Ranger makes it four on the trot
LAST YEAR, FORD’S RANGER CEMENTED its position as New Zealand’s king of the utes, holding on to the crown it gained when it wrested it off the Toyota Hilux in 2014.
Not only was it 2017’s best-selling ute but it was also the best-selling new vehicle overall, beating all cars and SUVS.
The Ford offers a blend of off-road ability and on-road chops that have struck a chord with New Zealand ute buyers.
It’s a vehicle for its times, still a capable workhorse but with genuine on-road refinement, sparkling performance, almost unparalleled ease of use, good looks and an individuality that sets it apart from the bunch.
Once Ford New Zealand got a steady supply and a full range – factors that had hamstrung sales following the weather catastrophes that hit Thailand where it’s made – the Ranger fought the Hilux on equal terms.
The battle see-sawed during 2013 and 2014 until the Ford edged ahead and won the day. It was a narrow win, but in subsequent years the Ranger has moved ahead to the point where last year it was
almost 1200 registrations in front.
Last year, Ford sold 9324 Rangers – up from 8501 in 2016. That’s a clear demonstration of how important the ute market has become; in one month Ford retailed around 1200 utes.
In second place last year was the ute that once was king. Well, that’s an almost insulting understatement when you consider that the Toyota Hilux was at the top of the heap for 32 years.
Until, somehow, the Ranger did something noone else could, and toppled it.
Was it a Suzuki Swift moment? Did the Ford arrive with the dead-right package at the deadright time as Suzuki had done with the Swift?
Maybe. There was calculation in the way Suzuki styled the original Swift: that deep windscreen, the side windows narrowing as they rose, wedgeshaped toward the back of the car.
It looked for all the world like a BMW Mini without the premium pricetag, and buyers fell in love with instantly.
As a car it wasn’t all that special, a bit gutless, the handling competent but not inspiring. But how it wowed the punters and caught Suzuki NZ off-guard with its success.
Nowadays, the Swift is a highly-competent smallish hatchback with models within the range that have true sporting credentials.
What Ford’s development team did with the Ranger was something similar.
The designers came up with a big – for a traditional Japanese-style ute – truck with a decidedly American look. Ironically, the original Aussie-developed Ranger had a grille with chromed horizontal bars the evoked late 1940s Chevrolet pick-up trucks.
More than that, they produced a vehicle that was perfectly in tune with the times and the evolving role of the ute. It could rough it off-road but was also civilised enough to be a vehicle of choice for family transport.
It was quiet, redefined pick-up truck refinement and, though keeping within the traditional layout of a mid-sized ute, brought a freshness that rivals didn’t have.
By comparison, the Hilux was very much the traditional workhorse. At heart it was a rugged battler most at home on unmade and unsealed roads and tracks, surging through knee-deep mud but also capable of footing it – especially in upmarket variants like the SR5 – in the town and city.
But its ride quality reflected a suspension tune more in keeping with a back country road-basher.
As a dual-purpose workhorse/family transport vehicle, it couldn’t hold a candle to the Ranger.
The all-new Hilux which debuted at the end of 2015 brought some aspects of the Toyota truck into synch with the dual-purpose world.
The new engine was excellent, the six-speed manual and automatic gearboxes superb, the levels of quietness and refinement impressive.
But the ride remained firmly rooted in the legacy that saw the Hilux a favourite mount for Australian mining industry workers – tough, rugged and near-indestructible.
Despite re-arranging the range and adding models – notably high-riding two-wheel drives, an area where Ford had given it a pasting – the Hilux has remained the bridesmaid to Ford’s bride.
Whether that will change with the newlyrevamped Toyota whose suspension is said to have been tuned to deliver a better ride that is
more acceptable to dual-purpose buyers, remains to be seen.
Toyota says it’s now selling more Hiluxes than ever it has; and that the truck – rather than the Corolla small saloon car – is its best-selling model.
In 2017, Toyota sold 8130 Hiluxes and in some months gave the Ranger a real run for its money. But by year’s end it was more than 1200 sales behind the Ford.
Last year, Toyota sold 1938 more Hiluxes than it did in 2016; Ford’s sales lift was 873 but the damage had been done and though in relative terms it was closer to the Ranger than it had been the previous year, the Hilux was still emphatically in second place.
Holden’s Colorado ended 2017 in a solid – if lonely – third place on the ute sales ladder.
Its 4513 sales put it roughly 500 clear of fourth place, but were less than half the total achieved by the market-leading Ranger.
It was also 3617 adrift of the second-placed Hilux; the gains on the Toyota that some observers had expected the Holden to make after its major revamp in 2016 hadn’t materialised.
It was securely on the podium but it didn’t look likely to challenge for the second spot.
However, in December it had come close to catching the Hilux, racking up 440 sales to the Toyota’s 442.
Whether it can maintain that pressure is moot given that the Toyota got a line-up revamp and some major mechanical and refinement improvements the same month. The effects of the Toyota revamp won’t be felt until this year. Which leaves the Holden likely to remain in third place. Not that long ago, Mitsubishi’s Triton was an also-ran in the ute battle, but in 2017 it put in some strong sales performances on the back of special pricing and equipment deals to end the year fourth. At times, it was higher up the ladder than that.
The ute that once battled tooth-and-nail with the Mazda BT-50 for the minor money – one month one leading, the next month the other – sprinted away from the Mazda and came into 2017 as a contender for a podium placing.
A refresh a year or two ago softened the polarising Cinderella’s Coach lines of the cab – especially at the rear –
and, increasingly, the Triton hit its straps.
It logged a solid 4083 sales last year – more than 1800 ahead of old sparring partner the BT-50 – and close to 1000 ahead of its 2016 showing of 3197.
Nissan’s Navara was once a fixture in second or third place on the sales ladder, but in 2017 it was fifth.
Anecdotal evidence says that the current truck – previously called the NP300 but now just the Navara – disappoints prospective buyers with a cab that is too narrow across.
Sales have been hit, too, by the withdrawal of the entry-level DX whose petrol engine couldn’t meet the now-mandatory Euro 5 regulations.
Nissan sold 3069 Navaras in 2017 – 189 of them petrol DXS until existing stocks ran out. That compared with 3109 (332 petrol) in 2016 which means Nissan has increased diesel sales on the back of some very sharp pricing asnd finance rate deals.
Isuzu’s D-max is unashamedly a truck and locally it’s marketed as one. Where other brands rattle on about how car-like their utes are, Isuzu emphasises its truck DNA.
It doesn’t talk about it publicly, but the engine – shared with the N-series light- to medium-duty truck – is engineered to go at least 600,000km, if properly serviced, before it needs more than minor work.
The D-max is a diamond in the rough, rugged-as but civilised enough to run around town comfortably.
It’s good-looking, easy to drive, tenacious and robust. Isuzu NZ sold 2518 to put the D-max into sixth place for the year. The previous year, 2390 were registered.
The sales growth slowed slightly from the strong progress the model had made in the previous couple of years, but it was growth nonetheless.
Mazda’s BT-50, the enigma of the NZ ute market, slotted into seventh place in 2017.
A ute – or any commercial vehicle – doesn’t seem to quite fit Mazda’s image. Mazda has been described as Japan’s BMW, and the brand has long since dropped a van from its line-up.
The last Mazda van offered locally was the E-series, possibly the worst Japanese cab-over-engine van with its vague and awful gearshift controlled by a lever that poked out from under a console just to the
There’s nothing wrong with the BT-50 – after all it shares chassis and basic engine with the Ford Ranger – aside from the polarising styling.
Its lines were seen as not macho enough in some quarters, though roading company Fulton Hogan runs a large fleet of BT-50S.
There was speculation that Mazda would undertake a radical re-style at the BT-50’S mid-life freshen up but the predicted “toughening-up” failed to materialise. Instead the more radical elements were toned down. Mazda’s designers had stood their ground.
As, indeed, it appears they will do when the next-generation Mazda ute appears around 2020. It’s being developed with Isuzu rather than Ford as the current BT-50 was, and some pundits were predicting it would get a strong injection of Isuzu truck DNA.
But Mazda’s design department has said that it’s happy with the way its current ute looks and that the next one will fit in with Mazda’s acrossthe-range styling philosophy.
BT-50 sales have struggled since the new model appeared at the end of the noughties, perplexing both industry observers and Mazda NZ staff alike.
But, riding the crest of the ute popularity wave, Mazda retailed 2229 last year, a tad over 400 more than the 1825 it did in 2016.
Volkswagen Amarok sales have stepped up a notch since the revised four-cylinder range was announced and the top-of-the-line V6 came on stream early in 2017.
The Amarok V6 has taken mid-sized utes into new pricing territory – the top model sells for close to $84,000. High-end models from traditional ute makers have hovered around $70,000 but the VW went a step further.
Styling-wise the Amarok is due for a freshen, especially around the cab exterior, but it’s still an impressive, if relatively-expensive, truck.
VW is regarded as a prestige brand – true for some of its offerings – but we see it more as an outfit that covers the spectrum, from basic transport to luxury offerings like the Amarok V6.
Volkswagen NZ sold 903 Amarok utes in 2017, a big step forward from the 676 it moved the year before. We figure it will continue to increase in popularity but how the V6 fares when it goes toe-to-toe with the Mercedes X-class later in the year will be fascinating to watch.
Moving on to number nine, we find the Foton Tunland, the vehicle that until the arrival of the LDV T60, proved that a Chinese manufacturer could produce a credible ute.
The Tunland is powered by a 2.8-litre Cummins turbodiesel speciallydeveloped for the Chinese brand’s ute, van and light-duty trucks.
It’s a willing unit and the Cummins name hasn’t hurt Tunland sales. What has, however, is the lack of an automatic gearbox, and Foton NZ has just started advertising the arrival of self-shifting Tunlands.
The Tunland drives well, handles well and has plenty of get up and go. The auto will bring a new dimension to a likeable truck.
Foton NZ sold 612 Tunlands in 2017, a good increase on the 477 retailed in the previous year.
Ssangyong’s Actyon slotted into 10th place in 2017 with 562 sales. The Korean ute range is now all-diesel after the petrol-powered model, which didn’t have Electronic Stability Control (ESC), was withdrawn once existing stocks ran out.
Ssangyong has stimulated sales with special deals that include being able to buy a four-wheel drive at the two-wheel drive price.
Despite that, Actyon sales were down from 906 in 2016 – 201 of that year’s total were petrol-powered.
The Actyon is nearing the end of its life and is due for replacement this year with a new model based on the accomplished new Generation 4 Rexton body-on-frame SUV.
If the new model is as good as the Rexton G4, Ssangyong will have a vehicle that can meet the best utes from mainstream manufacturers on equal terms.
Its arrival will also create an interesting in-house battle between the Actyon and the Chinese-developed and built LDV T60 which is also marketed by Great Lake Motor Distributors.
The Actyon has always been seen as a value proposition but given the quality evidenced by the new Rexton, maybe the new ute will move slightly upmarket while still retailing at attractive prices.
The T60, of course, will sell largely on value for money and competence at a budget price, so the two products might complement each other in the Great Lake stable.
Holden’s now out-of-production car-based Commodore Ute range was in 11th place with 235 sales – 205 Commodores and 30 highperformance HSV Maloo utes.
The Holden’s departure after the General Motors division stopped building cars in Australia last October, means that the car-based ute genre is over.
The only other survivor, the Ford Falcon, became defunct when Ford stopped building cars in Australia in 2016.
The 2017 sales total was slightly ahead of 2016’s 201 Commodores and 21 Maloos and reflected Holden’s special editions and deals in the model line’s final years.
In 12th place was the new kid on the ute block, the LDV T60. It’s the Chinese van manufacturer’s first pick-up truck and will be followed later this year by a body-on-frame SUV based on the same chassis and running gear.
The first few shipments were sold out before they even arrived, and LDV is selling the ute in two grades, the workhorse-oriented T60, and the more upmarket T60 Luxury.
The latter gets better equipment and a softer suspension tune intended to provide a smoother ride than the heavy-duty springing used in the workhorse.
Both are offered with a choice of six-speed manual or automatic gearboxes.
LDV sold 186 T60s in the few weeks before the year ended, and the potential is there to move a lot more.
In just a few weeks, LDV sold more T60s than rival Chinese brand Great Wall managed over almost a full year.
Great Wall’s Steed arrived on the market in very early 2017, but took some time to get out of the blocks.
It replaced the old V-series – the diesel V200 and petrol V240 – which became ineligible to be sold here because they lacked the mandatory-by-law electronic stability control.
The Steed retained the cabin section of the V-series but added a larger cargo tray and more front end sheetmetal.
It took a hit when ANCAP rated its crash safety at a low two stars which embarrassed the Australasian distributors who had been emphasising safety in their marketing material.
Great Wall sold 170 Steeds during 2017; of them 102 were petrolpowered, an outcome that mirrors V-series sales where gasoline-powered V240s outdistanced the V200 at the cash register.
The utes sell on highly competitive pricing, but the poor safety rating will hurt them in a market environment where consumers are becoming much more safety-conscious.
In 14th place was a vehicle that is not strictly a ute, Suzuki’s cutely retro-styled Jimny compact SUV. The SUV is categorised as a ute by the NZTA, so its sales figures are included in the ute chart.
The little wagon has undergone a surge in popularity this year that saw
it go from zero sales in some months of previous years to an average of a bit over four a month last year.
In fact, sales were so good early in the year that stocks ran out. The Jimny racked up 51 sales last year, compared to 19 in 2016.
Fans of the highly-off-road-capable little wagon need to get in quick. It’s due to be replaced by a much more angular – and to my eyes – less attractive vehicle.
In 15th was a ute of a very different kind and of a very different size, Ram’s heavy duty 2500/3500. The cheaper of the two Fiat Chrysler heavy-duty pick-ups – if you can call $164,000 cheaper – is the 2500; the $4000 more expensive 3500 gives you extra towing capacity.
Sceptics figured Fiat Chrysler would be able to move very few of the big utes which are converted to right-hand drive in Australia and sold as official models with full factory warranty.
But Kiwis demonstrated their love of big American trucks by buying 48 Ram 2500s and one 3500 in 2017. That was up from 30 – one of which was a 3500 – in 2016.
Sixteenth on the ladder at the end of 2017 was the more utilitarian of Indian brand Mahindra’s utes, the Pik-up.
It’s as tough as they come but not as rough as guts – ride quality is on a par with older Japanese workhorse utes. You feel the bumps but aren’t necessarily bone-jangled. The styling? Well a mother might love it but… However, it’s extremely off-road capable – just the ticket for hitting forest tracks – and will descend a steep, loose-surfaced hill in complete control without needing hill descent technology.
Simply engage the ultra-low first gear, keep your feet off the brake, accelerator or clutch and let the little ute do the rest. It will bring itself down the hill without increasing speed and completely under its own control. It’s impressive.
The Pik-up has a competitive price and if you can live with the looks – after all when you’re driving it you can’t see what it looks like – the truck has the potential to be a faithful and near-indestructible servant.
Mahindra shifted 33 in 2017, down from 94 the previous year which reflects the fact that existing stocks were running out – it lacks ESC, so once on-hand stock has been run through it will be “bye-bye.”
Mahindra has announced a revamped Pik-up with ESC in Australia but whether it comes here remains unclear.
Its sibling, the slightly more conventional-looking Genio didn’t fare quite as well in the marketplace.
Where looks are concerned, there’s not much in it, mind, when it comes to the positively weirdly-styled double cab model.
It’s high-roofed in typical Mahindra ute style and the cab’s C-pillars finish awkwardly, just ahead of the rear wheels giving it a distinctly odd look.
Mahindra has been offering very good deals on the Genio, including custom-built load trays.
On the single cab, the tray can be very long and with a payload of just over a tonne, the truck will fit the bill for someone wanting a tough little rooster of a workhorse at a minimal price.
Mahindra sold 26 Genios in 2017 to give the ute 18th place on the sales chart. And that was it. What does the new year hold? The arrival of what is certainly the most-hyped newcomer. In terms of its basic structure, the Mercedes-benz X-class is not a newbie.
Its underpinnings – indeed its initial powerplants – come from the Nissan-renault Alliance’s Navara.
Mercedes has tweaked the styling with elements from its SUV and sedan ranges to give the X-class a very different look to the Navara. But elements like the door openings – the most expensive thing to change on a vehicle body, remain the same.
What Mercedes has done is widen the body’s stance to give the truck better on-road manners – though the Navara is no slouch dynamically – and a more Mercedes-benz feel.
It has also widened the cab to address one of the criticisms of the Nissan, its too-narrow cab.
It says it has also worked to refine the handling and ride and provide a more upmarket in-cabin feel.
I’d like to say “I’ll tell you if I think it has succeeded.” But as this is the last LCV Magazine with me at the helm, I’m afraid I won’t be able to.
Nor will I be able to tell you if I think about what is potentially the most exciting mainstream ute to debut in 2018.
I’m talking about the new Ssangyong ute due to debut later this year. It’s based on the same underpinnings as the body-on-frame G4 Rexton SUV which is one impressive vehicle with a ride quality that surpasses most utes.
Sure the Rexton has more body heft but if Ssangyong’s chassis engineers can achieve the same sort of aplomb with the new ute, it will be something to experience – and the first really new challenger for the established mainstream ute crew.
Left: Ford Ranger remained top-selling ute in 2017, by a substantial margin. Top: Toyota Hilux made some gains on the Ranger but was still the bridesmaid. Right: Holden Colorado settled into a secure third spot, came close to passing Hilux in December.
Stylish Nissan Navara was fifth biggest-seller in 2017.
Mitsubishi Triton has become a real contender since last revamp. Opposite page: Isuzu D-max sales continue to grow, though rate slowed during 2017.
Mazda BT-50 sales increased during 2017 – deservedly, it’s a good ute.
Foton Tunland is sure to see sales increase with arrival of automatic version.
Mahindra Pik-up – rugged but not rough, a tough workhorse at a low price.
Ssangyong Actyon remains a value proposition; replacement due this year may be a real mainstream challenger.
LDV T60 is first ute from the Chinese van manufacturer. Dimensions are close to Ford Ranger’s.