Our in-depth analysis of the New Zealand light commercial vehicle market in August and the first eight months of 2017.
LIKE A USURPED MEDIAEVAL KING PUTTING HIS dynasty back on the throne after years in exile, the Toyota Hilux regained the upper hand in the New Zealand ute market in August.
In doing so, it relegated to second place the Ford Ranger which had enjoyed months, years even, of ute market – and indeed total new vehicle market – leadership.
Year-to-date (YTD), the Ranger still set the sales pace at August 31, but the Hilux, after a long period of being out-pointed by the Ford, got its nose ahead in July and beat its arch-rival by 89 registrations in August.
That month, the most recent for which registration data was available at presstime, Toyota sold 779 Hiluxes compared with Ford’s 690 Rangers.
In the YTD battle, however, the Ford remained well ahead, with 6327 registrations to the Toyota’s 5517.
Whether the Hilux can retain the edge over the Ranger during the final four months of 2017 remains to be seen, as does whether it can close the gap between the two utes’ sales.
It looks unlikely to topple the Ford from the market lead it has held for the past three years, but as industry observers have said of Toyota’s performance in the sales arena: if anyone can Toyota can.
Until it was dethroned at the end of 2014, the Hilux had occupied the top spot for 32 years running. Like its Hiace stablemate, the Hilux had become as synonymous with ute as the Hiace had with van.
The new model, which debuted at the end of 2015, had been expected to give the Hilux the equipment with which to carry the fight to – and defeat – the Ranger which has largely redefined the ute genre.
The Ford offers a ride quality, refinement, and ease of use that makes it an excellent dual role vehicle, capable of being a rugged workhorse and comfortable family transport.
Put simply, it can slip off the gumboots and be a credible cityslicker – not exactly patent leather shoes but certainly Gucci Loafers.
To keep its truck ahead of the pack, Ford has instituated a programme of effective and regular development, introducing engine, steering, suspension and connectivity upgrades.
The result has been market domination that began in 2014 and continued through 2016 and into this year.
Despite the dominant position of its truck, Ford has generally avoided braggadocio and gloating, instead pursuing a policy of continuously improving the product.
In its major revamp at the end of 2015, Toyota addressed the weaknesses in the Hilux model range, in a bid to counter Ford.
It increased the number of two-wheel drive models in its range and adopted high-riding four-wheel drive-style suspension on its rear-drive utes.
Two-wheel drives make up a significant portion of Ranger sales, and Toyota moved to match the Ranger line-up with models of its own.
The all-new Hilux was expected to offer a real challenge to the Ranger, but till this August that had failed to eventuate.
Though it had an excellent new engine and sweet-shifting six-speed manual and automatic gearboxes, the new Hilux had a lumpy ride and just didn’t have the city-friendliness that has contributed so much to the Ranger’s success.
The ride lumpiness was present across the range, from the draught-horse models to the range-topping SR5 Limiteds, though naturally the latter were more refined than more workhorse-oriented models.
Only the limited edition TRD with its larger diameter wheels and low profile tyres – a combination that usually impacts adversely on ride quality – provided a little more suppleness. And that led us to remark that this limited-production variant was the best of the Hilux bunch.
Toyota insisted that there had been no changes to suspension tune in the TRD. Nowadays the TRD badge really refers to a trim package rather than a vehicle tweaked for highperformance.
But over our section of rough, lumpy urban tarmac that shows up weaknesses in ride quality, the TRD was a revelation.
This section of road had left us considering leaving another test Hilux at home and using the office Corolla for the daily commute. That’s how bad the ride quality was. But the TRD felt much more composed than its siblings.
Which left us wondering whether Toyota NZ had indeed modified the suspension tuning, and by extrapolation whether that tuning has been applied to mainstream Hiluxes.
For, whatever the reason for its resurgence, as the second half of this year started, the Hilux finally hit its straps and eased past Ford in monthly sales. And the only area in which the Japanese ute was seriously lagging, was ride quality.
Whether the Blue Oval ute’s bubble has finally burst remains to be seen, and it’s sure to fight back strongly. After all, the Ranger is the key vehicle in Ford’s NZ range, outperforming its other offerings
The final four months are shaping up to be a renewed battle royal between the two market-dominating utes.
Ford won the last clash but can the Toyota re-assert itself? We’ll keep you posted.
But as the motor trade wisdom goes, if anyone can, Toyota can.
Below: Toyota markets more than 20 Hilux variants; this isremains ahead year-to-date.
Facing page: Toyota Hilux regained the ute market lead – and with it the overall NZ new vehicle market lead – for August but Ford Ranger remains ahead year-to-date.
Above: Ranger remains at the top of the sales chart and looks like to stay on top for the fourth year running.