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Toyota LandCruiser 300 Series vs Ford Ranger: Should you buy a 4WD ute or SUV for off-roading? | Opinion

Which is your best bet for off-road adventures: an SUV or a 4x4 ute?

It’s an age-old question that has been casually dropped into conversation at opportune moments around many a campfire throughout the years: which is best for 4WDing – a 4x4 ute or an SUV?

Utes have undeniably become the beloved workhorses of the light-duty world, while SUVs have become the go-to conveyance for most Australian buyers, even if they don't have kids and gear to haul around.

But, if we’re talking about heading out of the urban and suburban environment and going off-road to enjoy some dirty – but perfectly legal – adventures, then should you buy a ute or an SUV?

Read on.

The pros and cons of 4x4 utes and SUVs

In terms of engine and transmission, power and torque outputs, driver-assist technology (including off-road traction control systems and the like) and general performance in the dirty stuff, utes and SUVs are fairly even.

Utes have a lot going for them as 4x4s and as standard (i.e. before any aftermarket work, including aggressive all-terrain tyres or suspension upgrades), but not a lot separates utes and SUVs in the off-roading stakes.

The ute has an open load space so the extent of your packing is not limited by your vehicle’s roofline, because the tub doesn’t have one. You can load beyond the top edge of a ute’s tub if needed, and tall or awkwardly shaped loads aren’t a problem either.

But because there is no actual physical barrier to loading taller objects in a ute’s tub – and there’s a perception that utes have vastly superior load-carrying capabilities than SUVs – the temptation for many ute users is to then overload the ute’s tub, which unfortunately lots of people do. Note ute payloads are generally better, not vastly superior, to that of SUVs – and besides, even if utes did have vastly superior payloads to SUVs, if you have even an iota of common-sense, you should never pack to the absolute limit of your vehicle’s payload anyway, no matter what it is – that’s simply asking for strife.

Utes have a lot going for them as 4x4s and as standard (i.e. before any aftermarket work, including aggressive all-terrain tyres or suspension upgrades). Utes have a lot going for them as 4x4s and as standard (i.e. before any aftermarket work, including aggressive all-terrain tyres or suspension upgrades).

SUVs also have plenty of positives in their favour as 4WDs and even as standard, and those may make them more appealing than utes in a buyer’s eyes.

SUVs have coil-spring set-ups, so their ride quality and handling is a lot more composed and predictable than that of traditional leaf-spring utes on sealed surfaces and corrugated dirt tracks. Having noted that, however, utes have improved in those terms, but unladen utes still tend to skip around on irregular surfaces because there’s not a lot of weight over the rear axle and that jittery unpredictable sensation in the rear end may be literally quite unsettling for those drivers who are unfamiliar with these ute-specific characteristics.

SUVs offer more flexibility in terms of passenger-carrying capabilities because an SUV may have five, seven or eight seats. If you want to put seven or eight people in a ute you’d have to throw some of them in the tub and – hey, genius! – that’s illegal.

SUVs have coil-spring set-ups, so their ride quality and handling is a lot more composed and predictable than that of traditional leaf-spring utes on sealed surfaces and corrugated dirt tracks. SUVs have coil-spring set-ups, so their ride quality and handling is a lot more composed and predictable than that of traditional leaf-spring utes on sealed surfaces and corrugated dirt tracks.

Your valuables (people, pets and camping gear) are afforded more safety and security in a SUV than in a ute because a SUV is a fully enclosed and lockable load space, accessible from the main cabin – in fact, it is the main cabin.

Sure, contemporary utes have all manner of OEM or aftermarket tub coverings on offer (hard or soft tonneau covers, roller shutters, aluminium lids etc). Or you can purchase a great aftermarket canopy to be fixed to your ute tub to protect your load, and some of those options are lockable and quite comprehensive in their features. However, a canopy is not an engineered-at-vehicle-origin solution, so while it offers much better security, water- and dust-proofing than having no tub cover at all, it’s no match for a SUV's built-in load space.

And, besides, by affixing a cover to a ute’s tub – whether it’s a tonneau, roller shutter, canopy, or simply a bit of tarp over the top – defeats the original purpose of owning an open-topped ute anyway, because by doing so you’re instantly robbing the ute tub of its load-carrying versatility.

What I reckon

When all is said and done, utes and SUVs are pretty evenly matched off-roaders – in terms of engine and transmission, power and torque outputs, driver-assist technology and general performance.

Both kinds of vehicles have plenty going for them as 4WDs, but for different reasons – all to do with practicality, not performance – and the best choice for you ultimately boils down to your habits and lifestyle.

Do you need a work-and-play vehicle with an open load space in your everyday life, as well as for your off-roading trips? Get a ute.

Do you need a comfortable all-rounder with an enclosed and secure weather-proof passenger- and load-space day to day, and for your camping holidays? Get an SUV.

At the risk of sounding like a middle-aged bloke trying to sound as wise as Yoda: there’s a confusion of choice in the modern 4WD market but, often in life, your best bet is to blank out all the noise, and focus on what you actually need, not what you might want.