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

driver’s left.

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.

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