There’s never been a better, or worse, time to be in the market for a new dual-cab ute. With new products from Volkswagen, Ford and Mazda, and Toyota (okay, it’s really just a refresh) those after a dual-purpose (work and play) dual-cab are literally spoilt for choice.
In the last 10 years the 4x4 segment of the market has grown from just over 35,000 new vehicle sales (2001) to around 93,000 last year (2010). While the HiLux is king with around 25 per cent of the market, it’s facing increased competition from the new players. And next year will be an interesting one for HiLux as it faces even more competition from a full-strength Ford Ranger line-up, as well as new vehicles from both Holden and Isuzu.
For this comparison, we’ve gone with the Ford Ranger XLT and its separated-at-birth twin, the Mazda BT-50, Volkswagen Amarok Highline and Toyota HiLux SR5. All are four-wheel drive with low-range and all, bar the HiLux, have locking rear diffs as standard.
We wanted an even playing field so we went for manual transmissions, but Ford ignored us and sent a six-speed auto-toting Ranger instead. No biggie.
Unlike a lot of the other road testers out there we decided to stick with the newbies and ignore players like Mitsubishi’s Triton and Nissan’s Navara.
Both are known quantities, but haven’t been updated enough to warrant an outing here. The same goes for Holden’s Colorado and the Isuzu D-Max, both of which will be replaced by new models in the second-quarter of 2012.
As for fringe dwellers Land Rover (Defender) and Mahindra (Pik-Up) they don’t sell in big enough numbers. And while we would have loved to get our hands on a Great Wall given how well they’re selling, the brand’s media minders refuse to release vehicles for testing.
The Toyota Hilux’s recent mid-life facelift (don’t expect to see a new one until 2015) saw the surgeons lop off its old snout, replacing it with a more contemporary looking nose (new bonnet, new headlights, radiator grille, headlights, tail-lights and front bumper).
It’s a subtle tweak that makes the HiLux, at first glance, seem a little taller, thinner and perhaps a little less rugged-looking than before.
Inside, the HiLux cops a new-look dashboard that, in SR5 guise is designed to make it look less like the inside of an old toolbox and more like the inside of a slightly newer toolbox. And it’s worked, but the plastics and seat material used feel cheap and nasty even in this SR5, and for a $50,990 recreational dual-cab it should feel more premium than this.
Vision all around is good and the big wing mirrors make towing a camper trailer, for short distances without towing mirrors, an cinch.
The Ford Ranger, on the other hand, priced at a similar $53,390 (six-speed manual) manages to look more ruggedly handsome, inside and out, than the HiLux.
Like the HiLux, both the Ranger and the BT-50 (the turret on both is identical - even the window glass used in the BT-50 says FoMoCo), offer good vision thanks to deep windows (although you sit lower in these three than in the Amarok) and large wing mirrors.
The BT-50 is perhaps less convincing in its approach, which has seen Mazda take styling cues, inside and out, from its passenger car range. And while it will, no doubt, appeal to some buyers, the BT-50, which has been spun off the same platform as the Ranger, is a miss in the looks department.
See, Mazda’s ‘slash and crease’ style of design works well in its passenger car range, but when applied to the BT-50 it looks as if the front end is melting. And the dashboard, which seems to have been lifted straight out of a Mazda6 seems fussy.
Volkswagen’s Amarok hit the market, Down Under, late in 2010 and arrived like a lump of timber between the eyes of all the other utes on the market. It combines all of the best bits from both VW’s commercial and passenger car range with just a hint of 1970s F-truck styling (Google it)... it’s been designed to look as practical as possible.
Inside, the Amarok is, if you’ve ever sat behind the wheel of a Golf, Caddy, or even Touareg, totally familiar. All of the controls are where they should be, are easy to understand and, with big, deep windows and large mirrors vision all around is excellent.
Price & equipment
Toyota made a big deal, at the launch of the, ahem, new HiLux about how it had added value and, either reduced pricing, or held it steady. And, in the case of our SR5 manual turbo-diesel, the price has been dropped by $2700 to give it a starting price of $50,990 (the auto is priced from $53,490), this enables it to undercut the VW Amarok Highline and Ranger XLT.
For that you get 17-inch alloys, Bluetooth and iPod connectivity (with steering-wheel mounted controls), 6.1-inch touch screen audio and sat-nav display, dusk-sensing headlights, pumped guards, sports-style driver and front passenger seats, alloy sports bar, and single-zone climate control, with powered driver window only, and reversing camera, etc.
The Ranger XLT is the most expensive of the four we’re testing with a starting price of $55,390 for the six-speed auto (the manual is $2000 cheaper at $53,390).
For that, you get things like rain-sensing wipers, powered windows right around, auto headlights, privacy glass, a deep glovebox that’ll hold a 16-inch laptop, towbar and side steps, (powered) heated and folding wing mirrors, Bluetooth and iPod connectivity as well as locking rear differential, reversing camera... basically, you get everything that opens and shuts.
The Mazda BT-50 follows in the footsteps of the Ford, although at $48,810 for the six-speed manual XTR (the Mazda was one spec level below the others) it’s the cheapest of the foursome.
That doesn’t mean it’s under-equipped, because it level pegs the others, getting things like power windows, underbody protection, Bluetooth and iPod connectivity, sat-nav, side steps, dual-zone climate control, a deep, lockable glovebox that, like the Ranger, can hold a laptop, steering wheel mounted audio controls. The only cost-option our test car had was a reversing camera.
The Amarok Highline we had on test is in line with the BT-50 in terms of where it sits in the Amarok line-up (one from the top for those not paying attention). Pricing starts from $52,990 and our car had metallic paint, which pushed the as-tested price to $53,480.
And for that you get things like 18-inch alloys, powered and heated front wing mirrors, underbody protection, heat insulating glass, six-speaker CD-player with iPod connectivity, drawers under the front seats, and dual-zone climate control, 18-inch alloys, selectable 4MOTION which includes a rear diff lock, but you miss out on Bluetooth and sat-nav (these are cost optional extras). Hmmm.
This new HiLux is an ever-so-slight evolution of the one it replaces, rather than a revolution, so, nothing’s really changed inside the cabin in terms of space and versatility. Basically, if it was a problem on the old model then it’s still a problem on this one.
The steering wheel is still only adjustable for rake and not reach (it’s not alone here, both the Ranger and the BT-50 are rake only), and the seat base, both front and back, are too short and lacking in under-thigh support for longer journeys. The back seats still flip up to reveal some neat little hidey-holes, but the centre passenger gets a lap seatbelt only.
The refresh has added some fresh plastics to the dashboard, although the new sat-nav screen is almost impossible to use when the sun is shining (we had the same problem in a Toyota Yaris with the same screen).
It’s a relatively roomy cabin, but this impacts on the tray, which, because the HiLux hasn’t really changed since this generation was launched seven years ago, is, at 1520mm(L) x 1510mm(W) the smallest of our bunch. It’s also got the lowest towing capacity, at 2500kg, of the foursome. Everything else can tow 2800kg-plus.
The Ranger offers similar levels of passenger room to the HiLux, although there’s a touch more legroom front and back. The seats are a lot more comfortable and getting into and out of the back is easier as the door opening is a smidgen bigger, and the doors open up almost 90-degrees.
The Ranger’s tray, at 1560mm(L) x 1540mm(W), is a smidgen bigger than the HiLux and level pegs the Mazda - all three are longer but narrower than the Amarok’s tray (1410mm (L) x 1620mm(W).
Identical to the Ranger in terms of driver and passenger head, leg and shoulder room, the BT-50s steering wheel too is adjustable only for rake and not reach. Getting into and out of the BT-50, either the front or the back, is pretty easy, but the seats aren’t as good as those in the Ranger (less lateral support). And the seatbelt receiver, on both Ranger and BT-50, gets in the way of the seat back adjuster.
The Mazda BT-50 gets the same number of hidey-holes as the Ranger, but the general layout of the dashboard and the quality of the materials used isn’t on par with the Ford. Beneath (lift up the seat base) and behind (fold the seat back forward) the BT-50s rear seats (and this is the same in the Ranger) you’ll find extra storage space.
The first thing you notice when you clamber up behind the wheel of the Amarok is, one, just how high off the ground you are and, two, just how much room there is inside the thing. Easily the roomiest of the four, it’s also the only one with a reach adjustable steering wheel making it a cinch to get comfortable behind the wheel.
The seats, both front and back, are big and comfortable, and there are plenty of cubbyholes stashed around the cabin, we particularly like the drawers under the front seats. While all of the utes on test offer decent vision all around, the Amarok’s deep windows and huge wing mirrors put it at the top of the pile.
The tray, as we’ve mentioned, isn’t the longest, but it is the widest and by a long way too, making it the biggest tray (by volume) of the four dual-cabs we’re testing. Indeed, it’s the only one that’ll take a standard Euro pallet between the wheel arches in the tray.
Under the bonnet of the HiLux is a 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel that makes 126kW at 3600rpm and 343Nm from 1400-3400rpm. Mated to an old-school five-speed manual transmission, the HiLux sucks down a claimed 8.1L/100km.
Around town, and out on the highway, the diesel engine is noisy by comparison with the others on test, but given its healthy slab of torque on offer from just off idle at 1400rpm it doesn’t need to be worked overly hard. The five-speed manual isn’t the smoothest on test and it’s long-throw makes the whole drivetrain feel old.
It’s hard to directly compare the Ranger with the others in terms of its shift as it was the only one toting a six-speed automatic. That said, the auto was smooth and impossible to catch out. And, according to Trent, who attended the national launch of the Ranger, the manual is excellent and leaves the five-speeder in the HiLux for dead.
The Ranger’s 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel produces 147kW at 3000rpm and 470Nm from 1500rpm (90 per cent of peak torque is available from 1750rpm), and the claimed consumption is 9.2L/100km (for the auto); this rises to 9.4L/100km for the six-speed manual. This is a little higher than the Toyota, but there’s a lot more oomph on offer and more gear loaded into the XLT model.
The Mazda BT-50 runs the same engine as the Ford, has the same 80-litre fuel tank, and the same peak power and torque output at the same point in the rev range. The only thing that’s different is the fuel consumption on the XTR we tested, which is a claimed (for the manual) 8.9L/100km.
Why the fuel consumption difference between the Ford and Mazda? Well, gear ratios are the same, and the engine is the same too, so, we can only put our finger on the fact the Mazda is lighter than the Ranger (2086kg Vs 2159kg, respectively).
The Amarok runs the smallest engine with a 2.0-litre twin-turbo four-cylinder (diesel) that produces 120kW at 4000rpm but an impressive 400Nm from just off idle at 1500rpm. This is what helps the Amarok overcome its minimal power output and, in comparison with the other three here, it never, ever felt weak.
Of the foursome, it’s the Amarok that offers the best fuel consumption with a claimed combined figure of 7.9L/100km. And for such a big, spacious vehicle that’s truly impressive, although our drive loop, which took in highway, mountain roads and off-road tracks, saw all of the vehicles use around 9.0L/100km. And that’s because some of them did more off-road work than others, and so exact, directly comparable, figures were hard to come by.
Despite tweaks to bushes and dampers, the HiLux feels tired next to the other three on test. The ride is bumpy and noisy, the diesel clatter of the engine intrudes into the cabin, and the big wing mirrors generate a lot of wind noise. And the long-throw five-speed manual gearbox is very agricultural in its action.
It’s a different story behind the wheel of the Ranger, which is virtually whisper quiet when you’re up and running, you only notice the road when you hit a patch of particularly coarse bitumen. And the ride is compliant (by comparison with the Mazda) that the bumps that make you wince in either the Mazda or the HiLux are totally smothered by the Ranger.
There’s no diesel clatter apart from either start-up or at idle and even that’s minimal, and despite the big mirrors there’s very little wind noise.
Where Ranger runs a more compliant ride for on-road and off-road, Mazda has opted for more of, in its own words, zoom-zoom. And that means it runs stiffer damper settings and faster steering than the Ford. The result being that far from feeling passenger-car like, the BT-50 ends up feeling choppy. The six-speed manual gearbox, which has a car-like shifter, is smooth and the clutch is nice and progressive.
Like the Ranger, there’s minimal engine or road noise intruding into the cabin, and there’s very little wind noise generated by the big wing mirrors. But, like the Ranger, the rake on the windscreen is too severe and so, when you’re driving into the sun, the dashboard is reflected onto the windscreen making it very hard to see, especially if you’re following another car on dirt.
All of these vehicles run leaf sprung rear ends and so they’re never, ever going to ride or handle like a passenger car… well, none will with the exception of the Amarok. Even unladen the Amarok rides smoothly and quietly with the sort of body control you’d expect from a large SUV, not a commercial vehicle.
There’s no wind (despite the massive wing mirrors) or road noise (despite the 18-inch alloys) inside the cabin and the engine lacks the coarse clatter, even under load, of the HiLux.
In terms of safety and security, the HiLux gets driver and passenger airbags, dusk-sensing head-lights, ABS, a limited-slip differential, protective covers for the engine and fuel tank, vehicle stability control, traction control, electronic brake-force distribution with brake assist. As for security, the HiLux gets an engine immobiliser, central locking and remote fuel flap release. The HiLux was tested by ANCAP back in 2006 and was rated a four-star car.
The Ranger carries a five-star ANCAP rating (although this rating doesn’t apply to 4x2 variants), gets driver and passenger airbags, side thorax and side curtain airbags, stability control and an electronic locking rear differential. It also gets other useful bits and bobs like hill descent control, hill launch assist, trailer sway control, adaptive load control, emergency brake assist, emergency brake light and roll-over mitigation emergency brake light.
The Volkswagen Amarok matches the Ranger and BT-50 with a five-star ANCAP rating where its fitted with front, head/thorax side airbags. In addition, the Amarok gets stability control with brake assist, as well as off-road ABS/ASR and EDL. In terms of security, Amarok gets an engine immobiliser and remote central locking.
The wooden spoon was an easy pick with this one, but it might not be the one you think… we picked the BT-50 as our bottom dweller. And that’s because we had the Ranger to compare it with. On the one hand, the thing is trying to be a passenger car, and on the other it’s trying to be a commercial vehicle as are the other three on test. And in the end, it doesn’t really do a great job of being either. And it’s miles behind the Ranger.
So, with the BT-50 in bottom place, the HiLux is elevated to third. Sure, it feels old and clunky, and the drivetrain is about seven years old but, in isolation, it’s a comfortable old bus. It didn’t get up our test hill so you’d need to pay for a rear differential lock and that would nearly level peg the HiLux with the Ranger, and it’s a long way behind the Ford in every situation.
The Ranger took home the silver medal and, to be honest, that surprised us all because of the hype surrounding it. It’s good, but next to the Amarok it’s not great. It’s a notch or two behind the big VW on and off-road, and in terms of general refinement and the quality of the materials used inside the cabin.
That puts the Amarok on top of the podium. It’s more refined than any other dual cab on the market (although the omission of Bluetooth and steering wheel mounted controls is frustrating), and with an eight-speed automatic due to be added in 2012 a good thing will become even better.
So, if you’re in the market for a work and play dual-cab the Amarok really is hard to go past. And, if you were wondering, Nissan Navara and Mitsubishi Triton would have slipped in just ahead of HiLux but behind the Ford.
|Ford Ranger||Volkswagen Amarok Highline||Mazda BT-50||Toyota HiLux SR5|
|Country of Manufacture||Thailand||Germany||Thailand||Thailand|
|Number of cylinders||5||4||5||4|
|Engine size||3.2 L||2.0 L||3.2 L||3.0 L|
|Engine aspiration||Turbo charged||Turbo charged||Turbo charged||Turbo charged|
|Claimed max power (kW)||147 kW @ 3000 rpm||120 kW @ 4000 rpm||147 kW @ 3000 rpm||126 kW @ 3600 rpm|
|Claimed max torque (Nm)||470 Nm @ 1500 rpm||400 Nm @ 1500 rpm||470 Nm @ 1500 rpm||343 Nm @ 1400-3400 rpm|
|Transmission||6-speed automatic||6-speed manual||6-speed manual||5-speed manual|
|Fuel consumption (ave)||9.2 L/100km||7.9 L/100km||8.9 L/100km||8.1 L/100km|
|ANCAP rating||five-star ANCAP||five-star ANCAP||5-star ANCAP||four-stars ANCAP|