Dual-cab utes are expected to be more versatile today than ever before. Rough and tough is not enough. The flagship versions must be comfortable inside, safe, and look the part because people want show ponies as well as workhorses.
Consider, for a moment, that the eight most popular dual-cab models managed 193,000 sales in Australia last year, which equals 16 per cent of the entire new vehicle market. That covers a diverse demographic. It doesn’t take a genius to see it.
We’ve purchased three – a HiLux SR5 sits on our fleet, plus our production teams have a Navara SL on mud-pluggers and a wrapped Triton GLX+ for their shooting duties – so we appreciate their versatility as much as any.
Best known are the HiLux SR5 and Ford Ranger Wildtrak, flagship versions of Australia’s two top-selling new vehicles, full stop. Ahead of the Corolla. The former claims peerless toughness, the latter was developed for the world, in Australia.
Then there’s the Nissan Navara ST-X, fresh off a Series 3 update that tweaked the steering and signature rear coil suspension, designed theoretically to induce more car-like unladen comfort than its competitors. A ‘lifestyle’ ute?
Most powerful here is the Volkswagen Amarok Ultimate, which has seized headlines with its V6 diesel engine, and now awaits the imminent Mercedes X-Class. Of this bunch, the German-built Amarok Ultimate is the only entrant here not made in Thailand.
We’ve also got the Holden Colorado Z71, which has experienced a rise in fortunes since receiving a much needed, early mid-cycle update, and the Mitsubishi Triton Exceed, which racks up huge sales numbers by being an absolute bargain, much to its maker’s credit.
Finally, there are the Isuzu D-Max LS-Terrain workhorse, furnished with a light-truck engine, and the Mazda BT-50 GT, conceived in tandem with the Ranger and sharing its underpinnings, but rocking a lower profile and fewer modern safety aids.
The goal is to have a look at which of the eight has been designed to serve a wide range of tastes and needs the most efficiently. Which is the consummate all-rounder?
Price and spec
First thing, haggle, especially if you’ve an ABN. Above-average margins are usually built into these things, as frequent clearance or campaign deals prove.
The Triton Exceed was cheapest on test at $48,000 before on-road costs (RRP), but it’s pretty much permanently available at $45,990 drive-away.
The D-Max LS-Terrain special edition has an RRP of $54,200, but is retailed at $50,990 drive-away. The Navara ST-X and BT-50 GT both have RRPs of $54,490, but the Mazda is being retailed at $49,990. In a few months, expect advertised specials on the Series 3.
These four are the price leaders, but being cheapest isn’t necessarily being best.
The HiLux SR5 is $56,440 RRP, but we’ve seen dealer prices of $54,990 drive-away. At least expect your on-road costs to be covered. Keep in mind that the Toyotas have very strong resale value down the track. They’ve earned customers’ trust.
The Colorado Z71 is a hefty $57,190 at list, but there’s zero chance you’re paying this. Start in the mid $50Ks and work down from there. The Ranger Wildtrak is second-most expensive at $61,115 RRP, but we’ve seen some in the classifieds at $55,990 if an ABN’s provided.
The most expensive truck on test is the Amarok Ultimate, which demands an RRP of $68,490, equating to about $75K drive-away. VW says that buyer demand outstrips supply, too. Betting the dealers are happy with that situation.
To the equipment part of the scenario.
All bar the Triton have satellite-navigation on their touchscreens, and six have leather seat trim (Nissan and Toyota charge extra). Big alloy wheels are a given. Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring, digital radio receivers, heated seats, and starter buttons all regularly appear.
That said, why are niceties such as keyless-go, LED cabin lighting and headlights, inductive charge pads etc so scarce? Expect this to change.
The affixed set of interactive tables tell the tale best. From a quick rundown of key creature comforts listed there, the Ranger has only one dash/cross next to its name, the Colorado and Amarok two, and the trusty Triton and HiLux three apiece.
The other side of the coin is safety. These are designed to carry up to five passengers, including your kids. Front seat occupants get head- and side- protecting airbags in each, while seven have side airbags for back-seat passengers.
The Amarok is the exception, going without rear airbags. Volkswagen deserves a kicking for this omission.
All get five-star ANCAP crash ratings, but the most recently tested was the 2016 Colorado, and the difficulty of the test grows over time. The BT-50 and Amarok are sold with ratings derived in 2011, on account of utes’ typically long life cycles.
Additionally, none of these vehicles get autonomous emergency braking (AEB). There are $15K city cars fitted with this system today. Many may feel they don’t need this feature, but should pick-ups really be going without fairly common passenger vehicle tech any more?
Ford makes the best effort, offering forward collision warning (FCW) that flashes if you’re approaching an object too quickly, plus lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control that mirrors the speed of the car ahead, and a blind-spot monitor. The Colorado has FCW.
The rest go without. Last we checked, pick-up buyers get tired too… Car companies across this segment are taking the piss.
A good cabin isn’t just defined by its creature comforts. It must also be safe, spacious and made to last. Some comfort and ‘bling’ doesn’t go astray given the prices, either…
The Ranger’s interior isn’t for the subtle. Those bright orange leather/fabric seats complemented by stitching on the dash, console and gear shifter polarise. But kudos to Ford for making an effort, evident also in the faux-carbon weave on the dash, too.
The large touchscreen has navigation, plus Apple CarPlay/Android Auto software. The configurable digital instruments also feel contemporary, though the tiny tacho won’t appeal to all, nor does the lack of reach adjustment on the steering wheel (ditto Colorado, D-Max, BT-50 and Navara).
Don’t underestimate the importance of active safety such as adaptive cruise control, either. It all makes the Ranger feel like a contemporary SUV. Which it technically is (Everest).
There’s also above-average space in the back seats for two burly blokes, while there are ISOFIX and more conventional anchor points for child seats – though in most of them it’s a pain in the arse to take them in/out regularly. There’s also a 230V inverter and power point back there.
If your key points are breathing space, fit and finish and premium materials, then the Amarok is your best bet. It costs a bomb, but most things when viewed or touched from its sculptured, heated leather seats – with the greatest range of adjustment here – look worth the ask.
The screen has the requisite nav and smartphone mirroring tech, there are a heap of storage options scattered about, and the signature flocked door pockets remain. It’s all very Teutonic in feel.
However, it’s bizarre how limited the leg room is in the rear considering the VW’s size. Outward visibility, head room and shoulder room are all above average, and yet anyone with long legs will be in some degree of difficulty. And that’s before they realise they have no airbags protecting them…
Seriously, the $70K VW should have the best cabin here. In many ways it does. But in a few it doesn’t. And that’s a disappointment.
Chevy is all over the Holden Colorado, from the big rubbery dials to the bluff layout that’s simple to navigate. That big centre screen has navigation and Apple/Android, plus a great camera view with guidelines. Most key function buttons are high-mounted and easy to find.
The plastics feel hard to the touch, but they’ll be easy to keep clean. That said, there were a few squeaks and rattles – it’s not screwed together like the Amarok or HiLux. It also has pretty flat seats, and lacks steering wheel reach adjust like the Ford. That steering wheel is old hat too.
On the plus side, it has a ton of rear leg room – equal best here, with the related Isuzu – and the seat bases flip up to create storage.
Our Toyota HiLux tester was the oldest car here (okay, 11,000km isn’t exactly a lot…) but its cabin felt hewn from granite, rock solid and squeak-free. There’s also plenty of wheel adjustment, and a digital trip computer lifted from Lexus (yet no digital speedo).
The tablet screen looks tacked-on, but the homepage is a neat array of tabs and there’s sat-nav, though no Apple/Android mirroring. Despite being one of only two cars lacking leather seats, the quality, ergonomics and general ease-of-use make the Toyota a very solid effort.
There are also helpful grab handles on the B-pillar to assist entry into the back seats, plus little take-away hooks. It’s also quite spacious for rear occupants, though the fixed overhead grab handles are right in the path of your forehead under heavy braking. Stupid design…
The Nissan Navara is the only ute here with LED interior lights, an opening back window and rear air vents. It also has button-start like the HiLux and will get a much-need digital speedo from April/May production. The fact you can option a sunroof tells you a lot about the target buyer, too…
The interior also feels really well made, though the fact you have to pay for leather seats nowadays is a little stingy. The fussy resolution on the 360-degree camera and appalling steering wheel design also draw our ire, though despite all this the amenities feel among the most SUV-like.
What really disappoints, though, is the lack of rear space. It’s no good having rear vents and an opening rear window if there’s poor packaging. The back seats offer the least room in the class, and are flat and uncomfortable by comparison.
Considering its price, the Mitsubishi Triton’s dash has a fairly upmarket look to it, though some people will rue the lack of conventional navigation (buy a phone cradle and download Waze…).
Everything is pretty well made, though the Toyota’s plastic feels harder-wearing. Features like the Evo-style fixed paddle-shifters, starter button, heated leather seats and DAB+ ensure you feel taken care of.
The cabin is certainly narrower than the others, but two-across in the rear isn’t an issue. The back seats are also mounted high, meaning kids can see out. However, taller occupants may scrape their heads on the roof.
Jumping into a D-Max feels like going back in time, a touch. The plastics feel cheap, and the touchscreen graphics are out of the mid 2000s. There’s little wheel adjustment, no Android Auto/CarPlay, pleather seats, a flimsy dash-top storage cubby, squeaky door handles… Okay, it’s rough.
Then again, you get rooftop speakers and a rear seat USB input, rear cup holders, button start and a heap of space. The back row is as good as the Holden’s, though it’s one of only two cars here (the other being the Mazda) to lack ISOFIX tethers.
As ever, the Isuzu’s cabin reflects its market position: cheap, tough and ready for work. But here we’re looking for a little bit of style atop the substance, and the D-Max doesn’t really deliver.
Yet the BT-50 feels even more dated. Unlike Ford, Mazda hasn’t invested much in its ute staple since launch and it’s starting to show.
The fundamentals are there: decent back seat space, similar equipment levels to competitors. Not to mention proven durability.
However, its lo-fi instruments, cheap leather seats, grim grey plastic everywhere and pretty dire aftermarket Alpine audio system (if you plan on fitting a different head unit already, then this won’t worry you) all reflect what the Mazda is: dated. Times change.
All this being said, we reckon the new Mercedes-Benz X-Class may run rings around all of them, when it comes to interior presentation.
Click through to the photo gallery for more shots from our dual-cab ute mega test.
Sizes and loads
Not much in it width-wise, beyond the Amarok giving you an extra 80–140mm over its Thai-made rivals, appealing to broad-shouldered occupants, or owners wanting to put standard pallets between the arches.
Longest is the Ranger at 5426mm, shortest is the Navara at 5255mm. The Triton has the smallest wheelbase (3000mm) and best turning circle (about a metre smaller than the ungainly Amarok’s). The VW also has the lowest ground-clearance point (192mm).
The Triton (1950kg) and Navara (1979kg) are lightest when unladen, with the 2250kg Ranger and 2212kg Amarok both heavyweights. Payloads vary about 200kg, between the Amarok’s 868kg and BT-50’s 1082kg. The base versions all carry more…
Data shows that few buyers of these high-grade utes lug more than 200–400kg in the trays, though 600kg isn’t a problem in any. Once an outlier, the fancy coil-sprung Navara (all rivals use leaf springs) no longer sags quite so much under load.
The Series 3 has dual-rate rear springs designed to handle more mass without hurting the vehicle's handling. It does this via dampers that compress when contact with the chassis rail is made, upping downward-pressure resistance.
All utes here have GVMs (that’s maximum allowable vehicle mass, comprising the ute plus its passengers and load) of between 2900kg and 3200kg, and GCMs (maximum total weight, combining GVM and a trailer) near or at 6000kg.
We’ll discuss the way they all drive in a bit.
The biggest tray belongs to the Amarok, with a standard pallet able to squeeze between the arches. Notable is the BT-50’s awesome 1082kg payload, easily the best here.
We had resident journo and professional tall person Scott Collie check out the trays further. Naturally, you can accessorise with various bed-liners and covers, so this is all quite specific to individual users.
The most common engine type on test is a four-cylinder turbo-diesel, though the Ranger and BT-50 have a shared five-cylinder and the Volkswagen tops the lot with a V6 oiler.
The lowest torque counts on test are the 2.4-litre Triton and 3.0-litre D-Max’s 430Nm apiece, though the Isuzu’s relaxed donk offers it earlier in the rev band from 2000rpm. The Mitsubishi’s engine hits peak Nm at 2500rpm.
The 2.3-litre twin-turbo Navara and 2.8-litre single-turbo HiLux have 450Nm on tap, both from just above idle point – 1500–2500rpm for the Nissan and 1600–2400rpm for the Toyota. The Ranger/BT-50 have 3.2-litre five-pots with 470Nm between 1750–2500rpm.
The Colorado’s 2.8-litre has an impressive 500Nm at 2000rpm, but nothing here betters the Amarok’s 3.0-litre V6 diesel with its 550Nm on tap between 1500 and 2500rpm.
On power terms, it’s: D-Max (130kW at 3600rpm), HiLux (130kW at 3400rpm), Triton (133kW at 3500rpm), Navara (140kW at 3750rpm), Colorado (147kW at 3600rpm), BT-50/Ranger (147kW at 3000rpm) and Amarok (165kW at 4500rpm, 180kW on overboost).
The overwhelming majority of up-spec dual-cab buyers now choose automatic transmissions, so we did likewise. The Triton has five speeds (unlike the Pajero Sport’s eight), while Ranger, BT-50, Colorado, D-Max and HiLux have 6ATs. The Navara has a 7AT and the Amarok has an 8AT.
However, the Volkswagen is the only car here without separate low-range gearing/a transfer case. You instead just lock it in first or second and rely on the host of electronics within its 4MOTION permanent 4x4 system. The off-road test comes a bit further down…
All bar the Volkswagen are part-time 4x4s, meaning you need to engage 4H and 4L, the former on-the-fly. Commendations go to the Triton for offering 4H modes suitable for both on-road and off-road use (the latter locks the centre diff).
Claimed combined-cycle fuel economy varies from 7L/100km on the Navara through to 10L/100km on the BT-50, bisected by the Triton (7.6), D-Max (7.9), HiLux (8.5), Colorado (8.7), Ranger (8.9, lower than its Mazda twin given its motor-driven power steering, they share gear ratios), and Amarok (9.0).
Of course, carrying loads and towing throws this out, as do disproportionate urban and extra-urban driving. You can bet on averaging 15–20 per cent higher that the claims, as a solid rule, just when commuting. The tank sizes all hover between 75L and 80L.
On the road
A standout on the road is the Amarok. It’s the engine that grabs you – that 180kW on overboost helps you to launch to 100km/h in about eight seconds, miles ahead of anything else here. It’s the smoothest, quietest and punchiest unit here, and easily so.
The eight-speed ’box (not a DSG) has a ratio spread conducive to keeping revs low, reducing vibrations and fuel use alike, but also shifts crisply and decisively.
The width of the cabin gives you plenty of breathing space and commanding road placement. The ergonomics are spot-on, with plenty of wheel adjustment available. On that note, the steering is also well-weighted (heavier than the Ranger) and responsive from centre.
Overall, it doesn’t ride quite as competently as the Ford, though, against our particular set of challenges. It’s a little prone to fidgeting at low speeds, though the level of body agility is unusually high and it settles down the faster you go.
Said Ford remains thoroughly impressive to drive across a number of road surfaces, which shouldn’t surprise given it was engineered just down the road from our test site.
The Ranger has a motor-driven power steering system that adds assistance at low speeds over the more common set-ups that use hydraulics, making things easier on your arms than the Navara, BT-50 or D-Max do.
It also loped over ruts and corrugations better than any rival when lightly laden, stayed controlled in corners and emergency swerves before ESC intervention, proved among the quietest at freeway speed (63dB at 100km/h), and settled quickly into composure after big hits like speed bumps.
Note: Buyers should be aware that people in the back seats of all utes here are liable to feel more thuds and bounces from over the back axle, and get less support from the seat sides.
The Ranger also has digital driver’s instruments and adaptive cruise control. Downsides are: the brake pedal’s mushy feel, the throttle mapping’s moderate lag before take-up, and the absence of reach adjustment on the steering column.
The 3.2-litre five-cylinder engine offers above-average power and torque outputs (147kW/470Nm). It’s helped by an intuitive transmission, and is one of the more refined offerings on test. Strong, quiet, with ample pulling power.
A big improver is the Colorado, almost two years since its mid-cycle update. Its electric-assisted steering like the Ford’s only loads up at speed and requires smaller inputs than rivals’, and filters out rack rattle.
The suspension developed in Gippsland has the right spring rate to keep the body flatter and more settled over mid-corner hits and pockmarked surfaces than most rivals, though the somewhat notable array of plastic trim rattles from inside dent the refinement.
With or without load it’s very impressive and stable, there’s not much scuttle shake over diagonal joins, and the body control against sideways loads is excellent. It has a very similar ‘controlled softness’ to its ride and handling as the Ranger. Long-legged, loping, with excellent rough road recovery.
The VM Motori 2.8-litre turbo-diesel engine is unusually loud and clattery, though Holden has done plenty to reduce the NVH (shear mounts, shuffled balance shaft, injector insulators etc). It’s got the second-most torque here (500Nm) and is among the most responsive under full throttle.
Another surprise package is the Triton, which is among the quietest utes out there. The 2.4-litre engine is supremely refined, and a distinct lack of noise and vibrations of any type make their way into the cabin. If it had the Pajero Sport’s 8AT it’d be better still…
Likewise, the steering is relatively resistance free at lower speeds and has ample adjustment, while the body settles well after hits. Precious little wind and tyre roar make their way into the cabin at greater speeds or over choppy surfaces – particularly helpful when making Bluetooth calls or having conversations with passengers.
That said, it never feels as settled or planted as the wider utes with longer wheelbases, and it feels bouncier and more inclined to pogo without a load over the back axle. Still, it doesn’t feel cheap and nasty as its brilliant price may suggest. Not by a long shot.
Perhaps the most road-focused of all the utes is the Navara. The coil and link set-up at the rear suggests as much.
It’s better at carrying stuff than before, though there’s not much evidence of it helping in general driving, since its unladen stability and recovery are just middling. It’s firm, sending some jolting through the seats.
Nissan has also improved the steering ratio, making it a little more wieldy and requiring fewer inputs – though I accidentally hit the horn about four times. The road feel is still a touch more ponderous than some, but it’s getting better.
It’s quiet and composed on a highway run, and amenities such as a sunroof and the cool sliding rear window give it an SUV-like feel, but the Nissan still feels far less comfortable, lumpier, and non-composed over bad-to-average road surfaces than top-percentile rivals.
The 2.3-litre twin-turbo engine’s 140kW/450Nm outputs are strong considering the Navara’s relatively light weight, and it remains one of the most refined units out there, helped by a pretty well sorted 7AT. Haven’t heard about many D40-style reliability dramas yet either…
The Mazda BT-50’s engine is the same as the Ranger’s, though it uses a little more fuel in part because of the hydraulic steering assistance. The throttle is also mapped differently, with better initial pedal response.
Mazda tuned it to feel a little firmer and dartier at the front than the Ford, and that high-resistance steering does improve at higher speeds. It’s also very stiff at the rear to cater for that excellent maximum payload.
All that said, though, it felt relatively comfortable over corrugations and settled well after speed bumps and the like. The ESC kicks in more abruptly in an emergency swerve and recover, and the ABS-inducing gravel emergency stopping distance was middling.
The HiLux is an interesting proposition on the road. Simply, its suspension just isn’t any good when there’s nothing heavy in the back, with notable skipping and pogoing from the rear. It’s teeth-rattlingly terse until you throw 200kg of tools in the back.
However, it’s got excellent NVH suppression and ergonomics inside, while the engine feels particularly potent in its sports setting, matched by an intuitive gearbox. Despite a previous failure in the swerving ‘moose’ test, the car was a match for our emergency ESC engagement on gravel.
On a side note, for all the issues we’ve heard about Toyota’s DPF, we’ve heard many customers who’ve had zero issues as well…
The Isuzu has a rough but relaxed engine and a slurring automatic ’box. It’s rarely in a hurry to do much, but that’s okay. The steering is pretty heavy and slow, but it irons out big hits thanks to its tyre sidewalls, and feels appropriately soft at the front end.
The truth is that no car here is actually bad to drive, but the Amarok, Ranger and Colorado impressed us more than the others did.
Click through to the photo gallery for more shots from our dual-cab ute mega test.
Six of the eight have braked towing capacities of 3500kg, with towball download limits being 10 per cent the rule of thumb. The HiLux has a 3.2t rating with its automatic transmission (3.5t for the manual), while the Triton is capped at 3.1t.
However, none have gross combined mass (GCM) ratings above 6t, and given all weigh around 2–2.2t, you’d better not be towing this much if you’ve got a few mates on board, or anything in the tray…
We chose a circa 2000kg boat/trailer to tow, given the fact that these utes are often called up to tow on weekends, or if they’re towing during the week, it’s often something similarly weighted. If you’re towing 3t a lot, then consider more resistant rear dampers and a softer front set-up to optimise weight distribution.
None of the entrants truly struggled, but there’s some grading.
Senior road tester Paul Maric had his thoughts here.
The Colorado was deemed top of the pile, with praise for its eager engine, compliant and planted ride left unperturbed by the trailer, great rear camera and effective braking. The HiLux’s engine in sports mode proved strong and punchy too, while the heavy-duty rear suspension settled down under load. Confident and stable.
Another strong performer was the Amarok, though that big torque advantage doesn’t always translate. “The engine has plenty of punch but not a great deal more in terms of feel than the others,” Paul thought, also rating the steering and the 4x4’s on-road traction.
Paul felt the Ranger’s laden ride to be the best here, and praised the cabin comfort and reversing camera’s zoom view. The acceleration was deemed confident without quite matching the Holden.
The BT-50’s engine is the same, though the throttle mapping delivers more linearly. The dampers feel a touch firm but the springs at the rear soft, making it a little floaty over continuous bumps. The steering is also ponderously heavy.
Paul found the Series 3 Navara’s suspension to be a big improvement, with less sag than before. Ditto the sharper steering, and the strong brakes (not helped by overeager ESC). It’s less planted over hits and runs out of puff a touch earlier than the Holden, though. Also, the rear camera is very low-res.
Perhaps a surprising outcome is the D-Max. Its low-stress engine is made to tow without hurting fuel use much, which it achieves, but Paul felt it ran out of breath quickly and lacked confidence under heavy throttle. He did praise the suspension compliance, though.
Finally, the Triton felt a little less punchy than most, as reflected by its more modest tow rating, and the short wheelbase means the trailer can feel like it is leading the car and causing the rear end to sag. The camera lens is annoyingly offset too. That said, the road-oriented 4x4 system helps a great deal and deserves commendation.
Off the road
The Werribee 4x4 park throws up a decent array of mid- to high-level challenges, from water crossings to moguls, from mud to sand and logs, up slippery slopes and back down them, into steep drop-ins and up steep embankments.
All eight got through the course without much fanfare, though some still felt more composed than others. For more adventurous types, consider adding off-road suspension and more underbody protection.
All bar the Amarok have separate low-range gearing and 4x4, whereas the VW has a permanent 4WD system that uses electronic trickery to shuffle torque around and control descent speeds, and a wider gear ratio spread.
Best off the beaten path is the HiLux, tested extensively in the outback. For one thing, and despite the SR5 body trimmings, it has the most ground clearance at 279mm, helping improve its break-over and departure angles. It was the only car that wasn't scraping its side steps, and offers the hardiest bash plate.
That ride remains too hard and bouncy at the rear, reducing comfort, but the steering is perfectly weighted off-road (though there’s some rack rattle), the outward visibility is outstanding, handling is wieldy, and the engine is exceedingly strong just off idle.
Switching into 4H on the fly is simple every time, and it’s rapid to engage 4L as well. The overall mechanical system competence is there, because everything just clicks and works, with the exception of a rather ‘graunchy’ automated hill-descent control (we just put the box into first, in manual mode, and used engine braking).
The Toyota feels solid as a rock, and if you’re a keen off-roader you should also remember that the aftermarket for HiLuxes is particularly vibrant. Were we crossing the Simpson tomorrow, it’s what we’d choose.
Fellow top-seller the Ford Ranger also breezed through the course, though the lack of column reach adjustment irks.
What makes the Ranger is that supple (one of the testers called it “ridiculously good”) ride over awful choppy trails and tracks, coupled with that resistance-free steering that requires minimal inputs. It’s almost relaxing. Body rigidity with a wheel in the air is also good.
The engine is strong enough that you can shelve low-range more often than not, though the odd throttle mapping makes it hard to feather at times. That enabled 800mm wading depth sans snorkel is massive – 300mm (a foot) better than the Amarok’s.
If you’re after idiot-proof 4x4-ing, then the Ranger comes into its own. The screens give constant warnings, telling you what needs doing when shifting between drive modes. It also proved easy to place because it’s so composed.
If you’d like a set-and-forget 4x4 ute that bludgeons nature to death, it’s the Amarok – provided it’s not too wide for the trail you’re on. The always-on 4x4 system uses a Torsen diff to distribute power between all four wheels, with a 40 front, 60 rear default split.
The truth is that the lack of low-range rarely hurt, though the first ratio in the 8AT is hardly a substitute. It’s a complex ecosystem of electronics, but it generally works well when new.
The ride is remarkably good at 70km/h over ruts, as is the cabin feel and refinement, helped by the super-stiff chassis. There’s rarely a lack of grip either, though there’s something a little isolating about it all. It drives you, you don’t drive it.
It’s also closer to the ground, heavier over the front axle and has a wider footprint. But if you want to play some dramatic music, seated in superlative comfort and luxury (by low, low class standards) and beat the bush into submission, here’s your car.
In many ways the opposite of the Amarok, the Isuzu D-Max appeals with its proven durability and toughness.
That engine lacks torque on paper, but it’s supremely relaxed and detuned, meaning it just clambers and lopes up and over things like a bulldozer. It pretty much idled over the course.
The steering has some play off centre, its lean angle during articulation is tempered, there’s good secondary isolation, little binding at lock, simple throttle modulation enabled, good forward visibility and a tacky, plasticky cabin that’s easy to clean.
Like the HiLux, it has plenty of clearance and feels like it could be driven off-road every day, for years, without fuss.
The Holden Colorado has a little less clearance and more road-friendly add-ons than the D-Max, which shares its platform. It also has lighter electric-assisted steering, while its much higher-torque engine is dialled up a little higher, feeling less ‘relaxed’.
We didn’t like the lack of wheel adjustment and flat, unsupportive seats, moderate scrubbing in full steering lock, mild traction loss in the articulation test and fiddly hill-descent control, but that supple ride gives the car a super-relaxed feel.
It also has a brilliantly clear reversing camera and a very simple-to-engage 4x4 system.
The Navara’s weak points are its lack of wheel and seat movement, the still-ponderous steering with excessive weight, terse ride over corrugations, small torque hole that requires throttle modulation to counter, and a hill-descent control system that sounds like Chewbacca when it’s engaging the ESC.
But despite this it walked through the trails without much fuss, plus its small dimensions and decent ground clearance make it an easy thing to place. It also kept good contact with the trails during cross-axle/articulation testing. That rear suspension did fine there too.
The Mazda has above-average engine torque and ground clearance, and a massive payload – which somewhat explains that firm ride quality.
It’s long, with heavy and slow steering that will appeal to those used to older-style utes, and like the Ford its five-pot engine is pretty un-fussed by most things you throw at it.
There are a few things we like about the Triton off-road. It has two 4H modes, one that locks the centre diff, which we needed to recommence motion after a stop on the wheel articulation course. There’s also a digital readout showing you the system’s status. Moreover, the engine is super refined and easy to modulate on ascents, and the small wheelbase and narrow track make it easy to place.
On the downside, the rear overhang and thus the departure angle aren't great, especially with a tow bar. There’s some rack rattle like the HiLux, fairly bouncy ride over repetitive undulations, and a propensity to take more than 10sec to engage 4L. Waiting, waiting…
Click through to the photo gallery for more shots from our dual-cab ute mega test.
Warranty and servicing
First up, a number of these brands offer extended warranties and free servicing over certain periods of time, instead of discounts. Ford and Holden in particular. Pursue your options.
However, the standard warranty for the Isuzu is best here at five years/130,000km (whichever comes first), ahead of the Triton, which gets Mitsubishi’s five-year/100,000km cover.
Volkswagen’s warranty is three years with no distance limit, while the Ranger, Colorado, Navara and HiLux get warranty for three years/100,000km.
Mazda offers a two-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty on the BT-50, or three years/100,000km if you don’t exceed the distance limit over those first two years. It also charges $90 a year for roadside assist that most rivals offer gratis. C’mon guys.
All come with capped-price servicing, where the OEM demands its franchise dealers' clients keep their costs at a certain amount. All are inclusive of other charges down the track – check the company websites for full details, as we don’t have 20,000 words to spare!
- Ranger: Service intervals of 12 months/15,000km. First three visits are $400, $560 and $500.
- Colorado: Service intervals of nine months/15,000km. First three visits are $299, $399 and $479.
- D-Max: Service intervals of 12 months/10,000km. First three visits are $200, $460 and $200.
- BT-50: Service intervals of 12 months/10,000km. First three visits are $403, $545 and $403.
- Triton: Service intervals of 12 months/15,000km. First three visits are $430, $530 and $550.
- Navara: Service intervals of 12 months/20,000km. First three visits are $547, $571 and $714.
- HiLux: Service intervals of six months/10,000km. First three visits are $240, $240 and $240.
- Amarok: Service intervals of 12 months/15,000km. First three visits are $480, $679 and $569.
To help make this a little clearer, let’s use a hypothetical. Andrew travels 30,000km in two years. His servicing costs based on these prices over the term, assuming he visits right on the due date (either the time limit or distance limit), would be:
D-Max $860, three visits
Ranger $960, two visits
Triton $960, two visits
HiLux $960, four visits
Navara $1118, two visits
Amarok $1159, two visits
Colorado $1177, three visits
BT-50 $1351, three visits
Of course, everyone is a different user case!
Tough test, this one. Not one of these utes is a shocker, but at the same time, all have areas that need improvement.
Principally, carmakers continue to slap ludicrously high RRPs on utes with no plan to charge them, serving only to confuse the market. Be open with the real pricing, we say.
Second, the lack of contemporary safety tech is notable, with the imminent Mercedes-Benz X-Class to be the first ute with AEB. Not good enough.
At the same time, each of these dual-cabs is a league ahead of what was available a decade ago, in terms of refinement, comfort and (generally) safety. Family cars? Easily.
As is usually the case, determining a hard-and-fast 1–8 rating sequence isn’t sensible. What’s your user case? From our perspective, we’re looking at those utes that juggle a wide array of market demand the best.
But if you’re going off-road every day, or hitting up building/mine sites in remote areas, clearly you have a specific set of demands.
The Mazda BT-50 GT doesn’t really do a heap wrong, but it’s an indication of what happens when you scarcely upgrade a vehicle for years. The gap between this ute and the Ranger is growing bigger all the time, reflecting Mazda’s greater focus on SUVs and passenger cars instead.
The Mazda is feeling tired on the inside, a little agrarian to drive and expensive to maintain. But if you get yourself a hot deal, then we could still see why you’d look at one. Ditto if payload is your top priority.
The Isuzu D-Max LS-T has carved out a big place for itself in regional areas, where its rough-and-ready character works best. It’s proven to be uber dependable, and Isuzu’s keen pricing and improved servicing costs are worth remembering. It’s a good, honest toiler. But lacks polish everywhere.
The Mitsubishi Triton Exceed is a deadset bargain, and yet it drives like a premium vehicle thanks to its excellent NVH suppression and modern cabin layout. That said, we’d grab a GLX+ for $35K, where its pricing advantage really stands out.
The Series 3 Navara ST-X improves a middling package, and if you’re an urban-based ute buyer who wants something a little more refined and SUV-like, then a D23 with sunroof and some surfboards in the back strikes a chord, yes? Good on Nissan for targeting a specific part of the market.
Splitting the HiLux and Colorado is tough.
The Colorado Z71 is a massive improvement. Forget that RRP, it’s actually cheap in reality. It’s also comfortable and compliant, has modern infotainment, a strong engine and ‘tough truck’ American design. Talk to Holden about throwing in an extended warranty as a sweetener.
The Toyota HiLux SR5 is a beast off-road, served by the country’s biggest dealer network, and built like a battle tank. Its resale values are also off the charts. We’d be reworking the rear springs or carrying 200kg of firewood/tools at all times, though…
The Amarok V6 Ultimate is in many ways the best ute on sale, period. The engine is a weapon, its dynamics are SUV-like, and its cabin layout and design are outstanding. But it also has no rear airbags and costs substantially more than anything else here.
Which means the Ford Ranger Wildtrak remains our favourite ute, and a deserved top-seller alongside the HiLux. It’s well equipped, looks properly tough, is idiot-proof off-road, comfortable to drive yet happy when towing, and has become more affordable with time.
- Ford Ranger Wildtrak
- Volkswagen Amarok V6 Ultimate
- Toyota HiLux SR5/Holden Colorado Z71
- Nissan Navara ST-X
- Mitsubishi Triton Exceed
- Isuzu D-Max LS-Terrain
- Mazda BT-50 GT
NOTE: The X-Class makes its Australian media debut this week. For reasons to do with logistics at both ends, the new Mercedes offering could not be made available for this test. Stay tuned for Ranger v X-Class in the weeks ahead...
Fair warning: Due to the sheer volume of information shown here, these interactive 'infographics' are best viewed on desktop.