Utes are a fantastic invention. Serving duty for all manner of tradespeople, farmers, hardcore dudes with motocross bikes, and more, they’ve made life convenient for those that need to transport filthy stuff without hitching up a trailer, and without getting grubbiness in the driving compartment. They (mostly) drive better than a van, and with the right tyres can deal with some really rough terrain.
- Great gearbox – 6-speed is welcome, and it feels good
- Excellent interior spec
- Looks like it will bully bullies
- Good load space/towing capacity/load capacity
- It’s the new benchmark
- Lacks acceleration for the engine size.
- Will people resist the reputation of the Hilux?
However, they have a dark side. Leaf spring suspension is less than ideal on the road, they’re often noisy and rough, you don’t have the luxury of a boot to hide valuables in, and for all the convenience they give you, the manufacturers are acutely aware that price is a huge factor when you’re buying a work vehicle. They’re less of an emotive purchase therefore they’ve often been lacking in features that car drivers take for granted just to keep the price down.
The new Ranger challenges this, though. It’s an improved model that’s making some of the other utes look decidedly 1999. Four things set this ute apart from the others.
The gearbox is a six-speed manual which has (in ute standards) a very short throw. Whereas many ute gear changes feel like you’re rowing a boat, this reminds me of my old WRX STI – notchy, needs a bit of a firm hand, but very satisfying.
Looks: Channeling the brawn of its bigger American brother, the F150, the Ranger makes many other trucks look, well, puny. Check it out next to the Mitsubishi Triton in the photo gallery and you’ll see that the Triton looks like it was starved as a child. I caught other ute drivers giving it the eye on numerous occasions.
2. Ride and handling
The previous model was reasonably accomplished, but this seems better. We drove the top spec Wildtrak last time, and in this new model, which is the model down, at times I was under the illusion that I was driving a car. It’s never going to slalom like a Focus Sport, but for general cruising on the motorway and reasonable quality roads, you’re going to make smooth progress. My significant other even fell asleep in the passenger seat on the trip back fromThames where some of these photos were taken. We didn’t have any mud tyres and it was raining, therefore no off-road excursions were taken. However, it has some serious off-road specs comparing it to other utes available, so it appears that it could handle what’s thrown at it.
3. Driving features
Voice activated stereo, Bluetooth phone integration, auxiliary USB input for the stereo, reversing sensors (hooray!), dual climate control, hill descent mode, hill-hold (so you don’t roll backwards when starting in first gear uphill, etc, etc. It’s an impressive level of kit that’s crammed in the cabin. There are also plenty of safety features, too, such as six airbags, trailer sway mitigation, ABS, EBD, EBA and dynamic stability control. These safety features work like this: find one steep, slightly curved, slippery road (or other surface), try braking fairly heavily with no load in the back and to up the ante change down to second to shift-lock the rear wheels. In a ute with none of the electronic trickery you will end up in serious trouble, most likely facing the wrong way or rolling over. The Ranger will give a quick skip sideways for a fraction of a second before a short burst of ABS noise will bring it all under control again. It is extremely reassuring, and feature available on many utes now.
4. Other physical features
Not only is there a usefully deep wellside cargo area with tie-down points for carrying whatever you want, but in the cabin there are three sizeable compartments (including the chilled central binnacle), plus spaces for bottles, cups and a convenient area to hold your iPod when it’s plugged into the aux input. Other useful features are the ability to switch to 4WD high or low range (with locked diff) on the fly using a small dial rather than a cumbersome gear lever. It has a three-tonne towing capacity (3350kg on a braked trailer) and over 1300kg payload in this model, too. There’s good headroom and legroom in the cab, so there’ll be no problem transporting you, your mates and a lot of gear.
Can I find anything wrong with the Ranger? I mean, it recently won some car of the year award (I don’t believe in them, so I don’t pay much attention). Yes, I can, but only two things. The first is that it can be a little sluggish. It’s a big, heavy machine, and compared to the Triton, it seems a bit slow. The second is that it feels too similar to the new Mazda BT-50 – of course the BT-50 is based on the Ranger, so that’s no surprise. I had the fortune of driving the BT-50 and the Ranger back-to-back. Much of the switchgear is the same, it’s got similar performance, and the only discernable difference was that the Mazda felt like it was more softly sprung, and the gearbox felt slightly easier (but that could be an individual vehicle, and not uniform across the range). Does the Ranger, then, stand out enough?
If you look at individual specs, you’ll find the Ranger often isn’t the best ute. It gets beaten by some of its competitors in one or more of power, torque, ground clearance, turning circle, departure angles, fuel economy, etc, etc. However, it’s like the racing driver that consistently finishes on the podium and ends up winning the championship. Sometimes it’s in first, but other times it’s still scoring points. Whereas Toyota’s Hilux and Mitsubishi’s Triton have made incremental improvements, the new Ranger seems to have made a slightly bigger jump on the last Ranger, and it’s now the standard to beat. Your only question will be should you buy the BT-50 instead?
Price: $58,690 for this model in manual. Range begins with 2WD single cab at $40,290.
Note: this was reviewed as a new vehicle.