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There are work utes – you know, the single-cab, budget-focused models aimed at tradies specifically – and there are lifestyle utes, those that cost $60,000 to $70,000 that are more often seen with a dude in a suit driving them rather than a bloke in overalls.

In fact, we drove those types of utes in our eight ute mega test a while ago, and we’ve even done an extra-cab lifestyle ute comparison, too.

But this time around we wanted to get down and dirty with a few more affordable models, the workhorses aimed more at coin-conscious consumers who will use their utes as, well, utes first and foremost. A proper Monday to Friday vehicle, not so much a lifestyle weekender, but with a dual-cab body to ensure that there’s space in the back if you need it.

 

So, here it is: our budget dual-cab ute mega test.

We’ve assembled six pick-ups that combine budget-friendly pricing with off-road ability and five-seat practicality: the updated Holden Colorado LS, revamped Mitsubishi Triton GLS, the beefier Isuzu D-Max LS-M, the freshened-up Volkswagen Amarok Core, the slightly dearer Ford Ranger XLS, and the workman’s trusty steed – the Toyota HiLux Workmate.

We couldn’t get a Mazda BT-50 XT dual-cab, but we weren’t too concerned because nothing has changed with that model for a while now. We know it’s a solid ute, and it offers a solid option for buyers at that point in the range, too.

What was more disappointing was Nissan Australia wouldn’t allow us pre-launch access to one of its new, well-priced Navara SL models, despite having requested it more than three months ago. The updated Navara makes its official media debut next week.

Nissan has stated publicly that the Series II Navara range – with its renewed rear suspension supposedly offering improved stability – has been tuned based on extensive local testing, so it was frustrating the company couldn’t see the benefit of exposing its vehicle to our rigorous testing procedure.

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For the vehicles we did assemble, there was still something of a gap in terms of price and spec (see below), but all of them were the types of utes that bosses might buy for their staff, or sole traders might choose for their own small businesses because of their inherent practicality and pricing.

In fact, while they may not have the bling and features of their lifestyle focused compatriots, these lower-spec dual-cabs make up a fair percentage of sales across their respective ranges: the Colorado LS (40 per cent), Triton GLS (36 per cent), HiLux Workmate (seven per cent), D-Max LS-M (14 per cent) and Amarok Core (40 per cent in the previous iteration – and that could grow even more with the updated model’s Core range expanding), while the Ranger XLS accounts for 11 per cent of sales – we asked for a lower-spec XL with the same engine, but Ford couldn’t get us one.

Whether it’s pricing, practicality or punchiness that you value most, this comprehensive test with loaded and unloaded driving, towing, unsealed and four-wheel-drive testing and country and urban driving, will aim to tell you which ute is best if you’re on a budget.

Helping get to that outcome will be our panel of five expert judges: myself, Trent Nikolic, Paul Maric, James Wong and CarAdvice comparisons editor, Curt Dupriez. Stay tuned for our thoughts throughout.

 

Value

2017_dual-cab_ute_comparison_toyota_hilux_isuzu_d-max_ford_ranger_volkswagen_amarok_mitsubishi_triton_holden_colorado_card3-96Our six test utes arranged from least expensive (left) to most expensive (right).

A lot of the list pricing you see here could well be out of date or irrelevant depending on when you read this – mainly because these types of utes are always seeing discounts and incentives added to help keep the numbers ticking over, both in terms of sales logged and to get potential buyers through the door. They might lure you in with a cheap ute, but they’ll try and up-sell you to one that costs more, naturally.

We’ll go on the current list pricing of each, and the current sale cost of each, too. We aimed for sub-$50K for this, but, as stated, Ford couldn’t get us the right ute.

Instead we had the Ranger XLS Special Edition, which has a list price of $49,990 for the manual and $52,190 for the automatic (all prices listed are before on-road costs), making the auto version we have the most expensive offering on test, and a bit dearer than the standard XLS most buyers will probably shop for ($48,865 for the manual; $51,065 for the auto). Ford is advertising deals on the manual model XLS for $48,990 drive-away.

The facelifted Isuzu D-Max LS-M we have here saw a price hike as part of its update, and it comes in as the second-most-expensive here in this spec. The manual version starts at $46,400 while the auto we have here is $48,500. Not keen on the changes this updated model brings? You can get the pre-facelift model – in LS-M auto guise – for $42,190 drive-away.


“They might lure you in with a cheap ute, but they’ll try and up-sell you to one that costs more, naturally.”


The updated Holden Colorado LS has a list price of $44,990 for the manual and $47,190 for the auto – at the time of writing the brand was offering a drive-away deal of $49,759 for the manual, or $52,069 for the auto. But hey, the LTZ – which is two spec levels higher – was on its website at $49,990 drive-away, and in its previous iteration we saw prices as low as $36,990 on the road for the LS automatic.

While the Volkswagen Amarok may carry a slightly more premium badge than its rivals, the brand has been aggressive in this segment. The Amarok TDI400 Core dual-cab ute manual is listed at $43,490, while the TDI420 (with some extra torque and two extra gears in its auto ‘box) comes in at $46,490. At the time of writing VW was offering the previous version of the Core manual for just $39,990 drive-away—and the auto could be had for the same money.

At the budget end of the scale – but the second-from-top model in its range – is the Mitsubishi Triton GLS, the 2017 version of which has a list price of $41,500 for the manual or $44,000 for the automatic we’ve got here. At the time of writing, the drive-away price for the just-updated manual model was $38,990 and just $41,490 for the automatic – that’s some super cheap ute-ing.

The lowest list price of all of the utes on test is that of the Toyota HiLux Workmate – that’s because we’ve got the manual, listed at $43,990. We wanted the $45,990 auto version, but alas, there wasn’t one on the company’s fleet. As for deals on this bad boy, at the time of writing the company was doing 2016-plate models with free on-road costs, while there was also a Primary Producers’ deal with a free bullbar.

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As for equipment, these six aren’t rolling with long lists of fancy kit, but we’re not exactly talking rubber floors and vinyl seats… well, actually, we do have rubber floors in all but the Mitsubishi and Ford, and there’s cloth on all the seats.

Each has Bluetooth phone and audio streaming as well as auxiliary and USB and connectivity (the Triton has an additional HDMI port and a second USB jack, while the Isuzu has three USB ports, two of which are for charging only). The Ranger is the only one that misses out on a touchscreen media system despite being the most expensive ute here – instead it makes do with a tiny 4.2-inch colour screen surrounded by an array of buttons.

The rest have touchscreens, with the Amarok (6.5-inch), Colorado and Triton (both 7.0-inch) offering the latest in smartphonery with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity – but the Colorado’s system wasn’t working on test, which was frustrating. The D-Max has a new 7.0-inch touchscreen in this spec, and the HiLux retains its 6.1-inch screen. None of these utes have inbuilt sat nav included, but all have a rear-view camera fitted, and the VW, Holden and Ford all have rear parking sensors, too.

The majority of these utes have 16-inch alloy wheels – only the Mitsubishi has 17-inch alloys, while the Toyota has its tough-as-guts 17-inch steelies.

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As for the tubs, the Amarok and D-Max feature standard tub liners in this spec, while the D-Max, Triton and Ranger also have chrome sports bars – the latter of which is fitted as part of the Special Edition pack, which also sees it fitted with a tub-liner, side-steps and a genuine tow-bar. Ford says the value of those bits is $4900, and so if you can get an XLS SE, it’s pretty well stacked for the spend.

The Colorado and HiLux have steel rear window protection, where the Amarok misses out on that, and the Mitsubishi is the only one that comes standard with a soft tonneau cover. The Ranger and D-Max miss out on the handy lower step bumpers the rest of the utes here have. We requested all vehicles on test with a tow-bar: more on load spaces and towing to come.

Side-steps are fitted to the Triton and Ranger (as part of the Special Edition pack), meaning parents might need to give their kids a hand to get into the back seats. We’ll touch more on the cockpits in the interior section below.

Only the Triton has cleaner, crisper LED headlights, and it, along with the Colorado and D-Max, has LED daytime running lights, too – the others have halogen daytime lights.

Because these are likely to be work utes more than anything else, downtime is a real purchase consideration, as are running costs for servicing and maintenance.

2017_dual-cab_ute_comparison_toyota_hilux_isuzu_d-max_ford_ranger_volkswagen_amarok_mitsubishi_triton_holden_colorado_card3-98Our six test utes arranged in terms of servicing costs, from least expensive (left) to most expensive (right).

These utes have varying degrees of ownership support on offer, with the Holden, Ford and Toyota offering warranty cover of three years/100,000km, where the VW lifts that to three years/unlimited kilometres. Mitsubishi backs the Triton with a five-year/100,000km warranty, and the best long-term plan here is the Isuzu, with a new five-year/130,000km plan.

There are capped-price service programs for each, with varying maintenance requirements that could help or hinder you as a buyer, depending on your vehicle use.

We say that because the Toyota requires maintenance every six months or 10,000km, the most regular intervals of these six vehicles. The Holden requires its visits every nine months or 15,000km, while the Isuzu has 12-month/10,000km intervals. The others have more helpful 12 month/15,000km servicing steps.

That said, only Ford and Holden have lifetime capped-price plans, where the Volkswagen’s cover is six years, the Isuzu’s is five and the Toyota and Mitsubishi are three-year deals.

We calculated the cost over three years for each of these pick-ups and found the Isuzu to be the most affordable at $860 before consumables, followed by the Holden ($1047), Mitsubishi ($1240), Ford ($1385), Toyota ($1440) and Volkswagen ($1558). It’s fair to say we weren’t that surprised about the Amarok being the dearest to maintain, but it was a bit of a shock to see the HiLux as the second-most expensive.

Factoring in servicing and purchase price, our judges felt there were two standouts here, the VW and the Mitsubishi. And while the Isuzu’s service costs are low, its purchase cost for what you get felt a little high, and that in part came down to its cabin.

 

Interior

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The interiors of these work-focused utes aren’t quite as utilitarian as you might expect. Well, some of them aren’t.

Like previously mentioned, there are rubber floors in four of the six utes here, but the Mitsubishi clearly felt the most passenger-focused. From its two-tone plastics to its digital dual-zone climate control system – it’s the only ute here with that – the Triton GLS offered beyond what we’d expected for this type of money.

The infotainment system with DAB radio and extended smartphone connectivity was judged to be the quickest to load, but its screen – which is easy to learn – was found to be a bit dull in terms of its colours, while the lack of a volume knob is a bit annoying when you’re driving, and its voice control system is tedious. Below the screen are the aforementioned climate buttons, which offered better tactility than the knobs/dials of the other five vehicles here.

2017_dual-cab_ute_comparison_toyota_hilux_isuzu_d-max_ford_ranger_volkswagen_amarok_mitsubishi_triton_holden_colorado_card1-74Pictured above: Mitsubishi Triton GLS

It wasn’t all peaches and cream, though. The Triton’s back seat has less headroom than just about everything else here, and the width across the cabin isn’t great – with two in the rear we found it to be the most comfortable back seat, but three meant the middle person would have been unhappy after some time. Its knee and toe room was judged to be adequate for our six-foot-ish trio of rear-seat testers, but the experience with three abreast was “very tight”.

Kids in the back of the Triton might appreciate the dark window tint on hot days, but the high beltline mightn’t be ideal if they’re prone to carsickness. At least they’ll find it easy enough to get in both this ute and the Ranger due to those sidesteps, where the higher ride height of the HiLux in particular means parents will likely have to load their little ones in manually.

On the topic of children, none of these utes have rear-seat air vents, and only the D-Max misses out on ISOFIX child-seat anchor points, where all of them have top-tether points with varying degrees of ease to access. The HiLux is the only ute that doesn’t allow you to lower the seatback down, meaning you loop your child-seat strap through a top loop above the outboard seats through to a hook behind the middle seat. It’s not as complex as it sounds, we promise.

2017_dual-cab_ute_comparison_toyota_hilux_isuzu_d-max_ford_ranger_volkswagen_amarok_mitsubishi_triton_holden_colorado_card1-77Pictured above: Holden Colorado LS

All but the Triton have some form of folding seat base to allow for storage of items if it’s raining (we assume the standard tonneau cover accounts for that in the Mitsubishi). The rear seats of the VW, Holden and Isuzu fold up in a 60:40 fashion, and the Toyota and Ford’s rear seat-bases go up in one movement, making them a bit heavier to operate than the others.

It was not so squeezy in the back of the Volkswagen Amarok, which has the widest cabin in the class by some margin but comparatively lacks knee-room. Its headroom was best on test, and Curt said the Amarok “would suit three big blokes on the back”.

Its media system was considered the best all-rounder by our judges, and the cabin presentation and comfort meant we couldn’t help but feel it was a close fight between Triton and Amarok, with daylight between them and the other four.

“The story here is that the second-cheapest and third-cheapest feel the most expensive inside,” Trent said.

2017_dual-cab_ute_comparison_toyota_hilux_isuzu_d-max_ford_ranger_volkswagen_amarok_mitsubishi_triton_holden_colorado_card1-86Pictured above: Volkswagen Amarok Core

Of media systems, Curt (and the rest of us) thought the Ford system was poor for the expenditure. That little screen isn’t just hard to control and read while you’re driving, the camera system was judged to be inferior to the others because the display is so small.

There is a zoom function, which we found handy when backing up to our trailer, but as Curt said: “It’s a practical shortcoming, not a bells-and-whistles shortcoming.”

The other issue with the Ford system is load times. I found it frustrating waiting for the screen to catch up with commands, but like the rest of the crew, I found some positives in the Ford’s cabin.

2017_dual-cab_ute_comparison_toyota_hilux_isuzu_d-max_ford_ranger_volkswagen_amarok_mitsubishi_triton_holden_colorado_card1-80Pictured above: Ford Ranger XLS 

Its seat comfort and cushioning, like the Amarok, was found to be better than the rest, and space was on the better end of the scale for head, leg and toe room.

The 230V charging powerpoint is a handy extra for keeping your laptop or hair straightener (girls drive utes, too, you know) at the ready, and it’s the only ute here to offer that.

It was said the Toyota felt like a smaller ute as soon as you sat in, and that was true of the back seat as well, but it was found to be a little more spacious than the Triton in all respects.

2017_dual-cab_ute_comparison_toyota_hilux_isuzu_d-max_ford_ranger_volkswagen_amarok_mitsubishi_triton_holden_colorado_card1-83Pictured above: Toyota HiLux Workmate

The HiLux’s media system was decent in terms of load times and easy to learn, but the fact you can’t operate some parts of the Bluetooth system at speed, like choosing a contact to dial, or dialling using the number pad, is a massive issue for business owners. Some of us thought the fact the frame on the tablet-like screen was so big meant the actual screen itself should have filled it out more, too.

We weren’t fans of the lack of driver information on offer in the HiLux, either. The screen in between the dials lacks necessary info on fuel use, and while the media screen has a fuel use table, it only shows you a figure for your best consumption. The Mitsubishi’s driver info screen was found to lack some detail, too. And when it came to digital speedometers, only the Volkswagen and Holden featured that tech.

“The lack of a digital speedo could be a dealbreaker for some tradies,” Paul said. “Imagine losing your licence for a small speeding infringement in Victoria.”

Trent agreed. “You could lose your business, too, if you’re a tradie.”

2017_dual-cab_ute_comparison_toyota_hilux_isuzu_d-max_ford_ranger_volkswagen_amarok_mitsubishi_triton_holden_colorado_card1-89Pictured above: Isuzu D-Max LS-M

The Colorado’s driver screen, on the other hand, offered comprehensive detail, and it married in decently with the rest of the design of the cabin, too. The updated model’s chunkier plastic finishes certainly made it stand out, and it also was found to offer good space.

In the back our testers felt the Colorado “was the best compromise between legroom and width”, while the media system was found to be quick to connect and load despite our issues with it connecting to CarPlay.

On passenger-friendliness, Colorado and the Amarok were the only utes here with auto up/down windows all around; the rest had auto up/down driver’s windows only.

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The tidal wave of hard plastic in the Isuzu D-Max meant its cabin was judged to be the most dour and drab of all, with almost no effort made to make the updated model appear any different to the model that debuted six years ago.

Not only is the plastic pretty much all the same colour, its varied textured finishes don’t add any appeal, rather they detract, and not one surface is overly pleasant to the touch.

The space on offer, though, was similar to the Colorado, with better knee-room than the rest but average toe-room.

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The Isuzu’s media system was judged to be the worst here. It can be slow to load and has to re-load things like your music every time you choose a new album. It looks, and feels, aftermarket.

All six utes offer decent storage options for loose items around the cabin. The D-Max and Toyota have dual gloveboxes, the Amarok has lined door bins all around (Colorado has front lined door-caddies), and each ute has storage in the doors for bottles in the front and rear. The cupholder situation is fine, too, but the Toyota only has one between the seats where the rest have two, and the D-Max has clever pop-out holsters near the vents. There are dual map pockets in the Mitsubishi, Toyota and D-Max, while the Ford has one and the VW and Holden miss out.

The Ranger and D-Max miss out on steering reach adjustment (all have tilt adjust). On the topic of tillers, all but the HiLux and Ranger have leather/pleather steering wheels, where those two have unpleasant plastic units. And it has to be noted that Toyota leaving the voice control button on the steering wheel – even though voice control isn’t fitted to this specification – is just poor. The VW’s steering wheel was found to be the most premium feeling and with the best button layout, followed by the Triton.

All except the Amarok featured fairly flimsy feeling sun-visors, and only the Amarok had dual vanity mirrors.

“Sometimes you’ve gotta make sure you look respectable before you go for your next quote or job, right?” I posited to the crew.

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2017_dual-cab_ute_comparison_toyota_hilux_isuzu_d-max_ford_ranger_volkswagen_amarok_mitsubishi_triton_holden_colorado_card3-43Pictured above: Some dodgy plastic trim in the Ford Ranger XLS

All except the Colorado have sunglasses storage in the head-lining: the Holden has a parking ticket holder, and we’d suggest you don’t pull too hard on it – we did and the entire lighting assembly fell out of the ceiling.

On the topic of things not being as good as they should, the plastics on the Colorado’s dash looked the part, but the vent surrounds were poorly fitted and the entire dash-top moved under light pressure.

It wasn’t the only one with fit-and-finish failings: there were some elements that were downright rubbish in these trucks.

“The biggest talking point so far is just how underachieving these things are for what you’re paying,” Curt said. I agreed, suggesting: “Some of the interiors are terrible for updated cars”.

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2017_dual-cab_ute_comparison_toyota_hilux_isuzu_d-max_ford_ranger_volkswagen_amarok_mitsubishi_triton_holden_colorado_card3-47Pictured above: Our Isuzu D-Max LS-M had some fit and finish issues

The D-Max, worryingly, had a loose-fitting passenger airbag cover, as well as a dual glovebox lid that flexed more than our beloved founder Tony Crawford in front of a mirror, not to mention a central plastic section that moved a few centimetres fore and aft, and air-con controls that felt like they had zero effect on what came out of the vents.

In fact, we tested the D-Max’s HVAC to see if it could do anything but cool the cabin, and it struggled, and the dial controlling the flow of air had no effect whatsoever on the direction of the icy cold breeze.

“The Colorado’s interior looks good, but the plastics aren’t – if you don’t touch anything, the Colorado is better than the D-Max,” James remarked.

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The Ford also had some poor gaps for its interior plastics and some dodgy trim selection, and sill guards we could almost guarantee would fall off if you used the back seat regularly, such was the flimsiness of their fitment.

“The Ranger is far more expensive, you just can’t excuse that,” James commented. “It feels overpriced.”

The Toyota’s fit and finish was considerably better, but we continue to question the use of hard, non-retractable grab handles; with tall occupants in the rear, an off-road adventure could feasibly end up with a hospital visit.

Now, we don’t often bring hospitals up, but in lieu of a better segue, I’ll run with it. Let’s talk about crash protection, because it’s a big interior issue.

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Every dual-cab ute in this test except the Volkswagen Amarok has curtain airbag protection for rear-seat occupants. It is taken as a given that when you’re spending this much money on a vehicle, it will have the bare minimum for airbag coverage – but the Amarok doesn’t.

We’ve made quite a deal of this in the past, and we continue to think it’s an indictment on the brand that it doesn’t offer this equipment – I mean, a Great Wall Steed has curtain airbags standard.

No matter how good the interior of the Amarok is – and it’s pretty much better than everything else here – we can’t award it the top prize in this element of the test.

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You mightn’t care. You mightn’t think airbags are essential. You mightn’t plan to use your back seat all that much, or you might just trust that the safety cell will hold up in the event of an accident. It doesn’t matter.

Collectively, our judges decided that we’d penalise the Amarok for lacking this kit, agreeing it must place sixth out of sixth for this criterion.

As Paul put it: “A good infotainment system isn’t going to save your life. Airbags will.”

Have a listen to our Bluetooth audio test, below.

 

Road manners

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This part of the test focused on the way each of these utes dealt with urban, highway and country driving with nothing in the tray. The following two sections will address laden driving and towing, and then we’ll look at off-road ability.

First, let’s look at the respective drivetrains, starting with the smallest capacity engine here – the Amarok’s 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel four-cylinder. It produces 132kW of power (at 4000rpm) and 420Nm of torque (at 1750rpm), with its permanent all-wheel-drive system utilising an eight-speed automatic gearbox without a low-range transfer case, but it does have a rear diff lock – more on that later. 

Next up the size chart is the HiLux, with its Workmate-spec 2.4-litre turbo diesel producing 110kW of power (at 3400rpm) and 400Nm of torque (1600-2000rpm). We had the six-speed manual, and it has a traditional 2H/4H/4L system.

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With an identical engine capacity, the Mitsubishi Triton does a little more, as its 2.4-litre turbo diesel four-cylinder churns out 133kW (at 3500rpm) and 430Nm (at 2500rpm). It has a five-speed automatic and Mitsubishi’s Super Select II off-road system with 2H, 4H, 4H centre diff locked, and 4L centre diff locked.

The Holden Colorado bats above its weight with its 2.8-litre four-cylinder pumping out 147kW (at 3600rpm) and 500Nm (2000-2200rpm), enough to make it the gruntiest four-pot in the class. The Colorado we had was fitted with a six-speed auto, and it has a simple 2H, 4H, 4L off-road system but with an electric rear diff locking system that works using the brakes.

The upgraded 3.0-litre turbo diesel in the Isuzu D-Max has seen it retain the same 130kW (at 3600rpm) but its torque has been bumped to 430Nm (2000-2200rpm), and it has a new six-speed automatic in lieu of the existing five-cog unit. It has a similarly simple off-road dial system as the Colorado.

The largest capacity engine here doesn’t have the most grunt – the Ford Ranger’s 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel has a Colorado-equalling 147kW of power (at a lower 3000rpm) but falls short on torque, with 470Nm (1750-2500rpm). It has a six-speed auto and a similar off-road dial selector, but with a proper locking rear diff like the VW.

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Our first test was urban driving, four-up, tray empty – and there were some quick conclusions drawn.

The Toyota HiLux was found to be uncomfortably sharp over bumps, with judges stating it “picked up most lumps and bumps” and felt “bouncy over speed humps at the rear”. This is something we’ve reported before in all specs of the HiLux, so it came as no surprise.

“The HiLux – I genuinely liked it, but I’ve got to score it down because its ride is so fierce,” Curt announced, justifiably.

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Its steering was praised for being linear and well weighted, and it was found to be quiet and well insulated from engine noise at low speeds.

That engine was grunty enough despite its torque deficit, revving cleanly but its tall gearing meant it fell into a hole whenever you upshifted. The shift was fine, but the clutch wasn’t – the take-up point was right at the top end of the pedal, making it hard to judge at times.

The Holden Colorado’s locally tuned suspension and steering made it feel considerably more settled around town. It was “nowhere near as sharp over bumps” and it also settled much quicker and cornered with less body roll than the HiLux.

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The engine of the Colorado was another talking point – although a bit more prone to vibration, it offered strong pulling power and smooth gearshifts in the urban jungle.

The Isuzu D-Max’s new engine was noisier but smoother to rev around town, with its wallop of torque quite linear.

Isuzu says the new engine takes the old powerplant’s 380Nm torque and spreads it out (from 1700-3500rpm), while there’s a peak power point midway earlier in the band. Its six-speed auto seemed fairly well sorted around town.

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What wasn’t as good was its suspension, with the rear feeling “bouncy” and “more jiggly than the Holden”.

The Mitsubishi was also criticised for its skittish ride, with our judges stating the front and rear suspension “felt disconnected”, meaning the balance and compliance could have been better.

Its steering was also quite slow, with a lot of turns lock-to-lock by comparison.

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Still, its engine pulled with honesty and was quiet down low in the rev range, though there was a touch of low-rev lag, and it got noisier the harder it spun.

Ford’s Ranger offered good cabin insulation, a comfortable ride and superb steering – light at low speeds making it easier to park while adding weight as pace increased to ensure confidence.

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The engine was a bit noisy – we’ve said that before! – and its throttle sensitivity can make it hard to drive smoothly.

While it offered good shove off the line, it ran out of puff sooner than its competitors.

The Amarok’s drivetrain didn’t run out of puff, mainly because it had so many gears at its disposal that it felt like it wouldn’t stop upshifting. It did so smoothly, and there was less noise intrusion in the cabin than all of its rivals around town.

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Still, it was on the sharp side with nothing in the tray over speed humps, and bounced a bit after potholes, too.

Its steering, though, like the Ranger, was found to be excellent in terms of weighting and consistency, albeit a bit too hefty at low speeds when parking.

At higher speeds with a sole occupant, some of the utes fared a little better, others a little worse.

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The Isuzu’s new gearbox was called into question because it is quite active once you’re between 80-110km/h. It’ll hold speed fine, but encounter a hill and it can “jump up and down, and fall into a hole either side”, as Curt put it. On top of that, I reckoned it was the “most truck-like sounding engine here”, and everyone agreed.

It wasn’t the noisiest on test, though: at the same speed (80km/h) on the same part of coarse-chip road, we tested with a decibel meter the differences between the lot, and the Colorado came out as the loudest at 89dB, while the rest were down in the 85-87dB range.

The D-Max’s suspension felt solid at speed but a bit slow to settle, and its steering lacked accuracy and was heavy and inconsistent. We liked its gradient braking system which used the engine to help slow it down on descents, though.

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The Mitsubishi also struggled – not its engine, that was fine – but its suspension felt a bit sharp and jittery. Its steering wasn’t as quick as some others, making for more effort in the bends.

The Triton’s seats were a highlight, with good softness and support.

Another with good seats was the Amarok, and while the body of the ute moved around a bit with an empty tray, it felt solid on the road at higher speeds, with light but accurate steering.

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The small capacity engine wasn’t short of performance on the open road, and while it was a bit busy shifting gears from city to highway speed, there wasn’t any issue with making use of its grunt.

The Amarok wasn’t as settled as the Ranger or Colorado at the rear. The latter offered very good body control, good comfort and fine steering.

The Colorado’s gearbox was inoffensive, and its torque ensured there were no complaints.

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We tested out whether all that torque meant the Holden was quicker, and it was, shading all of its rivals by more than a second from 0-100km/h (and more than seven seconds compared to the manual HiLux).

The other well settled ute was the Ford, with its softer suspension offering good comfort with an empty tray. Its steering was the highlight, though, with much better weighting and consistency making it feel like an SUV to drive.

The slowpoke Toyota also had great high-speed steering accuracy – as Curt said, “it was easy to link corners together and it tracks true, too”.

Higher speeds made it settle down a bit in terms of sharpness over bumps, and the engine’s power mode button certain made a difference when accelerating or dealing with steep inclines.

 

Loaded up

Some people work their utes hard, and most who are shopping in this part of the market certainly want to know their truck can deal with a bit of weight in the tray. So we thought we’d test them out with some help from our friends at Crown Forklifts.

They sorted out a fork and a 750-kilogram weight on a narrow pallet to see which of these six utes dealt best with that much mass over the back axle.

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Check out this table to see each ute’s payload and the percentage of suspension sag we observed upon loading up the tray with weight.

We calculated this by measuring the height at the front and rear wheel arches before and after the load was put in to establish the effect it had on the chassis balance.

As the table below shows, some utes – based simply on physics – coped better with the load than others, and the apparent strain on the chassis of each pick-up was noticeable by the way they sat with 750kgs on board.

Ute Payload Suspension sag (rear) / lift (front)
Ford Ranger 1085kg -7.27% / +1.23%
Holden Colorado 1075kg -8.75% / +2.76%
Isuzu D-Max 1025kg -7.65% / +1.38%
Mitsubishi Triton  950kg -8.42% / +2.59%
Toyota HiLux 955kg -8.06% / +1.70% 
Volkswagen Amarok 1020kg -8.23% / +0.68%

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Securing such heft was something that should have been straightforward. Most dual-cab pick-ups have tie-down points mounted around the tub to ensure that strapping in a load is easy. Not so.

The Toyota lacked any internal tie-down hooks or eyelets, meaning that we had to attach load straps to the outer high-mounted hooks to attempt to stop it from sliding around in the tray. That didn’t work, and by the end of our loop the majority of the mass was well aft of the ideal location.

Toyota argues those who lug pallets will likely choose a cab-chassis: fair point, but to not have tie-down points in the internal load area is a sin by class standards, and the company should be held to account.

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The other concerns we found while loading were that the Mitsubishi’s hooks bent under force – not the most confidence-inspiring outcome when tethering a load – while the tie-downs of the D-Max appeared to be attached to the tub-liner, rather than the tub itself.

That said, we managed to secure the load (with differing degrees of success) before driving a replicated urban loop around Sydney’s south with just the driver and the load, fuel tank full, tyre pressures set for hauling.

The weight was noticeable in some utes more than others. The brakes of the Amarok, for instance, had quite a long pedal while still pulling up adequately, and the stoppers on the Ranger exhibited some ABS tendencies – we could feel the pedal beef up under foot and the front brakes shudder somewhat, and it was the only vehicle to do that. The brakes of the HiLux were a standout – quick to respond with excellent pedal feel.

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All six hauled the mass without too much fuss in terms of engine performance, and the HiLux’s power mode helped out in that regard, despite it feeling up to the task even without the button pressed – we could still tell, though, that it wasn’t as torquey as the rest of its rivals.

The Mitsubishi felt a little sluggish when taking off from a standstill, where the Amarok was “very rapid” in its response to sudden throttle inputs at speed, and the Colorado “offered effortless torque and very smooth gearshifts”.

We found the D-Max to be loud but strong, with fine acceleration and gearshifts that were smooth enough.

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Composure was our next consideration: the Amarok displayed excellent body control but its steering lightened up a touch on the straight ahead; the Ranger’s very well sorted suspension and super steering gave it the tick; and – surprisingly, given how sharp it was empty – the HiLux struck a nice balance, with accurate steering and decent comfort.

The Colorado exhibited quite a lot of vibration under load, and its suspension picked up a lot more of the little bumps.

The Colorado’s steering was much lighter than the D-Max’s, which had heavy weighting and was hard to judge, but it was more resolved over jittery surfaces. Finally, the Triton felt floaty and wobbled due to the weight but its steering remained tactile.

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If we had to run around with that much weight in the tray day-to-day, the Amarok would be the one we’d opt for, narrowly pipping the HiLux – because being able to secure a low load is important, particularly if you want to keep your tub in decent condition.

Over the laden and unladen loops around town and in the country, we saw fuel consumption figures that suggested that more torque is better, no matter the situation.

The Holden was the best on test, recording an average of 10.4 litres per 100 kilometres, followed by the Mitsubishi (10.8L/100km), then the Toyota (11.5L/100km).

Next was the Isuzu (11.6L/100km), and the Ford (11.9L/100km), leaving the Volkswagen in last spot at 12.4L/100km – maybe that smaller engine having to work harder could be an issue for some buyers, then.

 

Towing

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The next part of our test replicated what some lifestyle owners might do – tow a boat – or what some workers may well do every day, in towing a trailer weighing about two tonnes.

The helpful guys at GRE Marine literally hooked us up with a Northbank 600 Cuddy sports fishing boat atop a twin axle braked trailer, with a combined mass of 1900kg – so, not really enough to challenge them, you might think?

Not necessarily. Our test loop for this was with four on board including our resident towing expert Chris Beattie from Club Marine at the helm (so to speak), and we negotiated a parking lot, a hilly highway-speed road, an urban turnaround and a return run.

Here’s a run-down on how these utes stack up for towing:

Ute Towing capacity (unbraked / braked) Gross combination mass
Ford Ranger 750kg / 3500kg 6000kg
Holden Colorado 750kg / 3500kg 6000kg
Isuzu D-Max 750kg / 3500kg 5950kg
Mitsubishi Triton  750kg / 3100kg 5885kg
Toyota HiLux 750kg / 3200kg 5850kg
Volkswagen Amarok 750kg / 3000kg 5550kg

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It wasn’t an excessive loop, but it was intensive test and illustrated the differences between the drivetrains of each of these trucks brilliantly.

Chris had his foot flat to the floor in the D-Max, which held gears a little longer than expected, while under full throttle in the HiLux, he had issues with the gearing at pace – holding it in third and wanting to select fourth meant risking a loss of momentum.

The Triton held gears but was a bit clumsy in its attempts to maintain momentum up hill – Chris said that for a five-speed auto, it still seemed to shift a lot. The Amarok didn’t require quite as much throttle input because the gearbox was working harder, with more gears at its disposal, to hold speed. “The beauty is, it’s finding the torque band,” Chris said.

The two top drivetrain performers were the Ranger and Colorado. The Ford, with its eager throttle sensitivity, felt like it was doing it easier than the others, but then wouldn’t downshift as we made our way up the steepest part.

Chris remarked that “it should be doing it easier than it is, given the size of the motor”.

The Holden made light work of heavy weight – in fact, where all others either maintained speed or dropped back, the Colorado continued to gather pace, and Chris claimed it to be “effortless”, feeling “like it hasn’t struggled” because “it has much more grunt”.

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Its performance wasn’t at that big of a cost:

Fuel use while towing:

Isuzu D-Max – 18.8L/100km
Holden Colorado – 19.3L/100km
Ford Ranger – 19.8L/100km
Toyota HiLux – 20.1L/100km
Mitsubishi Triton – 20.2L/100km
Volkswagen Amarok – 21.2L/100km

It’s not only the drivetrain that feels the weight behind the vehicle, but the suspension and steering, too. And Chris reckoned the Triton felt well balanced, while the Ranger felt more like it was being bustled a bit by the weight despite remaining “steady”.

While the Holden was strong for performance, it was a little light at the rear end, and its steering was a bit heavier than Chris would have expected.

The Toyota’s sharp ride again raised its head, but Chris reckoned that helped in its connectedness to the road, and it also steered quite faithfully. The D-Max also felt a little flustered, with the trailer shunting the ute forward under braking at times and exhibiting “a hint of instability” at speed.

The VW, despite offering the best occupant comfort, was found to offer steering that was too light and vague, “not to a concerning degree, but it feels like it could wander”.

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The other aspect this test allowed us to judge was rear-view cameras.

Our initial impression about the Ranger’s screen size being an issue proved correct, with Trent stating that backing up wasn’t as easy “even though there’s a line to line up the trailer” and while the zoom-in function helped (hit a button below the screen and it shows you a close-up of the tow-ball) it was still less simple than some of the others.

The Amarok’s low-mounted fish-eye lens offered “a really good view of the tow-ball”, while the cameras of the Isuzu and Toyota were also good, the latter impressing because of the line in the centre of the screen that allows you to reverse and line up the hitch perfectly.

Even the offset position of the Mitsubishi’s camera didn’t bother us too much, because it was high-mounted and angled down nicely. The best camera, though, was the Colorado’s, because its display was “clearest by a country mile” with a broad, crisp image.

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With all that said and done, Chris summarised the Colorado would be his pick of these utes if he was recommending one to someone who’d be doing a lot of towing.

 

Off-road

If you work in the country there’s every chance you’ll come across rubbish roads, and – who knows – you might even have to do some four-wheel-driving to get to your worksite if you’re a tradie.

Thankfully, all six of these utes have four-wheel-drive functionality to help them in those sorts of situations, but the off-road ability of each differs.

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In terms of physical capabilities, here’s a run-down:

Ute Clearance Wading Diff Lock Approach Departure Ramp Over Wheelbase Tyres
Ford Ranger 232mm 800mm Yes, manual 28 27 24 3220mm Bridgestone Dueler H/T 255/70/16
Holden Colorado 215mm 600mm Yes, electronic 28 22 22 3096mm Bridgestone Dueler H/T 245/70/16
Isuzu D-Max 225mm 500mm No 30 22.7 22.4 3095mm Bridgestone Dueler H/T 245/70/16
Mitsubishi Triton  205mm 600mm No 30 22 24 3000mm4 Bridgestone Dueler H/T 245/65/17
Toyota HiLux 279mm 700mm No 31 26 N/A 3085mm Dunlop Grandtek AT 265/65/17
Volkswagen Amarok 226mm 500mm Yes, manual 28 23.6 21.4 3095mm Pirelli Scorpion ATR 245/70/16

Before a wheel had even turned, the Toyota’s extra tyre width meant our judges expected better contact with the surface below, while the Amarok’s permanent four-wheel-drive system raised eyebrows as we thought about tackling more serious off-road terrain. We needn’t have worried, because the Amarok proved itself to be quite the beast off-road.

Before we got to the more challenging tracks, we had to traverse some unsealed roads. And given that about 80 per cent of roads in Australia are unsealed according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, it seemed like an important consideration.

The Amarok and Ranger stood out as the two best over this type of surface, with the Ranger feeling “planted and settled” with good steering and composure over corrugations, but we again found that right pedal a little touchy.

“That really sensitive throttle isn’t great on gravel roads,” Paul said.

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The Amarok offered “excellent ride quality” and the confidence of full-time AWD. Where the Ford would oversteer, the Amarok would hold a true line.

But the VW’s best element on unsealed roads was its braking performance.

With off-road mode chosen, the ABS calibrates itself to deal with a loose surface under the tyres, and with one or four occupants on board, it pulled up considerably more confidently than its competitors, halving the distance in some cases.

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Comparatively, the Ford’s brake performance was poor, taking a lot longer to stop and with a longer brake pedal under sudden hard applications.

The Triton stopped confidently but with very noisy ABS, while the D-Max’s anti-lock brakes sounded “like dolphins crying”, according to Curt. The HiLux pulled up fine, but with plenty of graunching from its ABS system.

If the VW and Ford were best for comfort, the HiLux was worst. It felt “floaty and unsettled” with a lot of shimmying through the cabin, and those in the back seats on our four-up loop were worried about those intrusive solid grab handles.

“You’ll either chop your head off on the handles, or your teeth will rattle out on the rough surfaces,” James commented.

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The D-Max was marginally better than the HiLux, but we found it to be aloof, with skittishness at speed and it felt like it lacked grip. Plus, it had a very noisy engine.

The Mitsubishi was equally uncomfortable, bouncing, fidgeting and floating at speed despite being very quiet. The Colorado was judged to be third best, with a firm and sharp ride but good body control and steering.

For more serious off-road stuff, we put all the vehicles in 4H where possible (remember, the VW doesn’t have a transfer case – just computer smarts!) and locked the rear differential where possible. And, again, the Ford and VW stood out.

The Ranger’s throttle sensitivity was to its detriment over a hard-packed crawl over some steep crevasses with rocky edges. Its four-wheel drive system was “fuss free”, but its longer wheelbase and low side-steps meant it felt like it might drag its belly.

But, its light steering – while lacking a bit of feel – made it easy to change directions to correct a line. The grip was tremendous in part because of its rear diff lock, and it offered great wheel articulation despite its lengthy wheelbase.

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The Amarok, though, was next-level good. It walked up the same challenging track without any fuss whatsoever, and where many others kept their wheels spinning in the air when they lost contact with the earth below, the Amarok sensibly stopped sending power to where it would be lost, and transferred it to where it was needed. Its articulation was excellent, and so was its clearance.

“Who needs low range?” was the premise we discussed post-test.

The HiLux’s extra tread width gave it a slight advantage, and despite being manual – and Paul being concerned about the clutch take-up point – it managed to scramble up our track easily, with good suspension travel and great steering.

“The HiLux had no right to do it how it did because it’s a manual,” Trent commented.

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The D-Max made it look easy, too, with hardly any twist to the body over the offset bumps, and excellent articulation.

The Colorado proved simple to get into the appropriate setting, and while its electronic locking rear differential wasn’t as effective as the mechanical setups on the Amarok and Ranger, it traversed our climb and descent without too much trouble, but it was the only one to touch down on the course over the same line.

Our biggest struggler was the Triton. We’ve driven the Pajero Sport in recent times, and its double wishbone rear suspension and diff lock make challenging climbs easier than they should be.

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The Triton’s traction control system bogged it down, however, almost to the point of stalling. It was spinning wheels at all corners where others were considerably more composed, and it didn’t offer the same level of articulation across the body of the vehicle, meaning it felt the most out of shape in a twist situation.

It led us to the conclusion that the Amarok was our overall off-road champ.

“The Amarok with off-road mode was incredible for that unsealed stuff, and given the four-wheel-drive smarts it has, it’s comprehensive for off-road work,” Paul said.

“It’s where the off-road modes are going,” Curt said, echoing our collective thoughts on the days of the low-range transfer case being limited.

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Verdict

Choose any of these utes at the right price, and you won’t be disappointed – and thankfully these versions are likely to see some great deals.

But when we asked each of our judges which of these work-focused dual-cabs they’d spend their money on, the answer was unanimous – the Volkswagen Amarok Core.

It was judged to be the best ute on test for the money – the ute you could confidently take off-road, the most composed and comfortable with or without a load in the tray, and the one you’d want to spend the most time in, because of its more SUV-like interior.

There’s a caveat to that interior, of course, and that is that the rear airbag situation could stop some of us from actually buying an Amarok, should the need arise. Paul ‘Safety’ Maric said he wouldn’t buy one for risk of injuring anyone in the rear, and that’s a valid point.

It’s an even more valid consideration for employers looking to add a ute, or utes, to their fleets. Workplace Health and Safety regulations vary state-to-state, however, Victoria’s WorkSafe Act recommends fleet vehicles “are chosen against criteria covering active and passive safety features”.

While rear airbags are not mandatory (yet) In Victoria, for example, managers and fleet managers do have a duty of care to their employees and the lack of rear airbags could be a deal breaker.

Look, let’s not dance around the issue. We think they should be fitted. It’s poor form they aren’t. But on balance, as a Monday to Friday conveyance, the Amarok simply couldn’t be stripped of top spot.

2017_dual-cab_ute_comparison_toyota_hilux_isuzu_d-max_ford_ranger_volkswagen_amarok_mitsubishi_triton_holden_colorado_card3-78

In second was the Ford Ranger, which was judged to be too pricey in this spec. If it had been the lower-spec XL, it well may have won.

Third was the Holden Colorado, with its powerful engine and decent driving manners showing that a comprehensive facelift can shift a ute from average to well-above-average.

Fourth place was proof you don’t have to excel in one area in particular to fare well in a comparison test, and the Toyota HiLux filled that spot. Had it been automatic, maybe we would have seen it step up a slot.

It was followed by the Mitsubishi Triton, which has a comfortable interior with nice presentation and a gobsmacking price-tag and equipment list. If you want a bargain ute, it could well do everything you need: it just wasn’t as well executed across a broad range of criteria, including the load-focused elements of this test.

And in last spot was the Isuzu D-Max, which didn’t really hit any highs in this test. In contrast to the Colorado, this was proof that a facelift that doesn’t go far enough can mean a ute remains an average proposition in a highly competitive segment, and that’s especially true of the LS-M model, which is comparatively too expensive for the experience you get.

Get a deal, though, and you’ll be laughing, because this isn’t a bad ute at all – it just isn’t as good as its competitors.

As this test followed our Mega Test formula for scoring, we asked each judge to fill in a scoring card numbering each ute against each criteria, with the vehicle ranked one being the best performer, and six being the worst in that test.

Here’s how it panned out:

Ranking Matt Trent Curt Paul James
1st VW Amarok VW Amarok VW Amarok Holden Colorado VW Amarok
2nd Ford Ranger Ford Ranger Ford Ranger Ford Ranger Ford Ranger
3rd Toyota HiLux Holden Colorado Toyota HiLux VW Amarok Holden Colorado
4th  Holden Colorado Toyota HiLux Holden Colorado Mitsubishi Triton Mitsubishi Triton
5th Mitsubishi Triton Mitsubishi Triton Mitsubishi Triton Toyota HiLux Toyota HiLux
6th Isuzu D-Max Isuzu D-Max Isuzu D-Max Isuzu D-Max Isuzu D-Max

Then we applied some simple maths: a first place ranking scored one point, fourth place scoring four points, and so on. The final overall ranking, then, reflects the lowest score for the win through to the highest score for the wooden spoon.

 

Overall ranking

MODEL SCORE
Volkswagen Amarok 7
Ford Ranger 10
Holden Colorado 15
Toyota HiLux 20
Mitsubishi Triton 23
Isuzu D-Max 30

 

Thanks to Graham from GRE Marine for the loan of the boat, and to Pete at Lake Lyell Recreation Park for allowing us access to his facilities for our towing test. 

Thanks also to the guys at MSR Group and Crown Forklifts for assisting us with our load test.


Podcast

Listen to the CarAdvice team discuss this dual-cab comparison below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.






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