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Best Family Utes 2012 Comparison

These utes were rough as guts a decade ago and few families could put up with them, but they have advanced to the point of being a realistic family car option.

With the ability to work hard but also lug boats, caravans and trailers of up to 3500kg as well as cross rivers, conquer mountains and pick up the shopping, it's easy to see the appeal.

A wave of new family friendly trucks has arrived in the last two years, lead by the Volkswagen Amarok, Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50 and now the new Holden Colorado. CarsGuide assembled the challengers and the reigning sales champion, the Toyota Hilux, at the Melbourne 4x4 Training and Proving Ground in order to pick one winner.

TOYOTA HILUX
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A recent facelift upped content and lowered prices Customers can choose from a thirsty 4.0-litre petrol V6 (175kW/376Nm) or a 3.0-litre four-cylinder diesel (126kW/343Nm), which lags behind its rivals when it comes to low down lugging (torque).

While six gears are common these days, the Hilux makes do with a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic. Low range is selected with a lever, unlike the other models fitted with a simple dial.

The tow rating is the lowest in the class, 1000kg below the maximum tow rating of the Colorado, which could be an issue for some.

VERDICT

The interior is spacious and there are some smart storage areas, but the dashboard is old and plain despite a new colour centre screen.

It managed the tough terrain with ease, but the Hilux goes to the back of the class due to its ordinary on-road dynamics and jumbled ride, which all points to an old body and chassis. Its engines and transmissions are also getting on.

This might have been the benchmark seven years ago, but times have changed and the Hilux drives like an old-school ute.

Toyota Hilux SR5

Type: 4x4 crew cab
Price: $50,990
Engine: 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel
Power: 126kW at 3600rpm
Torque: 343Nm at 1400rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual, optional four-speed automatic ($2500)
Towing: 2500kg
Payload: 835kg
Fuel Economy: 13L/100km
Safety Gear: Electronic Stability Control, anti-skid brakes, driver and passenger front and side airbags, side curtain airbags

VOLKSWAGEN AMAROK
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The Amarok was new last year and bucked the trend with a small 2.0-litre diesel which it fits with one or two turbos depending on the model.

Our test ute has the 120kW and 400Nm version which is especially economical (7.9L/100km). Right now a six-speed manual is the only option, but an automatic is coming this month along with more power and torque. The tow rating is a little low at 2800kg, but should increase too.

It has all the safety gear but there is no airbag coverage for the rear seats.

VERDICT

The Amarok is one of the best in class, with a spacious interior, good cargo area and relatively good handling. The engine is underwhelming in this category. It needs to be pressed hard and, as a result, can get intrusively loud.

The Amarok is also too easy to stall at low speed. Its manual gearbox is crisp and shifts easily. An auto version of this should be good, but we'll have to wait and see.

The interior is quite plain and drab compared to the Ranger, but it is all very practical. There is no Bluetooth, which is a glaring omission (we're told it is coming soon).

Volkswagen Amarok Highline TDI 400

Type: 4x4 crew cab
Price: $52,990
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin turbodiesel
Power: 120kW at 4000rpm
Torque: 400Nm at 1500-2500rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, no automatic option
Towing: 2800kg (braked trailer)
Payload: 992kg
Fuel Economy: 7.9L/100km
Safety Gear: Electronic Stability Control, anti-skid brakes, driver and passenger front and side airbags (not curtain airbags).

HOLDEN COLORADO
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This is the newest truck on the block and has the highest towing rating of 3500kg. It's built off the same base as the Isuzu D-Max but is significantly different. The base Colorado gets a 2.5-litre four-cylinder diesel with 110kW and 350Nm.

A strong 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel is standard on the higher spec models and provides 132kW and 440Nm. This jumps to 470Nm when customers order the optional six-speed automatic, though power remains the same.

VERDICT

It isn't the sharpest tool in this shed, but the Colorado still has a lot going for it. The big Holden is comfortable around town, but its soft suspension means it moves around at higher speeds on bumpy roads. It doesn't like corners you need to turn the wheel a lot to get around tight ones.

The 2.8-litre engine is the loudest, but the pitch is not irritating. It pulls as hard as the BT-50 and Ranger five-cylinder. We like the very roomy interior, but the dashboard of the high-end LT-Z looks cheap with ordinary plastics and a retro digital display.

Holden Colorado LT-Z

Type: 4x4 crew cab
Price: $49,990 (plus $3230 hard tonneau and snorkel)
Engine: 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel
Power: 132kW at 3800rpm
Torque: 440Nm at 2000rpm (auto 470Nm)
Transmission: Five-speed manual, six-speed automatic
Towing: 3500kg
Payload: 1000kg
Fuel Economy: 9.1L/100km
Safety Gear: Electronic stability control, front driver and passenger airbags, side curtain airbags

FORD RANGER
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Like its Mazda twin, the Ranger is new except for its revised engines. Entry level Rangers are sold with a four-cylinder petrol engine. Then is a choice of a 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel (110kW and 375Nm) and a 3.2-litre five-cylinder (147kW and 470Nm).

Shared with Mazda, these are the strongest in the class. Transmission choices are a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. The maximum towing capacity is a considerable 3350kg.

VERDICT

The Ranger XLT comes with the most gear, but is also the most expensive. Its interior is spacious and practical and the dashboard and instrument cluster is stylish (in a masculine way) with a high quality colour information display and quality surfaces.

The 3.2-litre engine sits at the top of the class in terms of performance, but (as is the case with the BT-50) makes a slightly annoying and inconsistent rattle (injectors apparently).

The ride is better than the Mazda's but firmer than the others. The upside is brilliant handling and excellent suppression of big bumps, especially on country roads. We also like the sharp and direct steering and quiet cabin.

Ford Ranger XLT

Type: 4x4 crew cab
Price: $53,390
Engine: 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbodiesel
Power: 147kW at 3000rpm
Torque: 470Nm at 1500-2750rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, optional six-speed automatic ($2000 extra)
Towing: 3350kg
Payload: 1041kg
Fuel Economy: 9.2L/100km
Safety Gear: Electronic Stability Control, anti-skid brakes, driver and passenger front and side airbags, side curtain airbags

MAZDA BT-50
BT-50 BT-50

The BT-50 is the same as the Ranger under the skin, but Mazda and Ford came up with their own interior and exterior designs. It is available with a 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel (110kw and 375Nm) or a 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel which pumps out a handy 147kW and 470Nm.

You can have a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. The maximum tow rating for the big Mazda is a respectable 3350kg. Mazda fitted the test BT with a bull bar and alloy wheels which cost $6540.

VERDICT

The BT-50 has much the same strengths as its Ranger twin, including strong engines, but there are some differences. Firmer suspension tuned for sportiness, means a fidgety ride on imperfect roads. The interior is plain, but the quality is excellent.

BT-50s are cheaper than rival Rangers (about $4000 in some cases) but usually have a little less gear. Then there is the appearance. It is ugly and looks like a Ssangyong. The bull bar covers up the worst elements, but costs more.

Our BT-50 suffered a mechanical problem in the middle of a water crossing, which the other vehicles managed repeatedly without incident. It has been trucked back to Mazda for a diagnosis.

Mazda BT-50 XT-R

Type: 4x4 crew cab
Price: $48,810 (plus $6540 bull-bar and wheels)
Engine: 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel
Power: 147kW at 3000rpm
Torque: 470Nm at 1750-2500rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, optional six-speed automatic ($2000 extra)
Towing: 3350kg
Payload: 1097kg
Fuel Economy: 9.2L/100km
Safety Gear: Electronic Stability Control, anti-skid brakes, driver and passenger front and side airbags, side curtain airbags

CONCLUSION

The Hilux might top the sales charts, but the ageing warrior finishes a clear last in this company. We'd be happy to recommend the Volkswagen, Ford, Holden and Mazda, which all demonstrate how far crew cab utes have come.

An underdone engine and lack of automatic transmission knocks the Amarok out of contention in this test, along with a plain interior and some missing gear, but upcoming changes could put it back in the hunt.

The buff Colorado is a comfortable cruiser and its engine is a bit rough but it lugs along without fuss. Ordinary handling and a cheap interior prove the difference here but it is surprisingly easy to live with.

That leaves the twins. The engines can be intrusive and automatic transmissions can hunt but they are clearly the best trucks here. The BT-50 is the best value for money, but has an uncompromising ride and plain cabin. Sadly, the awful styling will put off many buyers.

The pricier Ranger does everything the Mazda does, but rides better, has a bit more equipment and looks great. Its superior interior seals the deal.

Others:

Nissan's Navara is old, but good. New pricing makes it worth looking at. The new D-Max is Isuzu's take on the Colorado and is a contender. Mitsubishi's Triton is in the same class as Hilux: its best days are behind it.

Pricing guides

$28,913
Based on 495 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$10,500
Highest Price
$45,990

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
SR 4.0L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $9,000 – 13,530 2012 Toyota HiLux 2012 SR Pricing and Specs
SR (4X4) 3.0L, Diesel, 4 SP AUTO $16,400 – 22,770 2012 Toyota HiLux 2012 SR (4X4) Pricing and Specs
SR5 4.0L, ULP, 5 SP AUTO $16,000 – 22,220 2012 Toyota HiLux 2012 SR5 Pricing and Specs
SR5 (4X4) 3.0L, Diesel, 5 SP MAN $21,000 – 28,490 2012 Toyota HiLux 2012 SR5 (4X4) Pricing and Specs