Ford Ranger v Holden Colorado v Isuzu D-Max v Mazda BT-50 v Mitsubishi Triton v Nissan Navara v Toyota Hilux v VW Amarok

The rush of new and revised utes this year has reshaped a vital and vibrant sector of the 4x4 landscape on a scale we have not seen for some time.

The run of new utes kicked off early in the year when Mitsubishi launched its fifth-generation Triton. Next up was the new Nissan Navara NP300. Like the Triton, the Nissan represented the first-generational change of the Navara in ten years.

In quick succession the Ford Ranger and the closely related Mazda BT-50 were both revised, although the upgrades to the Ranger ran far deeper than the facelift given to the BT-50. In fact, the two utes are now noticeably different, whereas before they were essentially the same with only very minor mechanical variations.

Dual cab ute test comparison 3Finally, there’s the new Toyota Hilux. Given its market-place popularity, this is really the ‘biggie’ and the ute that’s most likely to have the biggest impact on the market.

Carried over essentially unchanged this year are the three other mainstream utes: the Holden Colorado, the Isuzu D-Max and the Volkswagen Amarok. The Amarok model line-up, however, has been revised with the introduction of a new base-model, the Core.

For this test we have lined up all eight of these popular 4x4 utes. They are all mid-spec dual-cab automatics. Where there is more than one engine available, as is the case with the Hilux, Ranger and Navara, we have gone for the main engine option.

Dual cab ute test comparison 4To test their mettle we put them through a series of exhaustive off-road tests and drove them on a wide variety of roads, ranging from good-quality bitumen and secondary bitumen to unsealed roads.

Then we pulled out the tape measure and climbed all over them. We even ran them down the dragstrip!

TESTING TIMES
This ute shootout was done at The Melbourne 4x4 Training and Proving Ground. The proving ground gave us every type of terrain, gradient, road surface and off-road situation that we could ever want to test a vehicle in – and all in one, controlled, safe environment. We could drive for days to find the variety that was on offer there. Couple this with the top-notch facilities and a conference centre and it was the perfect base for our use.

Dual cab ute test comparison 1The facility also offers both accredited and non-accredited driver training, rally and drifting schools and even rides in property owner Robbie Emmins’s Centurion tank. That’s something you won’t find anywhere else!

The 4x4 Proving Ground is not open to the general public, so you must be part of a course or event to visit the property. Visit the website at www.melbourne4x4.com.au to see when there is a course for you.

Ford Ranger

Ford’s Ranger is designed and developed in Australia, and is sold in markets right around the world.

Ford ranger 1

The Ford Ranger PX first appeared in late 2011 and despite carrying over the name of its predecessor it was, in fact, an all-new ute. Most significantly it was a Ford product through and through, whereas the first vehicle to carry the Ranger nameplate in Australia was a re-badged Mazda.

Right from the get-go the Ranger PX has done well for Ford, but it looks set to do even better with the raft of changes that the PXII upgrade has brought. Aside from a new front-end treatment and new dashboard, the Ranger has a smaller, more efficient turbo for faster spool up, new fuel injectors, changes to the cylinder head and various measures to improve engine NVH.

The electronic control of the 4x4 system has also been significantly enhanced, while electric-power steering has replaced the hydraulically assisted steering used previously. Ford has also successfully addressed the much-criticised shift action of the six-speed manual and introduced a raft of high-end safety features as an option on the two top-spec models.

On-road performance, handling and ride
In this company the Ranger has a big engine (3.2-litre, five-cylinder), which makes for strong on-paper power and torque numbers.

In the 400-metre sprint the Ranger was bettered only by the lighter Holden Colorado. It fared much better than the Mazda, which claims the same maximum power and torque – evidence that Ford’s revision of the turbo and injectors has paid useful dividends. The Ranger’s engine is also much quieter than the Mazda’s, again evidence of the effectiveness of the mid-life revisions.

The engine mates nicely to the generally agreeable six-speed automatic, while the much improved shift action of the six-speed manual means that buyers now have two viable gearbox options.

Ford nailed the Ranger’s on-road ride and handling right from the start, and the Ranger remains at the pointy-end of the field in this regard despite the fact that most of its competitors are newer. It still has a firm ride at the rear, as you’d expect, but it’s not harsh or uncomfortable, and it has one of the best front-to-rear suspension matches.

The newly introduced electric power steering also works well; it’s very light at low speeds, but it firms up nicely at higher speeds.

Off-Road
The Ranger’s very light low-speed steering makes it presence felt off-road; it’s certainly the most effortless here.

Ford ranger 2The other significant mid-life upgrade that aids the Ranger’s off-road credentials is that traction control stays active on the front axle when the rear differential lock is engaged. A rear locker is standard (or optional) on all Ranger 4x4 dual-cab utes with the 3.2-litre engine depending on spec.

With the help of its locker and newly tweaked ETC, the Ranger cleared all of the set-piece climbs, although its sheer size, long wheelbase and only-okay over-bonnet vision don’t work in its favour in tight off-road situations.

Cabin and accommodation
The Ranger is big on the outside, and the cabin is big, too. Only the Amarok’s cabin is wider, but the Ranger (and BT-50) beat the Volkswagen for combined front and rear legroom.

Ford ranger 3The new dashboard, with its larger touchscreen, is also an improvement. The seating position is generally comfortable; though it’s a shame Ford couldn’t introduce tilt-and-reach steering-wheel adjustment as part of the Ranger’s mid-life upgrade.

Somewhat surprisingly, a reversing camera is not available across all grades.

Practicalities
The big torquey engine is a good starting point for work duties, as is the class-leading towing rating, GVM and GCM figures. Those venturing off-road have the security of the engine breathing through the inner guard, and the option of replacing the 18-inch tyres on the top-spec Wildtrak with 17s from the lower spec models.

The Ranger is also backed up by a dealer network second only to Toyota’s, and there’s a wide selection of aftermarket equipment available.

Ford ranger 4

Specs: Ford Ranger XLT

Engine: 3.2-litre 5-cyl turbo- diesel
Max power/torque: 147kW/470Nm
Gearbox: six-speed automatic
4x4 system: dual-range part-time
Kerb weight: 2159kg
GVM: 3200kg
Payload: 1041kg
Towing capacity: 3500kg
GCM: 6000kg
Fuel tank capacity: 80 litres
ADR fuel cons: 9.2 litres/100km

Ford Ranger prices*
XL $48,790
XL Plus $52,960
XLS $50,090
XLT $56,390
Wildtrak $59,890
*Automatic 3.2-litre 4x4 Dual-Cab Pick-Ups only, unless noted. Manual saves $2000.

Sum up
The Ranger has always been an excellent ute thanks to its combination of on-road civility, off-road ability, solid work credentials and its roomy cabin. With a mid-life update, Ford has built on the Ranger’s core values to produce an even better ute. And while all models have appeal, the XLT and Wildtrak’s optional high-end safety features make them a standout in the current ute market.

Holden Colorado

The Holden Colorado offers plenty of performance, but is that enough for it to keep up with the opposition?

Holden colorado 2

Up until this Holden Colorado arrived in 2012, all Holden 4x4 utes – the previous-generation Colorado and all the Rodeos before that – were essentially Isuzus.
This Colorado, however, is a General Motors product from the ground up. It was developed by a global GM team based in Brazil (where dual-cab utes are big business), but with input from Holden engineers and designers.

For the 2014 model year the Colorado underwent an engine upgrade and gained a new six-speed manual gearbox, as well as a raft of new safety and technology equipment. Additions include trailer-sway control, rear park assist, and a reversing camera for the LTZ model.

On-road performance, handling and ride
All Colorados are powered by a 2.8-litre four-cylinder diesel from Italian diesel specialist VM Motori. It’s essentially the same engine used in the Jeep Wrangler with a different tune.

The 2014 engine upgrade saw maximum power increase from 132kW to 147kW – obviously aimed at matching the output of the 3.2 five-cylinder in the Ranger and BT-50.

When mated to the optional six-speed auto it gains an extra 30Nm of torque to bring it up to a class-leading 500Nm; although when mated to the new six-speed manual that replaced the previous five-speed manual, maximum torque remains at 440Nm.

The fact that it’s among the lighter utes here makes it the performance leader, although not by a significant amount.

Holden colorado 3However, that performance comes at the cost of noise and a generally harsh and unrefined feel from the engine. The six-speed automatic doesn’t help matters, either, as it can be indecisive and is generally one of the least likeable gearboxes here. For its part, the manual has a positive shift action, but the overall gearing is way too tall for all but high-speed flat roads.

On the road the Colorado rides and handles respectably well, but lacks steering feel and has a somewhat heavy and ungainly demeanour compared to the better-sorted utes. It’s not bad, but it’s certainly not great.

Off-road
Along with the Isuzu D-Max, the Colorado is the only ute here that doesn’t offer a rear diff lock at any spec level. On our set-piece climbs it didn’t perform well and, tellingly, it was one of the three utes that failed the most difficult of the test climbs.

Holden colorado 1Like all the other utes, the Colorado has ETC, but it’s not that effective; although that may also come down to wheel travel, or lack thereof. The Colorado also feels big off-road, and has restricted views. Its ground clearance and approach and departure angles are competitive, though.

Cabin and accommodation
The Colorado offers five-star safety in what is a big and spacious cabin. It’s not as big inside as the Amarok, Ranger or BT-50, but it’s not far behind and it’s certainly roomier than the Triton, Hilux or Navara.

It’s reasonably comfortable, but the steering wheel lacks reach adjustment. The cabin fit-and-finish is also off the money, while the app-driven satellite navigation and lack of a CD player may irk some buyers.

Practicalities
The Colorado matches the best here in terms of towing capacity and Gross Combined Mass. Given it’s also reasonably light, its 3100kg GVM also translates to a decent payload. Like all of the utes, there is no rear recovery hook, but there are two up front. The Colorado also draws its intake air from the inner guard, which is a good arrangement and makes fitting a snorkel relatively easy.

Given the Colorado has been around for a few years now, there’s a good range of aftermarket gear available. Another plus is that Holden has good dealer representation in country areas.

Holden colorado 4

Specs: Holden Colorado LTZ

Engine: 2.8-litre 4-cyl turbo- diesel
Max: power/torque 147kW/500Nm
Gearbox: six-speed automatic
4x4 system: dual-range part-time
Kerb weight: 2053kg
GVM: 3100kg
Payload: 1047kg
Towing capacity: 3500kg
GCM: 6000kg
Fuel tank capacity: 76 litres
ADR fuel cons: 9.1 litres/100km

Holden Colorado prices*
LS $47,690
LT $48,690
LTZ $53,190
Z71 $57,190
*Automatic 4x4 Dual-Cab Pick-Ups only. Manual saves $2200.

Sum up
The fact Holden has had a couple of goes at tweaking the Colorado since its launch just over three years ago says that even Holden wasn’t all that happy with the original effort, and there’s also a facelift planned for next year. In the meantime, the Colorado offers class-leading performance, good ‘working’ credentials and a roomy cabin, but not a lot else.

Isuzu D-Max

The D-Max shares much with the Colorado, but is still a very different vehicle.

Isuzu d-max 1

Once badged as Holden Rodeos, Isuzu utes have long been a part of the Australian automotive landscape. As a seller of utes in its own right, however, Isuzu has only existed in Oz since 2008 when it introduced the D-Max; a 100 per cent Isuzu product.

What you see here is the second vehicle to carry the D-Max nameplate in Australia. It arrived in 2012 and represents a departure from the previous Isuzu/General Motors relationship. The frame and body shell of this D-Max is essentially a GM design, rather than an Isuzu design, and is shared with the current Colorado.

Where the D-Max is completely different from the Colorado is with its engine, gearbox(s), rear axle, suspension tune, external body panels and interior fit-out.

On-road performance, handling and ride
Powering the D-Max is a revised and updated version of the 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel used in the previous-generation D-Max. It was also used in the last of the Holden Rodeos and the original Colorado.

This engine is not the last word in refinement, but it’s a well-proven design that offers decent performance thanks in part to the D-Max’s relative lightness. In fact, you would have to say that the D-Max performs better than its on-paper power and torque numbers suggest.

The D-Max’s five-speed automatic gearbox comes from the Japanese transmission specialist Aisin and is essentially the same gearbox that was used in the Toyota Prado up until recently (and in the original petrol 200 Series).

Isuzu d-max 4This gearbox offers reasonable refinement, but its shift protocols seem more focused on economy than anything else, which makes it less than likeable in more demanding driving conditions (unless you use it in the ‘manual’ mode). The alternate gearbox is a five-speed manual carried over from the previous-generation D-Max.

On road the D-Max rides and handles okay, but it’s certainly not up there with the frontrunners, as the vehicle lacks the poise and balance offered by the likes of the Amarok and Ranger.

Off-road
The D-Max has moderate wheel travel and a somewhat ineffective traction control system, and it doesn’t come with a rear locker. It struggled on the set-piece climbs and couldn’t clear the most difficult climb.

Isuzu d-max 2This aside, the D-Max is still handy enough off-road, as it is competitive in terms of ground clearance and the like.

Cabin and accommodation
While the D-Max’s cab isn’t as big as the Amarok, Ranger and BT-50, it’s still a decent size, especially across the rear seat, and it offers five-star safety.

The general cabin presentation feels more commercial than passenger and lacks the polish of most here, save for the Colorado. There’s also no tilt-and-reach steering wheel adjustment, but, otherwise, it’s comfortable enough for the driver. On a more positive note, the equipment levels are good for the money, especially higher up in the range.

Isuzu d-max 3

Practicalities
The D-Max offers a class-leading 3500kg tow rating. And while its GVM is down 250kg on the best here, its relatively light weight means the payloads are competitive.

Under the bonnet, the engine draws its air from the inner guard. And unlike many utes here there are two, rather than one, recovery hooks up front.

Specs: Isuzu D-Max LS-U

Engine 3.0-litre 4-cyl turbo- diesel
Max power/torque 130kW/380Nm
Gearbox five-speed automatic
4X4 system dual-range part-time
Kerb weight 1945kg
GVM 2950kg
Payload 1005kg
Towing capacity 3500kg
GCM 5950kg
Fuel tank capacity 76 litres
ADR fuel cons 8.1 litres/100km

ISuzu D-Max prices*
SX $45,000
LS-M $47,100
LS-U $48,300
LS-Terrain $53,000
*Automatic 4x4 Dual-Cab Pick-Ups only. Manual saves $2200.

Sum up
As an on- or off-road vehicle, the D-Max is nothing special in this company, but does come back into its own as an ownership proposition. It strength lies in the fact that both the engine and gearbox have proven reliability and years of service behind them, something which doesn’t apply to the new powertrains here. The D-Max is also sharply priced and offers good bang for your bucks, right through the range.

Mazda BT-50

Mazda’s recent facelift of its BT-50 brings appealing style tweaks but little mechanical change.

Mazda bt-50 1

The basic mechanical package of this BT-50 appeared in late 2011 and shared nothing with the first Mazda ute to carry the BT-50 nameplate. Whereas that first BT-50 was actually a Mazda, this BT-50 owes more to Ford and shares much with the Ranger.

Before the recent facelift of both the BT-50 and the Ranger, the differences between the two were mainly cosmetic, but that has all changed now. Whereas Ford has introduced a raft of mechanical changes to its Ranger, Mazda’s rework of the BT-50 is limited to exterior styling, a new dash for mid- and top-spec models and some equipment changes.

The only mechanical change of note – and a most welcome one at that – is a new linkage for the six-speed manual designed to address the previously very vague shift action.

On-road performance, handling and ride
The BT-50’s 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel is a Ford-sourced unit originally designed for commercial use and is not a particularly quiet or refined engine in this company. Whereas Ford has done much to address various NVH issues with the engine in the revamped Ranger, Mazda hasn’t, and the difference is telling.

Also telling is the fact that Ford’s 3.2 now outperforms the Mazda’s 3.2, despite the two claiming identical maximum power and torque figures. Whereas the Ford is a frontrunner here, performance-wise, the Mazda is a tail-ender, which proves that ‘fat’ in power and torque curves, or the shape of them, is far more important than the maximum figures.

This doesn’t mean the Mazda’s engine doesn’t do a good job. It’s an easy-going, low-revving engine that’s generally unfussed and, while it’s a bit gruff and lumpy at low speeds, it smooths out nicely at highway speeds.

Mazda bt-50 2For its part, the six-speed auto also mates well to the torquey, low-revving nature of the engine and offers generally smooth, ‘intelligent’ and well-timed shifts. For those wanting the control of a manual, the new linkage system brings much improved shift quality.

One thing that Mazda (and Ford) got particularly right with this shared platform some five years back is the on-road dynamics. Unlike the Ranger, which now has electric power steering, the BT-50 has retained hydraulic power steering, which means more steering effort at low speeds but a bit more feel and feedback at highway speed. The BT-50 offers a positive road feel and surprisingly tidy handling, despite its leaf-sprung live axle at the rear and load-carrying suspension tune.

Off-road
All three BT-50 dual-cab 4x4s come with a rear diff lock as standard, but when the locker is engaged the electronic traction control is cancelled across the front and rear axles. This is no longer the case with the upgraded Ranger.

On our set-piece climbs the Mazda did well and managed to clear even the most difficult of the climbs, provided its rear locker was engaged. Without the locker it marginally failed to make the most difficult climb.

Mazda bt-50 4Like the Ranger, the BT-50 is a big, long ute, which does it no favours in tight off-road situations. But, otherwise, it’s a solid off-road performer.

Cabin and accommodation
As with the Ranger, the BT-50’s cabin is big and spacious and the best here in terms of combined front and rear legroom, although the Amarok has more shoulder room across the rear seat.

The BT-50 also has a comfortable driving position, but the lack of reach adjustment for the steering wheel is a negative point.

Also surprising is that despite the new, much larger dashboard touchscreen on the mid- and top-spec models, the review camera still displays in the corner of the rear-view mirror.

Mazda bt-50 3

Practicalities
With its big, torquey engine, class-leading tow capacity and GVM/GCM, the BT-50 has working credentials as good as it gets in this company.

Mazda also offers a good range of factory accessories for the BT-50 and it’s well catered for by the aftermarket.

Specs: Mazda BT-50 XTR

Engine 3.2-litre 5-cyl turbo- diesel
Max power/torque 147kW/470Nm
Gearbox six-speed automatic
4X4 system dual-range part-time
Kerb weight 2118kg
GVM 3200kg
Payload 1082kg
Towing capacity 3500kg
GCM 6000kg
Fuel tank capacity 80 litres
ADR fuel cons 9.2 litres/100km

Mazda BT-50 prices*
XT $46,615
XTR $51,700
GT $53,790
*Automatic 4x4 Dual-Cab Pick-Ups only. Manual saves $2000.

Sum up
Driven in isolation the BT-50 is a good thing both on and off the road, and as both a work and play ute. It’s just a pity the recent facelift didn’t bring the in-depth changes that have made the Ranger a far better ute than it was in its original guise.

Mitsubishi Triton 

Mitsubishi’s new Triton may be small in size, but it’s got big bang for buck.

Mitsubishi triton 1

In creating this new, fifth-gen Triton, Mitsubishi hasn’t started with a clean-sheet design.

Instead, it’s taken the previous-generation Triton, pulled it apart, and then put it back together with a whole lot of new or revised parts.

Most notably it has an all-new 2.4-litre engine, new six-speed manual gearbox, new transfer case, revised suspension, and a slightly bigger cabin. The five-speed auto that was previously only available on the top-spec model is also now available across the range.

On-road performance, handling and ride
The Triton’s new 2.4-litre engine is quite revvy, with its maximum torque not available until 2500rpm; a very high figure for a modern turbo-diesel. When mated to the six-speed manual, the Triton is particularly ‘soft’ off idle and at low rpm, but the auto, as tested here, effectively masks this characteristic.

The Triton’s engine is noticeably smooth, quiet and refined in this company and, helped by the fact that the Triton is relatively light, it also offers competitive performance, even if it generally revs a little harder in doing so.

The Triton has one of the older autos here (and with fewer ratios than all but the D-Max).

While it doesn’t do a bad job, it’s not as decisive and quick shifting as it could be.

Mitsubishi triton 2The base-spec GLX Triton comes with conventional part-time 4x4, whereas the mid- and top-spec models come with Mitubishi’s Super Select 4x4 system – a unique arrangement in this company. Super Select gives the option of four different drive modes, including full-time 4x4, which is very useful on roads with constantly varying (sealed/unsealed/wet/dry) conditions. The benefit of Super Select aside, the Triton also has a light and sporty road feel, highlighted by its crisp steering. The main on-road negative is that the unladed ride is among the harshest in this company.

Off-road
At this mid-spec level, the Triton isn’t strong off-road, as it doesn’t have a rear locker. With limited rear wheel travel and a relatively ineffective traction control system, the Triton struggled most on our set-piece climbs. Of the entire group, it made it the shortest distance up the hardest climb.

The good news is that a rear locker is standard on the top-spec Exceed, which is a similar price to most of its mid-spec competitors.

Mitsubishi triton 4The Triton’s relatively short wheelbase helps in tight situations and the Super Select means that you can have 4x4 drive without locking the centre diff, which can be very useful at times.

Cabin and accommodation
This new Triton has a slightly bigger cabin than the previous model, but it’s still the smallest in this company, and is certainly more of a squeeze for three adults across the back seat.

However, the cabin’s fit-and-finish is far better than before and the driver has the benefit of tilt-and-reach steering wheel adjustment; one of only three utes here to have this handy feature. It also has a five-star safety rating.

The not-particularly comfortable front seats in the previous model have also been improved, but still failed to find favour with all our test drivers.

Practicalities
The Triton’s relatively short wheelbase means just about all of the tub is behind the rear axle line, which is not ideal for carrying heavier loads. The Triton also has a relatively low GVM and modest payloads. Its 3100kg towing capacity is also short of the class leaders.

Mitsubishi triton 3A worthwhile change from the previous-gen Triton is that the engine air intake comes via the inner mudguard rather than from under the bonnet lip.

Specs: Mitsubishi Triton GLS

Engine 2.4 litre 4-cyl turbo- diesel
Max power/torque 133kW/430Nm
Gearbox five-speed automatic
4X4 System dual-range full-time (+2WD)
Kerb weight 1950kg
GVM 2900kg
Payload 950kg
Towing capacity 3100kg
GCM 5885kg
Fuel tank capacity 75 litres
ADR fuel cons 7.6 litres/100km

Mitsubishi Triton prices*
GLX $39,490
GLS $43,490
Exceed $47,490
*Automatic 4x4 Dual-Cab Pick-Ups only. Manual saves $2500.

Sum up
The Triton is a fun ute to drive and has the benefit of its Super Select 4x4 system, but more than anything else it represents great value. The entry-level dual-cab is way cheaper than anything else here, while the top-spec, bells-and-whistles Exceed comes at everyone else’s mid-spec prices.

Nissan Navara

Nissan’s new Navara offers a raft of technical features not found on other Japanese utes.

Nissan navara

The Navara NP300 (or D23) you see here is new from the ground up and represents a number of ‘firsts’ for a mainstream Japanese ute. Most notably the mid- and top-spec models have a Renault-sourced bi-turbo 2.3-litre diesel. All dual-cab variants also have a coil-sprung live axle at the rear, which replaces the leaf-spring live axle used in the previous Navara and generally across the ute market.

In designing the new NP300, Nissan has also bucked the trend to build a bigger ute, as the NP300 is slightly smaller and lighter than the D40 it replaces.

On-road performance, handling and ride
On road this engine is both responsive at low revs and punchy at higher revs and, combined with the seven-speed auto, it pushes the Navara towards the front of the pack in terms of straight-line performance.

The engine is also smooth and generally quiet except under load wherein it becomes surprisingly harsh and noisy, which is perhaps a reflection that this engine was originally designed for commercial applications in Renault delivery vans.

Nissan navara 4For its part, the seven-speed auto is slick and quick-shifting but often likes to pick up the taller ratios earlier and hang onto them longer, which can often have you switching to the gearbox’s ‘manual’ mode for better control in more demanding driving situations.

The Navara is generally a sweet handling ute, but the steering is heavy and slow, which takes the shine off its on-road demeanour. You may also think that its coil sprung rear end would ride more comfortably than the leaf-spring opposition, but that’s not the case given that it still has to manage similar payloads. What the five-link, coil-spring rear end does provide is better drive and stability through and out of bumpy and corrugated corners.

Off-road
The mid- and top-spec Navaras come standard with a rear locker and, like the lockers on the Ranger and Amarok, it doesn’t cancel the electronic traction control across the front axle when it’s engaged. Without the locker engaged, the Navara didn’t do too well on our set-piece climbs, as the traction control doesn’t seem as effective as some competition. But it did manage the more difficult climb with the locker in operation.

The Navara also rides a little low and was often the first to bottom out, and the odd-shaped bonnet does the Navara no favours in terms of driver vision.

Nissan navara 3On a more positive note, the shift protocols of the seven-speed work well off-road, which is a welcome change from the seven-speed auto that was behind the TDV6 550 in the Navara D40. Thanks to the seven-speed auto, there’s also a notably low crawl ratio.

Cabin and accommodation
The Navara has a modern car-like cabin that’s generally quiet regardless of speed and road surface, although the previously mentioned engine noise under load is an on-going NVH issue.

The cabin isn’t as big most here, which rear-seat passengers will especially notice, although the Navara’s rear seat does a better job of seating three than the Triton.
Surprisingly for an all-new design, there’s no reach adjustment for the steering wheel and no centre headrest for the rear seats.

The top-spec ST-X does, however, have a sunroof; a unique feature in this class of vehicle. While on all models, the centre panel of the rear window can be opened.

Practicalities
The Navara matches the best in class with its 3500kg tow rating and despite having a low GVM, its light weight helps redress the balance in terms of payloads. The ST-X also has adjustable tie-downs in the tub; a unique feature here.

Nissan navara 2The ST-X has relatively low profile tyres on its 18-inch wheels, but there’s no problem in swapping these from the 16s on the ST if you wish to fit more off-road suitable rubber.

Not so good is the fact that the engine’s air-take is adjacent to the top of the radiator (very un-Nissan-4x4-like!). As a result, the claimed wading depth is also now a low 450mm – something creek-crossing owners may want to address with an intake snorkel.

Also noteworthy here is the long 20,000km service interval.

Specs: Nissan Navara NP300 ST

Engine 2.3 litre 4-cyl bi-turbo- diesel
Max power/torque 140kW/450Nm
Gearbox seven-speed automatic
4X4 system dual-range part-time
Kerb weight 1865kg
GVM 2910kg
Payload 1045kg
Towing capacity 3500kg
GCM 5910kg
Fuel tank capacity 80 litres
ADR fuel cons 7.0 litres/100km

Nissan Navara NP300 prices*
ST $48,490
ST-X $54,490
* Automatic bi-turbo 4x4 Dual-Cab Pick-Ups only. Manual saves $2500.

Sum up
Given the Navaras many high-tech features, especially in terms of its powertrain, it’s surprising that it doesn’t offer some sort of full-time 4x4 to further press home this advantage. After all, the last-generation Pathfinder offered on-demand full-time 4x4, as does the Y62 Patrol. In many ways this new Navara is a few steps forward, but it’s also a few steps sideways.

Toyota Hilux

Toyota’s new Hilux gets more muscle despite a downsized engine capacity.

Toyota hilux 1

This eighth-generation Hilux is the first new Hilux in 10 years. It’s been more than six years and more than one-million kilometres in the making, and it won’t be replaced for another 10 years, all being well. It is a vital model for Toyota’s local and global ambitions.

Most significantly, the Hilux brings completely new powertrains, which will be shared with other models including the Fortuner and Prado. It also has a new chassis and new bodies. 

The key engine is an all-new 2.8-litre diesel that replaces the long serving 3.0-litre diesel used in the previous-generation Hilux and Prado until recently. Another new engine, a 2.4-litre diesel, as well as the carried-over petrol V6 are also available in Hilux 4x4 models. Both diesels are available with new six-speed manual and automatic gearboxes, while the V6 is auto-only.

On-road performance, handling and ride
Here we have a mid-spec SR, not that you’d know it given the black steel wheels and ‘work’ tub, which make it look more like a base-spec trade or farm ute. This is the cheapest way to get the new 2.8-litre engine in a dual-cab 4x4 (as the Workmate 4x4 comes with the smaller 2.4-litre engine). The SR would be more appropriately tagged the ‘Workmate 2.8’.

The new 2.8-litre diesel makes slightly more power than the 3.0-litre it replaces (130kW up from 126kW), but the maximum torque jumps from 360Nm to 450Nm when the engine is mated with the new six-speed auto, as tested here.

Toyota hilux 4The extra torque provides solid low-rpm response, but the pedal-to-the-metal performance isn’t anything special, and the Hilux is among the slowest vehicles here in term of its acceleration. In fact, it was the slowest over 400 metres. The new six-speed gearbox is no help. Compared to the previous five-speed, it merely adds a second overdrive ratio rather than tightening up the ratio spread.

Better news comes in the form of much improved refinement, as the new 2.8 is one of the smoother and quieter engines, while the new auto is also much improved in terms of shift quality.

The new Hilux also steers, rides and handles better than before and is one of the better utes, even if the unladen ride is still firmer than most here.

Off-road
More significant than the Hilux’s improved on-road performance, is a much better showing off-road. Rear wheel travel is now more than half a metre (520mm, in fact), an improvement of 67mm over the old Hilux, and probably the best in this company. It certainly feels like it…

The Hilux also has faster-acting and more aggressive traction control than the previous model, and all 2.8 dual-cab models now have a rear diff lock. However, engaging the locker cancels the traction control on both axles, not just the rear. Toyota claims this is in the interest of driveline durability.

Toyota hilux 3The Hilux has more extensive and robust underbody protection than before, which is part of its local development.

On our set-piece climbs, the Hilux was a stellar performer and cleared the most difficult climb with the rear locker. In fact, on some climbs it actually performed better without the locker, which is testament to the effectiveness of its traction control and to the rear locker cancelling front-axle traction control.

Cabin and accommodation
The Hilux’s cabin feels more passenger-car than commercial-vehicle thanks in part to a tablet-style multi-function touchscreen that dominates the dashboard on all models, Workmate included.

The cabin is not notably larger than the out-going model, which means it’s among the smaller here, although there is slightly more shoulder and headroom up front than before and slightly more rear-seat legroom. All 4x4 models now have tilt-and-reach steering-wheel adjustments, although some of our taller drivers found that they would prefer more reach adjustment.

Practicalities
In terms of ‘work’ numbers, the Hilux isn’t anything special on paper. It falls short of the best here in terms tow rating (3200kg with the auto 2.8; 3500kg with the manual 2.8), payloads and GVM/GCM.

That’s not to say the Hilux isn’t up for hard work, but it’s probably more a reflection of Toyota’s conservative, durability-first approach when quoting figures like these.

Toyota hilux 5This new Hilux also comes with the biggest range of factory accessories ever offered by Toyota, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the aftermarket won’t be far behind – all of which enhances its practicality even further.

Specs: Toyota Hilux SR

Engine 2.8-litre 4-cyl turbo- diesel
Max power/torque 130kW/450Nm
Gearbox six-speed automatic
4X4 system dual-range part-time
Kerb weight 2080kg
GVM 3000kg
Payload 920kg
Towing capacity 3200kg
GCM 5650kg
Fuel tank capacity 80 litres
ADR Fuel cons 8.5 litres/100km

Toyota Hilux prices*
SR $48,490
SR5 $55,990
SR5+ $57,990
*Automatic 2.8-litre 4x4 Dual-Cab Pick-Ups only. Manual saves $2000.

Sum up
Compared to the previous Hilux, this new Hilux is more refined on-road, much more capable off-road and can tow and carry more than before. For the money, it may not be all that well-equipped but, as ever, with Toyota the appeal runs far deeper than equipment lists.

Volkswagen Amarok

The Amarok is the oldest design here, but it’s still ahead of the game in many ways.

Volkswagen amarok 1

Volkswagen’s Amarok has been around in Australia since early 2011 and, aside from the introduction of the eight-speed automatic in 2012 and a tweak here and there with the model range, little has changed.

In most ways the Amarok follows standard ute design with a separate chassis, double-wishbone coil-sprung front suspension and a leaf-sprung live axle at the rear. But separating it from the pack is its 2.0-litre bi-turbo-diesel engine, eight-speed auto and single-range full-time 4x4 system. It also has a notably wide and spacious cabin and a big tub, which set it apart when it was released and is still a noteworthy advantage.

On-road performance, handling and ride
The Amarok has the smallest engine here, but thanks to its bi-turbo arrangement it offers decent performance – even if it’s not among the performance leaders. Better news comes in the form of its refinement, as it’s certainly the smoothest and quietest engine here.

The eight-speed auto is also the best gearbox in terms of shift quality, shift speed and shift timing, and combines with the engine to produce a powertrain that’s a cut above the rest.

Volkswagen amarok 2The Amarok’s chassis carries on the same polished performance and offers the sharpest steering and most positive road feel. The full-time 4x4 system adds extra security, grip and drive on more demanding road surfaces such as bumpy and wet bitumen and unsealed roads.

In many ways the Amarok feels more passenger car than ute, and buyers wishing to have even more of a passenger car and less of a ute ‘feel’ can opt for the softer-riding ‘Comfort’ springs at the rear.

Off-road
The Amarok’s single-range 4x4 system shouldn’t work in steep off-road conditions, but thanks to a relatively low first gear, courtesy of its eight-speed gearbox and the torque convertor’s high stall ratio, it actually works exceptionally well.

On our set-piece climbs the Amarok sat right up at the front of the field and cleared the toughest climb without needing its rear locker. And if you do wish to engage the rear locker, it doesn’t cancel the traction control on the front axle, which makes for even more effective off-road performance. Simply brilliant.

The self-locking and self-proportioning ‘automatic’ centre diff is also part of the secret, as it can direct the engine’s torque to the axle that can use it most, whereas all of the other utes spilt the torque 50/50, front to rear.

The Amarok’s 4x4 system is so clever and effective that you can go from cruising down the freeway at 110km/h straight on to a steep off-road climb, without touching a button or a lever.

Volkswagen amarok 4If you want, there is an ‘off-road’ button that activates the hill-descent control and tweaks the stability and traction control systems for off-road use, and there’s a separate switch to disable the stability control. The Amarok also comes with Pirelli Scorpion ATRs – a nice touch.

Cabin and accommodation
The Amarok has a spacious cabin that’s nicely finished and detailed, but also understated in typical German fashion.

The front seats are as good as it gets and the driver also has the benefit of tilt-and-reach steering wheel adjustment. The Amarok also has the widest rear seat here and the maximum five-star safety rating.

Practicalities
The Amarok’s 3000kg tow rating is the lowest here, although only 100kg less than the Triton and 200kg less than the Hilux – so it’s not really a make-or-break issue.

Countering that is its solid 3040kg GVM and competitive payload figures. If the optional ‘comfort’ springs are fitted at the rear, the GVM is reduced to 2820kg and the payloads down to around 800kg, which is still more than enough for most uses. A handy feature to note is a light to illuminate the tub.

Volkswagen amarok 3The VW draws its engine intake air just near the top of the radiator, and its official wading depth is 500mm – so a snorkel would be a handy addition.

Specs: Volkswagen Highline TDI420

Engine 2.0-litre 4-cyl bi-turbo- diesel
Max power/torque 132kW/420Nm
Gearbox eight-speed automatic
4X4 system single-range full-time
Kerb weight 2040kg
GVM 3040kg
Payload 1000kg
Towing capacity 3000kg
GCM 5840kg
Fuel tank capacity 80 litres
ADR fuel cons 8.3 litres/100km

Volkswagen Amarok prices*
Core $45,990
Trendline $49,990
Highline $55,490
Ultimate $65,290
*Automatic 4x4 Dual-Cab Pick-Ups only. Manual saves $3000

Sum up
The Amarok is a great on-road drive and is brilliantly effective off-road, so much so that nothing else offers such a wide spectrum of performance. But it’s also the most mechanically complex ute here, and VW dealers are thin on the ground away from the major population centres.

The verdict

Ranking these utes from one to eight was always going to be difficult, given that dual-cab 4x4s, by their very nature, can fulfil so many roles. That’s the reason why they are so popular.

On any given day all of these utes could be a farm truck, a tradie’s work vehicle, family transport, a 4x4 tourer or a 4x4 play thing. And over any period of ownership they may all perform most, if not all, of these roles. Whatever way you look at it, dual-cab 4x4s are arguably the most multi-functional vehicle anywhere in the world.

Weighing up the eight, we see them fall into three natural groups – two tail-enders, three middle rankers and three frontrunners.

Isuzu d-max 5The two tail-enders are the Colorado and the D-Max. These two share common chassis and body-shell DNA but differ very much in powertrains and all other details. Finishing eighth is the Colorado. The best thing the Colorado has going for it is pedal-to-the metal performance, which is the best here. There’s not much else.

Starting with the same basic platform, Isuzu has done a much better job with its D-Max, which has significant appeal thanks to its robust and well-proven powertrain and sharp pricing.

Mitsubishi triton 5The three middle rankers are a very diverse group and include the Navara, the Triton and the BT-50.

Nissan could have done much better with the Navara, but it falls short of expectation given that it’s a once-in-ten years offering. That’s not to say it’s a bad ute at all, just that it could have been so much better. It finishes sixth.

Although there’s not much in it, the Triton sneaks in front of the Navara into fifth thanks to its great value and the functionality of its Super Select 4x4 system. It’s also an engaging drive.

In fourth place is the BT-50. Like the closely related Ranger, the BT-50 has always been a good thing, but where Ford has kicked the game on with a serious revamp of the Ranger, Mazda hasn’t (beyond some small detail changes).

Volkswagen amarok 5That leaves the Amarok, the Ranger and the Hilux. The Amarok has long been our class champ but is now relegated to third place given it hasn’t changed while others have. In fact, it’s the oldest design here. The Amarok is still a brilliant thing, especially with the eight-speed automatic and the new base-model Core (as an auto) represents particularly good value.

Finishing second is the Ranger. Ford has done a five-star job with the Ranger revamp, improving it across the board. Where once the Ranger and BT-50 were a much-of-a-muchness to drive, the Ranger is now streets ahead in performance, refinement and off-road ability; all testament to the good work its engineers have done.

Toyota hilux 2Taking all before it is, however, the new Hilux. Toyota has done an exceptionally thorough job with the Hilux, especially in terms of its much-improved off-road performance and significantly improved on-road refinement. But more than anything else, the Hilux is the vehicle that you’re best off with if you want to go seriously ‘bush’, and isn’t that what it is all about?

New World Order

1. Toyota Hilux
2. Ford Ranger
3. Volkswagen Amarok
4. Mazda BT-50
5. Mitsubishi Triton
6. Nissan Navara
7. Isuzu D-Max
8. Holden Colorado

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