There's more variety than you might think at the base end of the market - June 2014.


Single-cab utes and tray-backs are the most popular working utes, but the game has changed, with the introduction of Chinese models and more up-market Thai and European made variants.  Here's our assessment of the principal 2014 models.

Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50

mazda bt-50Jointly developed with its subsidiary Mazda, Ford produces the Ranger in more variants than the BT-50.
Dynamic Stability Control is standard on all Ranger and BT-50s. A locking rear diff is standard on all BT-50 4WD models and optional on Ranger single cab 4WDs. The shared 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel has class-leading figures of 147kW at 3000rpm and 470Nm at 1500-2750rpm.
Towing capacity is 3500kg for Rangers and 3350kg for BT-50s.
Interestingly, Ford and Mazda have removed the noise covers from their engines, but you can see the attachment pins still in place. (VW has done the same with the Amarok.) Ford fits covers in the recreational XLT and Wildtrak model engine bays, but not to the XL models. Do Ford-Mazda and VW have a heat issue with hard-working vehicles?


Great Wall V200

great wall v200If the Great Wall bodywork reminds you of the previous-generation Rodeo there’s a good reason for that: it’s a reasonably accurate copy. However the Great Wall 4WD model is technically up to date, thanks to a common-rail, two-litre, turbo-intercooled diesel.
The new engine’s claimed figures of 105kW at 4000rpm and 310Nm at 1800-2800rpm are on the low side, in comparison with the big boys, but so’s the price of 23 grand for a 4WD cab/chassis! An asthmatic 2.4-litre petrol engine with figures of 100kW at 5250rpm and 200Nm at 2500-3000rpm is optional.
The petrol engine couples to a five-speed manual and the diesel, to a six-speed.
Oddly, towing capacity of short-cab models is 1700kg, whereas crew-cabs score a 2000kg rating.
Mechanically, the Great Wall seems well bolted together and the engine bay is accessible. However, the engine looks like it’s been shoehorned in, rather than purpose-designed: the sump is at the front of the engine, behind a modest plate that might not offer adequate protection on some construction sites.
The Great Wall has ABS braking, but no stability or traction control system.


Holden Colorado

holden colorado uteThe GM split from Isuzu Ute was completed with the introduction of the current Colorado range: the three-litre Isuzu engine has been replaced by a GM/Fiat-owned, VM Motori 2.8-litre diesel, as used by Jeep as well.

The new Colorado powerplant has claimed figures of 132kW at 3800rpm and 440Nm at 2000rpm (manual transmission) or 470Nm (automatic transmission).The manual box is a five-speed and the auto, six-speed.

The Colorado DX and LX single-cab vehicles come as cab/chassis only: the DX as a manual and the LX as manual or auto.

All Colorado 4WDs come with limited-slip rear differentials and Dynamic Stability Control, incorporating ABS, EBD and traction control.


Isuzu D-Max

isuzu ute d-maxHeart of the D-Max is the latest version of the proved three-litre diesel that powered previous D-Maxs, Colorados and Rodeos. Now with a front-mounted intercooler and common-rail injection the Isuzu engine has claimed figures of 130kW at 3600rpm and 380Nm at 1800-3000rpm. (The torque curve is ‘clipped off’ at 2800rpm in the case of automatic-transmission models.)

A five-speed manual transmission is the only box offered on SX single-cab D-Maxs, but a five-speed auto is optional on the EX version.
Stability and traction control are standard on all D-Maxs. Towing capacity is 3000kg.

The D-Max engine bay is well laid out, with regular check items easily reached and the engine air intake is located safely in the inner mudguard.



Mitsubishi Triton

mitsubishi tritonThe Triton GLX single-cab is a cab/chassis model, powered by the company’s 2.5-litre turbo-intercooled diesel four. Claimed figures are 131kW at 4000rpm and 400Nm at 2000rpm (manual transmission) or 350Nm (automatic transmission).

The transmission choices are five-speed manual or four-speed auto.
Active Stability Control, including ABS/EBD braking and traction control, is standard. A rear axle diff lock is optional.
Towing capacity is 3000kg.




Nissan Navara

nissan navara engineThere are two single-cab Navara models; the old-shape D22 cab/chassis and the newer D40 cab/chassis.

Powerplant for the D22 is Nissan’s 2.5-litre turbo-intercooled diesel, with claimed figures of 98kW at 3600rpm and 304Nm at 2000rpm. The transmission is a five-speed manual.Towing capacity is 2800kg.

The single-cab D40 cab/chassis is powered by the same basic engine, but in a higher state of tune: 106kW at 4000rpm and 358Nm at 2000rpm.

The transmission is a six-speed manual. Towing capacity is 3000kg.
The D40 comes with Vehicle Dynamic Control and an active-brake limited-slip rear differential.


Toyota HiLux

toyota hiluxYou don’t get to be the ute market leader and stay there for years if you’re not doing things right, but Toyota is working harder these days to keep the HiLux ahead of the pack snapping at its profitable heels.
The HiLux doesn’t lead in terms of engine performance, manual and automatic transmission ratios, cab room, load space and chassis dynamics, yet remains on top of the sales charts.
The company’s strengths are its dealer network, strong resale values and model range: the HiLux is available in more variants than any of its competitors.

An example is a short-cab 4WD diesel with five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.
HiLux 4WDs have by far the best laid-out engine bay for off-road work, incorporating space for an auxiliary battery.

The three-litre diesel has figures of 126kW at 3600rpm and 343Nm at 1400-3400rpm. It’s the only ute engine these days with an above-engine ‘pancake’ intercooler – all other makes have adopted the more efficient front-mounted intercooler design.
Stability and traction control are not available on any single-cab HiLux model and towing capacity is only 2500kg.


VW Amarok

vw amarokAmarok 4WDs are powered by a series-turbocharged, twin-turbo version of the VW diesel two litre that has claimed figures of 120kW at 4000rpm and 400Nm at 1500-2250rpm.

The only transmission in single-cab Amaroks is a six-speed manual.

Standard equipment includes stability and traction control, and hill start assist. Towing capacity is 3000kg.

VW is the only ute maker to specify different rear-suspension ratings, resulting in gross mass ratings of 3040kg (standard) and 2820kg (comfort).


Why leaves?

Most utes being sold in Australia are built in Thailand – the largest per capita ute market in the world.
‘Thailand’ usually conjures up images of elephants, street-front bars, temples and fake Rolexes, but it's also the world's largest producer of 1-1.5-tonne utes. The attractions are ASEAN centrality, low labour rates, a skilled workforce and tax breaks.

The popularity of the ute in Thailand is due in no small way to the fact that there are thousands of ute-based mini-cabs plying the roads. ‘Taxi’ owners fit mesh cage bodywork with a vestigial roof panel, slot in a pair of inward-facing benches and, presto, a 10-seat mini-cab. Greedy operators drop the tailgate and bolt a pair of seats on top of it. No passengers get to sit in the cab - that's for the driver and his sidekick, who collects fares and touts for business.

One of the major design restrictions imposed in Thailand is the strange Excise Department definition of a ute: in Thailand utes must have leaf rear springs, or they're classified as passenger-carrying vehicles and attract much higher registration and road tax fees. However, it’s not just Thai practice that keeps the leaf rear spring going: it’s a brilliantly simple piece of engineering. 

The leaf spring is a marvellous invention, which is why it’s been with us for centuries. A semi-elliptic pack can be made stronger or weaker simply by adding or taking away leaves. A leaf-spring pack has variable-rate action, because the shorter, ‘helper’ leaves don’t do anything until the spring is compressed. Tight clamping and shaping of the leaves creates inbuilt self-damping as well.

So, why is the leaf spring relegated largely to utes these days? Ride quality and handling are its limitations, mainly because the spring has the job of locating as well as suspending the axle. If the spring is made short-travel to improve axle location and smooth-road handling, ride quality suffers.

Why not air rear suspension?

Along with high-pressure diesel injection, turbocharging and intercooling the trucking world pioneered air suspension. Heavy trucks and buses have been using air suspensions for 40-odd years and virtually all on-highway heavy trucks use drive-axle air suspensions.

Because of the height-adjustability of air suspension, a vehicle can be designed to have a low centre of gravity for optimum on-road handling and higher chassis clearance for construction site driving. No mechanical suspension can duplicate this design feature.

Air suspension’s other benefits include progressive-rate springing, automatic height and levelling control, and less mechanical vibration transfer to the chassis and bodywork.
However, the only air suspension option available in the light commercial market is at the rear end of some European vans. C’mon ute makers!

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