SUVs may well be the family car of the 21st century, but for some families, the typical ‘soft-road’ SUV just doesn’t cut the mustard.
What these families need is a hard-core commercial vehicle with some extra seats – a vehicle that will take at least four people to a holiday destination while towing a caravan or a ski boat. Ideally, for your extreme-adventure families, the ute must also provide some off-road capability to reach remote campsites.
But not every family lives for the next holiday destination. For some buyers, the dual-cab ute just plain makes sense as a business workhorse during the week and a family haulier after hours. As a bonus, that one vehicle incurs just one registration fee and insurance premium to pay – with the former at least partly subsidised by the Australian Taxation Office.
Over the past six years, dual-cab utes have improved radically. As used vehicles, they remain a good proposition for buyers on a budget. But among the diverse selection available, only one stands out from the rest.
The HiLux’s pre-eminence isn’t undeserved. It’s a ute that ticks a lot of boxes and, most crucially for a lot of buyers, can be counted on to stand up to whatever they might throw at it.
But the byproduct of its popularity is higher prices on the used-car lot than many alternatives. And it’s certainly not without the odd question mark.
So we wouldn’t count the Toyota out, but we’d also recommend checking out rivals in this budget range that do better in some fundamental areas to determine just what we’d be prepared to live with and live without. Here are three to add to the mix.
2006-11 FORD RANGER CREW CAB 4X4 DIESEL, FROM $9900*
This Ford’s origins go back further than the 2005-15 HiLux and other dual-cabs it competes within this price bracket.
It looks a bit old-fashioned and is short on space in the back. Vague steering and a bouncy ride mean it’s far from the best ute of its era to drive.
But it wins back points with its gutsy, economic 3.0-litre diesel engine and – despite its driving niggles – it’s less compromised on the road than many alternatives.
Where HiLuxes in this price range tend to have just twin airbags and ABS in their safety artillery, it allows you to pin down side airbags as well (they’re standard on the topline XLT and optional on the base XL).
Its carting and off-road credentials are respectable, and it’s sharper value on the used-car lot than the Toyota. Get past the average back-seat space and the cabin ticks most boxes, too.
2006-16 MITSUBISHI TRITON DOUBLE-CAB 4X4 DIESEL, FROM $10,500*
This Mitsubishi is a more contemporary looker than a Ranger and much roomier in the back.
It has a respectably settled ride, a solid off-road streak and sets a safety benchmark for used utes of this vintage, offering the possibility of side/curtain airbags (from 2008) and stability control (from 2009’s MY10 update).
Desirable MY10 models have other attractions, including the availability of a handy extended-tray version and a willing, economic 2.5-litre diesel engine.
Some niggles are confined to pre-MY10 stock. The original 3.2-litre diesel engine was agricultural, and the swoopy cabin shape meant a shorter tray than many rivals (hence the addition of the extended-tray version).
But all Tritons of this generation are wobbly and ponderous through the bends and have shapeless front seats that can be a pain over the long haul.
The Triton was great value when new, and second hand this hasn’t changed – you can get a later model year MN for less than some of the older competitors. Once the turbo spools up performance are good, but the lag, especially multiplied by the auto, can be frustrating. The tow rating is better than some on the market, with a three-tonne trailer leaving over 750kg for a load on the ute not bad at all!
The cab, while comfortable, isn’t spacious in the back – good for kids, not good for broad shoulders. Speaking of the cab, it’s the first with that funny curved rear wall, which puts the entire load area behind the rear axle. Yes, these are the Tritons that can bend and break, so keep your loading sensible. Back to tow ratings and GVM …
2005-15 NISSAN NAVARA D40 DUAL CAB 4WD DIESEL, FROM $11,300*
This Nissan is more car-like to drive than most dual-cabs of this era, and its 2.5-litre diesel engine delivers better-than-average go.
You can fold the back-seat squab up and fit bulky items inside the cabin, so it’s more practical than a lot of dual-cabs, too.
It has solid carting and off-road credentials and runs the Triton close for safety, offering the curtain airbags and stability control from 2010’s Series 4 update.
But you need a topline ST-X model to access those desirable safety features, and pinning a good one down at this budget could be tough.
Its diesel engine isn’t remarkably economical and the back seat, while flexible, isn’t that roomy or comfortable. The odd quality niggle isn’t unheard of, either.
The D40 Navara lived concurrently alongside the D22 Navara, with a rich man/poor man dynamic going on. The D40 was more modern with a better engine package, nicer interior and a few other fairly drastic improvements. However, clutch problems in the manual seem to be common, especially if used for towing. Not that you’d want to load it up anyway, with chassis cracking issues addressed by a recall, centred around the genuine tow bar according to Nissan but wider spread according to many owners. If you really want a Navara, you can buy chassis repair plates from the likes of Superior Engineering. Considering how many chassis issues we have seen locally and overseas, this is one area to address if you have your heart set on a used D40.
Land Rover Defender 130DC
It’s the friend you forgot to invite to your party, but halfway through the night, you’re sure as hell glad they came anyway. If honesty is your thing, the Defender 130 Dual-Cab is for you. The earliest 130s came to Oz with the 300Tdi engine, a frugal old-fashioned 2.5-litre turbo-diesel that plods a heavily loaded 130 along at whatever pace it feels like at the time. Luckily the TD5 had very slightly more poke and can be safely tuned for more again with an ECU remap. With an updated interior including an air conditioner that keeps more than your knees cool, they are a big step up from earlier incarnations. Such elegant features as the hose-out interior, square body, high and upright seating position and arm out the window ergonomics give an air of utilitarian pride. The fantastic supple long-travel coil-sprung suspension supports the biggest payload in the class of 1.4-tonne, GVM of 3.5 tonnes and GCM of seven tonnes; the 130 can actually tow a 3.5-tonne braked trailer and carry a full and significant load on the back, legally. A throwback to a different era, the 130 is the Clydesdale among the quarter horses of the market.
Toyota HiLux KUN26R SR D4-D
The market leader for oh-so-many years, the HiLux is where Toyota really gained it’s ‘unbreakable’ marketing traction. The resale value of Toyotas is also legendary, meaning you get an older model for the same dollars as anything else. This isn’t bad though, the ‘Lux is a robust bit of kit, and for under $20k you’ll often get a bull bar and a bit of fruit thrown in, in the guise of someone else’s camping rig or a tradie’s tax write-off. Hopefully, you aren’t too smitten on colour though, as the majority are typical fleet white, care of business owners. Be wary of oil use – leaky fuel injector seals can escalate to oil feed blockages and potential for engine seizure. Get the injector seals replaced every 45,000km and check the oil pickup similarly.
Petrolheads should seek out the TRD model, and it’s like every other HiLux but with a supercharger!
Mazda BT-50 UP/Ford Ranger PX
The popular Ranger and the ugly sister that nobody wanted to be seen with, the Ranger/BT-50 is a fantastic vehicle with a strong engine and drivetrain. The BT-50, with that happy face that you try not to look at, is the better value for money being a couple of thousand cheaper for similar age and condition vehicles. Robust and reliable, the twins have established themselves as market leaders –well, the Ranger has anyway. Second-hand cars from the early years of the model are coming down in price to the sub-$20,000 marks, and this represents a great opportunity to pick up a show-pony that’s never seen a dirt road and start building your dream 4WD.
The Ranger and Navara have their tempters for sure. In the case of the former, it’s a great diesel engine and the prospect of great value on the used-car lot. In the case of the latter, it’s a uniquely flexible cabin and less compromised road manners than many alternatives.
But the Triton gets in big punches with the best safety and best back seat here, plus – for improved MY10-on models especially – a well-roundedness its rivals can’t match. It’s not perfect, but in this realm of the used market, it goes closer than most. In our opinion, closer than the Hilux, too.
However, if you’d prefer a ute made by one of the more mainstream brands, then $20K is not going to get you far in any of their new vehicle showrooms.
There is a solution, though, and it’s to be found in the used car market. Buying a pre-owned ute has its advantages, not the least being that the dreaded new vehicle depreciation has been amortised. And in most cases, any ‘new car’ owner complaints, from minor niggles to replacement of faulty components, have been resolved under the new vehicle warranty.
4×2 or 4×4?
Sales figures confirm that the majority of new ute buyers prefer 4x4s to 4x2s. However, you need to ask yourself if you really need off-road ability because you’ll pay for it – literally – in more ways than one.
4x4s have greater mechanical complexity, resulting in higher servicing costs and more working parts that can potentially fail and need replacement. They’re also heavier, which can increase both fuel consumption and their appetite for pricey consumables like brakes and tyres.
4x4s can also have harder lives because of their off-road capabilities and are generally more expensive to insure. And in many cases, a 4×2 variant of a 4×4 model will have a higher payload capacity, which is important to know if your ute will be required to regularly carry loads.
Most important for those on a budget, though, is that 4×4 utes command much higher prices than their 4×2 siblings. Scan the used car classifieds, and you’ll soon discover how much more affordable a 4×2 version of a popular 4×4 dual-cab ute can be.
For example, the price range for a 2012 Ford Ranger XL 4×2 ute is around $9K to $18K, which falls comfortably within our $20K cap. However, the 4×4 version of the same model ranges from $12K up to $34K, which blows the budget. A similar disparity can be seen in Toyota Hilux pricing, with a 2012 Workmate 4×2 ute between $8K to $20K while 4×4 versions command $16K to $27K and so on.
Be Australian. Buy Australian.
Ford Australia invented the coupe ute in 1934. And until the demise of local car manufacturing in 2017, Ford and Holden’s utes derived from Falcon and Commodore sedans were a mainstay of Aussie worksites and rural life for decades.
As a result, there’s a vast number available in the used car market. Although Falcons and Commodores have ceased production, there’ll be a plentiful supply of spare parts for years to come, and $20K or less can get you into a good one.
For example, 2012 Falcon XR6 and Commodore SV6 manual utes fall comfortably within this price bracket (depending on condition) and less sporty base models are even cheaper. Or if you’re hankering for an Aussie V8, Falcon XR8 and Commodore SS utes of similar vintage can also be found for less than $20K.
Buying an Aussie ute could pay off in other ways too. With the rising prices being achieved at collectable car auctions these days for vehicles unique to Australian car manufacturing, including classic Ford and Holden utes, a well-maintained example will become a collectible if you look after it.
Dealer, Auction or Private?
It’s usually more expensive to buy from a dealer than through an auction house or private sale, but you do get some bang for your buck in terms of consumer protection. A dealer must guarantee a vehicle’s title (no finance owed, not stolen or rebirthed etc.) and also provide a cooling-off period if you sign on the dotted line and later change your mind.
A dealer must also provide a statutory warranty (terms vary between states and territories), and they usually welcome trade-ins as part-payment. You can also have a test drive and for peace-of-mind arrange for an expert independent inspection through your state’s motoring body.
By comparison, there are real bargains to be found at vehicle auctions. However, you also need to have a good knowledge of cars, or at least have someone with you who does, because you generally have to rely on visual checks without an independent inspection or even a test drive. Auction rules vary from state to state, so check with the auction houses about what consumer protections (if any) are provided.
Buying privately is usually cheaper than buying through a dealer and, unlike an auction, you can have a test drive and arrange an independent inspection. However, there are no statutory warranties or other consumer protection with private sales.
If it’s buyer beware, then ute buyers are extra aware
Many utes have hard lives. Uncaring owners can often load them way beyond their maximum payload and tow ratings, which can place a massive strain on chassis, suspensions and drivetrains.
A 4×4 ute can increase that risk factor due to its off-road ability, as underbody and drivetrain components can suffer fearful abuse due to careless driving in rough terrain combined with poor maintenance. And that doesn’t mean a 4×2 ute is immune from such treatment either, as rugged worksites, regular overloading and lousy maintenance can be just as damaging.
However, that’s not to say all used utes, be they 4×2 or 4×4, have been beaten to death. Many owners take great pride in their vehicles and look after them. In fact, it’s not uncommon for utes to do little – if any – heavy lifting.
Paperwork for private buyers
A well-maintained ute should have an owner’s logbook, which documents its full-service history. Also, make sure the seller is the owner by checking that the details on their driver’s licence match those shown on the vehicle’s registration papers. In some states, you should also be issued with a roadworthy certificate before you can transfer the registration to your name.
Also ensure that the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) plus its engine number, serial number and date/year of manufacture match those shown on the rego papers. The VIN can usually be found on the vehicle’s compliance plate in the engine bay or sometimes at the base of the windscreen. The engine number should be stamped or displayed on the engine itself.
If any of these details don’t align be wary, because the vehicle could be stolen, had its engine changed without the authorities being notified or in rare cases, it could be an administrative error. Even if all the details do line up, though, make sure that the vehicle is also debt-free by checking its VIN online at the Personal Property Securities Register, which for a small fee can confirm it’s not about to be repossessed by a finance company.
Inspection and test drive
Always make sure you inspect a car after you’ve had a good night’s sleep, it’s in full daylight and on a dry day (no raindrops on the bodywork) so that any flaws will be easiest to see. It’s also good to bring someone with a good knowledge of cars, as they may see things you don’t and vice-versa.
Look for damage in the load tub or tray. Small dings and scratches are acceptable, but big dents and gouging can indicate careless loadings from great heights, like landscaping rocks tumbling from front-end loaders. Equally, a freshly applied spray-on liner or freshly installed tub-liner kit might look sharp, but be hiding some serious damage underneath.
Misaligned body panels, gaping or pinched panel gaps and doors/tailgates that don’t open and close cleanly can be signs of chassis and body fatigue. They can also indicate poor quality smash repairs. A small fridge magnet can detect plastic body filler because it won’t stick. Also, look for colour differences between panels and bubbling under paintwork, which can indicate corrosion.
Crawl underneath to make a thorough inspection of chassis rails for signs of fatigue (even cracks) under the load area and any drivetrain oil leaks. Uneven tyre wear can also indicate a misaligned chassis or damaged suspension.
The interior is another indicator of wear and tear. Look for worn seat facings and sagging base cushions, along with leaf build-up in the plenum chamber and UV damage like faded trim and cracked dash-pads which can signal a life parked outside. Make sure all the controls work properly, and there’s no dampness in carpets or under vinyl floor linings, which can reveal poor weather sealing and potential corrosion.
Also do some basic engine checks, preferably when it’s cold. The engine bay should be tidy and stain-free, and the oil on the dipstick should be at the correct level and ideally light to dark brown in colour. Black can be okay too if an oil change is due, but a grey or milky colour could mean coolant entering through a blown head gasket or worse.
Remove the radiator cap and check that the coolant is clean and brightly-coloured without a similar milky mix. Start the engine and let it idle to operating temperature, listening for any knocks or rattles and looking for traces of external oil or coolant leaks. Also, check that none of the engine-related dashboard warning lights is on.
Once warmed up, take it for a decent test drive (at least 30 mins), preferably not on busy roads and not with the seller in your ear the whole time so you can see, hear and smell. Drive it at all the legal speeds and check that it idles smoothly at traffic lights, accelerates cleanly without hesitation, doesn’t blow smoke when you boot it up a hill, there’s no suspicious burning oil smells and no dashboard warning lights come on.
Be it manual or automatic, and the transmission should change up and down smoothly and quietly without hesitation or unusual noises. Also keep an ear out for the whine or howl of a noisy differential, which can indicate a hard-worked unit that’s on its last legs.
The ute should also steer straight with only light hand contact on the steering wheel. A veer to one side, particularly when braking, can indicate at best the need for a wheel alignment but at worst damaged suspension or faulty brakes.
However, this is just a brief overview of an inspection and test drive. Our best advice, even if you or your mate know a thing or two about cars, is to arrange for an expert independent inspection through your state’s motoring organisation. After all, you’d be mad to buy a house without getting a thorough builder and termite inspection first, so treat any ute purchase the same way.
If the vehicle you’re interested in meets the criteria above, and the asking price is within both your budget and the guiding range, then you’ve done everything reasonably possible to ensure yourself a good deal on a well-maintained ute that should give many more years of reliable service.