A big number: 165,797. More than the entire population of Cairns. That’s how many 4X4 utes were sold this year.
They’re incredibly popular. And while everyone’s driving one, manufacturers are clambering over each other trying to make sales in this segment. There’s gold in them hills.
The 4WD ute has evolved heavily over the past decade or so, to the point where they can compete with other segments in terms of comfort and family practicality. There aren’t many cheap hacks for sale these days; people are spending lots of money on their 4WD utes.
They’re also getting sportier and fancier, with special editions continually being announced by manufacturers. But it’s all mostly fluff. In their race to make something appealing, manufacturers are taking the easy option and are effectively rolling their utes in glitter and giving them fancy names.
One particular gripe for me is Toyota’s ‘TRD’ HiLux. Back in the day, the TRD HiLux had a Roots supercharger and some nice Bilstein suspension bits underneath. It was thirsty, but it had power. But not any more. Let’s be honest: the current TRD HiLux is barely more than a sticker pack. Instead of go-fast bits and racing technology trickling down into the high-selling ute from the factory racing arm, we got only aesthetic upgrades… if you’d even go that far. Someone slapped a bit of Australian Export red on a bash plate, whacked on some fender flares and black alloys, then called it good.
It’s not enough to warrant all of the special treatment, in my book. We haven’t road-tested the TRD HiLux, because other than those aesthetic changes it’s exactly the same as a normal SR5 HiLux.
It’s similar to the Isuzu D-Max X-Runner. We really like the D-Max, and the MU-X for that matter. They don’t have the same poke as other utes, and the interior isn’t as good either. But somehow, they’re endearing. They’re so honest. But when the Isuzu people tried to tart the D-Max up for the X-Runner, they veered away from that authenticity.
I think Toyota knows about this… and in the interests of adding more appeal to the HiLux range, its Rugged and Rugged X vehicles at least have some practical bolt-on goodies that will aid in vehicle performance. There’s a winch-compatible steel bumper (or a traditional OEM bullbar), as well as a light bar and some recovery points on the Rugged X.
The ‘Black Pack’ phenomenon
In an effort to seduce buyers onto their forecourts, manufacturers have all seemed to read the same cheat sheet: Make it black.
Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota, Isuzu and Ford have all looked to score brownie points with that aesthetic update. And sure, many folk cruising around town will love it.
But 4WDers, folk who buy these vehicles to genuinely use them off-road, want to see some kind of ‘performance’ derivative of the vehicle. And I’m not talking about how fast it can go around a corner – I’m talking 4WDing performance: Increased wading depth, better dust filtering, better off-road tyres or some serious barwork.
What we want to see in a special 4X4 ute
Extra off-road ability
They’re 4WDs, at the end of the day. Extra off-road capability will make them better vehicles. The off-road traction control systems on these cars could be tweaked to make them more responsive and better performers off-road, for example.
But of course, nothing beats ground clearance and locking differentials when it comes to improving the off-road capability. Where many utes can’t depend on their traction control in very hard conditions, a locking diff (or two) can quickly take capability from mild to wild.
The next space where utes can improve is ground clearance. This could be as simple as redesigned side steps, or even front and rear bumpers to improve the approach/departure/rampover angles. Suspension lifts are another one… but can obviously lead to issues with vehicle stability. But hey – increase your offset a little, and lower your centre of gravity (as well as make it look better).
Any old Tom, Dick or Harry can retune a turbo-diesel for more power. It’s when you want to do that and stay on the right side of emissions laws it becomes a serious challenge. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible… and 165,797 times $50,000 means there’s roughly $8.2 billion dollars worth of 4WD utes being sold in Australia each year. That’s a lot of potential profit, and a lot of inducement to design and develop an engine that really stands out amongst the current crop of donks. Aussies love power and engine capacity, at the end of the day.
Don’t worry about fancy sports bars or flash alloy wheels; we reckon a proper set of genuine 4WD modifications is the best thing you can do for sales appeal. Things like barwork, winches and recovery points are fantastic. But what about dual battery systems and storage drawers? Extra fuel or air filtration? It’s all weight that they don’t want affecting their fuel economy figures – but we think you can’t go past proper accessories with a practical use.
Let’s take that a bit further. Suspension is an obvious one; and proper light truck tyres with a good tread pattern straight off the showroom floor would be awesome. What about chassis brace upgrades for hard-working utes, or oversized axles and CV joints as options? Surely that’s more appealing than a random slap of chrome or matte black.
5 New 4X4 utes that miss the mark
Because nothing screams ‘off-road racer’ like a bright red bash plate, right? Wrong.
“Special stickers does not performance make.” – Yoda
Ford Ranger FX4
When Ford’s Ranger FX4 in the USA gets upgraded suspension, you can’t help but feel ripped off.
Isuzu D-Max X-Runner
Quick, someone get the plastidip!
Mitsubishi Triton GLS Sports Edition
It’s a solid ute at a great price, but you need more than just some black bits to make it interesting.