute.

POWERTRAIN AND PERFORMANCE

ASIDE from the Navara’s and X-Class’s shared 2.3litre diesel, which employs a sophisticated bi-turbo arrangement, the Triton’s engine is the smallest capacity here and is down towards the bottom of the list when it comes to on-paper power and torque outputs. Countering this, the Triton doesn’t weigh as much and isn’t as tall geared as most utes here, so it remains competitive in terms of its pedal-to-the-metal performance.

The Triton’s ‘little’ diesel also revs much harder than most to do the same job, as is evidenced by the fact it doesn’t make its maximum torque until 2500rpm, an unusually high engine speed for a diesel and 1000rpm above where some of the bigger diesels here achieve their maximum torque. Despite the fact the Triton’s engine likes to rev, it’s still reasonably quiet, refined, smooth and economical, so this is more a characteristic of the engine rather than a criticism.

The Triton is unique here in having a five-speed automatic (all the rest have six or more speeds) and the gearbox is also an old design, even if it has been updated for this generation Triton. It still offers agreeable enough shifts, but it certainly isn’t as slick or as smart as the best gearboxes here.

ON-ROAD RIDE AND HANDLING

THE Triton continues to stand out in this company in terms of its on-road dynamics thanks to the fact that it’s smaller and lighter than most of the utes here. It certainly feels more agile and nippy, especially compared to the bigger utes, namely the Ranger and BT-50.

More significantly the Triton offers full-time 4x4 via its unique Super Select system, which also allows the driver to select rear-wheel drive. The only other ute here with full-time 4x4 is the Amarok. Full-time 4x4 offers significant safety and driveability benefits, particularly on wet bitumen and where road conditions alternate from sealed to gravel and wet to dry.

WHAT YOU GET

ALL Triton dual-cab 4x4s utes, from the base-grade GXL up, have seven airbags, a reversing camera, tilt-and-reach steering wheel adjustment and Trailer Sway Control. The GLS then adds Super Select 4x4, 17-inch alloys, LED DRLs, a seven-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a sports bar. The top-spec auto-only Exceed, as tested here, then adds leather, heated front seats, auto wipers and headlights, paddle shifters, smart-key entry and start, and a rear locker.

THE TRITON IS THE LEAST EXPENSIVE OF THE UTES HERE

RUBBERY DUB

Wheel and tyre spec is smaller than the rest, but it doesn’t limit the options.

TOUCH AND GO

Top of the console are the media touchscreen and dualzone air-con.

The Triton’s suspension is also generally well-resolved, even if the ride quality could be better when unladen. Perhaps the relatively short wheelbase and the fact the rear axle is right under the rear of the cab is part of the issue here?

OFF-ROAD

WHILE Super Select’s main benefit translates on-road, it also offers some convenience off-road given its full-time setting allows you to switch from on-road to off-road without touching anything. If conditions get a bit more difficult you can readily lock the centre diff in an action that’s generally more seamless than engaging 4x4 with any of the part-time utes, all of which can be a bit fiddly and slow to engage on time given they rely on electro-mechanical switching rather than an ‘old fashion’ lever.

Unfortunately that’s where the good news – for what it’s worth – ends for the Triton in terms of off-road ability. The main issue is that the Triton isn’t blessed with lots of wheel travel, nor is the traction control all that effective. And while it has a rear diff-lock (at this spec level), engaging the rear locker cancels the traction control completely, so it’s not always of benefit. Like the D-Max, the Triton couldn’t make it up our set-piece hill climb; although, it did go farther with the diff-lock than without it.

A relatively low wading depth doesn’t help, either. With a bit of work (snorkel, aftermarket locker) it could be much improved off-road, but out of the box it’s down the back of the pack.

LOAD CARRYING

THE Triton has relatively low payload ratings and has the lowest tow rating of all the utes here, a reflection of its small physical size, relative light weight and low GVM and GCM figures. The fact its short wheelbase means all of the tray overhangs the rear axle doesn’t help, either, when heavily loaded. In this company the tray is slightly smaller than most, both in overall dimensions and with the width between the wheel arches.

With our 900kg payload the Triton still coped okay chassis-wise, but it felt the weight more than most here and demanded a steady-as-she-goes approach behind the wheel. The engine, however, fared better, even if it works harder than most to carry what is effectively its maximum payload.

CABIN AND SAFETY

THE Triton’s cabin is arguably the smallest here, which makes its presence most felt if you wish to sit three adults across the back seat. Even up front the driver and passenger don’t have the space of the others, something tall people will notice most.

More positively the Triton offers both tilt-andreach steering wheel adjustment and what is one of the better-finished cabins. Smart key entry and start at this spec level (and relatively low price) is also a bonus, while no less than seven airbags help contribute to a five-star ANCAP rating.

PRACTICALITIES

PERHAPS the most practical thing about the Triton is that it’s the least expensive ute here, so you can buy one, add a truckload of accessories, and still come away better off than any of the other utes. The Triton’s small physical size and tight turning circle also makes it handy anywhere where space is at a premium. The wheel and tyre spec (245/65R17s) are a little smaller than the popular 265/65R17 size on most utes here, but this doesn’t limit replacement options.

THIRD TIME RIGHT?

Nissan’s Navara D23 is less than three years old, but it has already been updated twice. Is it fi nally right?

THE Navara D23, tagged as the NP300, arrived in mid-2015 and was a significant departure from the outgoing and successful D40, which had been on sale for the better part of the decade. All but one dualcab D23 featured a coil-sprung live axle at the rear, a feature unique among the mainstream utes in this class.

In what Nissan said was response to “feedback from customers and dealers”, changes were announced a little more than a year later in October 2016 and implemented for the 2017 model year. This included the dropping of the NP300 tag (replaced by Series II), the introduction of a new work-spec model and, critically, new coil springs at the rear and new dampers front and rear. Then, early this year, the suspension was revised again with new coils and new dampers at the back, a new steering rack ratio, and various equipment upgrades.

POWERTRAIN AND PERFORMANCE

THE Navara’s engine is unique here – well, almost unique, as the same engine is used in the Navara-based MercedesBenz X-Class – thanks to having two turbos rather than one. It’s a Renault-sourced engine with a sophisticated bi-turbo arrangement that employs a smaller, quickspinning turbo for more immediate response off-idle, and then a larger turbo that kicks in to provide the mid-range and top-end punch.

Sequential turbo arrangements like this are commonly used on smaller European diesels (similar to the four-cylinder Amarok, for example) and provide flexibility that comes from having both strong low-rpm torque and good top-end power.

Thanks also to the Navara being one of the lighter utes here and enjoying the benefit of a seven-speed automatic and relatively short overall gearing (55km/h/1000rpm in top), it’s a performance frontrunner, if you ignore the Amarok V6 which is in a league of its own.

The Navara’s 2.3-litre diesel is effortless in general driving and agreeably smooth and quiet, except when pressed hard, where it becomes somewhat noisy. The Navara’s seven-speed automatic offers smooth and slick shifts, but the shift protocols in ‘Drive’ are very much tuned for economy rather than performance.

WHAT YOU GET

ALL Navara dual-cab 4x4s have seven airbags, tiltand-reach steering wheel adjustment, a rear-view camera and a 12-Volt outlet in the rear tub. The SL then adds LED headlights with DRLs, while the ST gains 16-inch alloys, a seven-inch touchscreen, sat-nav, fogs, side steps, a chrome ‘sports bar’, and a rear locker. The top-specification ST-X model then gains leather seats (heated up front), electric adjustment for driver’s seat, and adjustable tie-downs.

PLEASING IS THE ENGINE PERFORMANCE WITH A HEAVY LOAD ONBOARD

CONSOLE CONTROLS

Traction control switches are grouped close together.

WHEEL FEEL

Steering wheel switch for audio, phone and cruise control.

OFF-ROAD

THE Navara has never been particularly capable off-road, as it’s not endowed with much suspension travel (despite the coils at the rear) and is relatively low-slung. ST and ST-X models have a rear locker, and the good news is that when it’s engaged the electronic traction control remains active on the front axle.

The Navara wouldn’t make it up our set-piece hill climb without the rear locker, but it did so with the rear locker engaged. That puts it in front of the Triton and D-Max, even if it did have to work very hard to make the climb. The Navara is also one of four utes here that doesn’t draw its engine intake air from the inner guard, and it claims the lowest wading depth here of just 450mm. The Navara’s raised bonnet edges also restrict vision.

LOAD CARRYING

IN ITS original iteration the Navara fared very poorly chassis-wise when towing 3500kg or at maximum payload. In our 2016 Max Load and Tow test it finished at the tail of the field, even if the powertrain coped well enough at the tow and payload limits.

The Series II version did better carrying a maximum payload, with much improved lateral stability, but it still has a nose-up, bum-down attitude on the road. In fact, in this regard, it was no better than before.

With our 900kg payload onboard the MY18 Navara performed better again with acceptable handling and chassis stability. It certainly didn’t drop as much as before at the back; although, overall, the Navara is still short of the best here in terms of the way the chassis carries a heavy load.

More pleasing is the engine performance with a heavy load onboard. You can still feel the engine working a bit harder, and it’s noisy as a result, but the good low-rpm torque and short gearing means it’s not too fussed.

Cargo tie-downs that can be repositioned fore and aft in the rear tub are a handy fitment with the ST-X, but they would be better mounted on the tub floor rather than high on the tub sides.

CABIN AND SAFETY

THE Navara has one of the smaller cabins here, so it isn’t the best, especially in terms of rearseat space for three adults. However, the cabin is nicely finished and has tilt-and-reach steering wheel adjustment. Seven air-bags contribute to the five-star ANCAP safety rating.

There’s plenty of kit at a reasonable price, too, with the ST-X having the option of a sunroof, something unique in this class. A sliding section in the centre of the rear window is a feature unique to the Navara and X-Class.

PRACTICALITIES

THE Navara offers notably long 12-month/20,000km service intervals and set-price servicing. There’s also a limited range of factory accessories that include steel and aluminiumalloy bullbars; although, the major aftermarket companies provide a greater range of options. This top-spec Navara rides on 18-inch wheels, but 17s or 16s from lower spec models can be fitted to open up the choice of replacement tyres.

ON-ROAD RIDE AND HANDLING

MUCH of the revision work on the MY17 and then the MY18 Navara has centred on the Navara’s heavy load carrying and towing performance (see Load Carrying). It has also addressed the unladen ride and handling and the front-to-rear suspension match, which wasn’t anything special in the original NP300 guise. In fact, the front-to-rear match was poor (somewhat like the very ordinary D22) and well short of the nicely sorted D40.

Thankfully, the Navara feels much better now suspensionwise, and with the quicker, more responsive steering on the MY18 model, is much more enjoyable to drive, even if the new rear suspension tune means somewhat of a harsh unladen ride.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE

Think of a dual-cab 4x4 and you probably think of Hilux. Most people certainly do.

THE Hilux comes to the contest as Australia’s best-selling ute and best-selling 4x4. Throw in the 2WD models and it’s Australia’s best-selling vehicle, bar none.

Not that Hilux has it all its own way, as last year it was pipped by the Ford Ranger as the best-selling 4x4 ute and best-selling 4x4, which has prompted Toyota to tweak the model range with the addition of SR+ models and more kit for the SR5+, among the key changes late last year. Toyota also launched the TRD variant in 2017 and more recently introduced the accessorised Rogue, Rugged and Rugged X models.

This generation Hilux first appeared in late 2015 as the eighth-generation Hilux and was effectively allnew from the ground up; although, not notably bigger than before. It brought a new generation 2.8-litre diesel (replacing the long-serving 3.0-litre diesel) and new six-speed automatic and manual gearboxes, replacing the previous five-speeders.

POWERTRAIN AND PERFORMANCE

COMPARED to the Hilux’s previous 3.0-litre engine, the 2.8 only brings an extra 4kW (now 130kW) and, while the manual and automatic gearboxes have an extra ratio, both bring a second and taller overdrive ratio rather than tightening up the ratio gaps.

As a result, when pressed, the new engine doesn’t go much harder than the old engine and the overall performance is modest in this company. However, more torque than before (now 450Nm, up from 360Nm) makes for a more flexible and agreeable engine in general driving.

This new engine is more refined and quieter than before and, in this regard, betters most here. It’s certainly quieterthan Ranger, Triton and Colorado, the other big sellers.

For its part, Hilux’s six-speed automatic shifts smoothly, but it doesn’t carry the very tall sixth gear particularly well, so there’s a bit of shuffling between fifth and sixth and locking and unlocking of the torque convertor at legal highway speeds on undulating roads. The automatic needs lower final-drive gearing, or we need higher open-road speed limits! While the manual also has tall fifth and sixth gears, it generally does a better job of holding them and is a much better proposition for country and highway driving.

ON-ROAD RIDE AND HANDLING

THE Hilux offers a more confident road feel than the previous generation model (one of the more noticeable improvements, in fact), and it feels smaller and more nimble than the likes of Ranger, BT-50, Colorado and D-Max. It’s still only a midfielder in terms of on-road composure, with the Amarok, X-Class, Ranger, Colorado and BT-50 all feeling more settled on bumpy roads, especially unladen.

WHAT YOU GET

ALL Hilux dual cabs come with seven airbags, a reversing camera (accessory for cab-chassis), tilt-and-reach steering-wheel adjustment, and trailer-sway control. The SR then adds a rear locker, driver’s seat-height adjustment and a seven-inch touchscreen; while the SR+, as tested here, then adds alloys and sat-nav. The SR5 adds to this with auto-key entry, push-button start, LED DRLs, a sports bar and a smooth-sided tub to replace the ‘commercial’ tub on the lower-spec models. The SR5+ then adds leather and heated front seats.

WHAT’S MORE PRACTICAL THAN A HILUX? PROBABLY NOTHING

WORKIN’ IT

The work-spec tub makes do with external tie-downs only.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Toyota’s simple and easy-to-use switchgear is a highlight.

There’s better news in terms of the excellent road-noise isolation from the Hilux’s chassis and, as with the Amarok and X-Class, the Hilux is one of the quieter utes.

OFF-ROAD

THE Hilux may not be at the front of the pack in terms of its on-road dynamics, but it shoots up the leaderboard to become a tier-one player as soon as you head off-road. Much of that is thanks to its class-leading wheel travel (as much as 520mm at the rear) and Hilux’s particularly effective electronic traction control (ETC), so much so that the rear locker is redundant in many instances.

In fact, the Hilux generally performs better off-road without the rear locker, as engaging it cancels the ETC on the front axle as well as negating the ETC across the rear axle.

The Hilux’s relative smaller size also means it’s more manoeuvrable in tight off-road situations than the bigger utes here; while ground clearance, wading depth, and visibility from the driver’s side are all off-road positives.

LOAD CARRYING

THIS SR+ is a commercial-grade Hilux (we couldn’t get the SR5), which means a work-spec tub (with external tie-downs and not smooth-sided) and a safety headboard rather than the sports bar of the SR5 and SR5+ models. Given it’s a bit lighter than the more luxurious models, the payload is a useful 1045kg, even if the 3000kg Gross Vehicle Mass is lower than all but the Navara and Triton. This commercial tray may have handy external tie-downs, but no tie-downs in the tub itself.

With our 900kg test payload onboard, the Hilux’s chassis hardly flinched and felt reassuringly stable on the road. Honest performance, too, from the engine.

In Toyota’s conservative way, the Gross Combined Mass of 5650kg is the lowest here, and the maximum tow rating (with the automatic, at least), is also down on the best here at 3200kg. However, Hilux 2.8-litre manuals are rated to tow 3500kg.

CABIN AND SAFETY

THE Hilux’s cabin is one of the smallest, and the backseat is a bit tight for three adults. The tablet-style touchscreen that dominates the dash may not be to everyone’s liking but, as ever, Toyota’s simple and easy-to-use switchgear is a highlight, even though a simple audio-volume control knob is replaced by the touchscreen and steering wheel audio controls.

The Hilux is comfortable up front and the driver has the benefit of tilt-and-reach steering wheel adjustment; although, there’s no smartkey entry and push-button start at this spec level. For that you need to go to the SR5. Even at this commercial-grade level the cabin still offers a quality feel that’s better than some topspec models here.

PRACTICALITIES

WHAT’S more practical than a Hilux? Probably nothing, thanks to Toyota’s extensive dealer network, especially in country and remote areas where it counts most. There’s also a big range of factory accessories for work or play, and the aftermarket accessory support is second to none. Relatively cheap fixed-price servicing is a bonus, too, even if the service intervals are six months.

WOLF SIX-PACK

Volkswagen’s long-serving Amarok has a new – and potent – lease on life, thanks to V6 diesel power.

THE AMAROK is the oldest ute here (2010); although, it only gained its 3.0-litre V6 diesel in late 2016. For its part the V6 engine actually dates back to 2004 and is a VW family (Audi) design used in various Porsche, Audi and VW models. For use in the Amarok it has been detuned and, at the same time, strengthened in the bottom end, to help accommodate its new ‘working’ or commercial vehicle role. The V6 is only available at this stage with an automatic transmission and single-range full-time 4WD.

POWERTRAIN AND PERFORMANCE

DETUNED is a relative word here, as the Amarok’s V6 still cranks out at least 165kW and as much as 180kW. Compare that to the next best power figure, the 147kW of the Ranger, BT-50 and Colorado. Then throw in the closer ratios and quick shifting of the Amarok’s eight-speed automatic, combined with relatively short final drive gearing, and it’s “see you later” in any sort of sideby-side performance contest. In this company it’s Amarok first, daylight second.

The 180kW is via an overboost function that operates at 70 per cent or more throttle in third and fourth gears, the crucial on-road performance and highway-overtaking gears. Not that you’d know it’s happening – the transition from 165kW to 180kW is totally seamless.

Equally impressive is the V6’s bottom-end torque, with its class-whipping 550Nm on tap from just 1500rpm. That’s more off-idle than even the bigger capacity (3.2-litre) engines in Ranger and BT-50. Combine this low-rpm grunt with willingness to rev and the V6 offers a potent wide-rpm flexibility that no other engine here can match.

All the while the V6’s refinement and noise control is the best of any engine here and, along with the eight-speed auto (the slickest gearbox here) it gives the Amarok a unique luxury-car feel in this company.

ON-ROAD RIDE AND HANDLING

FULL-TIME 4x4 is the Amarok’s on-road trump card and something that sets it well aside from the other utes here, Triton excepted. In any conditions aside from deaddry sealed roads, full-time 4x4 offers grip, safety and driveability advantages. To all this the Amarok adds quality suspension that generally feels plush in this company, communicative steering, and the ‘feel’ of a much smaller ute, to provide a driving confidence like no other. As we have noted before, the Amarok feels like a “rally car” compared to the other utes.

OFF-ROAD

WITHOUT a two-speed, high- and low-range transfer case, you might think the Amarok’s star would fade off-road, but that’s not the case. In fact, nowhere near it, as the Amarok offers top-shelf off-road ability (matched only by Hilux and Ranger) with an ease-of-use that puts it well out on its own.

WHAT YOU GET

THE Sportline is the cheapest Amarok V6 model. Standard kit includes front and front-side airbags (but no airbags in the rear), tilt-and-reach steering wheel adjustment, and four-wheel disc brakes – also standard with four-cylinder Amaroks. The Sportline V6 has dual-zone climate, front and rear parking sensors, a rear-view camera, Apple CarPlay, 18-inch alloys, and a 12V outlet and lighting for the tray. Unlike the dearer Highline V6, the Sportline doesn’t have sat-nav, side steps, sports bar, tyre-pressure monitoring, bi-Xexon headlights and LED daytime-running lights.

THE AMAROK OFFERS TOP SHELF OFFROAD ABILITY

EASY AS

The Amarok engine barely noticed the weight in the tray.

DRIVER FIRST

It gets a tick for the tilt-and-reach steering wheel.

The Amarok’s number-one party trick is that it can go from whizzing down a freeway at whatever speed you dare, to climbing a gnarly off-road hill without having to touch a button or lever. It’s that simple and clever, as it’s always in 4x4. The centre diff locks automatically and it gets by without lowrange, thanks to a relatively low first gear in the eight-speed automatic and the special calibration of the torque convertor.

The Amarok’s strong off-road performance also comes off the back of its relatively long-travel suspension, and if you get into difficulty a rear diff-lock keeps the traction control on the front wheels active. Another box ticked. Good vision from the driver’s seat and a ‘clean’ underside are other off-road positives.

The only chink in the Amarok’s off-road armoury is the engine air intake being located in the engine bay, which makes the Amarok the first candidate for a snorkel (or a tarp).

LOAD CARRYING

CLASS-LEADING torque is the best way to cope with heavy loads, and the Amarok’s engine dispensed with the 900kg payload easier than any engine here. In fact, it hardly felt it. Good performance from the chassis, too, when loaded to the maximum; although, it wasn’t as absolutely rock-steady as the Ranger.

No doubt the 550Nm would also help when towing the Amarok’s 3500kg tow limit, which matches the best here, while its 6000kg GCM matches Ranger, BT-50 and Colorado. The Sportline, being the lightest of the three Amarok V6s, also has a solid 1000kg payload figure.

The Amarok’s tray is the only one here to fit a full-size pallet between the wheel arches, a very nice practical touch if you wish to have the looks and aero efficiency of a factory tub combined with some of the load-carrying practicality of an aftermarket tray. You have to wonder why the other ute manufacturers didn’t think of this?

All four of the Amarok’s tie-down hooks in the tub are also mounted low down, where commonsense tells you they should be. There’s also a work light above the tub and a 12-volt outlet, both practical features.

CABIN AND SAFETY

THE Amarok’s cabin is notably spacious (it’s the widest here), very well finished, and offers tilt-and-reach steering wheel adjustment for the driver. The width across the back seat is particularly good for three adults; although, the combined front-to-rear legroom is not as good as the Ranger or BT-50. There are no airbags for rear-seat passengers; although, it still has a fivestar ANCAP safety rating. No sat-nav at this spec level, either.

PRACTICALITIES

LACK of VW dealers in country areas isn’t ideal, and some independent workshops would prefer to service something else they are more familiar with. The long service intervals (12 month or 15,000km) do offset this to some extent.

Despite the V6 Amarok getting bigger front brakes than the four-cylinder models, you can still fit 17s to replace the factory 18s (or 19s on up-spec V6s) to open up your tyre choice.

RANKING THE UTES IS MADE DIFFICULT IN THAT 4X4 DUAL CABS CAN BE MANY DIFFERENT THINGS TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE

THE VERDICT IS IN

NINE UTES, BUT ONLY ONE WINNER…

RANKING these utes is made difficult by the fact that 4x4 dual cabs can be many different things to different people: family car, recreational 4x4, work or farm truck, load carrier or tow tug. The fact that they are so versatile is what makes them so popular.

Most people probably buy them to fulfil more than one of the roles, if not most or all of them. How you prioritise these roles and balance driving enjoyment, role fulfilment and functionality, and practicality of ownership, will determine your winner. However, for us, the ranking looks like this:

01 VOLKSWAGEN AMAROK V6

WITH stellar performance, confident handling, comfortable ride, spacious cabin and excellent refinement, the Amarok is in a class of its own. Throw in hardcore off-road ability as good as it gets, ease of off-road driving that you won’t believe, and class-leading power and torque for heavy-duty load hauling and towing, and the Amarok is impossible to go past. No airbags in the cab’s rear is, however, a notable omission in this company.

02 FORD RANGER

THE Ranger is a big, tough ute that does it all, especially when there’s hard work to do or a difficult trail to conquer. A spacious cabin, a relaxed and smooth-running engine, nicely sorted suspension and a stable chassis also make the Ranger an agreeable drive, especially if there’s distance to cover. A new high-tech 2.0L four-cylinder bi-turbo-diesel with more power and torque than the 3.2 ‘five’ will soon be available on top-end models.

03 TOYOTA HILUX

THE Hilux isn’t the strongest performing, nor does it offer the confident road feel of the best here, but it’s unbeatable on ownership practicality and offers top build quality and excellent refinement. Like Amarok and Ranger it’s also a top-tier performer in difficult off-road conditions, while the chassis isn’t fazed by heavy loads. The competition from Ranger also means Toyota isn’t as inflexible on pricing as it once was.

=4 HOLDEN COLORADO

THANKS to the excellent work of Holden’s local engineering team in its 2017 model-year ‘rebirth’, the Colorado has been dragged up by its boot straps from the bottom of the pack to what is now a much more respectable mid-field place in the pecking order. Highlights include a punchy engine, well-sorted on-road dynamics and heavy-duty on load and tow ability. It’s also much better off-road than it originally was.

=4 MAZDA BT-50

FOR most of the reasons Ranger is an excellent ute, so too is the closely related BT-50 a good ute. It just lacks some of Ranger’s on- and off-road polish that came about with the 2016 upgrades adopted by Ranger but not with the BT-50. Countering that is the BT-50’s sharper pricing. Interestingly, the next-gen BT-50 looks like being off the back of a joint venture with Isuzu and not Ford, breaking a long-running relationship.

=6 MITSUBISHI TRITON

THANKS to ongoing factory discounting, the Triton’s trump card is pricing, which is probably part of the reason why it’s out-sold only by Hilux and Ranger. Full-time 4x4 is also a notable safety and functionality advantage, while its small size and tight turning circle help make it a handy city or general-duties ute. It’s not a good choice for heavy load carrying or towing, or for more hardcore off-road driving.

=6 MERCEDES-BENZ X-CLASS

THE X-Class is very strong on refinement, comfort and safety, and has a notable solid and robust feel that contributes to a high level of driving enjoyment, all testament to the good work put in by Benz’s engineers. But all this comes at a price and the X-Class isn’t a star off-road performer, nor does it appear to have the chassis for heavy-duty load and tow duties.

=8 ISUZU D-MAX

THE D-Max doesn’t perform particularly well on- or off-road and isn’t the last word for heavy-duty load or tow performance given its modest engine and the now softer rear springs. Nor does the D-Max offer much in the way of refinement, but it does have a reliable and easy-to-service engine and a proven six-speed auto similar to Hilux. If you lined up all the utes here and drove them around Australia until they dropped, the D-Max feels like it would be among the last standing. If Isuzu could recalibrate the ETC, at least that would bring it up to speed off-road.

=8 NISSAN NAVARA

DRIVEN in isolation and not driven and tested side-by-side against its peers, as we have done here, the Navara actually feels like a good thing and impresses with its spritely performance and equipment for the money. The chassis, too, is now much better sorted for general driving, even if heavy-duty load and tow still isn’t its forte, nor would it be the first choice for more serious off-road driving.