Load ’em up
The HiLux’s successors play off. We pick the best
LOAD-LUGGERS that double as family wagons march on unabated in the industry, fuelled by “free” trade agreements and duty rebates that keep them keenly priced.
They end the domination of the passenger-car based ute on building sites or at the boat ramp.
Mining fleets drive the volume but the user-chooser tradespeople and private sales contribute a growing chunk of the sales.
Toyota’s HiLux has long been the dominant force in this market but the advent of five-star safety requirements in fleet vehicle policies has brought several other players into contention.
Updates to key competitors have warranted revisiting the utes vying for a chunk of the growing light-commercial market.
Holden’s underwhelming Colorado has had a midlife update, including a brain transplant for the automatic — sadly Holden couldn’t get us one for this little battle so we’re stuck with a manual, which hasn’t had much done to it at all.
Volkswagen’s Amarok has been endowed with a longautomatic transmission — an eight-speed no less. The Mazda BT-50 has been given a boost, with the six-speeder added to more models. Ford’s Ranger might not have had much done recently but it didn’t need it — the Australian-developed utility has gathered quite a fan club since its debut.
The features list varies little in this quartet — 17-inch alloys (and full-size spares), rear diff locks, side steps, a leatherwrapped steering wheel, carpet floors, climate control (although Colorado’s is only single zone and none has rear vents), power mirrors, mudflaps all-round, cloth trim, rear sensors and Bluetooth.
The Colorado LTZ crew-cab gets power adjustment for the driver’s seat, soft tonneau, reversing camera, the app-based MyLink touchscreen and alloy sports bar to match the sidesteps.
The Amarok Highline lacks a USB port and rear seat 12-volt outlet (but gets three up front). It is the only one with — wait for it — reach and rake adjustable steering, something of a rarity in this segment. It also has a sports bar for the tray, cargo bay light, insulated glass, heated exterior mirrors (shares with the folding exterior mirrors of the Ranger).
The Ranger XLT and BT-50 XTR siblings are differentiated by the Mazda’s satnav and a reduced warranty (to two years or 100,000km; according to the manufacturer’s website, if you haven’t reached 100,000km at the end of two years, the cover apparently extends to three years or 100,000km).
The Ford’s standard features list gets some gear reserved for the top-spec Mazda, including an auto-dimming rear vision mirror, auto headlights, rainsensing wipers, towbar and 12-volt outlet in the tray.
Drum brakes and leaf springs at the rear? You’d be forgiven for consigning them to the scrap heap (at least there are wishbones upfront) but it’s not all bad.
Minimum transmission tech is six-speed automatic and all four have variable geometry turbos, intercoolers and common-rail direct-injection.
The Amarok has two turbos — a smaller first-responder and a second, larger but lazier — to spread and sustain the torque curve. Its eight-speed ZF auto doesn’t get a transfer case but runs constant 4WD and a has an extra-low first gear in lieu of low range.
No, really, the only design elements that depart from the square-jawed automotive incarnation of Roger Ramjet are on the BT-50 and to some extent the Colorado.
The Mazda’s “surprised Dame Edna” looks weren’t popular when it arrived and the Holden is often looked on less favourably than its Isuzu second cousin.
Dual-cabs mean the tray sizes aren’t long enough for serious loads, though payloads are about one tonne.
The Amarok takes the honours at just over 1.5 metres long and 1.2m between the wheel arches. It also has the least braked towing capacity (3000kg; the others are 3500kg) and ground clearance (200mm).
The Argentine-built VW also falls short when wading (maximum depth 500mm) while the Holden gets to 600mm and the twins 800mm.
All earn five safety stars and have six airbags, stability and traction control and anti-lock brakes. The Colorado has a limited-slip diff but cannot match the others’ locking rear diffs.
All have hill start assist and trailer sway control. Only the Ford gets rain-sensing wipers.
The Amarok drops dualrange but is unique in this group with constant 4WD and can run that way on the blacktop.
The others’ old-school parttime 4WD runs rear-wheel drive when conditions are at optimum.
Rear benches are equipped with lap-sash seat belts and the ability to strap in kiddie booster seats; the Amarok and Colorado get three factoryinstalled tether points.
The Holden and VW both require both pullstraps to release the backrest — potentially a two-person job, while the other two are solo efforts.
The VW’s anchor points are integrated into the seat backrest, the Colorado’s are welded in and the Ford and Mazda need bolts installed post-factory.
Sitting behind the driver’s position is a good test of any cabin and all four can take four of me without a problem.
The Colorado’s rear seat is the most upright, with tight headroom but reasonable space for legs and feet. The driver sits highest in the Colorado and gets power adjustment but it’s easier to get a better spot behind the wheel of the remaining three and the Amarok’s driving position is best thanks to its reach’n’rake adjustable steering. The VW’s rear passengers get a better backrest angle and greater headroom but leg room is not as ample.
Ford and Mazda occupants are well accommodated, although none of this group has vents for the rear passengers. The Ford and the Mazda both accommodate well in the back pew. The Mazda’s USB and auxiliary input are located in the glovebox instead of the Ford’s centre console positioning. Manual gearboxes let the twins down — six-speed auto is the way to go in either.
The Colorado’s manual is better than that pair, but unless you are desperate for a clutch pedal the autos are much better options. Off-road work in these four has shown that there’s life in the elderly canines yet and if you need to cart kids to far flung locales any of these will do it.
Underbody protection, low range (not in the Amarok) and rear diff locks (the Colorado gets LSD instead) will conquer most 4WD terrain without issue — Volkswagen has chosen four solid rails instead of a bash plate, which leaves some small chance of penetration of a vital organ.
The veteran power plants of the Thai-built trio feel understressed and brawny compared with the little 2-litre twin turbo in the Volkswagen.
At cruise the VW is the quietest and offers solid in-gear acceleration as well as a seamless eight-speed auto — it was a little indecisive in hills driving but the sport mode took care of that.
The Amarok’s day-to-day refinement, ride quality and fuel use is better than the others, cabin quality is good, falls short in terms of some equipment no USB and nav.
Colorado is improved but still underdone, Ranger is still the one to beat in terms of equipment, Mazda’s interior is too black plasticky and the exterior is the least appealing of the four.
Tough choice. As the cheapest, the Colorado falls short on the features and refinement front, the Mazda shares the excellent (in automatic guise at least) turbo diesel drivetrain with the Ford and has extras such as satnav but the small car styling hasn’t carried across to light commercials.
The Amarok is frugal, quiet and refined but the twin-turbo 2.0-litre is under more pressure and is up against a proven fivecylinder. Retaining low-range, the Ford has the VW beaten for off-road work and it’s just ahead on towing. For a daily driver, the auto Amarok puts its square snout just in front.
The Mazda BT-50 aesthetics inside and out will deter some but it’s good value for money (you could step up to a GT for the same cash) and a more cohesive mechanical package than the improved Colorado — but the Holden should have been to this point in its development 18 months ago.