Friday, 15 April 2016

The Changing Status of the Humble Ute

There is no denying utes in Australia have become mainstream. Once only frequently seen on farms, mines, far-away country towns or the outback, now they're part of the everyday motoring landscapes of our cities.
Examples of Dual Cab utes available in this country

Utes have gone from a tradie's best friend, a farmer's workhorse to a trendy all round motor vehicle for adventure loving city dwellers.  Dwellers who dream of tackling something more challenging than a shopping centre speed bump on weekends.  Whether they actually end up doing it is another matter.

And with increased appeal to a wider demographics, demands from 4WD ute also widened beyond its traditional versatility, high ride height, and rugged go anywhere capability.  Many wanted more refinement, sophistication, and comfort.

Some manufacturers heard this loud and clear, and wasted no time expanding their offerings to cater to this new taste, and created the "Luxury Ute" Market.

The "Ute" had a humble beginning.  It is said, in 1932 a farmer's wife in Victoria wrote a letter to Ford Australia asking for a vehicle she can use to go to church on Sundays, and able to carry their pigs to market on Mondays. 

The result is a model released two years later called the "Ford Coupe Utility".

1934 Ford Coupe Utility

It would have been hard to imagine as little as 15 years ago [let alone in 1934] associating words like 'luxury', 'sophisticated' and 'comfort' in describing a ute.

Fast forward to 2016, nearly gone are the basic instrument panels and hose-out vinyl clad interiors.  Replaced with high end cloth or leather upholstery, car like instrument clusters with soft-touch interior surfaces.  Truck like road handling are progressively giving way to a more car like refinement, yet still able to carry a one tonne load [or pigs] and tackle roads beyond the bitumen.

Utes in general have always been built tough.  But with their mainstream popularity, their built quality and safety had to dramatically improve.  Motoring journalist have even changed the way they road test 4WD utes today.  Where once it was all about its off-road prowess, ground clearance, ruggedness, toughness, deep water fording and rock crawling capabilities… to now commonly include fit and finish, lack of squeaks and rattles, and a quiet ride

Safety in utes have never been as good as they do now.  Equipped with ABS, ESC, and multiple front and curtain airbags.  Most are Five-Star ANCAP safety ratedThey have safety to rival most cars.

The only area where a one tonne ute still lag behind a comparable sedan is in handling.  Understandable considering the suspension setup - one is designed to safely carry heavy loads on various terrain, and the other to tackle tarmac with confidence.

Ford Ranger Wildtrak
Its vast appeal to a wider audience have seen utes offered with the most model variation in any class.  Starting from single cab 2WDs to bells and whistles dual cab 4WD models [ie. Ford Ranger Wildtrak, Toyota Hilux SR5, Volkswagen Ultimate].
The numbers done lie.  The ute is now the third largest selling segment in Australia (behind small cars and SUVs).  The Toyota Hilux - the best-selling ute in Australia for over three decades - has consistently been in the top three new car sales list in the past five years.   For a couple of months last year [2015], it even managed to be the best-selling new vehicle sold in Australia - PERIOD.

And the Hilux is not alone.  Fast on its heels is the Ford Ranger - an excellent and worthy challenger.  Since the introduction of the previous Ranger model, it has stalked the Hilux like a bad smell for the title of the best-selling ute in this country.  Based on yearly total sales, the Hilux still has this title - for now at least. 

These two are accompanied by worthy rivals from: Mitsubishi [Triton]; Holden [Colorado]; Nissan [Navara]; Isuzu [D-Max]; Mazda [BT-50]; Volkswagen [Amarok].  And more rivals in this segment are scheduled to join in the next few years.


2018 Mercedes Benz Ute
Renault Alaskan Concept
The market for utes is growing so fast that traditional luxury makers like Mercedes Benz are getting into the action. Mercedes Benz have confirmed they are developing a ute based on the Nissan Navara.
While a Mercedes Benz ute might seem odd. It's not unusual since they already have vehicles with off-road credentials such as the G-Wagen. But never have they offered a ute to the public that isn't a military spec large truck like the Unimog.

Renault is another looking to get into the Ute market.  The Renault Alaskan Concept broke cover late last year [2015].  This model is also based on the Nissan Navara platform [Renault has a majority & controlling shares in Nissan]. 

Hyundai Crossover Santa Cruz Concept Truck
Hyundai has also released a gorgeous looking ute concept called the Crossover Santa Cruz Concept, which they claim will go into production.  Though it remains to be seen if this will be a true 4WD ute, or a new generation of urbanised utilities.

Miranda Kerr
While both Renault and Hyundai models will be mainstream offerings, Mercedes Benz is likely to cater to the luxury end of the market.  I'm sure both Audi and BMW are closely watching.

When manufacturers rush models to compete in a segment, it's a strong indication there's profit to be made.  I have more chance in getting a date with Miranda Kerr than get a car manufacturer spend millions on a project with no ROI [Return On Investment]

Ford F-150 SVT Raptor
Traditional ute makers such as Toyota & Ford are benefiting soundly in the luxury ute market.  The Toyota Hilux SR5 and Ford Wildtrak account for 40% of their respective models sales.  And the demand is increasing, with a waiting list of three months and six months respectively.

Ford Ranger Raptor
Ford is looking to slip a model above the Wildtrak, called "Raptor".  In the US the Raptor name is based on a Ford F-150.  The [US] Ford F-150 SVT Raptor is a sportier, meaner looking and better performing Ford F-150.  Ford Australia hopes to endow the Ranger with power upgrades and extensive "more aggressive" looking bodywork, with a price tag upwards of $80k.

If the Ford Ranger Raptor is anywhere near the transformation of the US Ford F-150 SVT Raptor, I can't wait to see the end result.

2008 Toyota TRD Hilux 4000SL
Toyota has the TRD outfit.  TRD has a strong reputation in Australia, due to its involvement in motorsport.  Toyota can easily slot a TRD model above the SR5.  But Toyota Australia are coySimply stating they [Toyota] are currently "studying" the market if such a model is required.  If Toyota decide to release one, it will be beyond 2018.

Back in 2008, Toyota Australia released the TRD Hilux 4000SL.  It came with a mild body-kit and a 4.0-litre V6 engine delivering 225KW of power.  But it failed to ignite the market, and was quietly removed from its line-up.  Yet now these TRD Hiluxes are fetching some decent coin in the used-car market.  

In the recent 2016 Bangkok International Motor Show, the Toyota Hilux Revo TRD Sportivo was previewed. 
2016 Toyota Hilux Revo TRD Sportivo

2015 Toyota Hilux TRD Sportivo

But just like the 2015 Toyota Hilux TRD Sportivo [not sold in Australia].  It seems this is once again purely a cosmetic upgrade and no notable performance improvement. 

With all this activity in the ute market, we are about to witness for the very first time in Australia's motoring history, new utes with an RRP exceeding $100k.   

While 4WD ute models [or pick-up trucks if you're in North America] imported through the "Low Volume Import Program" such as the Ford F-150s, Toyota Tundras, Dodge Rams, Chevy Silverados cost over $100k new… no factory backed model has been sold for that much here.
Chevy Silverado | Dodge Ram | Toyota Tundra | Ford F-150


With our changing taste, it's unfortunate the sales of our home grown utes are dropping faster than Justin Bieber's pants.  Growing up, I remember how both the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon based utes with their sporty styling and rear-wheel-drive were once considered alternatives to two door sports cars. 

Now with our penchant for high riding, tough looking 4WD utes, and coupled with the impending end of local production for both models, buyers are by-passing them in droves.

So if you have an Aussie built ute, I suggest keep it stock and look after it well.  In a decade or two, it'll be a collectable classic.  An Aussie classic.
Holden & Ford Utes - The end of the line in nigh.

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