Using a vehicle every day – driving it, parking it, and packing it with groceries and kids (mostly your own, of course, and sometimes their mates) – you get a real sense of its strengths and weaknesses.
Dual cab utes – Ranger, BT-50, Amarok, D-Max, Navara, et al – are increasingly sophisticated in terms of ride and handling, active and passive safety tech, and they tend to have extensive standard features lists, but just how practical are they? What is the cabin like for space, comfort and versatility? How much storage is there? How many USB ports and 12 volt sockets are there?
Common sense dictates that the most recent upper-spec models of any dual cab line-up should have the most features, the most space, and be the most versatile, which is why we're concentrating on those.
Here are our top five most practical utes.
1. Ford Ranger XLT dual-cab 4x4
The XLT is the gold standard dual cab ($57,600 plus on-roads) in this mob; the only thing better in the range is the top-spec Wildtrak (from $60,090 for the auto, excluding on-roads) but we reckon its hyper-stylised interior, which looks great, would cop an absolute hammering in day-to-day life and its extras over the XLT, including heated front seats and puddle lamps, simply aren't worth the cash in practical terms.
From opening the doors – which gape nice and wide for ease of entry and exit – and onwards, life in the Ranger is easy. The cabin is roomy – plenty of headroom and legroom – and very comfortable inside; the front leather-accented seats are nicely cushioned and supportive.
Cabin storage includes a cavernous glove box, centre console and coin storage, two cupholders, bottle holder and door storage in every door, seat-back pockets, and more.
There are two front auxiliary 12 volt power outlets, one rear auxiliary 12 volt power outlet, and a 230 volt inverter in the rear console. There is a USB port up front.
The XLT has a maximum five-star ANCAP rating but the 'Tech Pack' adds even more to the existing suite of safety features.
Other standard features of note include dual-zone aircon, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, tyre pressure monitoring system, and more.
Fuel consumption is a claimed 9.0L/100km, and it has an 80-litre fuel tank.
The tray is 1549mm long, 1139mm wide (between the wheelarches), 511mm deep and has four tie-down points. Load height (floor height to ground) is 840mm. It can tow up to 3500kg (braked).
The XLT has a maximum five-star ANCAP rating but the 'Tech Pack' option ($800) adds adaptive cruise control, automatic high beam, lane-departure warning and more to the existing suite of safety features.
There are two child seat upper anchorage points in the XLT, and two ISOFIX anchor points.
2. Mazda BT-50 XTR Dual Cab
The XTR ($50,890 excluding on-road costs) is a great blend of passenger-car comfort and real-world practicality. It's the second-best spec in the BT-50 range – only the GT is higher – but we reckon it is spot-on.
The cabin is spacious, with ample head clearance and legroom is ample in the front and back row. The front seats are well-bolstered and cushioned, offering similar levels of comfort to the Ranger; rear-seat passengers get the usual sit-up-straight treatment.
Cabin storage includes a glove box (lockable and illuminated), cupholders, door bottle holders (front and rear), door pockets (front), an overhead sunglass storage box, and more.
There are three auxiliary 12 volt power outlets and a USB port.
The driver gets electronic instrumentation (with dimmer), a 7.8-inch colour multimedia touchscreen, and steering wheel mounted controls. Other standard features include dual-zone air con, sat nav and reversing camera.
The tray is 1549mm long, 1560mm wide (1139mm between the wheelarches), 513mm deep and has six 'interior rope hooks'. Load height is 841mm. It is rated to tow 3500kg (maximum, braked).
3. Isuzu D-Max LS-T
If a dual cab ute is to be seriously regarded as truly practical, then it must have the ability to cop the roughhousing, the messiness and the incidental minor damage of everyday life without complaint, which is where the D-Max comes in.
Storage in the cabin includes upper and lower glove boxes, cupholders (two between driver and front-seat passenger, one below each of the two in-cabin front-side air vents, plus two fold-down cupholders in the centre floor console for rear seat passengers), as well as door bulges, seat-back pockets, tool space under the flip-up rear seats, and a few little slots for bits and pieces.
There is a 12 volt auxiliary power outlet in the glove box, two USB ports in the centre console, and one in the back of the centre floor console for rear seat passengers.
The D-Max has a maximum braked towing capacity of 3500kg and 750kg unbraked.
Fuel consumption is a claimed 7.9L/100km, and it has a 76-litre fuel tank.
The D-Max's tray is 1552mm long (on the floor), 465mm deep and 1530mm wide across the top, and 1105mm wide, between wheelarches. The tray has four tie-down points, one at each corner. Load height is 800mm.
It has a five-star ANCAP rating and there are three child-seat tethers – rear, outer and centre.
4. HiLux SR5 dual cab
It is also very practical; it's not a near-perfect package like Ranger or BT-50, but not as charmingly rough-edged as the D-Max.
The interior is not as super-flash as those of its rivals, even with leather accents (option) or 'premium fabric' everywhere, but it's not quite a hose-out situation either. In keeping with HiLux tradition it retains hard-wearing plastic surfaces and offers what some might cynically describe as bare-minimum amenities inside compared to its competitors. We like it.
Dash instruments are decidedly old school (no flash digital stuff here) but the driver does get a leather-wrapped steering wheel (with controls for audio, Bluetooth, etc), a 7.0-inch colour multimedia display, dual-zone air con, sat nav and reversing camera.
Fuel consumption is a claimed 8.5L/100km, and it has a 80-litre fuel tank.
In-cabin storage includes a lockable glove box, centre console box with lid, six cupholders (four for the front, two for the back), four bottle holders (two front, two back), two bottle holders in the doors, two seat-back pockets and several handy spaces for your keys, loose change, etc.
There are two 12 volt sockets, a USB port, and a 220 volt accessory socket in the tray.
Fuel consumption is a claimed 8.5L/100km, and it has a 80-litre fuel tank.
The tray is 1550mm long (on the floor), 1515mm wide (on the floor), 1110mm wide (between the wheelarches), and 495mm deep (from floor to top of deck). The tray has four tie-down points, one at each corner. Load height is approximately 860mm.
5. Nissan Navara ST-X
Though you could easily do away with a fair bit of stuff, such as heated and electrically-adjustable front seats, and the leather-accented handbrake, nice practical touches include a reversing camera, reversing sensors, rear air vents, rear power-sliding glass window, as well as the slide-adjustable load-securing system in the tray, and more.
The interior is plush and comfortable and long stints on the road are no problem in this thing. The ST-X gets an easy-to-use 7.0-inch touchscreen, sat nav, leather-wrapped steering wheel and auto shifter. Lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto may irk some people, not me.
Storage spaces include big glove box, four cupholders, bottle holders and storage pockets in each door, seat-back pockets and a variety of other hideaway holes.
There are three 12 volt sockets inside and a weather-proof 12 volt accessory socket in the tray.
Fuel consumption is claimed to be 7.0L/100km, and it has a 80-litre fuel tank.
The ST-X's tray is 1503mm long, 1560mm wide (1130mm between wheelarches) and 474mm deep. The tray has four cargo tie-down rings. Load height is 805mm.
It has a maximum braked towing capacity of 3500kg and 750kg unbraked.