Utes are the most versatile cars on the road, but should I buy one?

24 September 2015
 by 
, CarsGuide

You could argue there’s nothing more Aussie on wheels than a Commodore or Falcon - with the exception of Les Patterson dinking Steve Waugh on a bicycle - but neither of them is as unique, innovative or downright blokey as the ute: our gift to the world of motoring.

You’ve probably heard the tale of the farmer’s wife who wrote to Ford, many dusty moons ago in 1932, to ask them to create a vehicle for her that could carry pigs to market on a weekday and her and the husband to church on a Sunday.

Engineer Lewis Bandt’s response was to design the first Ford utility, which went on to spawn a style of vehicle that’s carried everyone from labourers to HSV Maloo-loving hooligans.

Are we being short-changed by the flood of Yank-style load-luggers?

We’ve written songs about them, organised musters for them and carried out circle work in them, but - just like so many other parts of Australiana - the real ute is destined for a page in history, next to Slim Dusty and people who actually say ‘Fair dinkum’.

It doesn’t seem to bother the car-buying public, though, as one in five new cars sold in Australia today is still a ute - the vast majority of which are imported, ladder-framed offerings like the hugely popular Toyota HiLux, VW’s Amarok and the attractive, and also locally designed, Ford Ranger.

Our modern ute, then, is more of a pick-up, but are we being short-changed by the flood of Yank-style load-luggers?

The good

The way they’re put together might be changing – or devolving – but what utes can do hasn’t changed a bit. They’re still the best way to carry anything large, heavy or ungainly – Clive Palmer, for example – short of a dedicated light-duty truck or van.

The rear end of a ute can carry all kinds of unpleasant nonsense without any stench finding its way into the cabin. Once the job is done, it’s easy to wash the tray out with a hose and tackle the next job.

In some cases, it’s almost as easy to clean out the cabin. Base-spec utes can come with vinyl floors and hard-wearing seats, befitting their status as workaday tools.

If, however, you’re after a car to do double duty, just like the original brief, modern utes can fit the bill well.

Utes used to be fairly Spartan affairs, but these days the better utes' interiors are pretty well up to par with passenger cars

Modern utes are awash with safety, toys and accessories that rival luxury cars, but the quality of the interior plastics and seat trims are still a generation off.

The next generation will also bring a few new players, eager to enter the burgeoning ute game. It won’t be too long before you can drive a Renault, or even a Mercedes ute, taking ute ownership to the golf club car park. Plenty of room for your clubs, at least.

The bad

Criticising a ute for not behaving like a passenger car is like criticising a donkey for not being a horse; even so, it’d be unwise to overlook the most pressing pitfall of ute ownership.

While car-based utes feature similar levels of technology as passenger cars, the rest of the field is about as advanced as the Amish. Consider the HiLux, Ranger or Amarok; as hardy and adventurous as they might be, they’re running chassis technology that went out of date in the 1960s.

The body-on-frame setup, which passenger cars left behind while the Beatles still had short hair, is the simplest and therefore cheapest way to build a chassis.

Think about your average ladder. Now make one out of girders, lay it flat, fasten wheels to the corners and plonk a passenger compartment on top. What you’ve created is the basic chassis that runs under every single imported ute in the country.

Body-on-frame armatures are exceptionally cheap to make compared to unitary or monocoque bodies. The penny-pinching doesn’t stop with the chassis, either; manufacturers are just as parsimonious when it comes to suspension.

Leaf springs, which are about as old as Les Patterson, are also incredibly cheap to make and fit to ladder chassis. Leaf springs also remove the need for trailing arms and other complex suspension componentry that’s required in coil-based set-ups, keeping the manufacturing cost as miserly as possible. Leaf springs are still the best way to suspend a heavy load, however, as they spread the weight along the chassis rail rather than concentrating it over the surface area of the top of a coil spring.

They’re still the best way to carry anything large, heavy or ungainly – Clive Palmer, for example

The practical upshot of cheap, old-world tech really starts to manifest when you get behind the wheel and pitch into a pothole.

As the rear end is suspended on leaf springs, it can feel flighty and unrestrained - because it is. The simplistic suspension does a poor job of controlling the rear wheels, especially under load, causing all sorts of unsettling bouncing, shunting or hopping along the road.

It gets a lot worse in inclement weather as the wayward rear end becomes a chore, or even a nightmare, on ice. Modern traction and stability-control systems – mandatory as of November 1 this year – can wrest control back, but they’re covering serious engineering inadequacies.

This misbehaviour has an unlikely remedy; ask anyone in a blue singlet and they’ll tell you that their ute has the best ride – and best traction – with a couple of hay bales or a Clive Palmer in the back. That’s because the weight counteracts the frenetic action of the leaf springs, allowing the rear to behave with a modicum of civility. With a few hundred extra kilos to lug around, however, don’t expect decent fuel figures.

It’s important to note that Nissan actually bucks the trend by offering its new Navara with a coil-sprung rear end. It’s a standout in this regard, but heaping praise on a 2015-model car for featuring all-round coil springs is like praising a teenager for mastering a fork and knife.

Just as sushi’s seaweed has replaced the cabbage-chocked Chiko Roll, the bulk of Australians have moved on from the utes of Australiana

With such a fatal shortcoming, at least for the majority of utes, the other issues of ownership seem minor by comparison. And, in reality, they are – when you buy a ute, you accept that your friends, colleagues and complete strangers will want you to help them move house, fetch things from Bunnings or go to the tip.

At least crash safety isn’t a concern any more, with utes from most manufacturers achieving five-star ANCAP safety ratings. If, conversely, you value dollars more than kneecaps there’s always Great Wall, Foton or Mahindra.

Do they pass muster?

As of next year, the car that gave birth to this whole segment - the Ford Falcon ute - will be dead, while the Commodore ute’s future is more than a little grim. Most industry pundits say it’ll bow out in the next 18 months as well.

With the death of the true, car-based ute the future seems bleak. Body-on-frame utes feature technology from the Great Gatsby with none of the class and seem to grow larger and more ungainly with each successive generation. They’re packed with more toys and fitted with nicer interiors, but the real panache of a car-based ute is gone.

Glimmers of hope for the future do exist, such as Mercedes-level interiors and coil-sprung rear ends, but they’re not enough to solve the inherent flaws.

But, just as sushi’s seaweed has replaced the cabbage-chocked Chiko Roll, the bulk of Australians have moved on from the utes of Australiana to those with a more international appeal.

For better or worse, we’ve voted with our wallets and the imports are here to stay.

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