forest ranger ute

Are Utes safe?

Buying a safe ute is one of the most important purchases we make, and choosing the right one can be difficult. Whether you plan to buy a new or used ute, make safety a high priority and do your homework. Compare the van’s safety features and star rating to other ute’s to see which one is the safest.

All of today’s dual-cab utes have five-star safety ratings and an alphabet soup of safety features, but what do all those letters stand for and how does dual-cab safety shape up?

Dual-cab ute safety is somewhat of a chicken or the egg question: Did dual-cab utes become the best-selling vehicles on Australian roads because they have increasingly offered the safety of conventional passenger cars or did their popularity, especially as family transport, mean that manufacturers needed to offer more and more safety kit to maintain their competitive advantage?

There are outside influences, too, including the Federal government mandating electronic stability control (ESC) on light commercial vehicles (LCVs) from the end of 2017, and demands for five-star ANCAP ratings for Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) from the industry. Remember, the dual-cab you see as your’ family car’ is still classified as an LCV by the government, and in lower-spec variants is used in work roles.

Here are the best buys you’ll find if you’re looking for a second-hand dual cab ute in Australia:

Ford Ranger

It continues to top the sales charts because it’s a good-looking ute and it’s great to drive – it’s also quite safe. Dual front, side chest and side head airbags are standard on all variants. Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) and ESC are also standard.

Several advanced safety features are available on higher-priced variants.

In September 2015 ANCAP gave the Ranger a score of 36.72 out of a possible 37 points. This score applies to all variants.

It recorded 15.72 (out of a possible 16) in the frontal offset test; 16 (out of 16) in the side impact test; 2 (out of 2) in the pole test; whiplash protection was deemed ‘Good’ (the maximum), pedestrian protection was ‘Acceptable’, and seat belt reminders scored 3 (out of 3).

The extensive list of other safety features includes traction control, six airbags, emergency stop signal, cruise control, adjustable speed limiter, hill-start assist, hill descent control, and trailer sway control.

Bluetooth-activated emergency assistance is standard on all models, and extra safety tech, such as a tyre-pressure-monitoring system, adaptive cruise control with forwarding collision alert, lane departure warning, lane-keep assist and a driver-impairment monitor is not available on base models but is standard or optional on higher variants.

There are two child seat upper anchorage points in all models (except the single cabs), and there are two ISOFIX anchor points.

The Wildtrak (from $60,090 for the auto, excluding on-roads) is the pick of the bunch because you get a raft of safety tech, including a reversing camera as standard, and can option up to the advanced tech mentioned above as part of its ‘Tech Pack’. 

We reckon a reversing camera, at the very least, should be standard across the range.

Holden Colorado

In August 2016 Colorado scored 34.89 out of a possible 37 points in ANCAP testing. This score applies to all variants.

According to the ANCAP report, “Dual frontal, side chest and side head-protecting airbags (curtains) and a driver knee airbag are standard. Advanced seat belt reminders are fitted to all fixed seats. Upper anchorages for child restraints are fitted to outboard rear seats of the Crew Cab.”

It recorded 13.89 (frontal offset); 16 (side impact); 2 (out of 2) in the pole crash test; whiplash protection was ‘Good’ (the maximum), pedestrian protection was ‘Good’, and seat belt reminders scored 3 (out of 3).

Dual-cab Colorado’s standard safety gear (on all variants) includes six airbags, ESC, EBD, EBA, hill launch assist, roll stability system, manual speed limiting/alarm, daytime running lights and trailer stability control.

Following-distance warning, lane support, reversing collision avoidance and a tyre-pressure monitoring system is available as standard or options on all variants except base models.

Only crew cab (dual cab) models have top tether anchorages (three) for the rear seat, and there are three ISOFIX location points.

We reckon Colorado needs more driver-assist tech, such as adaptive cruise control, AEB, automatic/intelligent speed-limiting, automatic high beam, and blindspot monitoring – none of these was available on any variant at the time of testing.

The top-shelf Colorado dual cab Z71 4×4 auto is $54,490 (excluding on-road costs).

Mazda BT-50

In December 2011 ANCAP gave the BT-50 35.72 out of a possible 37 points. This score applies to all variants.

In its assessment, ANCAP noted, “Dual front airbags, head-protecting side curtains, anti-lock brakes (ABS), EBD and ESC are standard,” ANCAP added, “Side thorax airbags are also standard except for single cabs with three front seats (bench seats). These variants, with four airbags, retain a five-star rating.”

The BT-50 scored 15.72 (frontal offset); 16 (side impact); 2 (out of 2) in the pole crash test; whiplash protection was ‘Not Assessed’, pedestrian protection was ‘Not Assessed’, and seat belt reminders scored 2 (out of 3).

There are two top-tether child-restraint anchor points – not ISOFIX – in the second row.

The current-model top-spec BT-50 GT dual cab ($53,790, excluding on-road costs) has a standard safety gear list that includes six airbags, reversing camera, ESC, EBA, emergency stop signal, high mount stop lamp, hill descent control, hill launch assist, intrusion-minimising brake pedal, load adaptive control, locking rear differential, Roll Stability Control (RSC), traction control, and trailer sway control.

We reckon there needs to be more high-tech safety gear as standard across the range.

Mitsubishi Triton

In April 2015 the Triton scored of 36.22 out of a possible 37 points in ANCAP testing. This score applies to all variants.

According to the ANCAP report: “Dual frontal, side chest, side head airbags (curtains) and a driver knee airbag are standard. EBD and EBA are also standard. Advanced seat belt reminders are fitted to all seats. Advanced crash avoidance features such as Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) are not available on any variants. A reversing camera is available on some variants.”

It recorded 15.22 (frontal offset); 16 (side impact); 2 (out of 2) in the pole crash test; whiplash protection was ‘Good’ (the maximum), pedestrian protection was ‘Acceptable’, and seat belt reminders scored 3 (out of 3).

The Triton’s safety gear includes six airbags, active stability control, active traction control, hill launch assist, trailer stability control – as well as reversing collision avoidance and daytime running lights (both standard or optional on everything except the base model).

There are two child-restraint anchoring points and two ISOFIX child-seat mountings.

We reckon it needs more driver-assist tech, such as AEB, lane support and a tyre-pressure monitoring system – none of these is currently available on any Triton variant.

Top-spec Exceed dual cab 4×4 auto is $48,000 (excluding on-road costs).

Nissan Navara

In July 2015 the dual-cab Navara scored 35.01 out of a possible 37 points in ANCAP testing (single and king cab Navara variants were awarded five-star ANCAP ratings in separate July 2015 tests. – scoring 34.01 and 35.01 points respectively).

“Dual frontal, side chest and head-protecting airbags (curtains) and driver knee airbag are standard. EBD, ESC, and EBA are also standard. Advanced seat belt reminders are fitted to all seats,” ANCAP noted on the dual-cab report.

It scored 14.06 (frontal offset); 16 (side impact); 2 (out of 2) in the pole crash test; whiplash protection was ‘Good’ (the maximum), pedestrian protection was ‘Marginal’, and seat belt reminders scored 3 (out of 3).

The Navara’s standard safety gear includes six airbags, traction control, Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) with Brake, Limited Slip Differential (LSD) and more.

There are three top-tether anchorages for child restraints in the dual-cab (second row), but no ISOFIX anchor points.

An electronic diff lock is standard on SL, ST and ST-X 4x4s. Some models have reversing camera (ST and ST-X) and reversing sensors (ST-X) as standard; hill start assist, and hill descent control are only available on top-spec ST-X 4×4.

We reckon, based on this report, the Navara needs more driver-assist tech, such as adaptive cruise control, AEB, lane support and a tyre-pressure monitoring system – none of these were available on any Navara variant at the time of testing in July 2015.

The range-topping Navara ST-X dual cab 4×4 auto is $54,490 (excluding on-road costs).

Toyota Hilux

Now into its eighth-generation, the Toyota HiLux has developed a well-earned reputation as one of Australia’s toughest and most reliable dual-cab utes. How has it earned this reputation? Well, let’s start with the obvious. The HiLux blends a comfortable suspension setup with a standout, refined 2.8L engine that never feels overwhelmed, no matter what you throw at it.

Elsewhere, the HiLux also offers precise steering, as well as a sleek interior that truly has all the trimmings, plus an excellent safety record, highlighted by ISOFIX anchor points. Pair this with an easy-to-use touchscreen entertainment system, and you get a fantastically well-rounded dual cab ute.

Volkswagen Amarok

If you like your dual-cab utes to be roomy, no-nonsense, and powerful, then look no further than the Volkswagen Amarok. First things first, the Amarok offers the biggest tray among its close competitors, which is a huge plus for anyone who regularly hauls large amounts of cargo. Better yet, the interior is still super spacious even with the larger tray, affording passengers plenty of head and legroom.

On-road, the Amarok delivers an extremely comfortable ride, while still packing a good amount of power under the hood. The Amarok also comes with permanent all-wheel drive and an automatic gearbox with eight ratios, which is again the most among its close competitors. The Amarok leaves no stone unturned in its pursuit of excellence.

Dual cab utes are a competitive and popular market in Australia, meaning there’s likely to be an option that suits your requirements.

Important factors to consider when purchasing a second-hand dual cab ute include storage space, power, fuel economy, safety, off-road performance, and reliability.

A used dual-cab ute can give you the best of both worlds: providing all of the toughness you’d expect from a dual cab ute, without the expensive price tag

Safety Features of UTEs

Dual-cab ute airbags 

Also known as Supplemental Restraint System (SRS), airbags first started to appear in US cars in the 1970s. In part, they were a response to the fact that, while seatbelts were mandatory fitment on cars in the USA by that time (and had been around for 20 years), it was more difficult to mandate people to wear them.

Where seatbelts require active participation from the driver, an airbag doesn’t, so the airbag solved the problem of the reluctant seatbelt wearer. Interestingly, the state of Victoria was the first jurisdiction in the world to make seatbelt wearing compulsory for the driver and front-seat passenger.

Initially, airbags were just for the driver and installed in the steering wheel. Next came the front passenger airbag installed in the dashboard. Both these airbags protect the head and upper body. Side airbags, installed in the seats and designed to protect the torso from side impacts, and driver’s knee airbags to protect the obvious soon followed.

These have been more recently joined by curtain airbags, installed in the body’s window and/or door pillars, and designed to shield the occupants’ heads from side impacts.

Dual-cab ute anti-lock brakes

Anti-lock brakes, or ABS, as it’s abbreviated from the German term ‘Anti-Blockier System’ as coined by automotive-systems manufacturer Bosch, came into use in aircraft in the 1950s to help them stop on wet or icy runways, and appeared ten years later in cars.

The original systems on both planes and cars were mechanical. Still, once electronic anti-lock brakes were developed for the groundbreaking faster-than-sound Concorde passenger jet in the 1960s, the ‘electronic’ die was cast, and electronic ABS began to appear on cars in the early 1970s.

Anti-lock brakes, as the name suggests, stop the brakes from locking up the wheel and the tyre skidding on the road surface. For emergency braking, ABS can modulate the braking pressure to provide maximum braking, which occurs just before wheel lock-up. This reduces stopping distances and, more importantly, allows the driver to maintain some degree of steering control, which is not possible with locked front wheels, and can even be difficult with locked rear wheels.

ABS uses wheel-speed sensors to tell it what speed each wheel is doing, how quickly it’s slowing down and whether it’s about to lock. That information is fed to an electronic control unit (ECU), or the ‘brain’ of the system, which then activates valves that modulate the hydraulic pressure at each of the individual brakes. ABS also uses a hydraulic pump to maintain the fluid pressure in the system.

The wheel-speed sensors are a simple but significant part of active safety technology and also underpin electronic traction control (ETC) and electronic stability control (ESC).

Dual-cab ute brake assist

Brake Assist, or BA, sometimes called EBA (for emergency brake assist) or BAS (for brake assist system), helps maximise braking effort in an emergency. It does this by measuring the speed of the brake application. If that speed exceeds a threshold that suggests the driver is trying to execute an emergency stop, it will apply maximum braking effort if the driver hasn’t already done so.

Research suggests that some 90 per cent of drivers fail to apply full brake pressure when faced with an emergency. BA works up to the point where the anti-lock brakes (ABS) take over and is only fitted to vehicles that already have ABS.

Dual-cab ute electronic brake-force distribution

Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) automatically varies the brake force on each wheel depending on the road surface, the speed and, importantly for utes, on the load, as this affects the attitude (nose up or nose down) of the vehicle.

Under most circumstances, and especially when a ute is unladen, the front wheels carry the most load and make the most braking, so less braking effort is applied to the rear wheels, so they don’t lock up. With more load in the tub or tray, the more braking effort is directed to the rear wheels. Like BA, EBD works in conjunction with ABS.

MORE: Automatic braking technology explained

Dual-cab ute electronic traction control

The development of Electronic Traction Control (ETC), starting in the 1970s, followed hard on the heels of anti-lock brakes. ETC shares the same basic hardware as ABS – wheel-speed sensors, a hydraulic pump and valving system – but requires new software programming, for where ABS stops a wheel from locking under braking, ETC stops a wheel from spinning under acceleration.

ETC was a response to increasingly more powerful cars and their propensity to break traction under acceleration on slippery roads common in winter in North America and Europe. Initial ETC systems used brake pressure on an individual wheel to stop it spinning, but ETC developed from there to a system that can also limit the engine power to bring wheelspin under control. ETC is also beneficial off-road. It’s like having an effective limited-slip differential at both ends of your 4×4.

Second-generation ETC systems for 4x4s add off-road ability and are specifically calibrated for off-road use. As such, off-road specific ETC is more like a locking diff than a good limited-slip diff in the off-road benefit it provides.

4×4 opinion: Traction control is the gift that keeps on giving

Dual-cab ute electronic stability control

Electronic Stability Control, or (ESC), goes under a large number of brand-specific names such as Electronic Stability Program, Vehicle Dynamic Control and Dynamic Stability Control, but they all attempt to do the same thing with varying degrees of finesse.

ESC first appeared on production cars in the 1980s and built on ABS, ETC using many of the component systems already in place. However, ESC introduces crucial new elements in the mix in the form of steer-angle, yaw, roll and lateral-acceleration sensors.

With information from those sensors, the ESC system is able to work out if the vehicle is heading in the direction steered by the driver, as measured by the steer-angle sensor, or heading somewhere else, as determined by the yaw, roll and lateral-acceleration sensors, as when happens when a vehicle goes into a slide or skid.

If the ESC determines this is the case, which it can often do before the driver realises anything is awry, it will work to counteract the skid or slide by applying the brakes on one or more wheels, often to varying degrees on each wheel, or by cutting the engine power.

While ESC is well proven as one of the most significant safety advances, it can be a hindrance off-road in sand or mud, so not what you necessarily want in a 4×4 when heading off-road.

The problem is that in sand or mud, where you’re countersteering to correct any small slides, the ESC’s reaction is to apply the brakes and/or cut engine power, neither of which you want when momentum is critical, as is generally the case in sand or mud. Typically ESC is automatically disabled when low-range is engaged, and there’s also a switch to disable the ESC for sand or mud driving manually.

The problem with ESC off-road is one of the reasons why some 4x4s are fitted with terrain-specific chassis-control systems (like Land Rover’s groundbreaking Terrain Response). When, for example, you select the ‘Sand’ mode on one of these systems, the ESC is desensitised, or even completely disabled.

Dual-cab ute trailer sway control

Trailer Sway Control builds on electronic stability control (ESC). It is a specific software program that works within the broader ESC system to counter any vehicle instability that arises from towing.

Typically that means towing caravans, boats, horse floats, off-road trailers or anything similar, and is particularly relevant for utes given they are so popular for towing. When towing something heavier than the tow vehicle, Trailer Sway Control is even more useful.

Towing instability can result from a tow rig where the weight distribution isn’t as good as it could be, or can come about with crosswinds, rough roads, higher speeds, off-throttle deceleration through corners or a myriad of other circumstances. If the towed element starts to sway from side to side, that causes an opposite-direction yaw moment at the rear of the tow vehicle which, unchecked, can increase in amplitude until the vehicle-trailer combination ‘jack knifes’ or possibly rolls.

When the Trailer Sway Control detects the beginnings of this type of oscillation, it can brake individual wheels or cut engine power to help restore the stability of the vehicle trailer combination.

Dual-cab ute lane keeping assist

Lane Keeping Assist is one of the newer safety technologies designed to help counter what can only be called poor driving, be that through inattention, distraction or allowing drowsiness to set in.

Lane Keeping Assist is distinct from Lane Departure Warning. Where the latter will warn the driver, generally with audible or visual alerts, that the vehicle is veering out of its lane, the former will help steer the vehicle back into its lane if the driver doesn’t.

In the case of the Ford Ranger, with its programmable electric power steering (EPS), this is very easy to achieve. In the case of the Toyota HiLux and the Mercedes-Benz X-Class V6, neither of which have EPS, selective brake application is used to create a yaw moment that steers the vehicle back into line.

Dual-cab ute blindspot monitoring

Blindspot Monitoring uses cameras to detect vehicles that are potentially hidden in the driver’s blindspots to the rear and side. The warnings are generally via a visual alert in the side mirrors and an audible chime. Blindspot monitoring is most useful on multi-lane roads and for detecting smaller vehicles such as motorcycles.

Dual-cab ute reversing camera

Reversing cameras are now standard fitment on all the popular dual-cab pick-ups, and even on some cab-chassis variants. The impetus for reversing cameras came from child injuries and deaths in driveway accidents, tragically most often from a parent running over one of their children.

Dual-cab ute rear cross-traffic alert

Rear Cross-Traffic Alert uses what is effectively a sophisticated wide-view rear camera to alert the driver, via the screen image and audible warnings, of traffic approaching at right angles across the rear of the vehicle. It’s a particularly useful feature in country towns with nose-to-kerb angle parking.

Dual-cab ute tyre pressure monitoring system

Tyre Pressure Monitoring System, or TPMS as it’s generally abbreviated to, keeps a check on the air pressure in each tyre using pressure sensors in each wheel.

The driver can bring up a display of the pressures in each tyre, but more usefully the system will warn the driver if a tyre is losing pressure generally well before the driver realises there is a problem. This potentially saves the tyre from completely deflating and being damaged beyond repair by being driven on when it is flat. Better still, it can help prevent a flat-tyre induced accident.

Given punctures and tyre damage is very much a commonplace event when driving off-road, especially on showroom-stock tyres, TPMS is an extremely worthwhile safety feature for a 4×4.

Dual-cab ute autonomous emergency braking

Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) is the key new safety technology that’s beginning to find its way into dual-cab utes, and it will be mandatory technology on all new cars sold in Australia by the early 2020s if current government plans come to fruition.

AEB is another of the newer safety technologies designed to counter inattentive driving, and it provides a safety net to counter the same.

AEB uses radar and/or laser technology to ‘see’ what’s in front of the vehicle and to monitor the distance to whatever’s in the vehicle’s path, be that another vehicle or even a pedestrian or cyclist. If the system decides that a collision is possible, it will warn the driver via visual and/or audible alerts.

If the driver doesn’t react by braking, and the system decides that a possible collision has become a probable collision, and the situation is critical, it will automatically apply the brakes without any intervention from the driver. AEB is distinct from forwarding Collision Warning, which warns the driver of a possible collision but cannot apply the brakes.

Dual-cab ute full-time 4×4

Often overlooked as a safety feature, perhaps because it’s mechanical and not electronic, and a ‘built-in’ rather than an added-on feature, full-time 4×4 offers a considerable safety benefit over part-time 4×4 and is a key safety divide in today’s dual-cab ute market.

The shortfall of part-time 4×4 compared to full-time 4×4 is most apparent on wet or otherwise slippery bitumen roads. Having just the rear wheels rather than all four wheels delivering drive means there’s more demand on electronic traction and stability control systems to prevent wheel spin or skidding.

Full-time 4×4, unlike part-time 4×4, can be used on all road surfaces, so doesn’t require any expertise to use as does part-time 4×4, where the driver has to decide when a road surface is slippery enough to engage high-four without risking potential damage to the transfer case.

As such, full-time 4×4 provides a greater safety benefit for less experienced or less knowledgeable drivers as it reduces the level of decision making required by the driver in a variable (dry to wet; sealed to unsealed) road conditions.

Stocks says the ratings are a vital guide for anyone in the market for a used vehicle. 

“On average, a vehicle given a one-star Used Car Safety Rating is around twice as likely to cause death or serious injury to a driver in a crash compared to a five-star rated vehicle.

“It is possible to buy a safe and affordable second-hand vehicle, with some of the Safer Pick five-star vehicles, which provide the best possible injury protection to all road users, available for less than $10,000.” 

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