Ute Shootout: Reviewing the eight best dual cab 4x4 utes

By: Matt Wood, Video by: Anna Pastukhova


With utes a growing accessory to the transport and logistics fleet, we assemble eight of the country’s best dual cab 4x4 utes for three days of intensive testing to find the good, the not so good, and the ugly

  

The good old Aussie ute may be on its last gasp, but 2015 has been one of the biggest years yet for new load lugging, trailer towing, hay haulers.

Not just any old utes but one of the fastest growing parts of the Australian new car market, the dual cab 4x4.

The modern diesel 4x4 ute now wears designer undies beneath its overalls, fast becoming as much an executive assistant and trouble-shooter support as a tradies' or farmers' work tool.

A much anticipated all new Toyota Hilux has arrived in Australia as well as an all new Nissan Navara and a mostly new Mitsubishi Triton.

Given the amount of action on the ute front we put eight of Australia’s best utes head to head comparison both on and off road to see which load lugging work and play off roader stacks up as the king of the ute heap.

The assembled throng are all mid-spec automatics which tend to represent the most popular variants amongst buyers at present.

And all save the Volkswagen Amarok and the Mitsubishi are equipped with a shift on the go 2-speed transfer case. The Triton has a shift on the go all-wheel drive mode as well as four high and four low while the auto Vee-Dub is full-time all-wheel-drive. 

We use the Melbourne 4x4 Proving Ground at Mt Cottrell, west of Melbourne to throw these machines against off-road obstacles and river crossings before going for a drive in the bush and on the open road.

Which does the best job in the dirt? Which ticks the boxes as the best all-rounder? And which is just the best damn truck to drive? We had a crack at finding out.

 

Nissan Navara NP300

Ute Shoot Out -Nissan Navara NP300_exterior

The all new Navara NP300 has been keenly anticipated as this platform will also form the basis of double cab ute offerings from both Renault and Mercedes Benz.

The outgoing Navara STX-550 flagship was the most powerful dual cab 4x4 ute on the Aussie market and it went like a rocket. The new banger has some big shoes to fill.

Exterior and towing

The new styling of the Navara puts it in line with the rest of the Nissan stable, but does make it a little bland in comparison with others on the market.

In saying that, it does however have a rather cool sliding rear window.

The flared up edges of the NP300’s bonnet can make it difficult to see where the front wheels are going in the bush and the low seating position adds to this.

Angle of approach and departure are excellent, wheel base and ground clearance mean the Nav does have a tendency to rub its belly on some obstacles.

Towing is the class benchmark of 3.5 tonnes.

Engine and transmission

Under the bonnet lies a twin turbo 2.3 litre that creates 140kW and 450Nm. A choice of 7-speed auto or 6-speed manual is available and lower spec models are offered in single turbo guise.

In our ST, the 2.3 litre donk punched numbers above its weight but feels laggy under 2000rpm. It is very quiet and civilized but needs a boot full to get it moving on and off road.

Cab and controls

The Navara’s highlight is its interior which lends a bit of swank to what could be cold and commercial.

It’s comfortable from the driver’s seat and everything is easy to get to.

However, visibility is a bit of an issue with the Nav especially when off-road.

Ride and handling

Ute Shoot Out -Nissan Navara NP300_ride

The most significant feature of the NP300 is the multi-link coil sprung rear end which makes it the only vehicle in our pack of haulers that doesn’t sit on leaf springs.

The coil sprung rear end however doesn’t feel overly sorted. It copes quite well off road in the articulation stakes and romps up our hill climb course.

 It doesn’t however feel great on dirt or asphalt surfaces.

The Nav tends to wallow regardless of road surface and feels quite vague in the steering.

In an effort to make the NP300 more car like in dynamics but still retain its truck usability it’s ended up compromised in both areas.

However, it’s worth mentioning that the newly released NP300 single cab and extra cab models all ride on traditional leaf springs.

 

Mitsubishi Triton GLX-R

Ute Shoot Out -Mitsubishi Triton _exterior

If there was a winner for the truck that has been hit by the ugly stick the hardest it would be the Triton. It looks like an awkward teenager with braces.

But, look under the skin and there’s a lot to like about the all new Mitsubishi GLX-R.

Exterior and towing

The short wheel base of the Triton makes it quite maneuverable, but it pays a price for this by having quite a lot of overhang behind the rear wheels.

Angle of departure isn’t great and off road our tow bar spent quite a bit of time buried in the dirt. It also means a lot of the load area is behind the rear axle as well.

Towing is at the lower end of the segment expectation at 3.1 tonnes.

Engine and transmission

A new twin-turbo 2.4 litre engine makes 131kW and 400Nm and it can be had with either a 5-speed auto or 6-speed stick shift. Towing is at the lower end of the segment expectation at 3.1 ton.

The new engine is a vast improvement. There’s quite a bit of turbo lag under 1800rpm but once the tacho needle clears this figure it does get going quite nicely.

But just as importantly it’s also very quiet and civilized. The new driveline is a big step in the right direction for Mitsubishi.

Cab and controls

The new Triton is much comfier to sit in than the previous model as well. It’s now a nice place to be.

The cab has gained an extra 20mm which has added to leg room in the back. Some of the plastics are still a little harsh but the overall effect is still a big improvement for the Triton.

The simple instrument cluster is easy to read and sports a drive mode indicator in the centre, which leaves no excuse for forgetting to switch out of low-range.

The completely revamped Triton is also very well appointed inside and out. The Mitzi has the obligatory shift on the fly 4-wheel drive dial.

But where the mid and high spec Triton models differ from the rest is the additional all-wheel-drive mode that can be selected on the Super Select II 4WD system.

Basically, you can leave the Triton in this mode at all times if you want, especially if you are on icy or gravel roads and the front diff will kick in when needed.

Highway speeds aren’t an issue. For the rough stuff there’s still high and low range available.

Ride and handling

Ute Shoot Out -Mitsubishi Triton _ride

Our hill climb course isn’t kind to the GLX-R Triton we are driving, it makes it to the top but finds it hard to keep all wheels on the ground while doing so.

Axle articulation is pretty ordinary. Angle of approach is fine on most obstacles but coming back down the other side generally sees the Mitzi drag its bum.

On the road the Triton can seem a little jiggly on bad road surfaces but inside the cab is quiet and comfortable.

The Triton’s forte is really a bang for buck proposition and it’s reasonably competent in most roles that are thrown at it.

The new Triton is a massive improvement on previous incarnations.

 

Isuzu D-Max

Ute Shoot Out -Isuzu D-Max _exterior

Exterior and towing

These days the Isuzu D-Max often suffers from plain jane syndrome. What is essentially a good meat and potatoes ute is often overshadowed by the bling and tech offered by some of its competitors.

Sharing a platform with the Holden Colorado also muddies the waters as many consumers still think they are the same truck with a different badge. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s certainly not the most sexy vehicle here but it’s also looking at an update this year.

Towing is the class benchmark of 3.5 tonnes.

Engine and transmission

The D-Max uses an Isuzu 3 litre turbo-diesel which provides 130kW and 380Nm, as opposed to the Holden’s more powerful 2.8 litre VM Motori unit.

Transmission choice is a 5-speed auto or 5-speed manual. Isuzu has also gone their own way with suspension as well. 4-wheel drive is also a flick of a dial away when needed.

While those power figures may seem modest when compared with the rest of our entourage, the D-Max still punches above its weight on and off-road.

The engine and transmission talk to each other very well, it’s not a whisper quiet unit but neither does it sound like a tractor.

Cab and controls

Once planted in the driver’s seat, the cabin isn’t exactly inspiring. Our mid spec LS still retains more of a work truck feel than the others.

The D-Max does have the same poky instrument cluster and plain console as the Holden but for some reason it seems to get away with it more easily.

Ride and handling

4x4

Hill climbing isn’t really the Isuzu’s forte but it still has a crack at the title and succeeds in the end. That’s the thing about the Isuzu it just does everything, it may not always excel at it but it’ll do it.

Axle articulation isn’t fantastic but the ‘Max’ will generally still manage to scrabble its way to most places. The lack of a rear diff-lock makes life difficult for the Isuzu off-road at times.

On the open road the Isuzu is a little coarse and noisy but on the whole it’s an easy drive to live with. It also handles quite well for what it is, if a little crude ride-wise.

The Isuzu and the Holden are the only vehicles to get a little wet inside while we were playing in the river so perhaps wading isn’t the D-Max’s forte either.

The D-Max is clearly a generation behind its recently updated competitors but that doesn’t detract from it being an honest if not luxurious truck that will tackle most of what’s thrown at it.

 

Holden Colorado

Ute Shoot Out -Holden Colorado _exterior

The Colorado has played the value card for some time now. Yet the Holden ute is starting to look a little long in the tooth now in comparison to the competition.

While it’s admittedly a tough little truck, Colorado seems to lack finesse in many areas such as ride and handling. This year has seen more sound deadening added and some suspension tweaks.

Engine and transmission

A 2.8 litre 4 cylinder Duramax turbo-diesel engine gives the Colorado 147kW and 440Nm of torque. Auto variants get 500Nm in the torque department. This is all up there with the pack leaders.

The Holden offers either a 6-speed manual of a 6-speed auto.

Firing up the Durmax engine reveals that it has improved a little in terms of noise, but it still feels raw and agricultural.

Cab and controls

Our LTZ Colorado certainly looks the part, but climbing aboard after being behind the wheel of others in this group makes the Holden feel generationally lagging.

The instrument cluster has never been a highlight and feels small and busy.

The centre stack console is functional enough to operate though it too is starting to look a little dated.

Seating is comfy enough and the Holden doesn’t exactly feel lacking in the equipment department.

Ride and handling

Holden

Thrown at the hill climb course the Holden really struggles to keep its feet on terra firma and really needs to be pushed to get it to the top.

A lack of diff locks means momentum is really the only way to get the Holden to the top. There’s plenty of torque on tap but there needs to be plenty of exploration with the right foot to find it.

The Colorado has improved out on the open road however. While the engine still has a raw note to it the overall rumble through the cab has been dulled somewhat.

Cruising on the highway and even rough dirt roads seems to be the Colorado’s forte.

The addition of "Comfort Suspension" to the LTZ variant we drove has given the pick up a more cosseting ride than before.

Push it a bit harder off road though and the Holden does feel lacking in both ability and finesse.

 

Toyota Hilux

Ute Shoot Out -Toyota Hilux _exterior_

We’ve had spy pics and scuttle butt for the past 18 months or so but the 8th generation of Australia’s favourite fourby ute has landed.

The traditionally agricultural Toyota Hilux has given up quite a bit of ground to competitors over the last 5 years or so as levels of kit, grunt and towing capacity offered by others have risen dramatically.

If the Hilux was to retain its market dominance Toyota really needed to nail the new ute.

Exterior and towing

It may not have the tough presence of the Ranger but the Hilux is still a good looking, if inoffensive truck.

Towing capacity is now up to 3.5 ton, though auto models make do with 3.2 ton.

Wading depth is now up to 700mm.

Engine and transmission

As the trend in engine downsizing continues globally, the new Toyota has also obliged replacing the old 3 litre unit with an all-new 2.8 litre powerplant.

This new donk is shared with the new Fortuna model and the new Prado and puts out 130kW and 450Nm in auto guise. The manual models get a torque figure of 420Nm.

Gear wise the Hilux get six of the best in either manual or auto. Plus the ‘Lux gets shift on the go controls for the 2-speed transfer case which is a first for the traditionally basic Toyota.

Cab and controls

Much discussion is had about the interior. I feel it’s great where some of my colleagues think it looks like it has been designed by three different people.

The touch screen multi-media unit in our SR model looks somewhat like somebody has glued a tablet device to the dash, however it’s nice to know that down the track any issue it may have won’t require the dashboard to be pulled to bits to fix it.

The inside cab feels like a giant step in evolution, yet it still retains a certain simplicity.

Ride and handling

Ute Shoot Out -Toyota Hilux

Tub capacity has grown slightly, attention has been paid to the rear springs in terms of mounting points and length and Toyota is claiming 20% better wheel articulation than before.

The engine is a thing to behold, quiet yet quite willing when asked to put power to the ground. It is easily the best performer when it comes to our hill climbing course.

Locking the rear diff turns off the front axle traction control helping the Toyota make the savage climb look quite easy.

Out of the whole pack the Hilux did the best job of keeping all its feet on the ground.

You may expect a bit of bang and clang from the rear of the Hilux out on gravel roads and crappy asphalt yet the Hilux has improved markedly in these areas.

And handling is quite predictable.Noise and insulation has also gone ahead in a big way.

The new Hilux is a massive and much needed step in the right direction for Australia’s biggest brand.

It’s retained a certain simplicity in some areas yet has improved where needed the most.

 

Ford Ranger

Ute Shoot Out -Ford Ranger

The arrival of the newly updated Ford Ranger happened in conjunction with the arrival of the Ford Everest SUV which shares the same platform.

A new face and a new interior have given the popular pick up a lift as well as the introduction of Electronic Power Assisted Steering (EPAS).

Exterior and towing

The introduction of this truck set the bar for local ute buyers in terms of grunt and towing capacity and sales figures have reflected this accordingly.

It’s a great looking truck with a distinctive tough looking face and it’s currently the biggest selling Ford vehicle in the country.

Engine and transmission

Mechanically little has changed save some finesse on the fuel injection front. The Ranger still offers a choice of 2.2-litre or 3.2 litre turbo diesel engines and a choice of 6-speed manual or 6-speed auto transmissions.

By far the most popular engine is the well regarded 5 cylinder 3.2 litre. 147 kW and 470Nm of torque make for a punchy truck to punt around.

Cab and controls

Inside the Ranger is a nice place to be with only a little commercial hard edge. The digi dash with analogue speedo is attractive and functional.

The addition of the Sync-2 multi-media system also gives it a lift inside.

Dirt road and asphalt manners are excellent and the cab is well insulated from dust and water.

The EPAS steering system is touted to reduce fuel consumption by removing the traditional hydraulic steering pump from the engine.

Ride and handling

Ute Shoot Out -Ford Ranger _wading

On the move the Ford feels and is big but has torque aplenty when a bit of oomph is needed. Ranger took some encouraging when it came to our hill climb course.

Lack of a diff-lock held it back somewhat in this regard. For the most part it tackled obstacles with ease and aplomb and the off-road hill descent control is excellent.

The 800mm wading depth of the Ford made river crossings a cinch.

Axle articulation in the rough stuff is quite good as well. Angle of approach and departure is also decent for a truck of this kind.

It is a big truck but it has the grunt to back it up both on and off road. The 5 pot diesel sounds a little grumbly but kick it with the right foot and the Ranger springs to life.

However, the light low speed feel of the Ranger’s steering feels a bit dead when off road and lacks some feel when negotiating obstacles.

 

Volkswagen Amarok

Ute Shoot Out -Volkswagen Amarok _exterior

The stylish and sophisticated Volkswagen Amarok just impresses at every turn. The Vee-Dub may do things a little different in comparison to the others but that doesn’t make it any less capable.

It’s the most car-like of our assembled throng.

Exterior and towing

The VW is quite a nice looking truck, though some may say it’s a little boring to look at.

It has the biggest tub in its class though towing lags behind the others at 3-tonnes.

Engine and transmission

A diminutive bi-turbo (sequentially turbo charged) 2 litre engine puts out a surprising 132kW and 420Nm. There’s a smooth shifting 8-speed auto on offer or a 6-speed manual.

Manual variants use a 2-speed switchable transfer case where auto models are full-time all-wheel-drive. Hence the 4Motion badge.

It takes a lot of pedal to get the 2 litre engine to sound anything but civilized. 

Cab and controls

Inside, the Amarok feels very German commercial and a bit plain. But this year sees the inclusion of a rear view camera as standard and revised parking sensor set up.

One of the advantages of the 4-motion self-shifter is that there’s no stopping to select another off-road mode. You can quite literally drive off a highway and up a hill side without having to touch a dial.

If the front wheels are needed to give a helping hand they’ll kick in when required.

The hi-stall torque converter in the ZF auto also helps with low speed tractability. And the Amarok tenaciously tackles our hill climb with barely a whimper though a locking rear diff helps out.

It is very no fuss.

Ride and handling

Ute Shoot Out -Volkswagen Amarok _ride

The Volksy is as plush as they come in terms of ride. In a segment that isn’t renowned for smooth riding trucks the Amarok is easily the most car like.

This is mainly due to the Comfort Pack option for the rear springs which reduce the payload by a couple of hundred kg’s but gives the ute a more car like ride.

My main issue with the Amarok is the lack of mechanical empathy from the driver’s seat. The VW nicely isolates you from the outside world and makes a lot of the off-road decisions for you. You don’t get a lot of feedback in gnarly terrain.

On roads both dirt and highway there’s not a great deal separating the Amarok from some SUVs on the market. It’s a smooth nice performing ute that delivers power in an easily controlled manner.

As a dual purpose family vehicle it would be very easy to live with.  

 

Mazda BT-50

BT-50

Mazda and Ford have had a long history of sharing commercial vehicle platforms.

Yet the launch of this incarnation of the Mazda BT-50 back in 2012 was the first time that Mazda has used a Ford ute platform rather than vice versa.

Exterior and towing

Unfortunately where the BT has suffered is styling. It’s certainly kept its aftermarket bull bar and driving light suppliers busy as owners seek to man up the swoopy looks of the big Mazda pick-up.

The competitive pricing of the BT makes it a valid alternative for those wanting a Ranger yet its brand image has suffered in the shadow of its more rugged looking twin.

This year has seen an updated dash and stiffer suspension dampening however the BT still feels half a generation behind some of the others on offer, the PX Ranger included.

Towing is the same as the Ranger at 3.5 tonne level.

Engine and transmission

Like the Ranger that it draws its drivetrain from, the Mazda has good numbers on offer. The 147kW/470Nm 3.2 litre 5 pot diesel makes use of a 6 speed auto or manual.

Cab and controls

The Mazda is a little uninspiring if admittedly practical inside.

It all feels a little dark and gloomy. However it’s comfortable enough and well appointed.

Ride and handling

Ute Shoot Out -Mazda BT-50_ride

Off-road the Mazda is every bit as capable as the Ford. And the BT-50 grumbles up our hill climb without much in the way of fuss.

Feedback through the steering wheel gives a lot more feel than the Ford’s EPAS system and makes you feel much more engaged with what’s going on in the bush.

Maybe it’s the influence of all the curves but the Mazda doesn’t feel as ballsy as the Ford even though it is. However it certainly gets the job done.

On the open road the BT-50 doesn’t have the same NVH finesse as the Ford but it still compares favorably with the other contenders.

The suspension tune update has taken some wallow out of the Mazda and it plants itself firmly on the road whether loose gravel or open highway.

The BT-50 is like the ignored little brother to a gifted older sibling and I’m sure that many get sick of comparisons with the Ranger.

However if you take the Ford out of the picture it can still hold its own in the company of its competitors and certainly ticks the value box for high spec 4x4 utes.

 

The Verdict

The Amarok, Ranger, BT-50 and Hilux are all easy contenders as a top four.

Luckily it isn’t just up to me, though I have my opinions. I am also able to draw on the expertise and opinions of the guys from 4x4 Australia.

Editor Matt Raudonikis, and long-time 4x4 experts John (Roothy) Rooth, Fraser Stronach and Ron Moon who are all on hand to pitch their opinions and insights as to which of these utes is the best on and off road hauler.

After thorough and careful consideration, my pick of the best dual cab 4x4 ute is...

Toyota Hilux

Ute Shoot Out -Toyota Hilux _exterior_

It really came down to two main contenders, the Ford Ranger and the Toyota Hilux. The two main sales rivals in this market.

Both the Hilux and the Ranger have that quality from behind the wheel that makes them feel as if they’ve truly been designed for Aussie bush and back roads rather than just adapted.

However, the guernsey really does have to go to the Toyota. By tearing up the original plans and hitting the drawing board to create a jack of all trades ute, the new Hilux really nails it.

The new 2.8 litre power plant is quiet and civilized and has none of the diesel chatter of the outgoing donk.

Amongst other changes in mechanical approach a timing chain now replaces the old belt drive and compression have been lowered slightly.

It’s a smooth flexible engine that gives nothing away to the outgoing powerplant. In fact it’s a much nicer engine to use in all environments.

The Hilux isn’t daunted by any of the terrain we throw at it. In fact it handles most obstacles with nonchalance.

It may not be the best looking truck, or the most technologically advanced but Toyota’s traditionally conservative design and engineering approach has served the new vehicle well. It inspires confidence.

Flexibility really sums up the Toyota. Like the rest of the vehicles we drive there’s no denying it’s still an empty truck yet it feels comfortable on virtually all road surfaces.

And it loves a good belt through the bush.

The Toyota brand has been a country favourite and with the arrival of this new Hilux I don’t reckon that will be changing anytime soon.

 

2015 Ute Shootout Ranking:

2. Ford Ranger

A tough truck with a pretty face

The Ford Ranger has the grunt, the looks, the tech and the badge. But what about EPAS? Were we just being a bunch of luddites?

I’ve long held a soft spot for the current generation Ranger though I’m not overly sold on the EPAS steering.

It really is a gutsy truck that straddles the work play line easily and will happily eat a country mile day in and day out.

3. Volkswagen Amarok

Euro smooth with a hard edge where it counts

The Volkswagen has obvious appeal. It’s the most un-ute like out of the bunch and has real versatility and a big tub.

But would you buy one in the bush?

4. Mazda BT-50

The Ranger twin without the charisma

The BT-50 did everything its Ranger twin could do, but maybe we just thought it was too ugly.

5. Nissan Navara

A swanky new platform that loses some finesse in its execution

The Navara NP300 just doesn’t feel sorted enough at this stage.

Ride and handling, mainly due to the coil sprung rear end falls short of expectations, as does visibility and seating position.

That isn’t enough to get it over the line and into the top four.

6. Mitsubishi Triton 

Vastly improved but difficult to look at. Good value.

I’m a big fan of the Mitsubishi, especially from a bang for buck perspective.

It’s a great contender as a country ute but its wheel base limits the vehicle as a serious load lugger or off-roader. Towing is also limited to 3 ton.

7. Isuzu D-Max

A bread and butter truck that wears its heart on its sleeve...a bit boring? 

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the Isuzu. It does everything honestly if modestly.

It’s just suffering from a generational lag with new players landing on the market.

It just doesn’t bring the same level of kit and sophistication to the table that some of the others now possess.

8. Holden Colorado

Looks good on paper but doesn’t deliver with aplomb

And then there’s the Colorado. It looks better than the D-Max in the flesh and on paper but it’s always lagged in the execution.

It’s also suffering from the same ageing design issues that affect the D-Max in the company of some fresh new faces.

Check out these ute specs and more on WhichCar.com.au

 

 

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