These are one of Australia’s most popular vehicle types because the once humble workhorse has become a desirable icon of its own. We put four of the best options under the microscope to see which is best.
There isn’t another vehicle on sale that is being pulled in so many competing directions as the modern-day four-wheel-drive ute. Engineering a vehicle to be comfortable, refined and family-friendly is one thing, but these utes also need to handle the demands of off-roading, towing and hard work.
As is often the case, the modern-day four-wheel-drive ute struggles to excel outright in any one category. Instead, it’s a jack-of-all-trades that strives to be good across the board.
And herein lies the appeal of the modern-day ute: it can be safe, comfortable and practical for daily duties, but also hold the allure of adventure and utility.
While the familiar faces of the Isuzu D-Max and Mazda BT-50 twins are back to defend their joint 2022 Best Dual-Cab Ute win, they are joined by two competent and capable foes: Ford’s Ranger is nearly all-new, building upon the previous generation’s T6 platform. And rounding out the four is Australia’s most popular car: the Toyota HiLux, which has been updated with new specs and technology for 2023.
Winner: Ford Ranger
25 variants available
$ 35,930 – $ 86,790* MRLP
What we love
- -High levels of technology and safety, even in the lower grades
- -Lots of smart attention to detail, inside and out
- -Steering, handling and ride quality are good for the segment
What we don’t
- -All-terrain tyres hamper dynamic ability
- -At the pointy end of the segment, price-wise
- -Big wheelbase equals big turning circle
Forget what you think you knew about dual-cab utes; the Ford Ranger changes everything.
The Ford Ranger was always going to be short odds at Drive Car of the Year, because it was rated so highly in our week-long real-world evaluations earlier in the year. However, there isn’t any pushover in this group.
Making a four-wheel drive ute ride and handle well is akin to hammering a square peg into a round hole because of its demands of payloads, off-roading and towing ability. That being said, the Ranger is able to eke out improvements in this regard and builds upon the prowess of the previous generation. It’s nicely balanced and keeps the ute’s trademark jiggly ride quality largely under control when unladen.
Steering is nicely weighted, and the range of four-cylinder and V6 diesel powertrains are both torquey and competent. The 500Nm ‘BiTurbo’ and 600Nm V6 options are great, even if the 10-speed gearbox can be busy at times.
However, we do note that the optional all-terrain tyres on our test vehicle hampered performance through the slalom and swerve-and-avoid testing. And that firm-feeling suspension, especially from the rear when unladen, is apparent.
Technology is a strong point, both in terms of safety and convenience. The infotainment display – even in base specification – is big and feature-laden, growing to be even bigger and fancier higher up the spec ladder. And with nine airbags and a minty-fresh 2022 five-star ANCAP safety rating, there is little room for criticism on the safety front.
Being one of the larger utes in the segment (in terms of both wheelbase and length), the Ranger offers good levels of space and comfort inside, along with a handful of nice touches. There’s handy under-seat storage at the back and a storage shelf up front. The side steps behind the rear wheels are handy, and the tub is well-equipped with things like power outlets and tie-down points.
Australian-based engineering is one of the hallmarks of the Ranger’s development program, and on Aussie roads, be they urban or rural, the value of local input really shines. From the well tuned ride and handling, to the predictable and reliable intervention on driver assist systems, the Ranger puts its best foot forward time and time again.
|Ford Ranger showroom
2023 Ford Ranger XLT V6 review
2023 Ford Ranger price and specs
Runner-up: Toyota HiLux
28 variants available
$ 25,375 – $ 70,200* MRLP
What we love
- -Responsive performance from the 2.8-litre motor
- -Improved safety and technology credentials
- -Good balance of load carrying, ride quality and handling ability
What we don’t
- -Tub is devoid of almost any features
- -Feels a little cramped in the second row
- -Value for money is not as strong as others
It’s Australia’s most popular vehicle overall, which is impressive for a ute. When you count four-wheel-drive variants, it’s a race against the Ford Ranger that changes leader almost every month. However, when you include all variants, the HiLux outsells things like the Mazda CX-5, Toyota RAV-4 and MG ZS.
One doesn’t need to look far to find newer options with better value in this segment, but the HiLux’s appeal endures. The powertrain, centred around a 2.8-litre, four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic gearbox, is responsive and torquey and feels like the most muscular four-pot in the segment.
The ride quality – historically criticised as too firm – has been improved but still suits the load-carrying purpose of the HiLux. It’s well matched to a meaty but direct steering system that continues to use hydraulic assistance.
The Toyota HiLux is also the most impressive four-wheel-drive ute off-road in standard form, as we have experienced many times in the past.
However, the age of the HiLux (and its platform) is its worst enemy. It feels cramped and relatively uncomfortable in the second row, and the tub is devoid of features (bar some tie-down points) even in SR5 specification. And while safety has been improved in the latest round of updates, the HiLux still lags behind segment leaders in this regard.
|Toyota HiLux showroom
2023 Toyota HiLux Rogue review
2023 Toyota HiLux price and specs
Finalist: Isuzu D-Max
25 variants available
$ 32,200 – $ 67,500* MRLP
What we love
- -Very good safety credentials
- -Spacious, comfortable interior with smart storage
- -Effortless torque from Isuzu 3.0 diesel powertrain
What we don’t
- -Powertrain missing the responsiveness and refinement of the competition
- -Infotainment operating system lacking some features
- -Jiggling ride quality when unladen
The reigning joint champion may have been defeated by a newcomer this year, but that doesn’t mean the Isuzu isn’t a bad option. On the contrary, it’s as appealing as ever.
Isuzu’s four-wheel-drive ute offering is mostly unchanged for 2023, aside from a few minor tweaks. The tailgate has picked up some gas struts, new-design wheels have tyre pressure monitoring, and there are a number of aesthetic tweaks.
Isuzu’s 3.0-litre turbo diesel engine might not be the last word in terms of refinement or outright straight-line performance, but it scores well with a flexible, wide delivery of torque. It’s an engine that never feels flustered or overworked, and is matched well by a six-speed automatic gearbox. It also helps that Isuzu diesel engines have built up an enviable reputation for reliability and durability over previous decades.
The interior is spacious and well laid out, helped by elements like under-seat storage (in the back) and additional pop-out cupholders under the air vents. The second row is good for the class, and X-Terrain models get a well-appointed tub. However, we would love to see a couple of extra power outlets around the place.
From a safety point of view, the Isuzu is strong across the board. There is a recent 2022 five-star ANCAP safety rating, which was helped by a revised driver’s knee airbag and instrument panel.
Another strong point for the D-Max is a good ride quality, which is one of the better examples in the class. However, it’s lacking some overall polish in direct comparison to others when driving unladen. The the infotainment display also came in for scrutiny, with a decent display size, especially on high-spec models, but an interface that isn’t as accomplished or user-friendly as it could be.
|Isuzu D-Max showroom
2023 Isuzu D-Max review
2023 Isuzu D-Max price and specs
Finalist: Mazda BT-50
23 variants available
$ 35,370 – $ 73,410* MRLP
What we love
- -Well-appointed interior layout
- -Effortless engine and smooth gearbox are well matched
- -Good safety credentials
What we don’t
- -Engine can feel gruff at times
- -Infotainment system is not as good as others
- -Still has that ute-like jittery ride quality
The 2023 Mazda BT-50 – using a mostly unchanged Isuzu D-Max as the donor platform – naturally mirrors a lot of strengths from its twin under the skin.
The suspension set-up is a direct copy-paste, with Mazda opting not to run its own chassis development program for the BT-50. That’s not a bad thing because this Mazda ute is one of the better options in the segment for driving. The ride quality is good for a ute, proving to be comfortable and easy to pilot. While that unladen ute jiggling feeling still persists from the rear suspension, it is mostly a civilised driving experience.
Its steering is lightweight and accurate, and the six-speed automatic gearbox matches well with Isuzu’s 3.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo diesel engine. Outputs of 140kW and 450Nm are not at the top of the class, and are in fact slightly lower than the previous-generation BT-50. However, the engine feels flexible and unstressed, with high levels of torque available just about everywhere.
Only when you start to wring the Mazda’s neck on steep highway hills or when heavily laden do you start to feel that commercial background of the powertrain emanate through the firewall.
Mazda has included high levels of safety equipment right across the range of the BT-50, and the cabin is both spacious and comfortable. While the Mazda misses out on the extra cupholders that the Isuzu enjoys, thanks to its slightly different interior design, there is good space across both rows for adults and kids alike.
The infotainment system in the BT-50 carries most of the important features, and the screen size is good (especially in higher grades). However, the operating system lacks the finesse of others, and some of the advanced driving features can feel overbearing during normal driving conditions.
|Mazda BT-50 showroom
2022 Mazda BT-50 SP review
2023 Mazda BT-50 price and specs
You can read about all the other 2023 Drive Car of the Year categories and winners here:
Drive Car of the Year categories and winners