Utes not just for farmers and tradies these days
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Differences between a ute and a car are becoming increasingly blurred
More car-like — it’s become a cliche to describe a new ute from any manufacturer eyeing the growing urban-suburban market for the once-modest workhorse. Indeed, top-end equipment-laden utes have become so car-like that the only thing left to do is eliminate that cargo tray at the back.
In a year when it’s been enjoying monthly sales ahead of any car, specced-up city versions of Ford’s Ranger have done particularly well and you can bet far more are being used for the mall run than slithering up wet tracks. The less expensive two-wheel-drive in “hi-rider” configuration is selling really well. It looks just like a more desirable 4WD but isn’t; nobody ever need know.
Meanwhile, the top ST-X version of the just-out Nissan Navara NP300 has leather seats that look and feel like they’ve been pulled from a European luxury car. The ute glides along on an all-coil-spring suspension rather than the coil/leaf-spring combo found on its Japanese rivals. The coils in the back are there to bestow ride and handling that are more — yes, you’ve guessed — car-like.
The Navara and updated Ranger are two utes in which you’d almost seek urban gridlock rather than find a way around it, just to spend more time with their comfort and fully connected infotainment goodness. The same can be said of most top-end double cab rivals.
Parking spots can be a bit tight for a ute. (Actually, it’s a display at this year’s Fieldays.). Picture/ Phil Hanson
Basic utes are still designed to be used and abused in tough terrain. But they grow progressively flasher with each mouthful of the alphabet-soup lettering that designates different models for two reasons: the added features fetch a good profit, and make the ute more attractive to city buyers keen to try something other than the usual fare of hatch, sedan, wagon or SUV, without losing comforts or conveniences.
Such is this perceived demand that Isuzu has just introduced a luxury 2WD version of its D-Max, the LS-T, just for the New Zealand market.
But there’s a question hanging over this trend: will a ute live up to expectations? A year down the road, will an urban buyer be suffering Ranger remorse, Amarok angst, Hilux heartache, D-Max despair?
Although it’s tempting to have a versatile luxury ute in the driveway as the family vehicle, should they really be left in the country, and to tradies?
A ute may be hard to fit for a parking space, although don’t be intimidated by their apparent size; a top Ranger Wildtrak is actually slightly narrower than a Falcon car, although some 400mm longer.
Without the constraints of a boot, groceries will slip-slide across the back seat or cargo tray, unless more money is spent on stowage boxes or partitioning.
Back seats may be less comfortable than a car’s, potentially making them a happy place only for dogs, or children strapped in a separate seat.
Jenene Crossan drives a Ford Ranger around Auckland. Picture / Ted Baghurst.
And is there any 14-year-old suburban girl who wants to be seen getting out of a ute at the private school’s gates?
Urban double-cabs offer generous occupant accommodation, but the cargo tray is less versatile than you might think. A typical tray is about 1500mm x 1500mm and too small for carrying anything long. “Working” utes often have a head rail behind the cab to rest and secure long loads. Urban-spec utes may not, although some offer a sports-bar thing that can do a similar job.
Otherwise, long loads have to be carried with the tailgate down, securely fastened, a warning flag for good measure. You’d be better off with a decent sized SUV or wagon, its second row of seats folded. However, the tray is brilliant if you’re into bringing home loads of soil, river pebbles, trees, shrubs or similar.
It’s good for sports activities, too, as long as the gear will fit. Every scuba diver should own an urban ute; not so much if you have a couple of big jet-skis.
One significant plus: the driver’s and passengers’ high view over what’s around and ahead is priceless.
Tip of the day: think through your requirements first and avoid remorse later. Turn potential disappointment into Amarok achievement, Triton triumph, or Ranger rave.