Australia’s love affair with utes is beginning to have dangerous consequences.
An increasing number of ute owners are overloading their vehicles or fitting accessories that can cause irreparable damage and compromise safety, a peak industry body has warned.
The massive growth in ute sales across Australia – they have been our top two selling vehicles for the past three years in a row – has prompted fresh warnings from experts about the correct fitment of accessories, to make sure they don’t bend or crack the chassis.
People overloading their utes on outback adventures – or not properly distributing heavy loads in the tray – have sparked a rise in warranty disputes.
Many customers believe cracked or bent chassis rails and damaged underbody components should be covered under warranty.
However, in such disputes, car makers regularly argue the utes were overloaded, the weight was not properly distributed, or the damage was caused by accessories not designed for the vehicle.
The dramas have left many ute owners out of pocket and with big repair bills.
As part of an education drive to demonstrate the importance of properly fitted accessories, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, the peak body representing car companies in Australia, recently commissioned tests of two aftermarket or non-genuine ute trays.
The tests found that “aftermarket trays cracked chassis rails in durability testing, corroded rapidly in corrosion testing and were built with unacceptable weld quality (and) there was evidence of the trays separating from their mounting points on the vehicles,” the FCAI report said.
“The testing also revealed the non-genuine trays could damage the vehicle body and paint, and could cause suspension mounting failure, with the potential for the leaf springs to fall out,” the FCAI report continued.
“The chassis and suspension … could become unstable, the tray could rip itself off and electronic aids (such as anti-lock brakes) and traction control may fail”.
The tests, conducted on behalf of the FCAI at Toyota Australia’s engineering centre in Melbourne (shown in the video below testing a genuine ute tray), found some aftermarket ute trays can damage, bend, or crack the chassis because they may not have been properly designed.
“These parts might fit your car, but they aren’t fit for purpose,” said Toyota Australia engineer Spiros Katsigiannis, in a media statement.
“These parts can degrade a vehicle to total failure. In many cases a cracked chassis means the vehicle … is dangerous until expensive repairs are completed, if the chassis can actually be repaired.”
In some cases, aftermarket ute trays have been welded in place when they should have been bolted – or the construction is too stiff and doesn’t flex with the chassis.
One of the common misconceptions about ute trays, says Toyota, is that “stronger doesn’t necessarily mean more durable”.
For example, most car companies design their genuine accessory ute trays to match the torsional stiffness of the chassis – so they flex at the same rate in the bump-and-grind of daily driving, or when tackling off-road obstacles.
However, many aftermarket ute tray suppliers don’t have access to that data and often make the parts too stiff for the vehicle or attach them incorrectly to the chassis.
The FCAI has a vested interest in the debate over aftermarket parts because it wants ute owners to buy accessories sold by car companies.
CarAdvice’s four-wheel-drive expert Sam Purcell – who has extensive experience with aftermarket ute accessories – says not all non-genuine ute trays are created equally.
“I don't think all aftermarket ute trays should be tarred with the same brush,” said Purcell. “A lot of Australian companies are world leaders in customised ute trays, canopies, and service bodies in a wide variety of styles and construction materials.”
Purcell added: “It is easy to find a couple of ute trays that are not up to standard, and buyers should be cautious about those. But there are plenty of aftermarket ute trays that are of high quality and have in some cases been tested and developed locally.”
A genuine Toyota HiLux ute tray, pictured above and below.
It does, however, pay to do your research and compare as many options as possible, he says.
“There is no doubt a genuine ute tray is going to be made to a high standard, would most likely have been tested extensively, and is a safe bet,” said Purcell. “But they don’t suit everyone’s needs.”
The warning over ute accessories follows road toll data that shows commercial vehicles are over-represented in fatal crashes.
The most recent study by the federal government into ute and van safety was published in 2017.
That report found utes and vans represented 22 per cent of crashes but accounted for 16 per cent of the vehicles on the road.
Utes and vans were more prevalent in the crash data because they spend more time on the road and travel more kilometres each year than the average motorist.
However, when the data compared the number of registered vehicles and the average kilometres travelled per vehicle, fatal crash rates for utes and vans were “48 per cent higher per vehicle compared to (passenger cars)”.
The data showed utes and vans were involved in 0.94 fatal crashes per 10,000 registered vehicles compared to 0.63 fatal crashes for passenger cars.