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What is the most reliable 4×4 ute?

Dual cab utes are a true Aussie favourite. And for a good reason. When you picture a dual cab ute, a few things immediately spring to mind: rugged, reliable, powerful, refined, and, above all else, a real workhorse.

These days, the very best dual-cab utes include all of these features that we have come to expect, while also adding some well-deserved touches of class and style. This means that with so many high-quality dual-cab utes to choose from in Australia, there’s likely to be one that suits your requirements. While the term ‘best’ can mean different things to different car buyers, check out our picks for the best used dual-cab utes for families in Australia.

Given the wealth of options out there, there are plenty of good quality second-hand dual-cab utes to choose from. Of course, depending on your specific needs, you’ll have to weigh up a few factors when selecting the right dual cab ute for you, such as storage space, power, fuel economy, safety, reliability, and more.

Those interested in a 4×4 dual cab ute shouldn’t look past the Ford Ranger XLT, according to the judges of Australia’s Best Cars 2018. The popular Ford model beat out the VW Amarok and Toyota HiLux to take the gong.

Australia’s Best Cars puts popular makes and models through their paces in 15 different categories, ideally to give prospective buyers the best possible review before they choose one to purchase. Judges use three main criteria – value for money, design and function, and on the road – to inform their decisions.

Here’s how the Ford Ranger took the top spot:

Ford Ranger XLT 3.2

Currently Ford’s most popular model and one of the best sellers in this class, the Ranger has dominated Australia’s Best Cars 4×4 dual cab ute category since its inclusion in the program in 2013. It has only lost its crown once when it fell to the eighth-generation Toyota HiLux in 2015.

With some updates since then, the Ranger has once again asserted itself and was looking promising for a win in 2018 even before the Blue Oval offered a new five years/unlimited-kilometre warranty for new vehicles delivered from May 1st. This was announced just as our test week for all the class finalists kicked off, making the Ranger almost untouchable.

The Ranger XLT and HiLux SR5 are the two dearest utes in our scoresheets. But the Ford’s depreciation, running and repair costs, and insurance premiums, hover around the class averages. Standard equipment levels are good, and only the Holden Colorado LTZ offers more kit for slightly less money.

The XLT’s standard fit-out has a full suite of airbags and includes full-length side curtain airbags, a rear-view camera, park sensors front and rear, a rear diff-lock, dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, side steps, sports bar, DAB+ radio, navigation, and tyre pressure monitoring. Also fitted is Ford’s latest-gen SYNC 3 entertainment and communications system with voice recognition and an 8.0-inch colour touchscreen with ‘pinch and swipe’ capability.

Towing ability and practical design are important in a ute, and the Ranger isn’t found wanting. The XLT comes with a towbar and trailer sway control as standard, and it’s rated to a best-in-class 3500kg maximum towing mass. A generously proportioned tray with standard tub-liner, six load restraint eyes, a power outlet, load area illumination, and a payload to deal with work or play, all rated well with our judges. Like the HiLux, the Ford has a 230-volt inverter power outlet in the cabin.

Comfortable seating in all positions and cabin space that’s equal best in class help the Ranger’s cause too. Inside and out, the Ranger rates highly for its build and finish quality, with a premium look that shows how far utes have progressed in recent years from their relatively spartan workhorse predecessors.

Performance from the Ranger’s 147kW, 3.2-litre, five-cylinder turbo-diesel again impressed the judges, whether on-road or lugging its way through the bush. With a gutsy 470Nm delivered between 1750 and 2500rpm, it easily shrugged off the challenges of our off-road test loop, including hauling a 500kg payload and four burly ABC judges up a steep, muddy and badly rutted track. Off-road, the Ranger proved as accomplished and capable as the best the class can offer.

The big Ford’s road manners are far more car-like and sophisticated than might be expected in a vehicle built primarily to work for a living and tackle tough off-road terrain. Steering, handling and ride are as good as it gets in the class.

The popularity of dual-cab utes goes from strength to strength with Australian buyers. The Ford Ranger XLT exemplifies the versatility, driveability and relative civility that the modern dual cab ute can deliver. That’s why it has again stamped its authority over a class it has virtually made it’s own. And you can expect the Ranger to be a force to be reckoned with in the future, too, with Ford announcing powerful new engines providing up to 500Nm, a 10-speed auto, advanced driver assistance features, and other improvements for 2019.

VW Amarok TDI420 Core

The VW Amarok has finished at the pointy end of Australia’s Best Cars dual cab 4×4 class in years past and, once again, has provided a worthy challenge to the highly successful Ford Ranger.

The Amarok’s opening gambit looks solid enough, with most value-for-money scores giving the Toyota and HiLux something to contend with. In TDI420 Core specification, it has a significant price advantage that also flows through to lower depreciation losses. Ongoing costs, such as running and repair, insurance, and fuel, are marginally better too. But it falls short of Ford’s better warranty and dealer spread, and its lower purchase price reflects a less generous standard features list.

The Amarok’s cargo tray is the largest in the pack, handily able to carry a standard Aussie pallet between the wheel arches. There’s also a tailgate load-rated to 200kg, and cargo area light. Maximum rated towing at 3000kg trails both the HiLux and Ranger.

The Amarok’s bi-turbo diesel is mated to an eight-speed auto and delivers surprising performance, but doesn’t quite match the grunt of its rivals’ larger displacement engines. The ute is capable off-road, but we found it more likely to have clearance issues over moguls and heavily rutted terrain.

It remains one of the more civilised and car-like offerings in this category.

Toyota HiLux SR5

With the VW Amarok once again in the mix alongside Ford Ranger, the HiLux SR5 – a class winner in 2015 – has been relegated to the third step of the podium.

In value for money, the HiLux generally trades blows pretty evenly with the Ford. However, Toyota’s warranty falls well behind Ford’s newly announced five years/unlimited-kilometre coverage.

Our judges found cabin space in the rear not quite as generous as the Ranger, but they liked the recent inclusion of rear console air vents, something missing from the Ford. Improving its ergonomic credentials are B-pillar grab handles for rear passengers, push-button start and proximity entry, and steering tilt and reach adjustment (tilt-only is the norm on most in the class).

The 2.8-litre turbo-diesel offers a respectable level of performance on- and off-road, and feels a little more refined than the Ford while doing it. As the numbers show, the HiLux is a capable vehicle in off-road terrain and easily handled our steep and muddy off-road test section, both unladen and with 500kg in the tray and four occupants on board.

With a maximum towing capacity of 3200kg when equipped with auto transmission, the HiLux falls shy of Ford’s 3500kg rating. But the ever-popular HiLux SR5 has much to recommend it and remains a great example of the 4WD dual cab genre.

Mercedes Benz X-Class

The axing of Merc’s premium pick-up is proof there’s no such thing as a sure bet when it comes to selling cars here. But could Merc’s loser be your gain? The interior is a real cut above the 4×4 norm, and the driving experience benefits from the additional NVH measures the German engineers foisted on the Nissan Navara platform. The 2.3-litre four-cylinder is acceptable rather than exceptional in terms of performance and economy, but the 3.0-litre V6 is properly punchy and refined. The biggest drawback to the latter was the $73K entry point; the top-spec Power lists for $79K plus on-roads. You can now land a Power for under $70K driveaway, which some may argue is what it should have been all along.

Mitsubishi Triton

This one’s cheap for a reason. Driven back-to-back with something like a Ranger or even an Amarok it feels a generation behind. But the safety upgrade (blindspot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and AEB) that came with the front-end restyling is a welcome inclusion, and the 2.4-litre diesel has better refinement than other midfielders like Navara and D-Max. Retuning the rear suspension has netted benefits, but if you’re a regular haulier of heavy loads, be aware the tub on dual-cab Tritons overhangs the rear axle more so than other utes, meaning a chunk of the extra weight is placed behind the axle. Does the steering no favours?

Mazda BT-50

Ah, the mystery of the Ranger’s unloved brother. Given Mazda Australia’s overall slice of the local market compared to that of Ford, the BT-50, which was co-developed with the Ranger, should not be so roundly ignored. So why is it? Could it be the slightly feline front-end styling doesn’t connect with the blokey target market? It doesn’t help that the BT-50 has missed out on much of the Ranger’s ongoing development, including the move to electric power steering assistance and additional safety systems. The once punchy five-pot is now slower than plenty of the smaller-capacity fours in this class, and equipment you may think is a given in 2020 – digital speedo, push-button start, and radar cruise control, for example – is missing. Suddenly the unloved bit is easier to understand.

Nissan Navara

You can’t accuse Nissan of not persevering to get its stalwart ute’s rear suspension right. It feels like this D23 generation has had more tweaks to the coil-sprung rear end than Scott Morrison had days on the beach in Hawaii, but it’s still no benchmark for a ride, composure, nor load-carrying ability. The better news is found under the bonnet, where the twin-turbo diesel four teams with the seven-speed auto to deliver responsive performance, middling fuel consumption and not horrid refinement. The cabin’s quite nicely presented, too, with a logical layout and car-like ambience. But the seats are flat and shapeless, and the safety story is not compelling. You can do better.

Holden Colorado

Holden’s ute, which has often been the fifth-best seller in this segment, is now a Dead Man Walking thanks to the brand being extinguished at the end of 2020. So why would you buy one? Fact is, Colorado does have virtues – the 2.8-litre engine pulls hard from low revs, and the local development of its chassis is evident in the well-tuned steering and sure-footed handling. Interior presentation is decent if you can ignore the cheap plastics, and there’s a robust functionality pretty much everywhere you look. But it lacks the overall polish of the likes of Ranger and misses out on key safety features like AEB. Deal-breaker? Possibly not, when there are dealers falling over themselves to clear stock at bargain prices. 

Ram 1500

It seems a little incongruous, but despite its hulking size and weight, the Ram 1500 is the closest thing Aussies can buy to the Commodore and Falcon V8 utes of yesteryear. Great-sounding Hemi V8 delivers 0-100km/h in around 7.0sec, way quicker than a Raptor, although expect it to slurp at least 16L/100km around town. Extra rear-seat room and vast cargo tray are the upsides of the oversized dimensions, but your parking-spot options just shrunk. Coil-sprung rear end contributes to thoroughly civilised on-road demeanour, and the local conversion to RHD is executed with care and quality.  

Jeep Gladiator

If you have a penchant for heading into seriously inhospitable terrain and then getting semi-naked, Jeep’s ute, due here mid-year, could be for you. Okay, the nudity we’re referring to is for the vehicle (although operator clothing is optional), because as with the Wrangler from which it’s developed, Gladiator allows you to lower the windscreen, and even remove the doors with provided tools, for a blissful breeze over your bits.

Its wheelbase is longer than that of the Wrangler, which makes for a more planted, composed ride. The confirmed engine is the 3.6-litre Pentastar petrol V6, which is smooth and refined, but not a torque monster, and likes a drink. It’s mated to a slick-shifting eight-speed auto, and all the hardware needed for extreme off-roading works seamlessly. What isn’t yet confirmed by Jeep’s Australian operation is whether we’ll get a diesel engine option or a manual transmission. The former could be a deal-breaker for some. 

HSV Chevrolet Silverado

It’s hard to know which numbers to focus on first – the dimensions, the price tags, or the torque output. Let’s cover them with ‘huge, huger, monstrous’. There are five spec levels to choose from, spanning $115K to $148K, all powered by a beast of a turbo-diesel: the 6.6-litre Duramax V8 pumping out 332kW and – wait for it – 1234Nm. An Allison six-speed auto handles the shifting; four-wheel discs are tasked with hauling it down. Performance is pretty lively, given the weights range between 3.5 and 3.7 tonnes, but you’d only buy one of these if you need to tow a boat the size of a Sydney ferry or relocate Clive Palmer to a richer pasture.

SsangYong Musso

This is the real sleeper of the 4×4 ute segment, offered in both standard and long-wheelbase guises, and boasting one of the biggest trays in class, along with the best-in-class seven-year warranty. You can choose between coil rear suspension (allowing an 880kg payload) or a leaf-spring rear that can handle 1025kg. Relatively small 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel is matched to a six-speed automatic transmission, giving midfielder performance, but is way quieter and more refined than most. Standard safety tech shames a few bigger names and includes AEB, rear cross-traffic alert and blindspot monitoring. Nice-quality cabin, too. So why wouldn’t you? Lack of an ANCAP crash-test result is an anomaly, as is the lap-belt-only for the second-row’s centre seat. Keen pricing may make you question how much you really love that middle child.  

Isuzu D-Max

Isuzu left the D-Max virtually untouched until 2017 when mandatory compliance to tougher Euro 5 emission regs brought a revised engine along with six-speed manual and auto gearboxes (replacing the previous five-speeders.) NVH improvements and equipment upgrades also featured; then, in 2018, all SX, LS-U and LS-T dual-cabs were specced with more-compliant three-leaf rear springs designed to improve the unladen ride. (LS-M models retain the five-leaf springs.) But the big 4JJ1 3.0-litre four with its beefy timing chain is still a bit vocal when asked to work for its keep and the interior presentation certainly puts the emphasis on function rather than form. But, as steady sales suggest, there’s a ready market for something that’s a known quantity and which sports a reputation for simplicity, low service costs and reliability. While others may deliver more shine in the showroom, the D-Max can still deliver when you’re in a tight spot. 

The biggest deterrent to buying a D-Max right now, however, is the imminent arrival of an all-new model. The exact timing of the new D-Max is hazy, though it could be as early as this July. The new-gen model is the first full update in eight years and will bring important upgrades to the powertrain and the exterior and interior styling, plus a host of additional safety and convenience features.  

LDV T60

Cheap doesn’t make this Chinese fringe player entirely cheerless. The top-of-the-range LDV T60 Luxe automatic costs from $35,490 driveaway, making it anywhere between $10,000–$15,000 cheaper than similarly equipped rivals here. It scores a five-star safety rating, it’s one of only a couple of utes to feature rear disc brakes, its shock absorbers are specced for Australia, and its 10.0-inch infotainment screen is the biggest in class. Oh, and the MegaTub variant boasts the biggest tray of any 4×4 dual-cab in the class. So what’s the catch? Well, the 2.8-litre four-pot engine is a weakling, making just 110kW and 360Nm, with a useable powerband narrower than the gap between Mr Burns’ eyeballs. But not only is it slow, but it also idles noisily and resents hills. Then there’s the steering rack rattle and kickback over corrugations. For now, the LDV speaks of potential, rather than your cue to jump in. 

Mahindra Pik-Up

Aussies love to feel as though we’re getting a lot of metal for our money, and by that metric, the Mahindra Pik-Up excels. Starting at $29,490 for the entry-level S6 4×4, the Pik-Up’s trump card is its stunning value. There’s genuine 4×4 know-how at play here too – Mahindra started out assembling war-surplus Jeeps in the 1940s, so it knows its way around a transfer case. Age is also on the Pik-Up’s side, given Mahindra gave it a top-to-bottom rebirth in 2018 that brought a raft of updates to the chassis, powertrain and cabin. The only engine available is a 2.2-litre diesel paired with a six-speed manual (auto buyers will need to look elsewhere), and while its on-paper outputs of 103kW/320Nm sound diminutive, the Pik-Up doesn’t actually feel underpowered, and its fuel use isn’t the worst in this class either. So it’s cheap, a decent steer, and top-spec S10 variants gain plenty of equipment (such as a 6.0-inch touchscreen, sat-nav, rear camera, and cruise control), though you do have to make some sacrifices at this price point. The unladen ride is bouncy and firm, the cabin is dominated by hard plastics and won’t be winning any awards for fit and finish, there’s no reach adjustment for the steering wheel, and that 6.0-inch screen is hard to read. Plus, the lack of an ANCAP crash rating will concern some.

Great Wall Steed

Proof that cheap really can be cheerful. The Steed undercuts Hilux and Ranger by significant margins (we’re talking $13K and 17K respectively), yet boasts expensive goodies like on-demand four-wheel drive and rear disc brakes. The cabin is nice, too, and includes leather and heated front seats. You also get lots of equipment: cruise control, electric driver’s seat, tyre pressure monitoring, auto headlights/wipers and Bluetooth. Sat-nav is a $990 option. The downside is the Steed is based on old underpinnings, and it feels a generation behind newer rivals, especially in the handling stakes. And while it will handle moderate off-road tracks, the Steed’s relatively low-slung body and average wheel articulation mean it isn’t as capable off-road as mainstream rivals.

When the going gets tough

We have highlighted the considerable difference in payload capacity of our entrants, and the ability for each to tow different loads depending on a range of ‘other factors’. It turns out the same is quite true of the four-wheel-drive capabilities of the ten utes on a test. Not all dual-cab 4WD utes are created equal off-road, it seems.

Beyond the mix of ladder-frame platforms, leaf- and coil-sprung rear-ends and transfer cases that don’t offer a low range, and it’s the clearance, articulation and geometry of our rugged rivals that quickly presents as a limitation to off-road travel.

Add to that electronics that are often too clever for their own good and the variance between the best and the bogged becomes as clear as night and day.

Conducting testing on this year’s Dual-Cab 4WD Ute Comparison was car sales road test editor Matt Brogan and senior journalist Rod Chapman. With an extensive car, SUV, 4WD, truck and motorcycle testing experience between them, both are well versed in covering ground slowly. The use of low-range crawl functions is as much as part of this test as diff locks and tyre deflators.

And rather than visit the four-wheel-drive park this year, we decided to keep the utes honest and tackle real-world conditions in a disused quarry north of Melbourne.

Shaly surfaces, steep climbs and plenty of dust gave our utes a chance to show their best (and worst), and the win was eventually handed to the Ford Ranger – its third category win of this comparison.

Driving a hard bargain

Outside of specific tasks like those mentioned above, all of our eight judges drove each ute through an identical ‘road’ course.

The mix of sealed and unsealed roads saw the dual-cab 4WD utes tackle hill and dale, corrugations galore and open highway through the spectacular Macedon Ranges. The process provided an insight into ride/handling, driveline performance and in-cabin comfort for each of our ten competitors.

Scoring saw the locally-tuned Holden Colorado edge ahead of the pack on this front. Our judges were unanimous in their praise of Colorado’s stability, road-holding, comfort and performance.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch err, office Andrea Matthews and the redbook.com.au team analysed the cost of ownership data, warranty and service provisions, and included roadside assistance terms in determining the winner from a value for money standpoint.

Considering the discrepancy in the list price of our rivals – almost $40,000 on top of the cheapest entrant ($39,990 plus on-road costs) – crunching the numbers was anything but straightforward.

In the end, however, it was the Ford Ranger that leapt ahead by virtue of its solid five-year warranty, generous capped-price servicing provisions and lower cost of consumable service parts when viewed against its contemporaries.

No business like tow business

Towing is an obvious selling point for many double-cab 4WD utes, which is why so many manufacturers go to great pains to ensure a 3500kg braked towing limit — on paper, at least. And while this may be something of a misnomer for some of the utes on test – limited by Gross Combination Mass, down ball weight, speed and other factors – there are others that are a little more upfront about it.

The Mitsubishi Triton can tow 3100kg (braked), while automatic variants of the Toyota HiLux have a braked towing capacity of 3200kg.

In some cases the ability to tow at capacity is also affected by how much weight is in the ute itself, meaning the tray must remain empty if capacity is to be reached. For this reason, we towed with an empty tray and a caravan weighing just on 3000kg.

Towing expert Phil Lord and RV editor Chris Fincham go into more detail on these considerations in their portion of our comparison. As you’ll see, we used an independent mobile weigh station to determine exactly how much weight was carried, and the win eventually went to the Ford Ranger for its stability, confidence and accessible low-end torque.

Beasts of burden

Like the 3500kg towing capacity advertised by many manufacturers, the ‘one-tonne’ (1000kg) payload capacity spruiked by some is also inaccurate. Only four of the utes assembled here are capable of legally taking a tonne in their trays, the other six range between 790-961kg.

Rated carrying capacity isn’t the only factor at play here. Feeble tie-down points, narrow trays and suspension that isn’t up to task has an obvious impact on the ability for our entrants to haul a load safely. The datum for this test was a relatively modest 650kg.

Placing the weight as centrally and as forward as possible in the bed helped distribute the load. Our test route followed the same undulating track used by our tow testers and the mix of terrain, speed and surface, therefore, allowed an accurate reflection of what buyers might experience in the real world.

Conducting this aspect of testing this year was contributing journalist and garage-owner Andrea Matthews and former magazine and newspaper auto journalist and current Boatsales editor Barry Park. After careful deliberation, both agreed the Ford Ranger was the most capable vehicle here. Its 961kg payload capacity easily tackled the task at hand.

The comfort zone

While we all want a ute that can carry a load and go off-road, we also want one that’s accommodating, comfortable and quiet (digitally measured, to be sure). Increasingly, we also want a ute specified with the latest connectivity and amenity technology – and the best electronic driver and chassis aids available anywhere in the market.

It’s this final point that really began to drive a wedge between the front-runners on a test. Indeed, where many of the utes were happy to tow, haul or perform off-road, there were only a few that offered the ergonomic benefits and creature comforts offered in the family SUV.

It’s a point we can no longer dismiss by saying “yeah, but it’s just a dual-cab”. Modern buyers demand a vehicle that can do it all. When one doesn’t, they’ll simply shop elsewhere. Loyalty is dead, and creature comforts are king.

Measuring the cabin for size and comfort at this year’s test was senior contributing journalist Tim Britten, who brings 50 years of experience to our comparison (the first ute he reviewed was the HK-series Holden!). On the technology and practicality front, it was our consumer editor Nadine Armstrong, who made sure no feature was left unassessed.

This year, Tim and Nadine awarded the Mercedes-Benz X-Class as the winner in this category.

Key Takeaways

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

One ute to rule them all

Past Dual-Cab 4WD Ute Comparisons at car sales have awarded top billing to the Ford Ranger (2015) and Volkswagen Amarok (2017), each winning due to their blend of amenity, technology, safety and performance.

Both times, the respective winners have narrowly outpaced each other to take the blue ribbon, and this year’s comparison is no exception.

As I’m sure, you’ll gather from reading the links here, in 2019 the updated Ford Ranger Wildtrak has clawed back its title from Volkswagen.

Our judges praised the Ranger Wildtrak’s ability to tow and haul, and the new bi-turbo four-cylinder engine’s plentiful torque and smooth acceleration thanks to an equally polished 10-speed automatic transmission.

The Wildtrak also delivered in its ability off-road, easily conquering obstacles that stopped others in their tracks – literally, in some cases — and scored highly for cabin refinement, equipment and safety. Ford’s after sales support was another string to Ranger’s already brimming bow.

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