ute for adventure

Why are utes so expensive?

Utes used to be a popular choice of vehicle for farmers and tradespeople due to their payload, size and reliability. However, these features alone no longer cut the mustard with today’s consumers now demanding a multi-functional vehicle.

As is the case with most vehicles, utes these days are arriving fully equipped with the same level of features as passenger cars and the latest safety technologies, making them a far more versatile vehicle and a popular choice among families and drivers with towing requirements. Utes in today’s market are much more than a humble workhorse.

Driving experience

Many utes still use a traditional ladder chassis. However, manufacturers have improved soundproofing and suspension systems, which can adapt to changing loads. That means no more bouncing around in your seat like a beach ball when driving your ute without any load.

Some models incorporate electronic power steering (EPS), making parking manoeuvers easier and offering firmer steering when on the open road. Adaptive cruise control is also widely available, which is perfect for when you’re stuck in traffic on your way home from a family getaway.

Lean burning turbo diesel units are popular among models and, considering the size and weight of these vehicles, and they offer a surprising amount of power and impressive fuel economy figures. Some manufacturers also offer refined, quiet V6 diesel engines.

While some may find driving these larger vehicles a little daunting, technology like parking sensors and cameras help make the driver’s life a little easier. Driving a ute now feels just like driving a car thanks to the availability of automatic transmissions and better ride quality in most model ranges.

Safety features

Utes feature plenty of the latest safety technologies that passenger cars also possess. In order to compete against the increasingly popular SUV market, utes had to adapt and be able to create a comfortable and safe space for occupants. This has resulted in better occupant protection through side and knee airbags and collision avoidance systems, which allow them to achieve competitive safety ratings. By boasting the same safety features as SUVs, utes have been able to broaden their target market.

Interior quality

It’s not just the on-boarding of safety features that are helping utes to maintain their strong position in the new car market. All the visual trimmings from SUVs are creeping into these vehicles. Utes now commonly have electric seats, leather upholstery, stitched dashboards, cooling compartments and other options. The interior attention to detail increased passenger space in double cab models, elaborate infotainment systems and USB charging plugs can be very appealing to drivers with families. 

In 2016, a year that saw a 9.5 per cent increase in new vehicle registrations, the popular Ford Ranger maintained its position as New Zealand’s top-selling vehicle for the second year running having bumped the Toyota Corolla down into second place in 2015. Not only that but utes made up half of the vehicles in the top ten.

In other words, the dominance of utes in the market shows no sign of waning. In fact, if you’ve previously considered a ute to be an addition or alternative to the household’s passenger vehicle, it may be time to think again and revisit the market.

There may well be better equipped and more practical models out there compared to the last time you looked, and you could potentially end up saving money that’s normally spent maintaining and running two vehicles.

Remember when pickup trucks were just for work? Some still are, but they’re in the minority. Light commercials (that’s officially what utes are) are over 30 per cent of new-vehicle sales in New Zealand, and most pickups are double-cab models that give up tray space to provide four doors for passengers.

Utes are aspirational things now, and the posh models cost luxury-car money: top-line versions of the Ford Ranger (incredibly, NZ’s best-selling new vehicle of any kind), Mercedes-Benz X-class and Volkswagen Amarok cost $70k, $80k and even up towards $90k. They have leather seats and loud audio systems and come in fashion colours.

What’s happened to make trucks as desirable as luxury cars? It’s surely connected with the boom in SUVs. Everybody wants to ride high, and my personal theory is that as SUVs have become softer and more comfortable to replace everyday vehicles, there’s a demand for something that does SUV stuff but also projects a truly tough image.

Motor Industry Association CEO David Crawford says the sale of passenger vehicles took a major dive during the Global Financial Crisis and has only come back up to about a third of what it was.

“But what has grown strongly is SUV sales and light commercial vehicle sales,” said Crawford.

“SUVs overtook passengers in 2015 and this year if I take out vans and just look at utes, we will sell more of those than all of the other passenger vehicles together.”

And electric cars? Well, for every electric car we bought last year we bought 64 mostly-diesel double cab utes. One electric car, 64 double-cab utes.

And according to the statistics, about half of the utes being sold are being bought by individuals – not companies. So these utes are not just for tradies and farmers anymore.

Ford Marketing Manager for Light Commercial Vehicles Jeremy Nash said there had been a huge shift away from the Ford Falcon and Commodores of our past.

He calls it the ‘Truck Revolution’.

He said where the sedans used to meet our work and family needs, and now we’re after a more versatile vehicle and the double-cab ute ticks all the boxes.

“One of the biggest insights we have on ute ownership is that towing is very important,” he said

“And that talks to that whole kiwi lifestyle; the boat, the bach, being able to tow a trailer, go to the tip on the weekends, take the jetski somewhere or put the bike racks on. It’s very kiwi, and it’s a very enabling kind of accessory.”

He said adding that to the spacious, versatile tray and the automatic transmission and you have a very popular vehicle for many New Zealand families.

They are also things something Zoomy driver Tricky appreciates in his Nissan Navara.

He said while he would love an electric car for his day-to-day commute and Zoomy trips, there’s no incentive for him to buy one.

“Most electric vehicles don’t have the range,” he said.

“The latest ones do, but then they get a bit pricey.”

And he doesn’t think an electric vehicle would tow his racing car.

“I don’t think it’s going to quite cut the mustard. If I’ve got to go from Wellington to Auckland and I want to do it in one trip, an electric car’s not going to handle it, especially if I’m towing two-tonne behind me.”

But if we keep choosing gas-guzzling utes, we’re not going to meet our climate change targets or improve air quality.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw recognises meeting the Productivity Commission’s target of having a light vehicle fleet made up of more than 95% electric or zero-emission vehicles by 2050 will be a colossal challenge.

“You’ve got about 4.2 million vehicles in the fleet today, if you want to replace those, you’d be doing so at a rate of 131,250 a year for the next 32 years, and every year you don’t replace them at that rate you have to add that to the following years,” he said.

Gas guzzlers are cheap to buy but expensive to run. Electric cars are expensive to buy but cheap to run.

So, there are a couple of ways the Government could encourage us to stop buying double cab utes.

It could use the price; forcing double-cab ute drivers to pay $20,000 extra for their fancy new vehicle and transferring that money to the Nissan Leaf buyers so their cars would be $20,000 cheaper.

But even Shaw admits that would hurt poorer drivers.

He envisages a set of policies being developed rather than a single big lever like a feebate scheme. Although he thinks some sort of financing scheme that makes electric cars affordable for everyone could work. For example, someone could pay a small amount upfront for an electric car and then pay some sort of monthly rent or lease that spreads the cost out.

The lever, which Shaw didn’t mention, is to remove the current tax exemptions on utes. Right now the Government is actually subsidising people to buy the very utes that could stop us meeting our climate change commitments because when you buy a ute, you don’t have to pay fringe benefits tax. Utes are categorised as a commercial vehicle exempt from FBT, unlike a passenger car.

And if you buy the ute as a business, even if you don’t need to cart around tools or livestock, you can also reclaim the GST.

Now, these tax exclusions made sense when a ute was considered a perk, and you couldn’t be seen dead at the beach or the church with your family in one. But times have definitely changed.

James Shaw says it’s going to take some pretty transformational thinking to change the dial on our current numbers. But he is excited about the policy possibilities.

“If we get this right, then we can change household and national economics.”

“Because we import roughly $5.5b worth of petrol a year, if we stopped doing that and it was all being the energy that was generated in New Zealand, then that massively shifts our balance of payments.

“If we can work out a way to help low-income families to move from a really inefficient internal combustion engine vehicle to an electric vehicle, then their running costs are the equivalent of 30c a litre, rather than $2.40 a litre and so that will have a massive impact on their household finances.

“And of course it dramatically reduces our emissions,” said Shaw.

He reckons there could be a triple win; for the country, for households and for the climate if we can get the policy mix right.

David Crawford is watching the debate closely.

“We understand that a discussion is coming around a series of measures to influence the way in which vehicles are imported and to influence the people making decisions about what they want to buy. The devil will be in the detail of what’s being proposed and what’s workable,” said Crawford.

Either way, it looks like the Government’s coming for our beloved utes.

Australian’s are serious about their love for the big outdoors – including their utes.

So, it’s no surprise that commercial vehicle sales are stronger than ever. And who says bigger isn’t always better, as hard-working tradies are splashing plenty of cash on huge workhorses to get the job done or stand out from the pack. 

Add technology and performance to the mix, and you get a whole new category of uber utes – ones that come with limousine-like pricetags.

Here are the seven most expensive utes in today’s market.

Chevrolet Silverado LTZ – $147,990

The range-topping Silverado 3500 LTZ is America’s answer to a luxury ute.

You may think it’s a bit over the top for a pickup truck, but the American’s wouldn’t have it any other way.

With leather-trimmed bucket seats, leather steering wheel, chrome 18-inch alloy wheels, chrome side mouldings and door handles, it doesn’t feel like the workhorse it is capable of being.  

It comes equipped with an 8.0-inch touchscreen that is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto too to keep connected.

The LTZ also features safety upgrades like forwarding collision alert, lane departure warning and front and rear park assist.

Powered by a 6.6-litre Duramax turbocharged V8 diesel engine, it produces a whopping 332kW and 1234Nm of torque. With a 6.1 tonne towing capacity, you could tow a trailer – or two.

HSV is now converting the Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD to right-hand drive, dropping a slice of Americana onto Australian roads for the low, low price of $114,990 before on-road costs.

That’s just the entry price – the range-topping, heavy-hauling Silverado 3500HD LTZ will set you back a cool $147,990 before on-roads. Makes that X-Class look like good value. Almost.

Of course, while those are more expensive than the X-Class, it all comes down to the low-volume import program and the conversion to right-hand drive. In the US, you’d pay the equivalent of $47,000 for a 2500HD.

Ram Laramie 3500 – $144,350

When you look at the Ram Laramie 2500 and 3500, you won’t see a difference, because from the outside there isn’t one.

They are both powered by a 6.7-litre Cummins turbocharged diesel engine that produces 276kW of power and 1084Nm of torque, and both are paired to a six-speed automatic transmission.  

Even the interior features the same heated and ventilated seats, a heated steering wheel, electrically adjusted pedal and seat position, sunroof, 240-volt 100W general power outlet, dual-zone climate control and key operated remote starting.

The difference? The Laramie 3500 has a higher payload, meaning it is capable of carrying 800kg more than the 2500 Ram.

However, there is a catch. The higher payload capacity takes it to another level, and you’ll need a truck licence for this one.

Ram Laramie 2500 – $139,950

If you need your ute to double as a small tow truck, the Laramie 2500 is what you want. Unlike 3500, you can drive this one on a full driving licence.

Its towing capacity is rated at 3.5 tonnes with a standard tow ball but can be increased to 6.9 tonnes when you install a pintle load hook.  

2500 utilises the same running gear as the 3500 – a 6.7-litre Cummins turbo diesel engine.

The Laramie 2500 is at the pointy end of the price list for a good reason – it’s a workhorse.  

Standard features include rain-sensing wipers, automatic high beam headlights, cargo lighting that turns on when unlocking and an updated 8.2-inch infotainment system with uConnect 4 – adding pinch zoom, Apply Carplay and Android Auto.  

Ram Laramie 1500 – $99,950

As its name suggests, the Ram Laramie 1500 is the smaller brother of the 2500 and 3500 models. It comes with a 5.7-litre Hemi V8 petrol engine that makes 291kW of power and 556Nm of torque paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission.

Standard features in the Laramie include 20-inch alloy wheels, spray-in tray liner, heavy-duty tow bar, trailer sway control, 8.4-inch UConnect infotainment screen, 10-speaker sound system, climate control air conditioning, front and rear parking sensors and a reversing camera.

It’s easy to forget you’re driving a ute in the cabin with heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel and leather upholstery.

Fuel consumption sits at around 9.9L/100km, which is impressive for such a big machine.

Mercedes-Benz X350d Power – $79,415

This German beast has more than enough grunt to be a workhorse and all the gear for a weekend of adventure.

The X350d comes in two options – Progressive and Power. Both are powered by a Mercedes-Benz 3.0-litre V6 turbocharged diesel with a claimed combined fuel consumption of 9.0l/100km.

The power is the top of the range, priced just under $80k before on-road costs.

The top-spec model features 18-inch alloy wheels, chrome front and rear bumpers, LED headlights, leather dashboard, leather electric heated seats and touchpad-controlled infotainment.

The power also comes equipped with standard safety features such as autonomous emergency braking, traffic sign assist, and active lane-keeping assist with optional reversing and a 360-degree camera.

The X350d is fitted with trailer sway control so towing up to the rated 3500kg won’t be an issue.

Mercedes-Benz set tongues wagging when it announced the X-Class, its first serious entry into the ute market, in 2017.

The chatter intensified when pricing for the four-cylinder X250d was revealed earlier this year, but it’s finally hit fever pitch with the launch of the range-topping V6-powered X350d.

With a sticker price of $79,415 before on-road costs in X350d Power guise, the range-topping 

Mercedes has officially toppled the high-flying Ford Ranger Raptor as the most expensive dual-cab ute in Australia.

All that cash buys you a lot of truck. Power comes from a twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine making a big 190kW of power and 550Nm of torque, put to all four wheels through a full-time all-wheel-drive system.

It isn’t the fastest dual-cab ute available to Aussie buyers, though. That honour belongs to the upcoming Volkswagen Amarok V6 Ultimate, which will offer the same power output and 30Nm more torque from its V6 for a 7.3-second sprint to 100km/h.

Score one to the Volkswagen in the tradie traffic light drag, then. Pricing hasn’t been announced for the updated V6 Amarok flagship, but it’s expected to be around $70k, undercutting even the cheaper Mercedes X350d Progressive.

The most expensive dual-cab also isn’t the most capable off-road, though. That honour belongs to the Ford Ranger Raptor, priced from a very close $74,990 before on-road costs.

Ford Ranger Raptor – $74,990

The Raptor isn’t your typical workhorse. It’s here for a good time.

Ford’s top model Ranger has been engineered to handle the toughest terrain with race-inspired Fox shock absorbers, a wider track and chunkier BF Goodrich tyres paired with unique 17-inch alloy wheels – this one is for the weekend warriors.

With a new 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel engine it produces 157kW of power and 500Nm of torque with a 10-speed automatic transmission. The towing capacity sits at a mere 2500kg.

Instead of leather like the previously mentioned models, the interior is fitted with performance-style ‘technical suede’ seats with extra side bolstering for comfort.

While it misses out on safety features like autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, blind-spot monitoring and active cruise control, the Raptor makes up for it in performance. It comes with optional modes such as Sport or Baja, allowing the transmission to become more active.

Sure, the Ford only makes a measly 157kW and 500Nm from its bi-turbo four-cylinder engine, but a completely overhauled suspension system means it’s equipped to run at high speed over rough terrain without breaking a sweat. Given a big enough run – and a big enough mound – it’ll even jump.

What the Mercedes offers that the Ford can’t is safety gear and lots of it. The entire X-Class range comes with autonomous emergency braking, which slams on the brakes if it thinks a collision is imminent.

That technology isn’t available on the Ranger Raptor, although Ford says it’s coming. It’s worth bearing in mind, and the technology is offered on cheaper members of the Ranger line-up.

The X350d also gets keyless entry and start, dual-zone climate control, active lane-keeping assist and a surround-view camera, making it easier to park in tight city spaces.

Although it’s expensive compared to its rivals, the X350d isn’t the priciest ute ever to grace Australian roads. Back in the days of local manufacturing, HSV was asking $96,990 before on-road costs for the GTSR Maloo.

That didn’t buy you a heap of carrying capacity, but it bought a whole lot of power. With a supercharged V8 engine producing 435kW of and 740Nm of torque, along with suspension suited to flat out work on the track, it was more supercar than a work truck.

If you’re desperate to be king of the tradies but the Mercedes isn’t really your style, there are a few ways to get your ute fix.

Toyota Landcruiser 70 series – $71,740

The Landcruiser has been a trusty Australian icon for decades, and not much has changed over the years.

It’s still as tough and reliable as it always was.

The 70 series GXL Landcruiser is powered by a 4.5-litre turbocharged diesel V8 producing 151kW and 430Nm of torque.

Safety-wise, Toyota hasn’t added much. Sitting alongside the cars mentioned above, it does lack in some areas, but the Landcruiser isn’t here to look pretty – it’s here to get the job done. And you know it will – every day.

Yes, they are crazy-expensive, but most are probably bought with the company chequebook. It’s easy to justify a ute purchase for work requirements. If you need further proof that the money doesn’t really matter, look at how many accessories are on these vehicles; the showroom price is often just the start.

In the face of this changing fashion, you’d think utes would be getting more sophisticated and comfortable. But they still have rattly diesel engines, tough frames underneath that make them bumpy on-road and turning circles similar to a supertanker. Mind you, most also tow 3.5 tonnes and can crawl up mountains; that tough image is justified, whether you actually need to do those things or not.

Ute makers have acknowledged the on-road bias of these vehicles by offering some models that don’t have the weight and expense of 4WD. For example, if you see a Ranger “Hi-Rider” or Toyota Hilux “Pre-Runner”, they are 2WD models that are not designed for off-road use. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are smooth on the tarmac. 

You probably find people who drive these things around town constantly telling you their ute drives “just like a car”. They soon do not.

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