BUYERS GUIDE
FIVE UTE COMPARISON - December 2015
OTA tested five 2016-model extended-cab utes on and off road.

We compare the 2015 Isuzu Ute D-Max with four 2016 model year upgraded utes: Ford Ranger, Toyota HiLux, Mitsubishi Triton and Nissan Navara. OTA chose extended-cab versions to test.

Never has the choice been so broad in the working 4WD ute and tray-back market. In the past few years we’ve seen increasing comfort levels, usability and sophistication of dual-cab pickups expand their traditional appeal as farm and site run-arounds, to being sensible and safe family vehicles.

Much of that panache has rubbed–off onto the true working models as well.

With so much fresh metal in the market in 2015-16, Outback Travel Australia took a look at the state-of-play of Australia’s working pick-up market.

The test vehicles

five ute comparoThe Toyota Hilux has been the top selling commercial vehicle for a while, thanks to not only its simple, stoic design, but to Toyota’s dealership efforts with service and back-up.

The 2016 Hilux went on sale in October 2015 and despite Toyota’s marketing claims of it being ‘all new’ its chassis and body are revisions of the previous series launched in 2005. Nothing wrong with that, folks, as the old one was a good ‘un but it was showing its age in some areas.

The latest turbo diesel engines (2.4 and 2.8 litres) are all-new, as is Toyota’s  fitment of swing-out rear doors on the $44,490 Hilux SR Extra Cab manual we tested.  

Mitsubishi Triton has a similar story to tell – new engines in a body/chassis that is extensively redesigned. Triton has been a terrific value rig for the past few years and that situation continues, with the 2016 Club-Cab Chassis manual we tested starting at $35,290.

However, there’s no automatic transmission in this model, which will disappoint some.

five ute comparoMitsubishi’s warranty is five years and now 100,000km -  less than the 130,000km offered on the previous generation.

Get critical with the tick-list and there are a few short cuts in some areas, yet in others the Triton excels, such as the design and build quality of our Club-Cab’s Aussie alloy tray. You’d better like that tray, too, because there’s no tub on Triton Club Cab.

Nissan owners may argue to the contrary, but the Ford Ranger is the first vehicle to loosen Hilux’s grip on the ute market in the past decade.

Designed partly in Australia, but – like the other four brands we tested – built in Thailand, the Ranger was launched three years ago but has been updated recently with new styling and some enhancements under the skin.

The Ranger is styled big; high windows sills and tub sides means it has a strong presence - if you’re into that stuff.
More practical tradies may notice the tray (of dual cabs, in particular) is shorter than most and the high sides can make loading more difficult.

five ute comparoOur test $52,390 XLT Ranger was the only model Ford had available for assessment - one level up from the no-bling $44,790 XL – and was powered by the biggest engine in this ute class now: an impressive five-cylinder 3.2 with our test vehicle’s six-speed auto or a six-speed manual. A 2.2-litre four is available in some 4WD and 2WD models.  

The Mazda BT-50 version that we didn’t test is mechanically almost identical to the Ford, so nearly all our findings on the Ranger apply to the BT-50.

Isuzu Ute’s D-Max has been popular since the brand was launched here around seven years ago. Once almost identical mechanically to the Holden Rodeo (since renamed Colorado) the new-series D-Max (launched in 2012) continues to share basic architecture – the design of the body and chassis - with the GM product but has its own 3.0-litre diesel in contrast to GM’s VM 2.8.

five ute comparoThere is a D-Max SX $33,900 cab/chassis with heavier-duty rear suspension, but our test unit was a $44,000 top-spec LS-U Space Cab. Isuzu’s warranty is five years/130,000km.

Nissan’s 2016 Navara 4WD ute range comes in RX, ST and ST-X equipment levels.

All new Navaras are powered by a new-generation 2.3-litre, common-rail diesel, but lower-spec RX models have a single turbo version with 120kW and 403Nm, and ST and ST-X models have a twin-turbo version, with 140kW and 450Nm. Our test unit was a $45,490 seven-speed automatic-transmission ST.

Unlike the top-shelf, rear-coil-spring Dual Cab models the King Cab rides on leaf rear springs.

 Like all the new Navaras the King Cab has a power-sliding rear window section that could aid ventilation in a ute tub fitted with a canopy. (In Thailand its main use is probably for a ute-taxi driver to communicate with passengers sitting on picnic chairs in the ute!)

Extended cab equipment

five ute comparoBeing extended cabs, all these vehicles offer plenty of space within the cabin for safe storage of tools and equipment – or if you’re looking for adventure, they offer good scope for a tradie or tourer fit-out.

We reckon a fridge installed on a slide could be fitted to all of them, but the Mitsubishi’s doors don’t quite open as far as the others do, so it might be just a little tight between the open door and the side of a fridge. The Mitsubishi’s rear door handles require reaching further into the cabin to operate, too.

Rear seat accommodation is vestigial and suitable for very short trips by grown-ups. However even for short trips, we’d like to see head restraints for short-termers in the D-Max and Ranger.

The D-Max’s and the Navara’s rear seats fold up against the rear wall of the cab in a neat and compact manner. The Mitsubishi’s fold-up, but, annoyingly, they’re left hanging in the air with tether straps. The Ranger and Hilux’s seat bases don’t fold-up but are easily removed  - especially the Hilux’s.

Of these five, only the Hilux’s engine bay is designed with the fitment of a second battery in mind, for powering camping or workplace equipment.

On the road

five ute comparoOur blacktop test loop enabled us to get a feel for these five vehicles before loading them with nearly half a tonne each for more on-road driving.

In particular, Toyota impressed with its hushed cabin.

All our testers managed to get comfy behind the reach- and tilt-adjust steering in the HiLux, but the traditional bouncy ride was still evident. (Historically, Toyota has benchmarked its new HiLux model against the outgoing one and it’s high time the company looked harder at its competitors.)

The Toyota’s touch-screen audio is theoretically easy and intuitive to use but fat fingers and a moving vehicle mean you must brace your hand with a thumb or pinky.

However, even our digitally-deranged testers managed to hook-up a phone in seconds without instruction and failed to that so easily with the other four. So thumbs-up for Toyota’s intuitive and simple interface.

Thankfully, too, the Hilux retains an old-school conventional key. Adjustable headlights? Great idea.

Internet heroes will moan about it being smaller and offering only a handful of kilowatts more than the old D4D 3.0-litre diesel but the numbers – or lack of them – don’t tell the true story.  On-road the new engine is not far short of sensational in the effortless way it gets the Hilux moving from a standstill. There are push-button Power and Eco modes, too, which change the engine’s character – yes really - from its default setting when the vehicle is started.      

In contrast, the Mitsubishi seems to have a hole in the power delivery just above idle and some of our test drivers managed to stall the Triton repeatedly. Like many recent diesels, it needs 1500rpm before it’s really awake.

The Triton cabin was noisier and looser, with some visible movement of the doors against their rubbers and higher levels of transmitted wind and road noise through the cabin and steering wheel.

The audio unit was difficult to see and navigate, and the driver’s seat of our test vehicle looked used, despite being only a few months old.

The D-Max, Ranger and Navara were autos: five speed in the D-Max; six-speed in the Ford and seven-speed in the Navara, so this trio offered a more relaxing gait than Hilux and Triton manuals.

The Ford – with its extra pot and capacity - seemed to ride along on a wave of torque with the tacho needle hardly rising or dipping as it stepped up through the ratios.

The autos featured ‘sport’ modes but the Ranger and the Navara felt the sharpest and more responsive to kick-down, while the D-Max needed manual gear selection to get the most from its engine.  

The Ranger’s ergonomics were marred by an annoying refection of the dashboard into the windscreen and poorly-sited heater/aircon controls and a confusing instrument display.  

The Navara’s driving position was judged the worst, with no steering wheel reach adjustment, insufficient seat height variation and headrests that were too close to the front seat occupants’ heads.  

The Navara was also plagued by a very noisy engine cooling fan at low speeds and in traffic.

Loaded

We assessed these vehicles for work by loading them a middling weight of 450kg.

The Mitsubishi settled on its springs the least with the load, retaining around 50mm travel to its bump-stops and our on-road loop confirmed this rig’s capability when loaded.

The Toyota and the Navara had around 45mm remaining travel above their leaf springs. Longer on this new model, the HiLux’s leaves have a wider spring base than before.

The D-Max and Ranger both had around 30mm remaining - little more than an inch in the old money. Would these two vehicles suffer the most with more load and a trailer on the tail?

In performance terms, the vehicles hardly noticed the extra mass. The Toyota’s new motor was a standout with a load on board, able to pull without fuss from 1000rpm. The three autos were fuss-free but the Mitsubishi’s off-idle torque black-hole felt worse. An auto solves the problem, as we discovered during a crew-cab test, but it’s not available on this model.

Economy varied from the HiLux's 8.4L/100km average to the Ranger's 9.3L/100km. The others were around 8.6-8.9L/100km.

Off the beaten track

Being 4WD vehicles, off-road performance is high on the list of criteria for most buyers of these vehicles.

In the Good Ol’ Days, a 4WD vehicle’s forward progress was usually halted by one wheel being off the ground, resulting in all the engine’s effort being wasted spinning it and the second-worst-grip tyre – usually the one diagonally opposite – so generous suspension travel was important.

These days, even with a wheel – or two wheels – in the air, off-road traction control (using the ABS brake hardware) drives a 4WD, with the electronic system reining-in wheelspin and the damage it can cause to the driveline. The Ranger, Navara and HiLux had diff locks, too.

All the test vehicles had cancellation of stability control – not traction control - when low range was engaged and that’s important when you’re on soft and very slippery surfaces, and need the vehicle to accept some ‘fishtailing’ in order to assure progress. Traction control remained effective in preventing useless wheelspin.

However, when the rear axle diff lock was engaged traction control was cancelled and that left the front wheels without spin control. We don’t think that’s a good idea.

All five handled our rocky test slope with ease and the only issues we had were with grounding the stupid side steps and plastic front bumpers that makers love to fit.  

Any of these utes should make a brilliant work and play vehicle. The Mitsubishi Triton wins the value for money stakes by a country kilometre, but it’s a much more pleasant vehicle with an automatic box, not the manual we tested.   

Other important criteria are after-sales support and resale value, where the HiLux outscores all the others.
 

Real-world payload and towing issues

Every ute maker claims at least a nominal one-tonne payload figure and more than three tonnes trailer towing capacity for several 4WD utes in its range, but you need to check spec sheets and real-world tare weights for the true position.

We took the five extended-cab test vehicles over a certified weighbridge with a driver aboard each. Fuel tanks were around half-full.

Tare weights were: Ranger 2.30 tonnes; HiLux 2.12 tonnes; D-Max 2.10 tonnes; Navara 2.10 tonnes and Triton 2.00 tonnes. That gave the Ranger a real-world payload of 900kg; the HiLux, 930kg; the D-Max, 850kg; the Navara, 810kg and the Triton (steel tray-back, not ute tub), 900kg. None is a one-tonner!

This situation is complicated by the fact that many ute buyers fit after-market accessories – especially ‘tradie’ utes that may be used for recreational purposes, as well as work.

Typical tradie additions are a 'roo bar with a winch (50kg); a second battery (30kg); tow bar (10kg); full long-range fuel tank (140kg); tools (10kg); recovery kit (10kg) and a full fridge (50kg).

Add a crew and it's obvious that you may well have used up half the available payload. Impose the towball weight of a heavy plant trailer – often 200kg or more – and you have very little payload capacity left. Note that towball weight is behind the rear axle, so its effect on rear axle weight is multiplied by around 33-percent: a 300kg ball weight translates to around a 400kg load on the rear axle – more if an extended hitch is fitted.

Even if the loaded vehicle doesn't exceed the vehicle maker's GVM there's a chance that the front or rear axle mass limit may be exceeded, because of too much weight on the front or rear axle.

Ford has made a rod for its own back by insisting on at least 10-percent of trailer gross weight be on the towball, despite clear evidence from UK research that 6-8-percent is the ideal amount.

Mining companies commonly fit bars, side rails and winches to their site utes and some 4WDs overload their front axles when that’s done. Others overload their rear axles with only a modest amount of freight in the back, but with a heavy ball weight on the towbar.

One way of transferring rear axle towball weight is to use weight distribution bars on the hitch, but this needs to be done carefully: not so much weight transfer that there’s a risk of damage to the vehicle’s towbar and chassis, or front axle overload.

To illustrate these points, let’s compare these five ute offerings - Ford Ranger, Toyota HiLux, Isuzu D-Max, Nissan Navara and Mitsubishi Triton – against the LandCruiser 70 Series.

Five of these utes have a trailer mass rating of 3500kg and the Triton rates 3100kg trailer mass.

The Ranger has a GVM rating of 3200kg and a GCM rating of 6000kg.
The HiLux has a GVM rating of 3050kg and a GCM rating of 5850kg (manual) 5650kg (auto).
The D-Max has a GVM rating of 2950kg and a GCM rating of 5950kg
The Navara has a GVM rating of 2910kg and a GCM rating of 5910kg.
The Triton has a GVM rating of 2900kg and a GCM rating of 5885kg.
The LandCruiser has a GVM rating of 3300kg and a GCM rating of 6800kg.

It’s obvious from the above figures that the only one of these that can be loaded to its GVM and still legally tow a 3500kg trailer is the LandCruiser. Its 3300kg GVM plus trailer 3500kg GTM adds up to the vehicle’s permitted 6800kg GCM (3300+3500=6800). The only concession is that the trailer ball weight must be counted as part of the vehicle’s GVM.

On paper, the Ranger looks like the next best, but if the Ranger is at its GVM its trailer capacity drops to 2800kg (3200+2800=6000), while the lighter Navara at GVM can tow 3000kg (2910+3000=5910).
The Triton is rated to tow ‘only’ 3100kg, but if it’s at full GVM it can still pull 2985kg.

Another consideration is axle capacities: vehicle makers used to allow a considerable margin between the sum of the axle ratings and the vehicle’s rated GVM. The LandCruiser continues this practice, having a combined axle capacity of 3780kg, which is 480kg greater than its 3300kg GVM.

In contrast, the other utes’ total front and rear axle capacities are only around 100-200kg above their vehicle GVM ratings.
The ‘Cruiser also has a much higher rear axle rating (2300kg) than the lighter-duty utes and it’s the rear axle that has to handle most of the imposed load.

You need to do your sums carefully before you invest in a 4WD ute – especially if it needs to be loaded and required to tow a heavy trailer. The two have to work in concert.





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