Four-wheel-drive utes with a penchant for off-road ability. This is a desirable, growing and fast-transforming part of the segment, as shown by our three finalists.
As the four-wheel-drive ute segment grows in popularity, it’s also fast evolving. The once basic offering of off-road ability, somewhere to sit, and a good payload is now a distant memory: the best utes now come loaded with technology and convenience. Top-spec models also pack plenty of off-road performance, with suspension, tyres and powertrain upgrades.
This premise was originally explored properly by the first-generation Ford Ranger Raptor, which won this category last year and as such has been invited back to defend its title. It doesn’t hurt that the Ranger Raptor has gone through a generational change since then, which means the challengers will have to work twice as hard to dethrone it.
The first challenger is the factory-fettled Nissan Navara Warrior, and we’ve plumped for the new low-cost SL variant that, with a price of $58,000, brings a strong value-for-money equation to the rugged off-road ute format.
In between the two is the newly revamped Toyota HiLux Rogue, which gets a wider footprint and updated suspension to go with its unashamed lifestyle orientation.
So, which of these three toughened-up off-road utes gives the best bang for the buck off the road and on it? Let’s find out.
Winner: Ford Ranger Raptor
25 variants available
$ 35,930 – $ 86,790* MRLP
What we love
- –More dynamic capability than other utes can dream of
- –High levels of off-road capability
- –Permanent all-wheel-drive system matched with twin lockers
What we don’t
- –It’s the most expensive of the group
- –Low payload and towing ability
- –We have experienced some infotainment glitches
Proof that car companies still want to have some fun, the Ranger Raptor is the full-size, go-anywhere Tonka Truck we all want.
It’s the car you don’t realise you want until you drive it. The new Ford Ranger Raptor makes every drive an adventure.
Ford’s original Ranger Raptor rewrote the rule book for four-wheel-drive utes in Australia, but this next-generation model has managed to significantly up the ante once again. And it’s an incredibly impressive vehicle.
While it is undoubtedly expensive, the Ranger Raptor comes with a big array of major upgrades, including a heavy-duty chassis, hardcore suspension, and chassis electronics, a bespoke (for Ranger) performance-oriented powertrain, widebody treatment, and upgraded interior elements.
The 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 petrol engine – which makes 292kW and 583Nm – is part of the revelation, offering high levels of performance and response. While able to shift this 2.4-tonne lump to 100km/h in 6.0 seconds – stratospherically fast for a ute – it’s also smooth, quiet and loping when cruising.
The Raptor’s price may be considerably higher than its two main rivals, but there’s plenty inside to make buyers feel special.
Naturally, much of the Raptor’s interior builds atop the offering of a high-spec Ranger, with some importantly upgraded materials and finishes.
Seating front and rear is different to a regular Ranger, giving a lot more lateral support and sporting looks to match. They are also very comfortable for everyday useage. And the combination of a 12.0-inch vertical-style infotainment display and 12.4-inch digital instrument cluster gives the Raptor a high-tech edge over the competition.
But, of course, it’s the Raptor’s dynamic capabilities that set the benchmark in this category.
The suspension is comprised of 2.5-inch Fox bypass dampers (with active compression adjustment) and coil springs all round, which offer high levels of compliance and control. There’s more overall ride comfort on offer than other utes, yet this new Raptor also feels better tied down on undulating roads, corners and rough surfaces.
If you’re lucky enough to push the Raptor hard off-road, you’ll find high levels of performance on offer – likely more than you’ll ever need. The suspension is race-derived and is more than up to the task of keeping up with the 292kW motor across rough, wallowing and corrugated terrain. The Raptor can jump high, land adeptly, and hold dizzying amounts of speed through off-road corners.
You can feel the high levels of engineering and capability in this car, and why it recently performed so well at the world’s best-known off-road endurance race.
A permanent all-wheel-drive system, which uses a sophisticated system of electronically controlled clutch packs, adds a big dose of traction and surety, especially for these off-road-biased all-terrain tyres. And don’t forget about locking differentials front and rear, which combine with impressive amounts of ground clearance for technical off-road driving.
The major trade-off with the Raptor – aside from having the highest entry point in terms of price – is the reduced payload and towing capacities. This isn’t a workhorse any more. However, it’s an unashamed ‘lifestyle’ ute, which is smooth, tech-laden, comfortable and capable, with a massive dose of performance potential. And higher levels of everyday driving refinement – through that impressive suspension set-up – yield further dividends.
|Ford Ranger showroom
2023 Ford Ranger Raptor review
2023 Ford Ranger price and specs
Runner-up: Toyota HiLux Rogue
28 variants available
$ 25,375 – $ 70,200* MRLP
What we love
- –Still feels very competent off-road, despite regular tyres
- –Suspension tune offers good levels of compliance on dirt and off-road
- –Wider wheel track brings stability benefits
What we don’t
- –Feels a bit expensive in this company
- –Other parts of the car are starting to feel their age
- –Slightly reduced payload
The Toyota HiLux is getting on in years, but that hasn’t stopped the Japanese automotive giant from continuing its tweaks and updates. For the top-specification Rogue model, there’s a significant change to the chassis of the indefatigable HiLux: a 140mm increase in overall wheel track, new dampers, a 20mm increase in ride height, and the introduction of an anti-roll bar and disc brakes at the rear.
And there is a good benefit to be had from the new Rogue. Despite being the only one of the three finalists here with leaf springs at the rear, there is still a good combination of ride quality and control. It’s still quite firm – and we know that a HiLux will handle heavy loads quite well – which is something you’ll notice mostly around town unladen. Once you’re on the dirt, and especially when laden up, the ride quality flattens out nicely with good control.
The 2.8-litre diesel engine – sporting 500Nm and 150kW – feels punchy and responsive, and is one of the best-performing four-cylinder engines in the segment. It’s well matched to a six-speed automatic transmission, and both work very well off-road together. The suspension feels impressively stable and supple, offering good levels of articulation from the rear end.
But as always off-road, the highlight of the HiLux is the smartly tuned off-road traction-control system. And here’s a good life hack: use the Power and Economy buttons like a throttle controller. Economy brings a softer pedal response for rock crawling, while Power is good for things like sand and mud.
The main negatives for this HiLux Rogue come from the age of the platform: it still has a relatively basic part-time four-wheel-drive system (which cannot use the locking differential and traction control at the same time), feels a little cramped in the second row, and doesn’t have the same levels of technology as newer competitors. And having a tub fitted out with marine carpet might better suit the shopping run, but also precludes the ute from more serious hard work.
|Toyota HiLux showroom
2023 Toyota HiLux Rogue review
2023 Toyota HiLux Rogue price and specs
26 variants available
$ 32,300 – $ 70,015* MRLP
What we love
- –Great value in this company
- –Good quality all-terrain tyres and upgraded suspension
- –Four-figure payload
What we don’t
- –Ride quality not as accomplished as the others
- –Off-road traction control not as sharply tuned as the HiLux
- –Pared-back in the spec and tech stakes
Nissan has extended its Warrior treatment to a base-specification SL-grade Navara. After arriving in Australia from the main assembly facility in Thailand, the SL goes back on the production line at Premcar in Melbourne for extensive changes. There’s new suspension, bespoke 17-inch alloy wheels and all-terrain tyres, bullbar, high-clearance towbar, bash plate and LED light bar.
This comes atop a car that is unashamedly basic. There are cloth seats with manual adjustment, turn-key start, and a urethane steering wheel. There’s also less technology in this SL Warrior, with things like rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone climate control, illuminated vanity mirrors, 360-degree cameras, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and tyre pressure monitoring not available, as they are in the higher-spec Pro-4X Warrior.
Utilitarian vibes might not be everyone’s taste, but this does allow the mechanical upgrades of the SL Warrior to grow even stronger. The additional clearance and traction available here pays a clear dividend off-road, with Nissan (and Premcar) instilling some nice additional details as well (like a 100kg GVM upgrade, better protection and clearance angles front and rear, and reworked front bump stops).
The off-road traction-control system of the Navara is good, but didn’t feel as competent as the others in this test. Its suspension, as well, didn’t feel as competent on corrugated dirt roads and on technical hill climb challenges. There was some bounciness, which is a shame considering the Premcar-tuned coil springs and twin-tube shock absorbers.
|Nissan Navara showroom
2022 Nissan Navara SL Warrior review
2022 Nissan Navara SL Warrior 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
Note: All vehicle specifications pertain to variants tested as part of DCOTY assessment program.