Using a vehicle every day – driving it, parking it, and packing it with groceries and kids (mostly your own, of course, and sometimes their mates) – you get a real sense of its strengths and weaknesses.
It’s no secret Australians. They are gorging themselves on double-cab utes right now. They have, in effect, replaced Ford Falcons and Holden Commodores in driveways across Australia because they appeal to our sense of adventure. As the ads say, they’re built for work and play.
Dual cab utes – Ranger, BT-50, Amarok, D-Max, Navara, et al. – are increasingly sophisticated in terms of ride and handling, active and passive safety tech, and they tend to have extensive standard features lists, but just how practical are they? What is the cabin like for space, comfort and versatility? How much storage is there? How many USB ports and 12-volt sockets are there?
From towing a caravan, carrying a heavy load, to driving them unladen in the city and suburbs – as an increasing number of family buyers do – we’ve experienced each of these vehicles across all their likely habitats.
We also tested them off-road, just in case anyone decides to use these as their makers intended.
While utes are still not quite ‘car-like’ to drive, they are broadly safer and better equipped than before, and some almost feel like an SUV from behind the wheel.
As we discovered, the ute category is one of the few segments where there are still stark differences in the way each vehicle drives – even if they all follow a familiar formula. We distinguished the shades of grey and found some differences are black and white.
It’s worth noting these types of vehicles are among the hardest for manufacturers to get right.
Double-cab utes are the automotive equivalent of the pentathlete: they need to have car-like comfort and features, five-star safety, tow up to 3500kg, carry up to 1000kg, and be capable off-road.
No other vehicle on sale today is required to excel across so many disciplines.
After driving them empty, with 650kg in the tray, and towing a 2200kg caravan over an entire week, we reckon some customers might already be asking too much of some of these utes.
We’ve had to consider everything when comparing these vehicles, though we recognize buyers will favour some aspects over others.
Most models tested are in the $50,000–$55,000 price bracket.
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Here are our top five most practical utes.
1. Ford Ranger XLT dual-cab 4×4
The XLT is the gold standard dual cab ($57,600 plus on-roads) in this mob; the only thing better in the range is the top-spec Wildtrak (from $60,090 for the auto, excluding on-roads) but we reckon its hyper-stylized interior, which looks great, would cop an absolute hammering in day-to-day life and its extras over the XLT, including heated front seats and puddle lamps, simply aren’t worth the cash in practical terms.
From opening the doors – which gape nice and full for ease of entry and exit – and onwards, life in the Ranger is easy. The cabin is roomy – plenty of headroom and legroom – and very comfortable inside; the front leather-accented seats are nicely cushioned and supportive.
Back-row seats are very much in the straight-up-and-down mould of dual-cab utes’ second-row accommodation, but the Ranger’s are comfier than most.
Cabin storage includes a cavernous glove box, centre console and coin storage, two cupholders, bottle holder and door storage in every door, seat-back pockets, and more.
There are two front auxiliary 12 volt power outlets, one rear auxiliary 12 volt power outlet, and a 230-volt inverter in the rear console. There is a USB port upfront.
From a driver’s point of view, instrumentation – dual-colour 4.2-inch screens – is easy to read and operate, as is the 8.0-inch full-colour ‘SYNC3’ touchscreen media unit.
Other standard features of note include dual-zone aircon, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, tyre pressure monitoring system, and more.
This Ranger has a 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel engine (147kW/470Nm) and six-speed auto.
Fuel consumption is a claimed 9.0L/100km, and it has an 80-litre fuel tank.
The tray is 1549mm long, 1139mm wide (between the wheel arches), 511mm deep and has four tie-down points. The load height (floor height to the ground) is 840mm. It can tow up to 3500kg (braked).
The XLT has a maximum five-star ANCAP rating, but the ‘Tech Pack’ option ($800) adds adaptive cruise control, automatic high beam, lane-departure warning and more to the existing suite of safety features.
There are two child seat upper anchorage points in the XLT and two ISOFIX anchor points.
The Ford Ranger is nearing the end of its model life, with an all-new model due in about two years.
However, Ford has invested heavily since the PXI was released in 2011, and the PXII arrived in 2015 to ensure the Ranger stays at the top of the class.
The Ranger received its most recent update in September 2018 in what we’ve dubbed ‘PXIII’ (the example tested here), and yet there is a minor model-year change imminent for 2020 that will bring better headlights and a USB port near the rear-view mirror for easy connection of dash cams.
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The Ford Ranger might be the second-best-selling ute in Australia behind the Toyota HiLux. Still, it remains the benchmark for comfort, features, drivability and technology – much of which the Mercedes X-Class lacks.
Speed sign recognition, multiple fast-charging USB ports, a household power socket to charge a laptop, digital speed display, high-resolution infotainment screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, large door pockets, a sizeable glove box, comfortable seats and a roomy cabin add to the appeal.
Other examples of attention to detail: an extendable sun visor that blocks side glare, and illuminated central locking switches on both front doors to add peace of mind when driving through dodgy areas. No other ute has all these creature comforts.
The 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel with 10-speed auto is a formidable combination, the second-best performer in terms of acceleration behind only the VW Amarok TDV6 – empty, loaded, and when towing – and comfortably quicker and gutsier than the Ranger’s old 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel, despite industry perceptions.
The only criticism with this drivetrain is the 10-speed auto isn’t always smooth or intuitive between shifts.
The Ranger is the most supple over bumps among the heavy-duty workhorses following a subtle softening of the suspension in September 2018 with the PXIII update.
It’s nicer to drive unladen than the others, but the compromise is the rear suspension sags slightly with a heavy load or when towing. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s worth noting this if you plan to fit a permanent toolbox on the back.
The Ranger is one of the most capable utes off-road; however, the departure angle is compromised by the position of the standard tow bar.
As our 100km/h to zero brake testing showed, there’s room for improvement with stopping performance. And there could be some merit in making heavy-duty rear suspension an option. Perhaps there’s room for two Ranger XLTs: Luxury and Pro packs.
One final note: the Ford website lists the XLT double cab with the twin-turbo 2.0-litre and 10-speed auto – the vehicle we tested – at about $65,000 drive-away, however prices vary dramatically depending on supply. When Ford is low on stock, it tries to charge full freight. However, this model climbed to $55,490 drive-away in June 2019.
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 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 its 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.
2. Mazda BT-50 XTR Dual Cab
The XTR ($50,890 excluding on-road costs) is a great blend of passenger-car comfort and real-world practicality. It’s the second-best spec in the BT-50 range – only the GT is higher – but we reckon it is spot-on.
The cabin is spacious, with ample head clearance and legroom is ample in the front and back row. The front seats are well-bolstered and cushioned, offering similar levels of comfort to the Ranger; rear-seat passengers get the usual sit-up-straight treatment.
Cabin storage includes a glove box (lockable and illuminated), cupholders, door bottle holders (front and rear), door pockets (front), an overhead sunglass storage box, and more.
There are three auxiliary 12 volt power outlets and a USB port.
The driver gets electronic instrumentation (with dimmer), a 7.8-inch colour multimedia touchscreen, and steering wheel-mounted controls. Other standard features include dual-zone air-con, sat-nav and reversing camera.
The BT-50 has a 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel engine (147kW/470Nm), mated to a six-speed auto.
Fuel consumption is a claimed 9.7L/100km, and it has an 80-litre fuel tank.
The tray is 1549mm long, 1560mm wide (1139mm between the wheel arches), 513mm deep and has six ‘interior rope hooks.’ The load height is 841mm. It is rated to tow 3500kg (maximum, braked).
The BT-50 has a five-star ANCAP rating; there are two top-tether child-restraint anchor points – not ISOFIX – in the second row.
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3. Isuzu D-Max LS-T
If a dual cab ute is to be seriously regarded as truly practical, then it must have the ability to cop the roughhousing, the messiness and the incidental minor damage of everyday life without complaint, which is where the D-Max comes in.
The D-Max (from $54,200 in this guise) is feature-packed and highly functional. It’s also a ute, through and through, and proudly so, and it is supremely practical.
Inside is on the right side of roomy, easy on the driver and all passengers, but the ‘leather-appointed’ seats are a little less supportive and comfortable than those of the Ranger/BT-50 ilk.
Storage in the cabin includes upper and lower glove boxes, cupholders (two between driver and front-seat passenger, one below each of the two in-cabin front-side air vents, plus two fold-down cupholders in the centre floor console for rear-seat passengers), as well as door bulges, seat-back pockets, tool space under the flip-up rear seats, and a few little slots for bits and pieces.
There is a 12 volt auxiliary power outlet in the glove box, two USB ports in the centre console, and one in the back of the centre floor console for rear-seat passengers.
The driver gets a leather-wrapped steering wheel (with controls for audio, Bluetooth, etc.), a 7.0-inch colour multimedia touchscreen, dual-zone air-con, sat-nav and reversing camera.
The updated D-Max has recently been updated and now comes with a new six-speed auto or manual and new engine (Euro 5 compliant 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel, 130kW/430Nm).
Fuel consumption is a claimed 7.9L/100km, and it has a 76-litre fuel tank.
The D-Max’s tray is 1552mm long (on the floor), 465mm deep and 1530mm wide across the top, and 1105mm wide, between wheel arches. The tray has four tie-down points, one at each corner. The load height is 800mm.
The D-Max has a maximum braked towing capacity of 3500kg and 750kg unbraked.
It has a five-star ANCAP rating, and there are three child-seat tethers – rear, outer and centre.
Isuzu is punching well above its weight in Australia. With just two models in its line-up — one a derivative of the other — it has outsold heavyweights such as BMW.
There’s nothing flash about the D-Max — it’s just a no-frills workhorse that is developing a reputation for reliability and durability on worksites and farms.
The current model is effectively eight years old, and there have been only cosmetic updates in that time, the most recent earlier this year when the LS-T we’re testing got new matt black 18-inch alloys with a matching sports bar that’s a welcome change from the customary chrome.
Inside, there are some new piano black surfaces, and the LS-T is comfortable enough, with leather seats, and padded elbow rests on the doors.
The dash layout is simple and utilitarian, while the centre screen and driving information readouts are old-fashioned compared with the Triton. Absent are digital speedo, heated seats and smartphone mirroring, while the rear camera lacks clarity. There is a USB port in the back for the kids and audio with eight speakers (some in the roof lining) but no rear air vents.
Driver aids are also lacking on the D-Max. Rivals are increasingly fitting autonomous emergency braking on top-spec models, but the tech isn’t available here at any price.
Buyers can option a blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert for $955. Front parking sensors are $545.
A hard, lockable tonneau cover will give tradies extra peace of mind for storing expensive tools, while family buyers will appreciate decent head and legroom in the rear.
On the road, the D-Max shows its age. The engine is coarse under throttle and takes a while to get into its sweet spot, while the transmission delivers the odd shunt at low speeds.
The steering is heavier than its rivals, which makes it a little less city-friendly, although it’s a comfortable cruiser on the open road.
What it lacks in mod cons, the Isuzu makes up for with a compelling ownership story. It has a six-year/150,000km warranty and six years of free roadside assistance.
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4. HiLux SR5 dual cab
HiLux consistently rules the sales charts – shoulder to metal shoulder with Ranger – because of its hard-won reputation, high-quality engineering and Toyota fans’ stubborn brand loyalty.
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.
The perennially popular Toyota HiLux SR5 surprised judges this year with a narrow victory over its Ford Ranger XLT arch-rival. Since the ute category’s inclusion in Australia’s Best Cars programs back in 2013, the Ranger has virtually made it its own, only succumbing once before in 2015 to the eighth-generation HiLux. Keeping the two sales heavyweights honest this year was the new and significantly improved Mitsubishi Triton GLS.
In one of the closest fought battles among all categories, the Triton proved to be a real dark horse, rising from a sixth-place finish last year to take the third spot only 10 points astern of the winner. The Ranger was closer, still with only a six-point deficit to the HiLux. And that is after all 24 score lines have been tallied up for each vehicle.
The HiLux made up ground this year with its value for money compared to the more expensive Ranger, which has seen an increase in price against the HiLux, though overall both trail the cheaper and better-equipped Triton. HiLux owners fare best on service department costs, too, and Toyota’s recent welcome move to a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty brings it in line with its adversaries.
Design and function wise, the three trade blows fairly evenly in most areas. However, the HiLux trumps its rivals for safety, carrying a five-star ANCAP crash rating to the latest and more stringent 2019 test protocols. The other two are five-star rated also, but still only to the earlier 2015 ratings.
These three load-luggers are all equipped with the expected quota of airbags, ABS brakes and ESC. In recent times all have gained a similar, though not identical, a raft of more advanced driver assistance tech to put them at the forefront of the ute class. For both the Ranger and HiLux, this list includes speed/road sign recognition and, just on the HiLux, an active cruise control system. At the same time, the Triton features rear cross-traffic alert and misacceleration mitigation.
All seating positions in this trio offer good comfort levels, though the Triton’s new front seats were rated the best in the category. Rear passengers also benefit from its new mid-roof mounted cool-air circulation system’s superior performance, compared to the HiLux’s console-mounted rear vents, which is a feature missing from the Ford.
The new Triton’s updated interior has a much more premium look than the old model, helping level its build and finish score with the HiLux and Ranger. The new interior is easy to interact with and the recently added driver-assistance tech carried the Triton to a leading ergonomics score. The Ranger’s switchgear, by comparison, felt a bit too fussy, though the judges liked Ford’s SYNC voice control system. There was praise, too, for the HiLux and Triton’s steering reach adjustment, along with the usual tilt-only adjustability generally found in most utes, including the Ranger.
All three of these dual-cabs acquitted themselves well on the bitumen and second-class unsealed roads, whether unladen or lugging around four judges inside and a 500-kilogram payload in the tray. Triton’s new six-speed auto and other mechanical revisions now make it a worthy competitor in this company. The HiLux’s 2.8-litre turbo-diesel offers a respectable level of performance, on and off-road, and like the Triton, it feels more refined, though the Ranger’s larger-capacity engine does feel that bit stronger. All conquered our off-road test loop with ease, including some steep and badly rutted climbs. However, the judges noted the Ranger was more likely to rub its belly than the other two.
The fact the final scores for this intrepid trio are so darn close means whichever one of these you choose, you’ll be getting a great example of what the modern ute can offer. But the HiLux reigns supreme this year, confirming why it’s again the top-selling vehicle in Australia.
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.
It is also very practical; it’s not a near-perfect package like Ranger or BT-50, but not as charmingly rough-edged as the D-Max.
The SR5 4×4 auto (from $56,390 excluding on-road costs) has a neat, spacious interior; there are loads of headroom and legroom for everyone and firm, supportive seats.
The interior is not as super-flash as those of its rivals, even with leather accents (option) or ‘premium fabric’ everywhere, but it’s not quite a hose-out situation either. In keeping with HiLux tradition, it retains hard-wearing plastic surfaces and offers what some might cynically describe as bare-minimum amenities inside compared to its competitors. We like it.
Dash instruments are decidedly old school (no digital flash stuff here). Still, the driver does get a leather-wrapped steering wheel (with controls for audio, Bluetooth, etc.), a 7.0-inch colour multimedia display, dual-zone air-con, sat-nav and reversing camera.
In-cabin storage includes a lockable glovebox, centre console box with lid, six cupholders (four for the front, two for the back), four bottle holders (two front, two back), two bottle holders in the doors, two seat-back pockets and several handy spaces for your keys, loose change, etc.
There are two 12 volt sockets, a USB port, and a 220-volt accessory socket in the tray.
The SR5 has a 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine (130kW/450Nm) and six-speed automatic transmission.
Fuel consumption is a claimed 8.5L/100km, and it has an 80-litre fuel tank.
The tray is 1550mm long (on the floor), 1515mm wide (on the floor), 1110mm wide (between the wheel arches), and 495mm deep (from floor to top of the deck). The tray has four tie-down points, one at each corner. The load height is approximately 860mm.
It has a maximum braked towing capacity of 3200kg and 750kg unbraked.
The HiLux has a five-star ANCAP rating; there are two top-tether child-restraint anchor points and two ISOFIX points in the second row.
5. Nissan Navara ST-X
This top-spec Navara Series 2 dual-cab 4×4 ($54,490 excluding on-road costs) is a stiff but smooth-riding beast (on a coil-sprung rear) and packed with plenty of standard gear.
Though you could easily do away with a fair bit of stuff, such as heated and electrically-adjustable front seats, and the leather-accented handbrake, nice practical touches include a reversing camera, reversing sensors, rear air vents, rear power-sliding glass window, as well as the slide-adjustable load-securing system in the tray, and more.
The interior is plush and comfortable, and long stints on the road are no problem in this thing. The ST-X gets an easy-to-use 7.0-inch touchscreen, sat-nav, leather-wrapped steering wheel and auto shifter. Lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto may irk some people, not me.
Storage spaces include big glove box, four cupholders, bottle holders and storage pockets in each door, seat-back pockets and a variety of other hideaway holes.
There are three 12 volt sockets inside and a weather-proof 12 volt accessory socket in the tray.
The ST-X has a 2.3-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel engine (140kW/450Nm) and seven-speed auto.
Fuel consumption is claimed to be 7.0L/100km, and it has an 80-litre fuel tank.
The ST-X’s tray is 1503mm long, 1560mm wide (1130mm between wheel arches) and 474mm deep. The tray has four cargo tie-down rings. The load height is 805mm.
It has a maximum braked towing capacity of 3500kg and 750kg unbraked.
The ST-X has a five-star ANCAP rating; There are three top-tether points for child restraints but no ISOFIX anchors.