DUAL-CAB utes (and their various iterations) are now Australia’s third most popular vehicle group after small cars and medium SUVs. The Toyota Hilux tussles with Ford’s locally developed Ranger for the title of this nation’s best-seller, and within the next few years, Korea and France will most likely field their own contenders. With the Mercedes-Benz X-Class entering the fray and BMW openly contemplating following suit, their relevance, as well as popularity, will continue to soar. But with ‘The Best or Nothing’ three-pointed-star brand blazing an upward trajectory for the genre, has the dual-cab ute actually evolved in terms of dynamics, comfort, refinement and finesse?
We’ve chosen a mid-spec X250d Progressive Dual Cab 4Matic auto (meaning four doors, five seats and 4x4) from $57,800, as well as eight corresponding competitors (mostly) skirting the low-to-mid $50K mark, to see whether the Germans’ re-engineering of the Nissan Navara really has moved the game on.
Sadly, we’re a few months out from the Ranger’s facelift, so we’ve had to make do with an MY18 XLT, but there’s been a host of refreshed or revised rivals since we last certified this crew (May 2016), including Holden’s RG Series II Colorado (essentially a top-to-tail overhaul of the disappointing 2012-era original that finished second-last two years ago), and refinements for the Nissan Navara, Isuzu D-Max, Mazda BT-50, Mitsubishi Triton (the segment’s bronze medallist sales-wise) and Volkswagen Amarok. At the time of writing, the latter was the only dual-cab offering a V6 diesel. Can Wolfsburg repeat its 2016 Megatest victory?
Only the Hilux has remained pretty much unaltered since launching three years ago. A mid-fielder last time, will the Toyota keep up? Frustratingly, the $56,440 Double Cab as requested wasn’t available, so we ended up with a $48,560 SR (not including its optional alloys) – still $560 exxier than the flagship Triton Exceed. No wonder Mitsubishi sells so many of them.
Australians seeking a weekday workhorse-cumweekend plaything no longer have the luxury of shunning these body-on-frame technological dinosaurs for the far more sophisticated, car-based Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon utes. In the past, from a Wheels point of view at least, no imported utility had a hope in hell of matching our homegrown heroes on bitumen. Now, given the jack-of-all-trades expectations of this vehicle type, they’ll need to do more than just look tough and carry stuff.
With all this in mind, we’ve put the latest batch of dual-cab 4x4 utes through our Megatest regime, plus load and off-road tests (see right). Keep reading…
As Wheels has done in the past, we paired up with off-road obsessives 4x4 Australia to obtain the definitive opinion on how these dual-cabs handle the rough stuff, as well as substantial payloads – in this case 900kg+, made up of 650kg in the tub, a driver, two passengers and towbars/bullbars where fitted. The Melbourne 4x4 Training and Proving Ground near Werribee provided the bush-bashing backdrop of every conceivable variation. You can read about it in detail at the 4x4 Australia portal at whichcar.com.au.
2999cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, TD
130kW @ 3600rpm
430Nm @ 2000-2200rpm
Toyo Open Country A33A 255/60R18
• Durability; economy
• Ride; refinement; dynamics; an off-road tail-ender
REPUTATION is king in the truck world, especially when you’re supplying other manufacturers with their vehicles. Build ’em tough, make ’em last. It’s something Isuzu has traded on since the stylish KB20 kicked off in the 1970s, providing generations of pick-ups wearing Chevrolet LUV, Bedford KB, Holden Rodeo/Colorado and – in the not-too-distant future with the next-gen version – Mazda BT-50 badges.
So how has today’s D-Max finished last while the related Colorado has clawed its way up the rankings? Are toughness and reliability no longer enough?
The Thai-made pick-up received a thorough makeover only last year, with a fresh face, extra gear, a stronger yet more efficient powertrain, a quieter interior and extended service intervals backed up by capped-price servicing. Most of that has come as a result of feedback from Australian customers of the previous version launched back in 2012.
Throw in a spacious and well-screwed-together cabin offering decent seating front and rear, a contemporary dash design and, in top-level LS-Terrain guise, useful mod-cons from a rear camera and climate control to keyless entry/start and navigation, and it’s easy to understand why sales are up 20 percent this year.
Still, if there’s one model here to remind us that we are still very much in the light commercial vehicle world, it’s the D-Max. Take the updated interior – a step up but only within Isuzu’s own ecosystem. Leather boosts the ambience a degree but this is dragged back down again by plastics that remind you of their budget quality in both feel and odour. And what’s with the strange and space-wasting circular centre console switch layout?
The no-frills theme continues to excessive noise/ vibration/harshness issues, prompting us to dub the D-Max the din max. Speaking of which, the loud and clattery 3.0-litre turbo-diesel does feel muscular in isolation, with a decent amount of forward thrust, but is actually near the bottom for acceleration and deadlast for mid-range response. The D-Max also needed the most room to stop from 100km/h (just pipping the Navara), though at least it proved the best by far in the fuel economy stakes.
The lack of refinement continues through to the Isuzu’s disappointing road manners, with a chassis that feels half-baked due to steering with too much play and not enough weight or feel – have the company’s engineers driven a Ford Ranger lately? Push the D-Max through some corners and bumps provoke rack rattle and kickback. The ride seems to never settle, and the suspension takes longer to gather itself after big undulations than any ute tested. There’s also more tyre roar than you need put up with in a modern dual-cab. Tradies have sensitive ears too. We hope Isuzu management is taking notes.
Unfortunately, things aren’t great off the beaten track either. In the off-road, loaded and towing tests, the 18-inch-wheeled LS-Terrain would have benefited from a locking rear diff, a better traction-control calibration, greater suspension travel and more grunt.
Ultimately, the D-Max remains a tough and reliable truck with decades of workhorse experience behind it and probably many years of faithful service ahead. The five-year warranty is better than some, and for a flagship model, the sub-$55K pricing is a bonus. There is definitely a place for a no-nonsense dual-cab that does exactly what it says on the tin.
However, the ute is evolving, slowly but surely, and in its current form Isuzu’s latest truck seems to be leaning too heavily on past reputations.
DG + BM
Second-row passengers will be as happy as a Kelpie in the tray with plenty of comfort and convenience features. There’s a USB port, a pair of cupholders, ceiling grab handles, a centre armrest and speakers in the roof lining. At the very back, a hard tonneau and standard sports bar lift looks and perceived value.
THE NAMES, and even the brands, may have changed over time, but there have been Datsun or Nissan small trucks produced almost continuously since 1934.
That’s the same year Ford Australia released the world’s first coupe-utility, by the way, highlighting a breadth of experience that has moulded Nissan’s reputation for outstanding reliability and durability.
2298cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, TTD
140kW @ 3750rpm
450Nm @ 1500-2500rpm
Transmission 7-speed automatic
Toyo A25 Open Country 255/60R18 108H
• Space; drivetrain excellence
• Unsettled ride; body roll; lack of AEB; price
Nothing has changed with Navara, Nissan’s 12th generation ute, and donor vehicle for the Mercedes X-Class and (imminent) Renault Alaskan. That said, today’s D23 (released in 2015) has failed to capitalise on the critical and commercial success that its chunkier D40 predecessor enjoyed, prompting a worried Nissan to fettle the steering and suspension (yet again) for the 2018 Series III.
With all this in mind, for anybody seeking peace of mind in a strong, sturdy, spacious and inviting on-road dual-cab that’s also a competent and capable off-roader, the STX 4x4 should soar.
From the showroom floor, things certainly do look up, beginning with the still-handsome design. The doors open wide for easy access, revealing a roomy and very car-like cabin with attractive instruments (and a digital speedo from June onwards), an intuitive central touchscreen bringing an excellent bird’s-eye-view camera, simple and effective climate controls, and a decent driving position; all could be out of an X-Trail. Yet Nissan’s SUV know-how is also obvious in the sheer practicality of the thing, be it the plentiful storage, pull-out cupholders, rear-seat air vent fitment, hardy (yet not cheapo) upholstery and a powered sliding pane in the rear screen.
Plus, the continuing 140kW/450Nm 2.3-litre fourcylinder twin-turbo diesel is more than up to the job. Reasonably quiet, it steps off strongly (aided by the optional, slick, seven-speed torque-converter auto) and revs freely, proving surprisingly responsive on the fly – its 9.7sec 0-100km/h and 7.0sec from 80-120km/h results are top-three here, embarrassing the larger-donked Ranger and Hilux, while returning similar (though middling at best) fuel consumption figures. Additionally, the Nissan feels agreeably light around town, backed up by a comfy ride.
Spend more time in the Navara, however, and the initial gloss fades. Disappointingly, much of that has to do with the suspension, despite Nissan’s latest mods. While pleasingly soft (and hushed) at low speeds or on smooth roads, the ride quickly deteriorates on lumpy surfaces, transmitting bumps and thumps with depressing consistency.
This in turn promotes a tiresome lateral body movement and even occasional chassis shimmying, which, in concert with the vertical pitching, makes for one of the worst-riding utes of the group. If we didn’t know there were coils out back we’d have assumed the Navara was just another rudimentary leaf-sprung pick-up.
Exacerbating this are flat and shapeless seats, providing less support than you need in a vehicle with excessive body movement, and steering that feels lifeless at speed. The rear-seat backrest, meanwhile, is fixed and there is no second-row centre armrest, USB/charge outlets or beverage holders.
Which leads to a vexing value equation. Against the Mercedes, the Navara ST-X may be $3300 cheaper, but it lacks the German’s AEB and rear disc brakes, as well as its far more settled ride and quieter cabin. The price gap is way too close for comfort. At $55K, the Nissan ain’t cheap.
Like all current-gen Navara iterations, the Series III fails to deliver on its promising spec, with much of the competition now forging ahead. After 85 years of ups and downs, Nissan’s venerable offering is currently treading water. A big rethink is in order.
Changes to the Navara Series III include Aussiespecific mods to the double wishbone front and – Benzaside – segment-unique five-link rear end’s newly acquired dual-rate coil springs (lower rate when unladen; adding weight triggers a second, higher stage for heavier loads). As part of promised improved dynamics and comfort, there’s also a quicker steering ratio (at 19.0:1, it’s 14 percent higher than before), with fewer turns lock-to-lock (from 4.1 to 3.4). Additionally, two rear Isofix child-seat mounts and better-located tub loading points have been fitted.
HERE’S a tip for the easily offended: you do not want to be around tester Byron Mathioudakis when he starts uttering the ‘C’ word. At least not if you’re a Toyota executive. No, we’re not talking about that ‘C’ word. Actually, it’s one potentially even more offensive: ‘cynical’.
2755cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, TD
130kW @ 3400rpm
450Nm @ 1600-2400rpm
Dunlop Grand Trek 265/65R17
• Off-road ability; resale
• Agitated unladen ride; flawed driving position; lack of grunt
That was Byron’s succinct summation of the Hilux, tested here in $48,560 SR spec (with optional alloys), although we wanted the SR5 for this exercise, which, at $56,440, adds equipment such as climate control, sat-nav, keyless entry, 18-inch wheels and more.
Yes, the huge-selling Hilux has a bunch of virtues, which we’ll get to, but the inescapable facts are these: it’s slow, lacks refinement, and has a suspension tune that delivers a ride about as comfortable as saddling up on one of those pro-bull-riding beasts.
“It feels like the last of the old, truly cynical Toyotas that buyers buy blindly,” said Byron. “It reeks of mediocrity, rather than any real need to be properly competitive, and lacks desirability beyond its off-road cred and nameplate cachet.”
Anyone who takes their T-logoed blinkers off will find this impossible to argue. The driving position is flawed for taller drivers, thanks to the feeble reach adjustment of the wheel leaving it too far away when the seat is slid sufficiently back from the pedals. The absence of a digital speedo grates, as does the lack of an audio volume knob, though the seats themselves are quite good and the fabric is fine.
Fire up the diesel and the lack of NVH development becomes obvious. While the likes of the Holden have improved significantly since our last 4x4 outing, the Toyota has stagnated, and the engine feels a gruff old nail of a thing in contemporary context. It grunts up early, but quickly turns breathless and raucous. Peak power is at 3400rpm, and while it will upshift beyond that, it comes with an unpleasant resonance, and no discernible extra forward thrust. There’s nothing too wrong with the transmission apart from the fact it’s two ratios short of the standard-bearing Amarok, and one short of the X-Class and Navara, to the detriment of both acceleration and frugal cruising. On the former, the Hilux is the slowest of this group to 100km/h (11.2sec) and around a second slower than even the mid-fielders in the important 80-120km/h overtaking discipline. All of which does nothing for its economy. At 10.9L/100km, it only drank 0.3L/100km less than the rapid V6 Amarok on this test.
At least the Hilux steers reasonably, even if the slow gearing means plenty of wheel turning in tight off-road situations. It’s better at speed where it feels relaxed and reassuring. “Gives a sense that it’s been tuned to feel stable and confident no matter what the surface,” commented Byron. But that unloaded ride can become exhausting over a long drive on lumpy surfaces. Drive it quickly and either the agitation of the rear end will slow you down, or the howling of the 17-inch Dunlop Grand Trek tyres will.
So what about the those virtues? Well, anecdotally, a Hilux is more unkillable than Keith Richards, and if you do have a problem somewhere remote, you will no doubt have a better chance of having it sorted in a Toyota than any other brand. Then there’s the excellent off-road ability delivered in part by its exceptional rear wheel articulation (520mm) and very effective traction control. Its chassis is also very capable with big loads, even if its powertrain is less enthused by them. And of course there’s the general no-fuss functionality, from things like the split-level glovebox to the basic, bulletproof HVAC system in this SR spec. And let’s not forget the proven resale.
So if you can really look yourself in the mirror and not flinch when you say you need serious off-road ability, that you may need a dealer in the back of Wherethehellareya, then maybe the Hilux really is the logical choice. But don’t expect excellence. For all its virtues, there’s no escaping the fact that the Hilux feels to be riding along on a wave of complacency.
Toyota Australia has broken out the mood board, gone large on lifestyle and has led the development of three new Hiluxes launched in April – the Rugged, Rugged X and Rogue. The former pair are off-road focused, while the Rogue has Ranger Wildtrak in its sights. Based on an SR5 auto, the $61,690 Rogue gets unique wheels, grille and bumpers, a black sports bar, hard tonneau cover, a full towing kit and a trick interior, among other changes ... none of which are mechanical.
STYLING aside, there was a time when you could recommend Mazda’s BT-50 in the same breath as the Ford Ranger. Underneath the vastly different aesthetics, the models share a platform and major mechanicals and that meant the pair brought similar talent to the one-tonne market.
But that was 2011 and in the ensuing years both models have followed very different evolutionary paths. While Ford has built on the Ranger’s good looks and strong platform foundations, Mazda has left the latter alone and instead fussed over the styling – including a facelift earlier this year involving a new grille, squared off front bumper and other more minor cosmetic revisions.
3198cc 5cyl, dohc, 20v, TD
147kW @ 3000rpm
470Nm @ 1750-2500rpm
6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 5365/1850/1821/3220mm
Dunlop Grandtrek AT22 265/65R17
• Smooth five-pot; handling; ride comfort
• Thirst; dated active safety spec, infotainment and cabin
There’s still shared DNA in the form of the lusty 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel which powers them both. Long the exception in a world of four-pot turbodiesel donks, the off-key but smooth five-banger is a valuable point of difference in the market. With an extra cylinder, the engine doesn’t clatter quite as chattily and responds eagerly to the throttle with a welcome wad of low-rev torque.
Here, however, the Mazda trails off, because Ford has spent seven years revising and improving the Ranger’s heart with efficiency-gaining technologies such as idle-stop and electric (rather than the BT-50’s hydraulic) steering said to boost economy by more than 20 percent – a claim certainly not disproven on test, where the Mazda shocked us with a surprisingly poor 13.3L/100km figure, compared with the Blue Oval ute’s 10.9L/100km.
Still, handling confidence and welcome ride comfort restored our faith in the Mazda, supported by low road-noise levels (likely thanks to the tall tyre sidewalls on 17-inch rims), though – again – it wasn’t up to the same standard as the relatively supple Ranger’s. On smooth roads, the BT-50’s dynamics had us calling it a ‘driver’s truck’, with weighty steering and a surefooted chassis. The sleeper of the bunch!
Meanwhile, the simple and intuitive interior is arguably the most car-like of the line-up in its design – albeit that of a decade-old Mazda – and there’s value everywhere including the ample second-row space and knee room as well as a pleasantly supportive cushion (though non-aligned rear headrests are a curio). Out back, the Mazda’s tray is one of the better equipped, with a liner, tie-down points, illumination and a 12-volt socket for a portable fridge full of VBs.
Yet we may as well be stuck in 2011 here, because stepping into the Ford means stepping up to forward collision mitigation, lane departure warning systems and adaptive cruise control. And while the Ranger is enhanced with the excellent Sync3 infotainment system, the BT-50 makes do with a very aftermarketlooking Alpine unit. Throw in analogue dials and a single-colour central digital display compared with the Ranger’s full-colour LCD displays, and a generation gap is beginning to open up.
With the Colorado and Ranger demonstrating just how much can be achieved with mid-life updates, by comparison Mazda almost seems to have given up on the BT-50. That’s a shame because in many ways it is still easy to recommend. A combination of an excellent drivetrain and dynamics, blended with unpretentious looks has ensured the BT-50 is still battling hard in the segment, but when you park it next to its fraternal twin, it’s clear that the Mazda could be so much more.
DG + BM
They might be tough but they’re not infallible. An inconveniently placed nail was cause for an unscheduled pit stop and a tyre change for the Mazda, which was made simple by the clever spare storage system that tucks the wheel and tyre up under the tray, and is easily lowered without having to climb underneath. Less convenient is access to the tools which are buried under the back seat – and in our case a tonne of camera gear.
Look past the styling and even a cursory glance at the Thai-made Triton Exceed’s spec sheet will reveal several compelling truths.
2442cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, TD
133kW @ 3500rpm
430Nm @ 2500rpm
Bridgestone Dueler H/T KII 245/65R17 111S
• Consistency; low price; generous equipment
• Noisey idle; no safety extras; meagre resale
At $48,000 all-in, the range flagship comfortably undercuts most mid-level rivals, and then packs a wallop with sat-nav, leather, heated front seats, climate control, reverse camera, Apple CarPlay/ Android Auto, DAB+ digital radio, HDMI port, paddle shifters, keyless entry/start, HID headlights, side steps and a sports bar. Box-tickers will run out of ink cataloguing this.
And that’s on top of Mitsubishi’s five-year/ 100,000km warranty. It’s classic more-for-less marketing. Even smaller alloys than the class norm (at 17 inches) work quite nicely with the Triton’s tighter proportions.
But beyond the low price and high features, the Exceed also surpasses expectations by being consistently capable in almost every area. And that’s a reflection on Mitsubishi’s expertise in light trucks, since this year marks 40 years of the L200/Triton.
Take the packaging. Though among the smallest and narrowest of the assembled contenders (as well as the oldest, as the current fifth-gen Triton released in 2015 is actually a reskin and revamp of the 2006 Mk4), the Exceed is still amply accommodating, thanks in part to well-padded seats, a thoughtfully presented dashboard boasting clear instruments, logical control placement, ample compartments to keep stuff in, and a fine driving position. Not the last word in modernity or style, it’s still all screwed together well and seemingly made to last. A digital speedo wouldn’t go amiss, though.
Perhaps unexpectedly, considering its advancing years underneath, the Triton’s a bit of a treat to drive on the road, offering punchy diesel flexibility (keeping the hard-charging Colorado and Navara honest, if not the runaway Amarok, in its 9.8secto-100km/h performance), combined with what is adequate fuel consumption for something with just five forward gears. Clearly each ratio has been well chosen. Lag is minimal, there’s heaps of oomph readily available for easy overtaking, and mechanical refinement at speed is commendable.
There’s more too, like fairly direct and connected steering, assuredly contained handling, confidencebuilding roadholding, and a firm but never jarring ride (no doubt the smaller wheels help here). As in most areas, the Mitsubishi rarely puts a foot wrong dynamically. The set of components may not be the newest but they obviously still work well.
It’s only when you dig a little deeper that the Triton’s lack of polish becomes really apparent. Compared with the larger and more civilised trucks on test, there is no real respite from that firm ride for rear-seat passengers, cushion support favours the smaller statured out back, advanced driver-assist safety tech like AEB and adaptive cruise control simply don’t exist and the diesel at idle is a long way from hushed.
Speaking of seeking the serenity, the Mitsubishi turns out to be one of those quiet achievers that grows in estimation long after the bells and whistles, and low asking price, have grabbed your attention. Maybe our expectations were set lower than in the others, but as each tester spent more time in the Triton, it became clear that real beauty does exist beyond the gawky styling.
Not so long ago, Mitsubishi was one of our local manufacturers, offering honest, no-nonsense value transportation for generations of Australians. And some of those character traits remain in today’s Triton. Its appeal is anything but skin deep. BM
Aesthetes rejoice! A facelifted 2019 Triton is on its way, bringing a fresher, more agreeable look and a completely revamped dashboard promising higherquality materials. A quieter, more potent powertrain, more standard features and – fingers crossed – greater safety, with AEB (hopefully), should feature among its many upgrades. But can the flagship Exceed retain its sub-$50K pricing advantage?
2776cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, TD
147kW @ 3600rpm
500Nm @ 2000-2200rpm
Bridgestone Dueler H/T 265/60R18
• Potency; efficiency; improved ride, refinement and cabin
WHILE all eyes are on Mercedes-Benz’s newcomer and Volkswagen’s V6 powerhouse, let’s not overlook what is arguably the most significant of the nine vehicles here, the underrated Colorado.
With sliding sales in Holden’s traditional segments coinciding with fresh potential found in the dual-cab ute arena, the Colorado could be the Lion brand’s saviour. And the heavily updated version absolutely has the credentials to do that. Completely revamped in 2016, it received far more than a few USB ports and a shot of Botox, bringing forth dramatic improvements that still stack up well even against more recent arrivals. Let’s call it the rebirth of Colorado.
For starters, a cabin rethink brings an attractive and very functional dashboard that’s suitably chunky yet thoughtfully presented. Broad, supple front seats provide plenty of support, and while the (ugly) steering wheel lacks reach adjustability like the Ranger and others here, the driving position should be fine for most folk. There’s also heaps of internal storage options, ventilation is excellent, and the rear seat is surprisingly accommodating – bar a backrest folding mechanism that requires two people to operate.
Then there’s the revised chassis – including new transmission and suspension mounts, and upgraded springs and dampers – which has made a resounding difference. Where the Colorado’s ride and NVH levels previously relegated it among the also-rans, the update has had a profound effect elevating comfort and perceived quality in one swoop. The 2.8-litre Duramax diesel – actually a VM Motori lump – still sings a familiar, clattery anthem, but it sounds as if it has been buried under a few more blankets courtesy of superior road-noise insulation.
With 500Nm, the Colorado shines among the fourpots with strong pulling power from very low revs. We managed the 0-100km/h dash in 9.5sec, which might not sound like much in an era when small hatches can crack 8.0sec, but the Hilux couldn’t better 11.2. And the Holden is frugal to boot.
The Colorado also gains marks for competent handling and (comparative) dynamic refinement. Yes, the unladen ride is firm, just like most one-tonners (apart from Amarok), but a tuned-to-Australiantaste chassis really handles our environment with unexpected aplomb and no nasty shocks. While the steering is a tad too light in the dead-ahead position, there’s zero rack rattle and the Colorado’s highspeed handling – particularly on changing surfaces – is right up with the segment best. The Lang Lang suspension honing should make the most one-eyed patriot proud, even if this ute hails from Thailand.
As a value proposition the Holden continues to punch hard, with a five-year warranty on top of the $52,690 LTZ’s generous flash for the cash, which includes electric front seats, a sports bar, Apple CarPlay, navigation, remote window opening, remote start, hill-descent tech, forward collision alert, lane departure warning and tyre-pressure monitoring.
When away from the beaten trail, the Colorado sits in the middle of the pack with decent off-road ability. While it can’t brag the outright suspension travel of the Amarok, Hilux, Ranger or BT-50, and lacks a locking differential, it offers excellent traction over more slippery surfaces. Towing capacity is more than adequate, too, with the Holden’s readily accessible torque and stable chassis holding station with the class leaders.
The localisation of the Colorado has resulted in a pick-up that is far better than any previous version, elevating it to a highly respectable fourth position in this Megatest. The more time we spent with the LTZ the more obvious its many strengths (with few weaknesses) became. If only buyers in this segment invested the same scrutiny, for Holden’s sake at the very least.
DG + BM
Holden engineers honed the Colorado over two years with a focus on noise suppression. Body, engine and transmission mounts were beefed to cut NVH pathways. In addition, electric power steering was adopted, with a quicker rack, retuned traction/stability electronics, digressive dampers, larger anti-roll bars, revised springs, and different tyres.
UNTIL the arrival of the X-Class this year, the 4x4 ute segment was a mostly classless zone; a safe space free of badge-cred posturing. Owners displayed their affluence via a higher model grade, or perhaps some flash aftermarket equipment. Now, with Mercedes’ three-pointed star sitting Frisbee-sized on the bluff snout of the Spanish-built X-Class, all that has changed, and on a construction site, at least, it threatens to be as divisive as a baked cheese tart whipped out amongst the pies at morning smoko.
2298cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, TTD
140kW @ 3750rpm
450Nm @ 1500-2500rpm
Continental Sport Contact 6 255/60R18 108H
• Interior; powertrain refinement; braking; AEB
Yet on plenty of levels the X-Class feels well overdue, given the mostly average standard of dynamics, presentation and safety that’s pervaded this class. The moment you open the door, the Mercedes aims to seduce with its classy, leather-bound wheel, 7.0-inch multimedia screen, and the bling-ish ventilation outlets lifted from the previous-gen A-Class. Front seats (both electrically adjustable in this Progressive spec) are more deeply bolstered than those in the Navara. Speaking of which, a closer look reveals the HVAC unit is lifted from the Nissan, creating a mismatch, and, by the time you realise there’s less storage space, it’s easy to question if there’s a styleover-substance issue here. Yet the consensus among the test team, even before driving, was, yes, the $57,800 tag did feel like $3300 well spent over the dowdy Nissan.
Even the rear seat, while no more spacious when three up, is among the more comfortable of the bunch. There are rear air vents, a 12-volt socket, map pockets, and an opening centre rear window. The X-Class is also a better thing to crash in than the rest of the field: it’s the only one which lands five stars under current test and evaluation criteria, thanks in part to AEB.
Fire up the 2.3-litre twin-turbo four pot (with the same outputs as its Navara counterpart) and it’s instantly clear that better installation gives it a clear NVH advantage over the Nissan. It idles with a more distant tick-over, and remains more muted under gentle acceleration around town. Those positive characteristics don’t desert the X-Class when you whip it harder. In terms of perceived smoothness, quietness and general ability to get on with the job unobtrusively, this engine installation is behind only the Amarok. The transmission, too, shows deft calibration. But it’s far from the strongest powertrain. The Amarok, Ranger and Colorado all feel appreciably more grunty, as borne out by the acceleration numbers. At 10 seconds from 0-100km/h, the Merc is very much a mid-fielder, trounced by the VW and really only usefully ahead of the Mazda and the cellar-dweller Hilux. Perhaps more relevant, though, is its 80-120km/h performance, which, at 7.1sec, is closer to the pointy end of the field, presumably due in part to its seven ratios.
Like the Navara, the Merc has a technically superior coil-sprung rear end, but we struggled to find clear evidence of its benefits compared with the better leafsprung models here. Yes, there is a general sheen of dynamic superiority above the Nissan, but driven with vigour on a bumpy back road, there’s still evidence of the dreaded lateral wobbles. At least the ride is on the more supple side for this class. Yet the test team agreed that the local tuning of both Colorado and Ranger put them ahead of the X-Class for ride/handling. The Merc’s steering, too, lacks the crisp incisiveness of the Ranger. In its favour, the Merc does hang on well when hustled, thanks to the Conti Sport Contact 6 rubber, and its ESC calibration doesn’t intrude too early. Further, it and the Amarok are the only rigs in the group with rear disc brakes, which the Merc put to good use by delivering the shortest stopping distance from 100km/h (39.2m).
In the end, the X-Class left us with a bit of a dichotomy. On one level, Merc’s engineers have done a super-impressive job, given their starting point was the lacklustre Navara. But more pointedly, X-Class’s premium pricing doesn’t deliver clear superiority against the class best. But if buyers can see value in the equipment and refinement, then there’ll be no scoffing from us. Not with our baked cheese tarts in hand.
Will anyone force their X-Class to work like a rented mule? If they do, they won’t find the same impervious load-lugging ability as Ranger and Amarok. The X-Class was among the bottom of the group when saddled with our 650kg burden, as the suspension turned soggy and the steering corrupted. At least the torque delivery, ratio count and lowish final drive gearing give it superior drivetrain performance compared with the D-Max, Triton and Hilux in this discipline. For more realworld-likely tasks, like hauling a load of soil or towing a car trailer, the Merc performs perfectly well. Further, the tray offers a well-protected power outlet and alloy rails with adjustable tie-down points. Off-road, though, it’s a midfielder, lacking wheel travel and ground clearance in extreme conditions.
IN THIS post Australian-vehicle manufacturing world, the significance of the Ranger’s massive success – both critically and commercially – is more profound than ever, seeing as it is now the only new vehicle left in production anywhere on earth designed and engineered here. Think about that for a moment.
And therein lies the reason the Ford has performed so strongly and consistently in this Megatest. Bred, if not born, locally, the Thai-made Ranger feels and behaves like it’s made expressly for our tastes and environment on a number of fronts, starting with the rugged design that still conveys a broad, muscular aesthetic nearly eight years on – in much the way Holden’s VE Commodore did.
3198cc 5cyl, dohc, 20v, TD
147kW @ 3000rpm
470Nm @ 1750-2500rpm
Dunlop Grandtrek AT22 265/65R17 112T
• Aussie-bred toughness; cabin comfort; handling; ride
Completely overhauled three years ago, the XLT’s big, brawny interior is another highlight, with an appealing layout and focus on functionality that owners of, say, the late and lamented Territory (our only indigenous SUV) could relate to.
Points are allotted for an excellent voice-control system in SYNC3, attractive instrumentation, huge central screen, brilliant seats, an excellent driving position (despite a non-telescopic wheel), big storage solutions and intuitive, well-weighted controls up front, as well as an airy, wide and accommodating second row that offers up most of the amenities tradies or teenagers could wish for.
Sure, there’s a cheap sheen to some of the plastics, but the build quality and durability aren’t in question. While the absence of passenger-seat height adjustment and rear air vents are obvious oversights at the pointy end of this segment, massive air outlets up front provide effective cooling and ventilation throughout. Basically, Broadmeadows has nailed it.
Fire up the hoary old in-line five-cylinder and there are further plaudits in store, not least because Ford’s NVH engineers have ensured that there’s little to hear or feel other than a distant thrum, at idle at least.
Aussies have long preferred instant throttle responses, and the Ranger obliges thanks to an abundance of low-rev torque and intelligently calibrated gearing that results in strong acceleration and seamless, intuitive transmission action. The 3.2 pulls heartily and revs freely, though against the stopwatch and at the fuel pump the Ford isn’t so impressive, languishing in the bottom half of the field. There isn’t much between the Ranger and its rivals if you take the powerhouse Amarok V6 out of the picture … though you shouldn’t, as it turns out.
But we’re ahead of ourselves because while the Ranger’s numbers temporarily mire it in mediocrity, things pick up dramatically in its dynamics. Thanks to superbly linear steering that still sets the pace for feel and feedback, body control that seems as planted as the chassis feels alert, and appreciable suspension compliance, the Ford glides quietly over surfaces that agitate most others here. In these disciplines, on our roads, Ford’s Aussie-bred ute is peerless.
As a sweetener, since May, the Blue Oval has shown warranty innovation in this class by boosting coverage to five years/unlimited kilometres.
On the flipside, the Ranger has become a victim of its own success. Though just $110 shy of the Mercedes, the XLT is brow-raisingly expensive, yet lacks rear discs, keyless entry/start and AEB availability (though the latter two are set for the MY19 Series III revamp).
Ultimately, pricing, spec and performance/efficiency issues compared with the enterprising Amarok’s TDI V6 keep the outgoing Ranger from the top spot. That said, we expect the Ford to wreak its revenge on the Volkswagen in a rematch of the MY19s.
Still, given the sales figures, it’s heartening to see Australians still supporting a locally engineered product that’s so clearly right for our conditions.
The Ranger finishes equal first with Amarok and Hilux for 4x4 ability thanks to long-travel suspension and well-tuned electronic traction tech. Additionally, the grunty XLT’s low-rev torque makes the Ford a top load-lugger and an ideal tow vehicle, further underlining the Aussie suitability honed through local engineering. Despite much the same hardware, Mazda’s BT-50 slips a rung because engaging its rear locker cancels the front traction control. Ford fixed this for MY16 but Mazda didn’t.
WHAT’S the old adage about it being tough to get to the top, even tougher to stay there? Whatever it is, no-one has told the Amarok. VW’s contender rose to comfortable ascendancy at our last 4x4 ute Megatest (May 2016), and here it is again, this time in V6 spec, still showing the field – and new arrivals – how to best blend the disparate demands of on-road refinement and off-road capability.
$52,990 (driveaway*) Engine
2967cc V6, dohc, 24v, TD
165kW @ 4500rpm
550Nm @ 1500-2500rpm
Pirelli Scorpion ATR 245/65R17
• Powertrain performance and polish; AWD dynamics; comfort
It’s the only contender here with six cylinders; an advantage it doesn’t squander. The V6 is, by a fair margin, the most powerful and torque-rich of this group, and delivers performance that’s swift and punchy. Its 0-100km/h of 7.9sec clobbers its rivals (the next quickest, the Holden, is still 1.6sec adrift), while it hammers through the 80-120km/h overtaking move in just 5.3sec, or nearly 35 percent quicker than the slower rigs here. Part of this is down to the overboost function, which sees peak power swell to 180kW under 70 percent throttle or more, beyond second gear. Admittedly its consumption is the second-thirstiest of the bunch, but you can forgive it that because of its overwhelmingly superior performance.
Almost as significant as Amarok’s power advantage is its powertrain refinement. This engine actually sounds like it enjoys the workload thrown at it, and is appreciably quieter and better sounding than even the Merc’s, the next most hushed of the bunch. It also has no aversion to revs, upshifting at 4400rpm on full throttle, but capable of closer to 5000rpm if you want to select manual mode and hold a ratio.
Speaking of ratios, the Amarok is the only ute here to boast an eight-speeder, which allows both swifter step-off acceleration and calm, unstressed highway cruising. Shift smoothness and kickdown response also mark this as one of the best autos in the group. In short, this is an engine and transmission combo you’ll actually enjoy driving.
Then there’s the Amarok’s other on-road ace: fulltime all-wheel drive. Driven hard, or in the wet, the rest of the field will lurch, attempt to spin up, and trigger ESC intervention. The VW mostly just gets on with the job of transferring grunt to ground. It’s also the only ute we tested that requires no dial-turning or button-pushing when you head off-road. Despite the lack of low-range, this thing is every bit as capable in properly rough or steep terrain as the best in the group. Put it down to that short first gear made possible by the eight-ratio spread, along with a selflocking centre diff and a rear diff lock that keeps the front traction control active.
The only dynamic element the Amarok does not ace is steering. It’s far from awful, just a bit remote and unengaged, especially against the standard-setting rack in the Ranger. Otherwise, the Amarok again rises to the pointy end of the field. It rides with a controlled absorbency that’s a world away from the brutal stiffness of the Hilux, yet still manages to retain the sort of body control delivered by the likes of the Ranger.
With this level of multi-discipline dominance, the Amarok could have an interior like an outback dunny and you’d still consider one. Naturally it doesn’t; despite its age, the cabin still nails the brief in terms of comfort and functionality. It’s way less flashy than the Merc, but it actually works better, with superior storage, more adjustment to the driving position, and better-shaped seats, if falling short on equipment.
So while Amarok comfortably tops our second-ever ute Megatest, the Hilux continues to outsell the VW by a ratio of around five to one. There’s a message in there, if only we could figure out what it is.
VW SHOWS THE FIELD HOW TO BEST BLEND THE DISPARATE DEMANDS OF ON-ROAD REFINEMENT AND OFF-ROAD CAPABILITY
We debated what price to publish for the Amarok Sportline, as it retails for $55,990 plus ORC, but has been offered as a ‘limited’ driveaway special since this variant’s inception and is currently on the road for $52,990. There are some equipment omissions at this level compared with other contenders here: for example, sat-nav and DAB+ radio are reserved for the two models above Sportline, both of which seem pricey in the absence of driveaway deals: the Highline is $60,490 plus ORC, while the Ultimate is $68,490 plus ORC.