UNDER THE PUMP

TOP-DOLLAR V6 DIESEL UTES FROM MERCEDES-BENZ AND VW LOOK THE GOODS FOR HEAVY DUTY LOAD CARRYING AND TOWING, BUT HOW DO THEY SHAPE UP AGAINST MORE AFFORDABLE DUAL CABS WHEN PUT TO THE ACID TEST?

WORDS FRASER STRONACH PHOTOS ELLEN DEWAR

ALL OF THE utes you see here are rated to tow 3500kg, but rarely do. Trouble is, once you hook up 3500kg behind any of them you can’t carry much (if anything) legally in the tub once you have a driver and passenger onboard.

These utes are typically used to tow something in the order of 2500 to 3000kg and also carry some sort of payload, given the driver and passengers are all payload, as is the tow bar and fitted accessories such as bullbars and canopies. before you put anything in the tub.

What that in mind, we decided on a more real-world test of towing 2500kg while carrying 450kg in the tub – add a driver and passenger and the payload’s about 600kg, not including the towball download. As it played out we added a total of 3144kg to each ute’s Gross Combined Mass (GCM), comprising the classic Range Rover on a tandem-axle car trailer, the sandbags in the tub, and driver and passenger onboard.

With these utes weighing between 2000kg to near 2300kg, and the maximum permissible GCMs varying from 5950kg to 6180kg, the utes were typically operating around 600kg to 750kg below maximum GCM. However, they were still asked to work hard, given they carried and towed a weight equal to one-and-half times their unladen weight.

If you think we were going to let our utes off lightly, we weren’t. Part of our test was a very steep climb – a 15 per cent average gradient, but notably steeper in parts – over 1.5km. On the steepest pinch it had three sharp (one a nearstop hairpin) bends, which meant slowing right down to a slow and safe speed and therefore losing most momentum, before accelerating back to speed (or at least trying to) on the straight sections of road between the bends. As it turned out it was mostly a full-throttle slug in first and second gears.

This was repeated three times for each ute, with the purpose of testing the powertrain under full-throttle climbing loads and maximum engine-braking descent loads. The climbing runs were all timed. The descents were a decent test for the brakes; although, they were deliberately slow and steady, given the steep incline and added weights, and relied largely on engine braking. The trailer was fitted with electric brakes, and all utes had electric trailer-brake controllers.

The general part of the test, conducted on an undulating and sometimes bumpy rural road, tested general chassis stability and powertrain performance under typical touring conditions at highway speeds. The incentive of this test was to see how the powerful and more expensive V6 utes from Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen compared to the popular and affordable models from Ford, Holden and Isuzu. Comparing the two engines now available in the Ranger (the 3.2-litre ‘five’ and the new 2.0-litre bi-turbo) was also of much interest.

HIGH FIVE

FORD RANGER 3.2

Towing Capacity: 3500kg Towball Download (max): 350kg Payload: 922kg

DESPITE THE PRESENCE OF THE TWO EUROPEAN V6 UTES, THE RANGER 3.2 STILL HAS THE LARGEST CAPACITY ENGINE HERE.

T HE RANGER 3.2 we have here is a 2019 model and, while the 147kW 470Nm five-cylinder diesel and sixspeed automatic remains largely unchanged, there are a host of updates including keyless entry and start, a new feature for Ranger. Being a Wildtrak, our test vehicle has autonomous braking (including pedestrian detection); although, this feature is now also optional on the volume-selling XLT.

All MY19 Rangers come with a revised suspension package that offers a more comfortable ride, something we previously noticed when driving various MY19 models including a 3.2. Interestingly, the MY19 suspension changes are claimed to bring improved towing and load carrying performance. In previous heavy duty tow and load testing the Ranger 3.2’s powertrain and chassis both proved to be top performers.

GENERAL LOAD & TOW

LOADING the 450kg of sand bags into the back of the 3.2 and then hooking up the loaded trailer saw the 3.2’s rear suspension drop by 70mm, the same as the Ranger 2.0 and Amarok, but a little more than the Colorado and D-Max, both of which have less overall suspension travel at the rear via their shared platforms.

Once underway the Ranger’s nicely tuned electric power steering (EPS), which is very light for slow-speed manoeuvring, offers a positive and connected feel once up to highway speeds.

The general chassis stability with the carried and towed loads is good, too, as it has always been with the Ranger. Whether it’s better than it was before the MY19 suspension revision is hard to say without towing the same load behind a MY18 and an MY19 back-to-back. Either way, there’s little to complain about.

As expected, the ‘big’ 3.2-litre engine puts in a strong towing performance, thanks in part to its maximum power being on tap at just 3000rpm, that’s lower than any of the other utes here. Outside of the two V6s, the 3.2 proved to be the most effortless engine when carrying and towing the test load, and it never felt to be working all that hard. The fact the gearing isn’t overly tall helps the engine hold the taller gears on undulating and winding roads. Good shift quality and timing, too, from the six-speed ZF automatic.

The MY19 3.2 is a little quieter than before, though still not a notably quiet engine. And while its five-cylinder design sounds odd and potentially unbalanced, it’s very smooth in general running.

STEEP GRADIENT LOAD & TOW

THE 3.2 continued to shine up and down our steep test incline. On the way up it covered the climb more quickly than all but the two V6s, and it wasn’t as far behind the Mercedes-Benz as you’d expect from the notable difference in the on-paper power and torque outputs.

All the way up the hill it happily slogged away between 2500 and 3000rpm without any unnecessary shuffling between gears, just decisive changes when needed. It arguably had the best engine braking, too, on the way down, no doubt due in part to having the largest capacity engine.

TECHNOLOGY HIT

FORD RANGER 2.0

Towing Capacity: 3500kg Towball Download (max): 350kg Payload: 954kg

A 2.0-LITRE BI-TURBO-DIESEL WITH MORE POWER AND TORQUE THAN THE RANGER’S 3.2 IS NOW OFFERED WITH THE XLT AND WILDTRAK.

OF ALL THE changes to the 2019 Ranger, the introduction of the new 157kW 500Nm 2.0-litre bi-turbo diesel and its 10-speed auto is by the most significant. This new ‘little’ engine brings cutting-edge diesel engine technology and a little more power and torque to a ute that, ironically, is much loved for having a ‘big’ 3.2-litre old-school diesel. How the new engine is received in the marketplace will be interesting.

Currently the bi-turbo engine and 10-speed auto (there’s no manual with this engine) is an option for XLT and Wildtrak 4x4s (and XLT 4x2) but will no doubt become more common throughout the line-up as time goes on. When the next-gen Ranger arrives in a couple of years’ time, it could well be the standard ‘default’ engine. Those holding out hope a VW 3.0-litre V6 will be in the next-gen Ranger, given it will be a partnership development with VW might be disappointed.

Certainly we like what we’ve seen with this new engine so far: it powered Ford’s Ranger Raptor to a 4X4 Of The Year win, with the Ranger XLT finishing second.

It was also more responsive, quieter and more refined when driven back-to-back with the 3.2 when not towing or load hauling, thanks in part to its 10-speed ’box.

GENERAL LOAD & TOW

LOADING sand bags into the 2.0-litre Ranger and hooking up the trailer saw rear suspension drop about the same as the 3.2; as you’d expect with the same leaf springs, even if damper tune is variant-specific.

Once underway there’s also the same good steering, ride and chassis stability of the 3.2 when hauling the test load.

There may be some subtle changes in the dampers and the front springs to cover for the slightly lighter weight of the 2.0-litre powertrain, but chassis-wise the two feel much the same, namely very good, with the 3144kg GCM load and tow increase.

The two powertrains, though, have a completely different feel and perform quite differently when lugging the extra load. The 2.0-litre is more refined but constantly needs more revs to do the same job, and it shuffles up and down the gears more frequently. It does this partly because there are more gears, but also because of the 2.0-litre’s tall final drive gearing, taller in fact (3.31 v 3.73) than what’s behind the 3.2. That means the engine didn’t pick up the two top gears very often on undulating country roads, which contributes to the shuffling when it does change up but soon needs to shift back down again.

STEEP GRADIENT LOAD & TOW

THE 2.0-litre bi-turbo’s 157kW and 500Nm should give it the edge over all but the two V6s, but once faced with hauling the additional 3144kg GCM up the steep climb the on-paper advantage evaporated.

In fact, the 2.0-litre recorded the slowest times up the hill, even if it wasn’t far behind the Colorado, and it never really felt happy. Up the steep incline it struggled to gain any sort of decent momentum and shuffled back and forth between the gears, the gear ratios seemingly wider than what you’d imagine. Not much joy coming down either, as the engine provides far less engine braking than the others.

THE GENERAL’S UTE

HOLDEN COLORADO

Towing Capacity: 3500kg Towball Download (max): 350kg Payload: 1048kg

HOLDEN BY NAME BUT MORE GLOBAL GENERAL MOTORS BY DESIGN, THE COLORADO BOASTS PLENTY OF AUSTRALIAN ENGINEERING.

THE COLORADO hasn’t been mechanically changed since we last tow- and load-tested it against its class rivals. In fact, since its major top-to-bottom revision for the 2016 model year, the Colorado has participated in a 3500kg tow test comparison and two load test comparisons, one with 800kg in the tub and two people onboard, and the other with 650kg in the tub and three people aboard. In all tests it performed well; not a winner in any of those outings but still up with the front runners on all three occasions. Its 147kW/500Nm 2.8-litre diesel engine and six-speed automatic providing competitive load-hauling performance, and its chassis proving up to the task.

The Colorado is a popular seller in a highly competitive ute market; one of the ‘big’ four behind Hilux, Ranger and Triton. Given it’s a mid-spec LT it’s also the least expensive of our six utes, whereas the D-Max, the other more affordable ute here, is a top-spec LS-T.

GENERAL LOAD & TOW

WITH THE 450kg of sandbags in the tub and the trailer hooked up, the Colorado’s rear suspension dropped 55mm, measured at the line of the rear axle. That’s a little less than all of the other utes here, which helps maintain a neutral stance; although, it’s also a reflection that the Colorado doesn’t have as much rear axle travel overall as either the Ranger or Amarok, which are both notably good in that regard.

Like the Ranger, the Colorado has electric power steering (part of the MY16 upgrade) which offers plenty of feel, even under the full test load. The overall chassis stability of the Colorado is very good when hauling the test load; although, perhaps, not as good as the Rangers or the Amarok when the roads become bumpier.

The 2.8-litre four-cylinder and six-speed auto perform solidly, even if it needs to rev more than the two V6s and the Ranger 3.2 to do the same job. And while it’s not the quietest or smoothest engine here when working hard, it doesn’t give much away to the Ranger 3.2 or D-Max in that regard.

The six-speed GM automatic works well with engine and offers notably proactive shift protocols, and it’s especially good with the timing of its automatic downshifts on off-throttle descents. Most of the others need a brake prompt to auto downshift, but the Colorado will do it more readily on gradient recognition alone.

STEEP GRADIENT LOAD & TOW

WE WERE expecting good things from the Colorado on our extreme climb and descent and, while it generally delivered up the hill, it wasn’t as strong as we expected. The engine needs relatively high revs for it to work best, and it just didn’t pull up to those high revs all that quickly. Surprisingly, it was a little slower than the less powerful (on paper) D-Max up the hill, but it was still better than the more powerful (on paper) Ranger 2.0-litre.

Aside from being a little slow out of the hairpin bends, the diesel engine was willing once up and spinning and thrived on revs. On descent the engine offers reasonable braking, aided by a responsive ‘manual’ mode.

TASK MASTER

ISUZU D-MAX

Towing Capacity: 3500kg Towball Download (max): 350kg Payload: 1024kg

ISUZU’S D-MAX IS ONE OF THE OLDEST DESIGNS HERE, SO CAN IT KEEP UP WITH THE NEW BOYS?

IT MAY SEEM like little has changed with the Isuzu D-Max in recent years, but in 2017 a Euro 5 emissions upgrade to the 3.0-litre four-cylinder diesel bumped max torque from 380 to 430Nm, and a six-speed auto replaced the five-speeder. All this was done subsequent to our multi-ute load and tow comparison tests in late 2016. These tests involved 800kg in the tub and a 3500kg tow test, conducted separately as these utes can’t carry and tow that much at the same time. In both tests the D-Max’s chassis was generally up to the task, but the 130kW 380Nm five-speed powertrain let it down and struggled with the work asked of it.

In 2018 all SX, LS-U and LS-T dual cabs received revised suspension, with three-leaf springs at the rear instead of the five-leaf used previously; to improve unladen ride. LS-M models retaining the five-leaf springs. Despite this change the GVM of all 4x4 models was increased by 100kg to 3050kg, which seems counterintuitive.

So what we have here is effectively a new powertrain (130kW/430Nm engine and six-speed auto) with a revised chassis. Our test D-Max is the top-spec LS-T, but it’s still the second cheapest ute here.

GENERAL LOAD & TOW

WITH THE trailer hooked up and sand bags in the tub, the D-Max’s rear dropped 60mm; that’s less than all but the Colorado, with which the D-Max shares the basic chassis but not the spring and damper tune. Like the Colorado there’s less total suspension travel than with the Rangers or Amarok, so it’s unusual there’s not as much suspension compression under load.

Once loaded and underway the D-Max’s steering is confident without being special and the handling is stable enough. It’s not quite as good as the Ranger or Amarok which are the best here in that regard, nor is it up to the Colorado; but it’s still more than acceptable. How it compares to what it was like before the rear suspension revision is hard to say, as our last heavy duty tow test involved different parameters. Only testing an LS-M retaining the five-leaf springs with this exact load would answer that question; although, Isuzu claims the same GVM and GCM regardless of the springs fitted.

The engine’s performance under general touring conditions hauling this load is reasonable without being a front-runner, as you’d expect with the two V6s in play. It still works away without much fuss and shuffling around from the reasonably refined Aisin six-speed automatic, a similar gearbox as to what’s found in Toyota’s Hilux and Prado.

STEEP GRADIENT LOAD & TOW

GIVEN ITS modest power and torque outputs – the lowest here on both counts – and its generally commensurate highway towing performance, we didn’t have much hope the D-Max would mount our steep climb at anything but a pace that would find it at the back of the pack. Well, it didn’t charge up the hill but the combination of hard work, lots of revs and a decisive gearbox that happily shifted back to first on the slowest bits, and the D-Max was bettered only by the two V6s and Ranger 3.2. Perhaps it’s Isuzu’s truck-engine heritage shining through, but it certainly seemed to relish the hard work. Decent engine braking on the way down, too.

STAR POWER

MERCEDES-BENZ X350D

Towing Capacity: 3500kg Towball Download (max): 350kg Payload: 1060kg

WITH 190KW WORTH OF V6 POWER, THE X350D SHOULD BE JUST THE TICKET FOR HAULING HEAVY LOADS.

IT’S NO SECRET Mercedes-Benz’s new X-Class ute is based on the Nissan Navara. Mercedes wanted to fast-track a ute into what is a booming global ute market so turned to strategic partner Renault-Nissan for its Navara D23.

However, don’t think for a minute the X-Class is just a rebadged Navara … far from it. Strengthening the ladder frame and widening the body is just the start of the detailed re-engineering Mercedes-Benz applied to the Navara to create the first X-Class models, and all that was before they threw out the Navara’s entire four-cylinder powertrain and slotted in their own V6 diesel complete with a full time dual-range four-wheel drive system.

All this comes at a price, as the Mercedes is comfortably the most expensive vehicle here. As tested it’s $89K before on-road costs; that’s about $15K north of the Amarok 580, the second most expensive vehicle here.

One design aspect Mercedes carried over from the Navara is the use of coil springs for the rear axle, a feature that hasn’t gone down well for heavy load carrying and towing and has seen Nissan revise the rear suspension, not once but twice, since this coil-spring Navara arrived late 2015.

The X-Class’s re-engineering does mean different springs, dampers and bushings – at the very least – as well as a wider track and higher GCM than the Nissan Navara. At 6180kg, the X350d’s GCM is the highest here.

GENERAL LOAD & TOW

BY CIRCUMSTANCE rather than design we used the X350d to pick up the 450kg of sand bags the day before the test got underway, and straight away the signs weren’t good. This sort of weight in the tub should be near undetectable beyond a more compliant ride, but there was a noticeable change in front-to-back attitude to the detriment of the steering and the chassis’s overall stability.

Hooking up the trailer and Rangie the next day – with the sand already in the tub – saw the X350d even more nose-up, bum-down. With the combined weight the X350d dropped some 80mm, the most here, which was made more significant as the X-Class’s rear suspension isn’t a notably long-travel design.

Once underway with the full load onboard and trailer behind, the X350d’s general stability on the country road course was acceptable but, at the same time, the least confident of our six utes. The steering felt the least connected and the directional stability the poorest. If the roads were wet its full-time 4x4 would have been handy, given the other utes bar the Amarok have comparatively primitive part-time 4x4 systems.

Better news is with the notably quiet and refined 190kW/550Nm V6 powertrain, which offers sufficient performance to make relatively light work of the load.

Nice gearbox, too; it’s a long-serving and widely used Mercedes unit and not the same seven-speed automatic as seen in the Navara.

STEEP GRADIENT LOAD & TOW

NOT SURPRISINGLY the X350d was strong up the steep test incline, even with the significant weight it was carrying and towing – it comfortably bettered the fivecylinder Ranger, the best of the rest, and the lesser performing four-cylinder utes. However, the X350d was still no match for the Amarok 580.

Good engine braking, four-wheel disc brakes and a well-performing automatic transmission (with paddle shifters) were positives on the steep descent.

BARNSTORMER

Towing Capacity: 3500kg Towball Download (max): 300kg Payload: 785kg

WITH 200KW AVAILABLE AT FULL STICK, THE AMAROK 580 IS THE MOST POWERFUL UTE HERE. BUT DOES IT DELIVER ON ITS PROMISE?

VOLKSWAGEN AMAROK 580

THE ‘580’ stands for 580 Newton metres, the standard measure of torque, or turning force, at the engine’s crankshaft. The 580 tag also distinguishes it from all other Amarok V6s, which claim 550Nm and are less powerful as a result – where the 580 produces up to 200kW, the 550 tops out at 180kW.

Those power figures are what Volkswagen calls ‘overboost’ figures, attained with 70 per cent or more throttle and only in third and fourth gears; it’s there to improve response for hill climbing or overtaking at highway speeds. The 580 otherwise claims 190kW, while the 550 claims 165kW under normal, nonoverboost operation. We haven’t tow-tested any Amarok V6 before, 580 or 550, but we have tested both at maximum payload, which didn’t worry either of them.

The 580 is the second most expensive ute here at $73K, plus on-road costs, but at least at that price all the good kit – sans towbar – comes standard.

On paper the 580 should be the most troubled by our load and tow test, as it will be operating closest to its GCM due to the fact its full-tank kerb weight of 2296kg makes it the heaviest ute here – so there’s less GCM left before you even add the Range Rover, sand bags and occupants. Even so, the 580 had around 560kg GCM in reserve under our test conditions, while the next ‘worst-off’ is the Ford Ranger 3.2 (the second heaviest ute) with 578kg left in reserve.

GENERAL LOAD & TOW

WITH THE sand bags in the tub and the trailer load hooked up, the rear suspension dropped around 70mm; so a similar amount to the two Rangers, which effectively levels up the 580’s stance.

Once underway and up to highway speeds on the country road course – with all its undulations, corners and varying surfaces from smooth to bumpy – the 580 felt stable, comfortable and as good chassis-wise as any ute here. Had our test been done when the road was wet, its full-time 4x4 would have given it a further advantage over any ute with part-time 4x4.

A top-of-class performance too from the 580’s powertrain, which is noticeably stronger than the four- and five-cylinder utes, even if it didn’t feel much different in general highway load and tow duties to the X350d. Both of the V6s had sufficient power to get along with the test load at legal highway speeds and weren’t too fussed by the modest hills; the difference was with chassis performance, as the 580’s was very good … the X350d’s not so good.

STEEP GRADIENT LOAD & TOW

THE DIFFERENCE between the performances of the two V6s, let alone between the four- and five-cylinder utes, became starker with our steep gradient climb. By its very nature this is a test of full-throttle power with a test load – not part-throttle power, as is the case with the general test course, at least with the two V6-powered vehicles.

To say the 580 stormed up the steep climb is an understatement. It was comfortably quicker than the X350d, which in turn was comfortably quicker than the rest. As this climb is effectively all about full-power performance in first and second gears, the 580 wasn’t even operating on overboost mode, except for a very short period when it picked up third before having to slow for one of the tight corners.

All good on the downhill section, too, thanks to decent engine braking and disc brakes all around. The paddle shifters also make for easy ‘manual’ control of the gearbox.

PUSH COMES TO SHOVE

SUMMARY

WITH TESTS COMPLETE AND RESULTS COMPILED, HOW DO THESE SIX UTES SHAPE UP AS LOAD AND TOW WORKHORSES?

R ATING THE utes in a one-to-six finishing order is difficult due to the big difference in price and the big difference in how the six performed in our load and tow testing. What’s fairly easy, however, is to slot them in three groups: outright winners; those which are good bang-for-your-bucks work horses; and those that aren’t wellsuited to hard yakka.

In the winners group, but in no particular order, are the Amarok 580 and the Ranger 3.2. The 580 is a winner thanks to its muscular powertrain, clearly the most potent here. It backs that with a stable and competent chassis that’s as good as any here, and it gets the added security and safety of fulltime 4x4. But then there are the safety omissions: no rear cabin airbags and no AEB. Plus, if you wish to tow a heavy camper trailer in the High Country, its lack of a two-speed transfer case may be an issue – still, the Amarok is excellent off road, despite not having low range. The 580 also isn’t cheap, but that’s offset by the fact an Amarok 550 Core, which should do 90 per cent of what the 580 does performance-wise and 100 per cent of what it does chassis-wise, can be had for just $50,990 driveaway.

The Ranger 3.2 is also a winner thanks to its stable tow- and load-friendly chassis and torquey, relaxed, low-revving and endearing five-cylinder engine. It’s the largest capacity engine here, which helps when there’s hard work to be done. The 2019 revisions – the extra convenience and safety kit – make it a better package than it was before, and it’s always been very good in every role you could ask of it, load hauling included.

OMISSIONS

IDEALLY, we would have liked to have had a Toyota Hilux along as well, but Toyota Australia was unable to supply a Hilux with an electric-brake controller. We also couldn’t get hold of a new Mitsubishi Triton in time.

The Colorado and D-Max fall into the category of good bang-for-your-bucks load and tow rigs. On equipment parity, they are the two least expensive utes here: The D-Max, in the same mechanical spec as our test vehicle, starts at $46,600 (plus on-roads); while for $600 more you can get into a base-spec version of the Colorado we have here.

Both came through the test well. The Colorado has a bit more chassis finesse and more general towing power, while the D-Max relished the hard work of the steep climb and has the reputation of being the cheapest and easiest to service of all the popular dual cabs.

That leaves the Ford Ranger 2.0-litre and the Mercedes-Benz X350d, neither of which performed with distinction. As good as the Ranger’s new 2.0-litre bi-turbo engine is for general driving – where it outperforms the Ranger 3.2 – it wasn’t as fuss-fee in its general load-andtow ability and dropped in a hole hauling the test load up the steep incline. Its ‘little’ engine has to work harder than a big engine to do the same job and, while that harder work involves higher engine revs, it also means higher effective cylinder pressures. At least it has a good chassis for load and tow duties.

IN THE WINNERS GROUP ARE THE AMAROK 580 AND THE RANGER 3.2

For the most expensive vehicle here by a good margin, the X350d’s chassis – in terms of its stability and the ease and confidence in which it carried and towed the load – was disappointing. In this regard it was the poorest performer; although, some recognition goes to the safety and convenience benefit of its full-time 4x4 system. And while the engine generally lived up to its promise of extra performance, it still couldn’t match the Amarok 580 when push came to shove. It should have been more of a close match, but it wasn’t.