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The challenger takes on the champion. That’s the best way to describe this twin test, which puts Australia’s long-reining best-selling ute, the Toyota HiLux, up against the increasingly popular Ford Ranger.
The Ford is catching the Toyota in terms of sales: in 2014, there were 38,126 HiLux models sold in 4x2 and 4x4 configurations, while a total of 26,219 Rangers were sold (4x2 and 4x4 combined). So far in 2015, 5192 HiLux models have been sold, while 3707 Ranger models have found new owners.
But more than just a two-way battle between the best-selling utes in Australia, this test is pitching the two most lifestyle-focused variants of both models against one another.
As such, we’ve got the limited edition Toyota HiLux Black Edition, a spruced-up, sportier looking version of the Japanese brand’s flagship diesel SR5 dual-cab. It’s priced at $55,990 plus on-road costs for the five-speed auto model we’re testing.
Representing the blue oval brand is the Ford Ranger Wildtrak, the brand’s range-topping model which is available in dual-cab diesel auto guise only. It is one of the dearest utes on the market, priced from $59,930 plus costs.
No matter which way you look at it, a ute that costs close to $60K is a fairly big ask – so you’d expect it to be pretty darn good. But which is better? The go-to guy? Or the uppity newbie?
Let’s start with what sets these versions apart from their more affordable counterparts.
The HiLux Black Edition features some easily noticeable inclusions over and above the range-topping SR5 on which it’s based.
The changes include 17-inch alloy wheels, black side steps, black sports bar and all-black, leather highlighted trim. Trainspotters will notice the TRD badges, and it’s been a while since we’ve seen them on a Toyota in Australia.
It certainly looks tougher than the standard SR5, and it gets the attention of tradies and families alike.
While the changes to the exterior are quite bold, not much has changed inside the cabin – but this version, like all SR5 models, has a 6.1-inch touch-screen media system with a reverse-view camera and satellite navigation.
The media screen’s menu system is crisp and nice to look at – and that element in particular certainly lifts the cabin ambience over the previous version’s aftermarket-style system – but there are some annoying features.
While Bluetooth phone and audio streaming is standard (and there are auxiliary and USB inputs, too) the system won’t allow you to access your contacts list or input phone numbers on the move.
That said, steering wheel-mounted audio controls help keep things simple for the driver, and there’s also a dash-top information screen that includes average and current fuel consumption, cruising range, outside temperature and a compass.
The seats are trimmed in leather (not the most supple cowhide we’ve ever come across) and so are the door panel inserts. There’s also electric seat adjustment for the driver, adding a little bit of extra comfort to the cabin.
The Ranger Wildtrak is also different looking compared to other models in the range, thanks to its 18-inch alloy wheels, side steps, and a unique grille.
There are also unique stickers that signify this is the top-of-the-pops Ranger, while the tray includes the addition of sports bar, steel rear bumper and a roller lid.
There are some nice touches inside the cabin including a leather gearknob, electric adjustment for both front seats, and front seat heating which isn’t available on any HiLux.
The Wildtrak is the only Ranger you can buy with a standard reverse-view camera, which displays through the auto-dimming rear-view mirror, rather than through the big screen as is the case in the HiLux. Wildtrak also gets rear parking sensors, where the HiLux goes camera-only.
The infotainment system is controlled using chunky-style buttons, with a small blue screen sitting atop the dash. I personally love the way the buttons look (sort of like cogs in a machine, and the dashboard instruments mirror that aesthetic, too) but using them is a bit of a pain.
The navigation and all major controls take a bit of learning – namely due to the “tab” style menus that can see you fiddling with buttons more than you should be.
Thankfully, the updated version of the Ranger due here late in 2015 will see a new touchscreen media system that promises to be far more simple to use – and it’s a certainty for the range-topping Wildtrak model.
As for connectivity, the current model has Bluetooth phone and audio streaming as standard, and there are auxiliary and USB inputs, too. Unlike the Toyota, the Ranger has a voice control system that works well most of the time, as well as steering wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls (the HiLux has a little lever behind the wheel).
The materials used in the cabin fulfil the Wildtrak’s sporty promise with nice textures and finishes for the most part, including seat trim that appears to be based on basketball shorts, or wetsuit material… or maybe both. They’re entirely more car-like than those used in the HiLux – though if you’re planning to use the ute more as a work vehicle than a family one, the HiLux’s hard-wearing materials would be more amenable.
Storage through the Ranger’s cabin is excellent, with huge door pockets front and rear, big bottle holders and decent centre stowage for loose items. Its storage easily betters the HiLux, which has limited centre stowage available, as well as smaller door pockets.
As has been the case for the Toyota HiLux for some years, the interior offers a reasonable but not exceptional experience for occupants.
Top: Toyota HiLux Black Edition; bottom: Ford Ranger Wildtrak
The seats are firm and not overly comfortable at the front, while the rear seat’s backrest is very upright. It’s not nearly as roomy as the Ranger, either, with less leg and toe space, as well as less head room.
If you’ve got littlies, the Ranger has two top-tether tie-down points for their seats, the same number seen in the HiLux.
And to keep things safe, both utes have six airbags (dual front, front side and full-length curtain) as standard, as well as electronic stability control.
The HiLux is powered by a 3.0-litre turbo diesel that continues its long run of service under the bonnet, with 126kW (at 3600rpm) and 343Nm (from 1400-3200rpm) to get the job done.
It’s an adequate – if somewhat agricultural – performer, being loud and unrefined under acceleration, and it’s rattly, especially at startup. But there’s something to be said of knowing exactly what you’re going to get, and you do with the HiLux as this engine has been in use since way back in 2005.
It is willing enough despite running out of puff beyond where it’s peak power hits, though there’s decent shove from a standstill, and reasonably brisk response at speed, too. Just don’t expect super acceleration with a load on board – I’ve driven the Lux with a tonne on board alongside the Ranger, and it’s night and day.
The five-speed automatic fitted to our test rig is both familiar and competent, with well-timed shifts around town and on the open road when you plant the accelerator. That said, it’s a bit harsh with its changes if the ute is still cold.
The Ranger has a bigger, more powerful engine and more cogs to play with. It’s powered by a 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel with 147kW of power and 470Nm of torque – well and truly enough to make for effortless progress with a load on board, and a huge 21kW/127Nm advantage over the HiLux.
It’s a refined, grunty thing that is at its prime between 1500-3000rpm, with some low-speed lag from a standstill and a tendency to run out of puff once it revs beyond the maximum torque band (1500-2750rpm). But that mid-range punch is excellent.
The auto generally offers quick, smooth shifts, though like the HiLux it can be abrupt when the vehicle has just been started up. In almost all other areas, though, the transmission keeps things moving nicely, using the right cog without fuss during hill climbs and generally acting cleverly under sudden acceleration.
In terms of the way each drives, the Ranger feels a generation newer than the HiLux.
The Ranger feels almost car-like in the way it behaves, with direct and precise steering that allows you to manoeuvre its bulk with confidence.
On top of that, the ride comfort is, for the most part, exceptional, aside from the 18-inch wheels jarring over some bigger sharp-edged bumps. The back-end feels tight and fairly well tied-down, and though the rear wheels can spin in 2WD mode over slippery surfaces, there’s little wobbliness from the tray.
The HiLux on the other hand is more like hard work. The steering is heavier and takes more effort when parking, while the ride is stiff and lacks the compliance and comfort of the Ranger.
The HiLux’s 17-inch alloys tend to fall in to crevasses and creases on the road surface, and even over relatively smooth surfaces where the Ranger coasts comfortably, the HiLux is more unsettled.
Off-road, it’s a similar story.
These two utes are both equipped with shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive systems, though the Ranger takes things a little further with a rear locking differential, which isn’t fitted to any HiLux models.
The ground clearance of both utes is good, with the HiLux sitting 220mm above the road and the Ranger bettering it with 237mm of clearance.
The Ranger feels all the more good-mannered and noticeably more controllable, particularly by way of its steering accuracy and its less jittery ride.
There’s a lot more play in the steering of the HiLux, which can be disconcerting over loose surfaces, and it bucks over bumps.
If you’re less likely to spend time gallivanting around the countryside and more hours on the worksite, the Ranger has the better payload. It can carry 1000 kilograms in Wildtrak guise, though lower-spec versions offer even better capacity (up to 1291kg in the cab-chassis XL dual-cab).
The HiLux Black Edition, on the other hand, has a payload of 835kg, and even the hard-working models can’t better that by much (the cab-chassis SR dual-cab offers 975kg payload).
Top: Toyota Hilux Black Edition; bottom: Ford Ranger Wildtrak
The tray sizes themselves are notably different, too. The Ranger dual-cab pick-up model’s tray measures 1549mm long and 1560mm wide, with 1139mm between the wheel arches – not big enough for an Australian pallet, and hampered even further by a bulky lockable roller lid on the tray that limits the cargo area height.
The Toyota has a much smaller box, measuring 1520mm long and 1515mm wide, with a gap between the wheel arches of 1100mm – also too small to fit a pallet. You don’t get a roller lid, nor is a tonneau standard on the Toyota.
Top: Toyota Hilux Black Edition; bottom: Ford Ranger Wildtrak
Both suffer from a lack of decent tie-down points, though – the Ranger has a couple towards the rear of the tray, and so does the HiLux. The Ranger also gets a handy 12-volt outlet in the tray.
Lots of dual-cab utes will be used to tow heavy loads, and, once again, the Ford has a strong advantage. Its braked towing capacity is class-leading at 3500kg, while the Toyota’s 2500kg maximum is somewhat behind the times.
Toyota claws back some ground in terms of ownership costs.
The HiLux requires servicing every six months or 10,000km, with the cost capped at $180 per maintenance visit.
However, the capped-price scheme only covers the first three years of ownership.
The Ranger, on the other hand, has lifetime capped-price servicing available, albeit at a higher price. Services are due every 12 months or 15,000km, which is arguably more convenient to buyers (you can even get a free loan car while your Ranger is getting serviced), but the costs are higher.
The average amount per annum over three years/45,000km for the Ford is $475, where the Toyota averages out at $360 per annum over the same period.
Both utes have three-year, 100,000km warranties.
In summary, it’s clear the HiLux is outdone in this test in more ways than one.
It may be cheaper and more affordable to service, but the Ranger smacks it in just about every other conceivable way.
The Ford drives better, is more comfortable, more powerful, and has better towing and payload capacities.
The HiLux may be the champion on the sales charts, but the Ranger is the champion in this test – and deservedly so. It deserves a bigger slice of the sales pie.