You can see it in the traffic. Four-wheel-drive utes are more popular than ever, and account for almost one in five (17.5 per cent) of all new vehicle sales in Australia based on sales data from January to April 2021.
Indeed, between the Ford Ranger and Toyota HiLux, four-wheel-drive double cab utes have been the top-selling vehicles outright for the past five years in a row, and are well on the way to notching up a sixth.
Why are they so popular? There are many theories. Today's utes have modern levels of safety, comfort and refinement, and are now much better at handling the demands of the daily grind.
Modern four-wheel-drive utes are automotive pentathletes. No other vehicle is stretched in so many directions or across as many disciplines.
In addition to ever-increasing expectations around performance, efficiency, roadholding and refinement, today's utes still need to double as workhorses, with generous towing and payload limits, as well as off-road ability.
No one vehicle can be a master of all skill sets, but some are better than others across most disciplines.
While last year's ute mega test assessed on-road driving, towing performance, and dynamic abilities – and we ranked the vehicles accordingly – this time we’re focussing solely on off-road ability.
Spoiler alert: the results of this off-road ute mega test are different from our on-road comparison from last year. Here's how they compared.
There is a lot to unpack when it comes to assessing off-road performance. Naturally, it mostly boils down to a vehicle’s ability to traverse rough terrain, and how easily it can do it. However, there are plenty of additional details to consider: ground clearance, articulation and stability, protection, under bonnet layout and suspension characteristics.
All of these vehicles (and many others, for that matter) can be improved via aftermarket modifications and accessories. However, that muddies the waters and is tricky to quantify evenly. So, we’ve got showroom-standard offerings to compare.
Safe to say, adding off-road biased tyres, as well as some extra ground clearance and protection, is a good place to start increasing off-road ability. Beyond there, you're really only limited by your imagination and budget.
And if you’ve got side steps fitted, take my advice and pull them off before they get damaged off-road.
What we are focussing on is off-road ability and suitability, and which of these utes is the best bet when the going gets rough.
We’ve got a handful of tracks and challenges to run each vehicle through to see how they fare, as well as snooping around through the underbody and under the bonnet of each vehicle.
Elements such as ground clearance, traction systems, stability, articulation and grip all come into play and contribute to a four-wheel-drive vehicle's overall effectiveness. And by putting these utes – back-to-back – through some difficult challenges, we can start sorting the wheat from the chaff.
During the course of testing, we spent a week at the Central West 4WD Park, located near the regional hub of Mudgee a few hours' drive from Sydney. This location put a huge variety of tracks at our disposal, including climbs, ruts, descents, river crossings, and rock steps.
If you want to see more about these utes in other areas (such as on-road driving, braking and towing), check our other mega tests and many reviews, comparisons and videos.
This mega test comprises eight four-wheel-drive utes and represents the vast majority of the segment. While specifications vary across the board, all of our examples come with a locking rear differential, turbo-diesel power and – except for the VW Amarok – a low-range transfer case.
Another similarity is suspension; all have independent front suspension and rear leaf springs, except for the five-link coil-sprung Nissan Navara.
Additionally, all of our test vehicles are equipped with automatic transmissions, despite most being available with a manual. This represents the vast majority of Australian buyers, who prefer automatic over manual transmission.
The newest of the bunch is the GWM Ute. We’ve got the Cannon L specification, which is priced from $37,990 drive-away. The 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine makes 120kW at 3600rpm and 400Nm at 1500–2600rpm, with an all-wheel-drive system and a low-range transfer case.
Next up are the twins: Mazda’s BT-50 and Isuzu’s D-Max. The BT-50 is in middle XTR specification, going for $57,210 before on-road costs, while the top-spec D-Max X-Terrain was offered at $59,990 drive-away as this article was published.
Both utes have the same Isuzu-developed 3.0-litre turbo diesel engine, which makes 140kW at 3600rpm and 450Nm at 1600–2600rpm, running through a part-time four-wheel-drive system and low-range.
Toyota’s HiLux dates back to 2015, but was recently updated with more grunt, more tech and retuned suspension. This SR5 specification is priced from $59,920 before on-road costs, and the 2.8-litre turbo-diesel engine now makes 150kW at 3400rpm and 500Nm at 1600–2800rpm. This runs through a part-time four-wheel-drive system. This includes a low-range transfer case and a locking rear differential.
Nissan’s Navara has also been through a midlife spruce up, with a new look allowing for more safety technology. Mechanically, it hasn’t changed since the ‘Series 4’ updates of 2020.
Our test vehicle is ST-X specification, which is priced from $58,270 before on-road costs. The 2.3-litre diesel engine uses two turbochargers to make 140kW at 3750rpm, and 450Nm at 1500–2500rpm.
Although you might not realise it, one of the oldest utes in this comparison is the Ford Ranger, which dates back to 2011. However, Ford has not stopped updating this model incrementally to keep it feeling fresh.
We’ve got an XLT specification, which is priced from $60,940 before on-road costs with the 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine and 10-speed automatic gearbox. This engine makes 157kW at 3750rpm and 500Nm at 1750–2000rpm. Like many others, the Ranger has a part-time 4x4 system with shift-on-the-fly engagement.
Another oldie for the segment is the Mitsubishi Triton, which dates back to 2015. A big facelift for this model came in 2019, but the majority of the mechanical details have been left undisturbed.
The 2.4-litre turbo diesel engine makes 133kW at 3500rpm and 430Nm at 2500rpm. In higher-specification Tritons, like the $49,240 Triton GLS tested, you get a ‘Super Select’ four-wheel-drive system that allows rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, along with a lockable centre differential and low-range transfer case.
The oldest of the group is the Volkswagen Amarok, which dates back to early 2011. Although, a big update came in the form of V6 power in 2016.
Despite the age of the platform, the Amarok remains one of the better on-road utes for driving dynamics. And it’s the only ute in this comparison without a low-range transfer case.
Our Amarok comes in V6 Sportline specification, which is priced from $56,590 before on-road costs. The turbo-diesel V6 makes 165kW at 4500rpm, and 550Nm at 1500–2500rpm.
Who is missing? LDV’s T60 and Ssangyong’s Musso are omissions, and you could argue that the Ram 1500 and Jeep Gladiator could get a berth in this comparison. But, we’ve stuck with the bread-and-butter options of the segment.
|Ford Ranger||GWM Ute||Isuzu D-Max||Mazda BT-50||Mitsubishi Triton||Nissan Navara||Toyota HiLux||Volkswagen Amarok|
|Model specification||XLT||Cannon L||X-Terrain||XTR||GLS||ST-X||SR5||Sportline|
|Engine size||2.0L diesel||2.0L diesel||3.0L diesel||3.0L diesel||2.4L diesel||2.3L diesel||2.8L diesel||3.0L diesel|
|Engine format||4-cyl turbo||4-cyl turbo||4-cyl turbo||4-cyl turbo||4-cyl turbo||4-cyl twin-turbo||4-cyl turbo||V6 turbo|
|Power||157kW @ 3750rpm||120kW @ 3600rpm||140kW @ 3600rpm||140kW @ 3600rpm||133kW @ 3500rpm||140kW @ 3500rpm||150kW @ 3400rpm||165kW @ 3600rpm|
|Torque||500Nm @ 1750–2000rpm||400Nm @ 1500–2600rpm||450Nm @ 1600–2600rpm||450Nm @ 1600–2600rpm||430Nm @ 2500rpm||450Nm @ 1500–2500rpm||500Nm @ 1600–2800rpm||550Nm @ 1500–2500rpm|
|Transmission||10-speed auto||8-speed auto||6-speed auto||6-speed auto||6-speed auto||7-speed auto||6-speed auto||8-speed auto|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||7.4L/100km||9.4L/100km||8.0L/100km||8.0L/100km||8.6L/100km||7.9L/100km||8.0L/100km||9.1L/100km|
|Price (MSRP)||$60,940||$37,990 drive-away||$59,990 drive-away||$57,210||$49,240||$58,270||$59,920||$56,590|
The GWM was a surprise performer in many respects, proving to be a much better off-roader than its predecessor Steed. The combination of a decent permanent four-wheel-drive system, low-range gearing and a locking rear differential makes it an effective off-roader in standard form.
The transfer case is a ‘Torque On Demand’ unit made by Borg-Warner. Instead of a centre differential, it uses an electro-magnetic clutch pack to push varying drive from rear-wheel to four-wheel drive.
The main problem with the GWM Ute is that the throttle calibration is too eager and tightly tuned. While it might help for a sense of power and urgency on the road, it surges aggressively off-road, delivering a big response from small inputs and making the Cannon-L hard to manage off-road.
Traction control works well, however, and helps the Ute clamber through ruts without lifting wheels. It also has a harsh implementation that jerks and shudders more noticeably than other utes when it’s operating off-road.
The Ute also made some concerning banging noises through the drivetrain when in low-range, and had a check engine light that came and went during the test, but didn't trigger any kind of limp-home mode.
Another sore point for this ute is the location of the fuel filter, which is chassis-mounted just forward of the fuel tank. That’s all well and good, but this crucial part of the engine’s fuel system, constructed from plastic, sits lower than the chassis rails and is open to off-road damage.
And if it were damaged, that would be a showstopper.
The Cannon does garner back points for having an off-road traction-control system that works alongside the locking rear differential, and through a big cloud of dust from wheel spin, the Cannon-L was able to drive up our test hill on one occasion with a little bit of variation in driving line.
Along with the GWM and Amarok, the Triton is the only other ute with a full-time four-wheel-drive system, using Mitsubishi’s Super Select II system. This gives the unique ability to run two-wheel drive, all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive with a locked centre differential.
The Triton is also the only ute on test with a variety of off-road driving modes to choose from, although the difference they made seemed limited in our testing.
It’s especially limited when engaging the locking rear differential turns off traction control completely, and an oversight worth revisiting by Mitsubishi. It’s otherwise a decent system and makes a noticeable difference to the Triton’s off-road ability.
Otherwise, the Triton is capable enough in the rough stuff to hold its own in this company. The shorter wheelbase yields a slight advantage through rampover angle and turning circle, but opens up a larger weakness in the departure angle – the Triton has the largest rear overhang in the group. Especially when our test GLS is fitted with Mitsubishi’s own towbar, you’re exposed to dragging your bum and risk either beaching out or doing some damage.
The Triton lacks a bit of underbody protection that other utes have, and is also missing raised differential breathers. Another small issue is the vibration damping device on the pinion of the rear differential, which is in a ripe location for getting hung up off-road.
Whereas the old D-Max would have been fighting with two arms tied behind its back in a comparison like this, the new Isuzu is finally sporting a locking rear differential as standard fitment. And while this new model has grown in terms of size and wheelbase, off-road ability should now compete better with the rest of the class.
Although the off-road traction-control system is also said to be improved in this iteration of D-Max, it’s still behind the pace of some other utes in the segment. In a nutshell, it requires too much wheel spin and loss of momentum before kicking in, and can see the D-Max lurching clumsily as it progresses through ruts.
Naturally, engaging the rear locking differential improves things greatly. But at the same time, traction control then gets turned off. It’s not a great loss at low-speed technical driving, and the locked-up rear end allows the D-Max to crawl through ruts well.
Although, when the going gets tough on slippery and rutted uphill climbs, the Isuzu starts to falter and run out of traction, even when the rear locker is engaged. It wasn't able to complete the hill-climb challenge we had set out.
There are some nice additional details like solid underbody protection, raised diff breathers, and a smartly designed air intake that draws air upwards through the front grille.
While the new D-Max is a much-improved offering over the previous generation, it has only really caught up to the pack off-road, rather than set any new benchmarks.
Like the Isuzu, the Mazda BT-50 didn’t fare so well on our uphill test drive, having to go around the ruts in order to get up the hill.
Traction control simply isn’t fast enough to react in these kinds of situations, allowing plenty of wheel spin and loss of momentum before kicking in. For it to be effective, the BT-50 needs to be travelling quickly, and much too fast for our test challenge.
The locking rear differential, once again, doesn’t work along with traction control, but is much more effective overall as a traction aid.
It’s worth pointing out that, unlike the D-Max, the new Mazda is a similar overall performer to the previous Ford Ranger-based generation, which also had a locking rear differential.
Regardless, the BT-50 is left level pegging somewhere in the middle of the pack, along with its developmental twin Isuzu.
The most important thing to note here is that with an automatic gearbox, the Amarok has no low-range transfer case. Instead, hitting the off-road button engages the electronic smarts of traction control, throttle and gearbox calibration, as well as hill descent control.
If you want an Amarok with a low-range transfer case, then you'll need to go for the six-speed manual transmission offered only in the lower V6 Core grade.
Traction control is fast to react and well-timed, but doesn't seem to come on as aggressively as others in order to continue forward momentum. It’s also able to work in conjunction with the locking rear differential, which helps the Amarok’s cause dramatically when the going gets tough.
And with the diff lock engaged, the Amarok is impressive through ruts. No transfer case means it needs to be driven differently, feeding more steady throttle through. And once you find the sweet spot, the Amarok makes good progress through wombat holes.
But, it wasn’t slick enough to make the harder climb through the steep, rutted and dusty holes. The Amarok seems to lift wheels faster and higher than other utes, putting more pressure on the traction systems to do their magic. You find that you need to drive the Amarok differently by loading up the gearbox with revs and allowing those electronics to do their magic.
However, on another attempt, the Volkswagen was able to complete the tough climb successfully.
A smaller gripe: parking sensors keep turning themselves back on when you cycle between drive and reverse, which proved to get on my nerves a bit after a long day of four-wheel driving. And when you do turn them off, you also lose the handy reversing camera display.
The Amarok’s performance is commendable, but it also comes with a caveat. The lack of a low-range transfer case does present issues for those who want to regularly off-road through tough and technical tracks for long periods of time. In a nutshell, not having a mechanical gear reduction puts more stress on the powertrain, and reduces the inherent capability of the vehicle in comparison to other utes.
Torque limitations in reverse are worth noting as well – something made worse by the lack of a low-range transfer case.
In our testing (while unladen), we did notice the engine and gearbox working hard to reverse up a steep climb. It was able to do it, but the torque converter was loading up heavily with high engine speed to make it happen. We also noticed the transmission cooler was cycling regularly, indicating that the gearbox operating temps were increasing. And if you’re loaded up with gear or towing, the problem would be exacerbated even more.
It’s got a small engine, but also the most gear ratios in this comparison. And although four-wheel drivers love their cubic capacity, this 2.0-litre engine needs to be commended for its off-road performance.
Although it can shunt through gear ratios a little harshly in low-range, the gearbox works well overall off-road.
Indeed, the Ranger is overall one of the more impressive off-roaders in this comparison. It needed some heavier throttle inputs to get up our steep and rutted test climb, but it was a successful attempt. It’s also worth noting that we required the locking differential engaged, which made a big difference in the Ford's ability.
You can definitely hear traction control working on the front differential while the rear locker is engaged, almost sounding like a faulty CD player trying to fire up. It’s an effective system, and one of the better examples in this comparison.
Being one of the bigger utes on test has its drawbacks, but the long wheelbase is covered well by solid underbody protection across the drivetrain and low-slung DPF. And although the engine is small, it’s also one of the most crowded engine bays.
Another point to make is the suspension, which offers decent articulation along with a nice, supple ride over rough surfaces.
While the Navara hasn’t mechanically changed along with the 2021 facelift, that’s not a bad thing because as you see it here, the Navara is a potent off-roader.
The 360-degree camera, standard in our ST-X test car, is a handy addition for off-roading as well as carparks. When you don’t have the luxury of a spotter, it can help you line up the intricacies of a narrow line when off-roading.
While simply having coil springs isn’t enough to guarantee a superior experience over leaf springs, the Navara’s five-link rear suspension is well controlled and absorbs rough surfaces well, with good articulation on offer through ruts and cross-axle situations.
The Navara also has a good complement of ground clearance and protection, some of the lowest standard off-road gearing in the comparison, and an effective off-road traction-control system that works in conjunction with the locking rear diff.
The Nissan was able to take on the hill climb successfully with the rear locking differential engaged. It was a close-run experience when compared to the Ranger, which was also able to make the climb.
However, the Navara made it feel slightly easier. Traction control has a slight advantage in this regard, and the suspension has a little more suppleness and cross-axle support from the driver's seat.
While Toyota’s 2.8-litre mill got a recent shot in the arm with more power and torque, this latest iteration of Australia’s best-selling vehicle also gets some tweaks to the suspension.
Although a new suspension tune – aimed at improving the on-road ride and handling characteristics – also came along with the facelift, the general off-road credentials of the HiLux have remained unchanged.
Beyond that, the HiLux felt particularly good behind the wheel off-road. Toyota reckons there is more rear axle articulation available from the HiLux in comparison to other 4x4 utes. It’s a difficult thing to quantify and validate, but my seat-of-pants experience tells me there is some truth in the claim.
Combine that feeling of stability and grip with the supremely effective off-road traction-control system, and you’ve got a stock-standard ute that is able to climb through the ruts at an impressively low speed.
And although you’ve got a locking rear differential, the fact that it turns off that superb traction control off-road reduces its appeal greatly. In many instances, you’re better off foregoing the locking diff and letting the electronic smarts do the hard work.
The end result was the HiLux being the most impressive through our wombat hole test course, as well as making the easiest work of our hill climb challenge.
Worth pointing out: the HiLux didn’t drive the track easily, it was a challenge, and was working hard to make it happen. However, it was easy in comparison to how other utes.
The HiLux scores some additional points for having good general ground clearance and protection, as well as space under the bonnet for an auxiliary battery. It’s even got an extra fuse panel ready to go. Although, some raised differential breathers wouldn’t go astray.
This week-long off-road ute mega test shook out a couple of surprises, as well as reconfirming some suspicions.
A ute's off-road ability will be important to some buyers and incidental to others.
Some owners will be keen to get off the beaten track as soon as possible, while others are happy just knowing their ute has enough off-road chops to give them bragging rights over a campfire or backyard barbeque.
It may sound predictable, but the best ute off-road in this comparison was the Toyota HiLux. There are a few small details underneath and under the bonnet that help seal the deal, but the main appeal of the HiLux comes from things you cannot see.
Forget the ‘tough’ and ‘unbreakable’ lines trotted out through marketing, the main reason the HiLux is so good off-road actually comes from its electronic smarts and impressive wheel articulation. Toyota’s traction-control system is the best among the ute brigade, and one of the best in the broader 4WD market.
When combined with good levels of stability and grip via the long-travel suspension, you have a winning combination. While it looks good in the video footage, I can also say that it feels good from behind the wheel.
Not far behind the winner, and almost a dead-heat for second, were the Nissan Navara and Ford Ranger. While neither has the same deftness in electronic traction aids as the Toyota – or the same wheel articulation – they both performed surprisingly well off-road.
In our testing, the Navara seemed to fare slightly better than the Ranger at times, owing perhaps to its smaller footprint and more supple suspension. However, both are very good off-roaders.
Beyond the Top Three, it's a little harder to split hairs. While the Amarok proved to be more capable off-road in comparison to the D-Max, BT-50, Triton, and GWM Ute, hardcore enthusiasts will likely prefer their four-wheel-drive utes to be equipped with a transfer case for serious off-road work. A mechanical solution helps conquer many off-road obstacles.
While the Amarok did prove to be very capable off-road, a crawl ratio of 17.44:1 in first gear and 12.27 in reverse doesn't cut it in more nuanced but common off-road situations.
Otherwise, the Amarok's V6 powertrain is delightful, and combines with a platform that offers a good combination of off-road ability and on-road dynamic ability.
You can throw a blanket over the D-Max and BT-50 twins, which are in the middle of the pack despite being the newest utes in this comparison. Both have locking rear differentials but are hamstrung by a less effective off-road traction-control system. Compounding their shortcomings, using one cancels out the other.
Beyond there, the off-road performance of the twins is par for the course. Some smaller details like raised differential breathers and the relaxed power delivery of the drivetrain are welcome, but the raw ability of these utes needs to improve for them to climb the ladder.
Despite having Super Select and four off-road driving modes, the Triton suffers from a large rear overhang and ground clearance limitations. However, priced significantly less than its peers, it represents excellent value even in higher GLS specification.
Keeping traction control switched on with the locking differential would yield a great improvement, and the 2.4-litre engine performs better than the on-paper figures suggest.
While the GWM Ute Cannon impressed in the challenging hill climb, it also had a few issues that couldn’t be looked past in this comparison. Loud clicks and bangs coming from the driveline didn’t inspire confidence, and the location of the fuel filter (exposed below the chassis rail) is problematic. However, it’s a huge leap forward from the previous Great Wall Motors Steed, and a strong indication of where the brand is heading.
|Ford Ranger||GWM Ute||Isuzu D-Max||Mazda BT-50||Mitsubishi Triton||Nissan Navara||Toyota HiLux||Volkswagen Amarok|
|Tyre size||265/65R17||265/60R18||265/60R18||265/60R18||265/60R18 110H||255/60R18||265/60/R18||255/60R18|
|Tyre type||Bridgestone Dueler||Cooper Discoverer||Bridgestone Dueler||Bridgestone Dueler||Dunlop Grantrek||Toyo Open Country||Bridgestone Dueler||Continental|
|Transfer case ratio||2.72:1||2.48||2.482||2.482||2.566||2.717||2.566||-|
|Final drive ratio||3.31||3.9||3.727||3.727||4.272||3.357||3.909||3.7|
|Reverse crawl ratio||43.84||33.42||34.52||34.52||40.91||36.86||37.433||12.27|
|Air intake location||Front grille||Inner guard||Front grille||Front grille||Inner guard||Front grille||Inner guard||Front grille|