Why 2017 was year of the ute

Australia’s hunger for expensive 4x4 twin-cab utes shows no signs of slowing.

There was one new vehicle type that surged in popularity more than any other in 2017… And it wasn’t SUVs.

In fact, sales of large SUVs slumped by five per cent, while upper large SUV registrations were static and small SUV sales grew by less than five per cent.

And it certainly wasn’t passenger cars, which slumped by almost seven per cent overall – allowing SUVs to overtake them. All of the ‘traditional’ passenger car segments declined save for sports cars and people-movers.

Instead, it was light commercial vehicles (pick-ups, utes) that hit the accelerator pedal harder than any other segment in 2017. By the end of November they had growing by 7.5 per cent to notch up almost 215,000 sales, representing nearly 20 per cent of the total market – up from 18.5 per cent last year.

4×4 for more

In particular, it was 4×4 utes that were the big movers with sales spiking by 11.7 per cent. In terms of share, the 4×2 utes are slipping — sales were down more than five per cent.

As almost every other developed market around the world downsized, Down Under the popularity of the one-tonne 4×4 pick-up has surged.

At the head of the ute pack (year to date November) was Toyota’s all-conquering HiLux 4×4, which amassed more than 32,000 sales (up 15.6%) and, combined with 4×2 sales, became Australia’s best-selling new vehicle bar none.

The rise of Ford’s 4×4 Ranger was even more stellar, with sales booming by almost 21 per cent to nearly 34,000 – more than the HiLux and any other Ford, placing the Ranger second only to HiLux overall.

Including vans and buses, Toyota and Ford notched up more than 100,000 light commercial vehicle sales between them – almost half the total market. Toyota accounted for over 60,000 of them. Holden is a distant third with 22,000.

Mitsubishi was the next biggest LCV brand, its Triton 4×4 finding more than 18,000 homes (up 12.3%), followed by the Holden Colorado with 16,000-plus (up 6.3%) and then the Nissan Navara and Isuzu D-MAX – both with over 11,000 sales.

Mazda’s BT-50, Toyota’s 70 Series LandCruiser and Volkswagen’s Amarok round out the list of top nine mainstream utes with more than 8000 sales apiece.

There are plenty of other players too, like the German-made Mercedes-Benz G-Class, the Indian-built Mahindra PikUp and Genio, and the Foton Tunland and new Great Wall Steed and LDV T60 from China.

And while VFACTS figures include about 340 official examples of the full-size RAM 2500/3500 pick-up, they don’t include other RAM, Ford F-Series, Chevrolet Silverado, Toyota Tundra and Nissan Titan utes sold by local converters.

Add to these HSV’s plans to sell the current Silverado 2500/2500 and next-generation Silverado 1500 through a new network of official Chevy dealers, and the number of these hulking American pick-ups on our roads is certain to grow.

And that’s before the long-rumoured ‘ex-factory’ entry of right-hand drive RAM products expected in 2020.

Why do Aussies love utes?

So why are more Aussies buying more 4×4 utes? Drill deeper into the figures and the answer is clear.

While many new HiLuxes are basic versions bought by business or government buyers, the majority of most other one-tonne 4×4 utes sold are more expensive, more profitable high-spec variants.

About two-thirds of Ranger sales are premium models ($55,000-plus XLT and Wildtrak) and up to three-quarters of all Amaroks sold are now $60,000-plus V6 variants.

These vehicles are not purchased by fleets but individuals or ‘user-choosers’ via novated leases and the like, for work, family and/or leisure purposes.

The humble one-tonner is now a common sight not just in the bush, at work sites or regional towns, but on suburban culdesacs, inner-city streets and rural highways.

Head to the club on Friday night or the sports field on Saturday morning and — almost anywhere – chances are the carpark will be full of them.

Tray-backs are now the vehicle of choice for everyone from tradies to mums on the school run, from weekend warriors to hard-core trekkers, and from women towing horse floats to blokes hauling bikes, boats and all manner of big boy’s toys.

All the mod-cons

Key to the popularity is the fact that modern utes have evolved from rickety utilitarian workhorses to comfortable, refined and spacious family conveyances that come with all the requisite safety and infotainment tech and also happen to go anywhere and be as tough as they look.

Increasingly, they’re available with a big dose of performance too, as if around three litres and 400Nm-plus of diesel grunt wasn’t enough already.

Take for instance the HSV-tuned Colorado, the Tickford-tuned Ranger, Ford’s upcoming Ranger Raptor and, if the rumours are right, a more powerful Amarok V6, a HiLux TRD with go to match the show and even a twin-turbo V6-powered Colorado from Walkinshaw.

Yes, the ute is now many vehicles in one — commuter, voyager, tough truck, tow truck, hauler and now even sports car — offering unrivalled versatility, practicality and suitability for Australian conditions.

It’s little wonder then that instead of aspiring to a family-friendly people-mover, a sensible wagon, a prestige sedan, a homegrown sports sedan or ute, or even an SUV, Aussies of all kinds now hanker to own a 4×4 pick-up.

And with Mercedes-Benz (X-Class) and perhaps Renault (Alaskan) set to join the top-end of the ute market next year, and the likes of Jeep, Hyundai and potentially Kia and Skoda likely to add mainstream models further afield, there’s no end to the ute phenomena in sight.

Although all mainstream one-tonners are built in Thailand, there’s perhaps no better example of this than the Blue Oval’s locally designed and engineered Ranger, which is available in 160 countries and will soon also be built and sold in North America, the land of the pick-up.

In essence, the 4×4 dual-cab delivers exactly what many Aussies want in a vehicle: safety, comfort, refinement, technology, performance, flexibility, capability — both on-road and off – and street cred.

For more insights and analysis, check out edition 9 of Auto Market Watch