If urban legend holds true, the ute – as distinct from the pick-up truck – is a homegrown creation. Unlike the Hills Hoist and the Lamington, however, you can’t run out and buy a new one any more. These would fill that gap nicely.
Australia loves a ute. In fact regional centres all around the country not only depend on them for day-to-day operations, but celebrate them in the finest style, with the hallowed ute muster.
So, what happened to the ute? The mere mention of the word probably pops an image of a Commodore or Falcon load-lugger into your head. Maybe something a bit older, say a Kingswood or a Valiant.
If you move in ute circles, it could be literally anything. Datsun 1200, Mazda B1600, Subaru Brumby, Proton Jumbuck, Suzuki Mighty Boy – heck, even a Toyota Crown.
Of course, here the lines are a little blurred. There’s coupe utilities on a car-based platform, then there’s the modern ute, in a pick-up style: body on frame and most often, 4x4 dual cabs. You can debate the merits of what constitutes a ute in the comments, but I’ll dance across the distinction to talk about the utes, trucks, or hay-haulers that don't come here but really should.
Like the Honda Ridgeline, which really plays with the perception of what a ute should be.
Artistically, Honda describes the underpinnings of the Ridgeline as a ‘global light truck platform’ but the reality is a little less truck-like. The Ridgeline is a unibody design, in the same way the dear departed Commodore ute was – and global? Well, North America is the world to North Americans, right?
There’s plenty of familiar structural elements from the Pilot three-row SUV (another car Australia misses out on but shouldn’t) which means the Ridgeline bucks usual pick-up truck trends by fitting a transverse mounted engine and fully-independent suspension.
It has been beefed up to cope though, and strikes a sensible solution for buyers who might be inclined to spend less of their time exploring new trails, and more time running the kids to hockey practice.
The break from a ladder frame means Honda can incorporate clever under-floor storage, unencumbered by chassis bracing. On the other hand, the move to access the spare wheel through the tray floor, instead of from underneath is a bit of a head-scratcher, no chance of fitting a tub liner and that bed full of rocks pictured in Honda's official images seems like a bad idea, doesn't it?
An audio system that can be routed to the tub, and a dual-hinged side-swing or drop-down tailgate aren’t your usual ute fare, but certainly make the Ridgeline more interesting. The idea of a largely passenger car-based interior (right down to a version of the flip-and-fold Magic Seats from a Jazz or HR-V) adds some intrigue too, though given some American trucks rival luxury cars for equipment, it’s unlikely to be a stellar revelation.
Under the bonnet lives a 3.5-litre V6, providing a break from the mostly four-cylinder diesel utes Australia gets, rated to a decent 210kW and 355Nm, connected to a nine-speed automatic.
Front-wheel drive is standard on low grade models, but those could easily be passed over in lieu of the available AWD system, which is rated to tow just over 2.25 tonnes. If you were hoping for something a little more compact than the current crop of Aussie dual-cabs, though, the news isn’t great.
The Ridgeline is longer than a Toyota HiLux SR5, well, by 4mm. In fact, despite family SUV underpinnings the Ridgeline stacks up impressively against Toyota’s class favourite. It’s 61mm wider than the widest HiLux, rolls on a wheelbase 95mm longer and only loses 16mm of ground clearance.
Styling is bluff and upright, but certainly less truck-like, without looking too soft (don't be fooled by the flares and fake beadlock wheels of the 2021 update). Honda could be onto something here, if only there was a right-hand drive version.
From plush family utester, to a car that’s completely unsuitable for family use, but presents an interesting opportunity all the same.
In the same groove as compact utes like the Proton Jumbuck and Subaru Brumby, South African buyers have access to the Nissan NP200. The name itself may not be too catchy, but the format has worked pretty well in the past.
Essentially a rebadged version of the Dacia Logan Pick Up, the NP200 shows real potential thanks to Nissan’s existing distribution footprint in Australia.
Will it shake up the ute market as we know it? Highly unlikely, but given the starting price in South Africa sneaks in under AU$16,000, there’s certainly room for it.
A few things may need to be addressed, like safety. It’s not quite at the five-star level Aussie buyers are used to, with dual airbags and ABS brakes as standard, but not much more. Still, Nissan is a resourceful company, so a few small tweaks should be hypothetically possible.
With that, there’s a possible ideal urban delivery ute, a fit for purpose farm hack, an affordable weekend getaway machine. You won’t do everything with it, but it has potential most locally available dual cabs don't.
Like the tray, which at just over 1800mm long, offers more internal space than Australia’s current cheapest ute, the Great Wall Steed which can claim only 1435mm of tray length, although it does offer a rear seat, which the NP200 lacks.
Really though, the NP200 wouldn’t try to yank the attention of other utes sold in Australia, rather it would slot in as a complementary, budget-minded, compact, little workhorse.
Engines seem right for the job with a choice of 77kW and 148Nm 1.6-litre petrol, or 66kW and 200Nm from a 1.5-litre turbo diesel. Nothing too thrilling, but nothing that wouldn't get the job done. Both link to a five-speed manual and front-wheel drive.
Heck, even the fanciest version, with alloy wheels, remote central locking, painted bumpers, power windows, and a stereo clocks in for under $22,400. Not to sink the boot in, but that's roughly the same as a base model Yaris, and you certainly can't put a dirt bike or half a dozen hay bales in one of those.
Unfortunately from a long list of compact car-based bakkies, most active in the '90s and '00s, there’s a much, much shorter list today. Much like Australia, South Africa has turned its back on unibody utes and embraced dual cab 4x4s, it seems.
Thankfully that’s not the case in South America.
South America is the mythical land of the ute, or so it seems. There are Barina based utes (no, really), Polo based utes (well, sorta) and Compass based utes (I’ll get to that one on a sec) and many, many more.
There’s single cab, space cab, and dual cab utes starting from the very compact, to full-size F-150s.
Just like the NP200, and its Dacia origins, the next size up covers the Renault Duster Oroch, a dual-cab ute with SUV origins. It wears Renault badges, so it makes sense to bring it here that way, but it started life as a member of the Dacia family.
Renault built a little false hope with this one in 2018 when it suggested the Duster Oroch was under investigation for a local launch. Standard spec, and again, safety needed some work, though.
Since then the company has backed away from both the Oroch and Navara-based Alaskan. That’s not to say it couldn’t work here.
It’s another ute that couldn't tackle the current crop head-on, but rather offers an interesting point of difference for buyers that perhaps don't need the size and heft of a regular dual cab.
There’s no cab-chassis option, because there’s no ladder chassis. There is, however, room for superior ride and decent handling thanks to a multi-link rear suspension.
Engines aren’t particularly exotic with an 86kW 1.6-litre four-pot or a 105kW 2.0-litre four-cylinder. Hardly exciting stuff, but free of turbocharging and therefore, theoretically simpler and hopefully more reliable.
Then again, I can’t imagine it’d be too much work for Renault to shoehorn in something like the 205kW turbocharged 1.8L from a Megane RS. Wishful thinking, that.
Realistically though, it’s fine the way it is. No thrill ride, but competent enough. That extends to the package as a whole too. Payload is a reasonable 650kg, it only comes as a 4x2 and not a 4x4, but 206mm of ground clearance is still fine for most choppy surfaces.
The Oroch is cruelly closer, now that the Duster SUV has launched in New Zealand, yet still frustratingly out of reach.
Really, the Duster Oroch fills a gap between some of Australia's most popular utes, and the hypothetical starting point the NP200 would fill. Simple, rugged, hardworking transport except this time with five seats instead of just two – and a kind of huggable handsome style that’s sure to win it plenty of friends.
Brazil also plays host to not one, but two compact Fiat utes. The Fiat Strada is the newest, but also the smallest. The Fiat Toro has been around for a few years and presents a somewhat unusual take on the traditional ute formula.
The key standout feature (as it should be for any ute) is at the rear, where the Toro eschews a drop-down tailgate for a set of side-hinged barn doors.
Short of being able to get up close for manual loading and unloading, the benefit is a little cloudy, but it’s there nonetheless. Cleverly within those doors there’s a fold-down false floor that allows the load bed to be extended.
There’s even a set of hidden pop-out tail lights to make sure your now-longer Toro remains traffic-code compliant. No mention of the Toro’s dirt bike carrying ability with the floor extended though, which could be the crucial factor in defining its local potential.
Really, styling is the Toro’s standout. Shunning the traditionally blocky and upright look of a bigger, butcher pick-up truck and settling on a look that’s sleeker, and more aero-inspired without completely abandoning the dual-cab form factor.
While there’s more than a few similarities between the slim-lamped Toro and early versions of the current Cherokee, beneath the surface the Fiat ute is more closely aligned to the slightly smaller Compass.
Powertrain choices include a 1.8-litre petrol that just manages to cross the 100kW mark, or perhaps as a better fit, the 125kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo diesel from the Compass, backed by a nine-speed automatic.
There was a six-speed manual at launch, but it appears to have slipped off the order list in Brazil. It’s hard to say how well that would do here in Australia, but there’d be no harm in offering auto and manual, along with the available 4x4 system.
A ute feels like a funny fit for Fiat here though, even though the company covers commercial vehicles with a range of vans. Perhaps as a more compact model to slide in beneath the Gladiator, the Toro could swap its Fiat insignia for a Jeep badge and trade on some of that legendary 4x4 heritage.
Last but not least on the list of utes that deserve a shot here is potentially the most controversial. In part because it’s less of a ute and more of a pick-up, but also because it may give you a sense you’ve seen it before.
The Chevrolet Colorado is really just the Holden Colorado with a new hat, oh and a heap of stand-alone engineering to make it suitable for American tastes. Some of it good, some of it… Well, you decide.
Over at Chevrolet’s ‘trade grade’ division, GMC, there’s also a version of the Colorado, called the Canyon. While it probably doesn’t make a heap of sense to bring both, at least the power of choice would rest with buyers.
In this instance I’m not suggesting basic workhorse versions either, but rather the variants that Aussies were denied during Holden’s tenure.
In Chevrolet’s case that’s the off-road ready Colorado ZR2, for GMC the dressed up, high-luxe (see what I did there?) Canyon Denali also offers a level of equipment not seen on Aussie-bound utes.
Styling of the American Colorado is a little more, uh, avant garde than that of the Holden Colorado, amping up the visuals of the mid-size pick-up to a level that competes with the more in your face full-size trucks so popular on American roads.
ZR2-specific details include a high-clearance front bumper with a huge grille aperture, lifted suspension, sill-level rock sliders in place of side steps, a ZR2-branded sail panel, 17-inch wheels wrapped in 31-inch Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tyres and, of course, the very on-trend red recovery hooks.
If the ZR2 package is a bit much for you, then the GMC Canyon AT4 might be more agreeable. There’s the same 31-inch tyres, and those ever-prominent front recovery hooks, but a much subtler styling package. No re-profiled bumpers, no bulging bonnet and no rock sliders.
Think of the AT4 as the more upmarket off-roading solution. It does, however mean going without the Chevy’s segment-exclusive Multimatic Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV) position-sensitive dampers. Serious suspension hardware that’s previously been used in road and track applications, but appears for the first time in an off-roader in the Colorado.
The Colorado also claims a few extras, like a locking front diff (both come with a locking rear unit), and a superior 254mm of ground clearance compared to the AT4’s 206mm. ZR2 for serious escapism then, and to tackle the Ford Ranger Raptor head-on, and AT4 as a sort of Ranger Wildtrak X and HiLux Rugged rival.
On the other side of the coin, if going off-road and finding yourself up to the axles in mud, or rock-scrambling adventures aren’t your cup of tea, but you still need some carrying or towing ability, the GMC Canyon Denali might be a better fit.
See, full-size American pick-up trucks have long featured equipment lists that are the envy of high-end luxury sedans. There’s some seriously lavish interiors in the segment, and yet in Australia, despite pushing past $70k on the road most mid-size utes still look and feel like their fleet-pack brethren… tarted up with leather trim.
That is absolutely not the case for the Canyon Denali, which goes above and beyond the segment average with details like heated and cooled front seats, leather seat trim, Bose premium audio and open pore wood trim. Yeah, open pore wood!
There's powered front seats, a heated steering wheel, LED lighting all-round, wireless phone charging, 20-inch alloy wheels, push-button start and remote locking that includes the tailgate.
Good luck finding that complete haul on any model currently sold in Australia.
That’s not the best bit though. On either the ZR2, AT4 or Denali there’s four-wheel disc brakes in place of the all-too-common drum rears seen here, and while Aussies are likely to prefer the available 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel shared with the Holden Colorado, there’s also an optional 3.6-litre petrol V6 with 230kW. Although, 375Nm of torque is a fair way down on the segment average.
So for a country that claims ownership of the ute, it seems there’s plenty out there that we don’t get. At least the plus-sized ute market is well covered by conversion specialists, for anyone seeking a Silverado, F-150, Ram, Titan or Tundra.
There are heaps more utes out there though, some more down-to-earth than others, so sound off in the comments and tell us what utes you’d most like to see in Australia.
If cars that can carry everything aren’t for you, check back in on the next edition of Access Denied for some the cars that can carry everyone. Well, everyone except us Aussies, that is.