Opinion: why Kiwis love utes so much
OPINION: The Ford Ranger ute was the best-selling vehicle of any type in New Zealand for 2015. Of the top-five "cars" overall, three were pickup trucks: joining Ranger were the Toyota Hilux and Holden Colorado.
This is outwardly a strange thing when we hear so much about about buyer trends towards downsizing and environmental awareness. Because utes are heavy beasts, thirsty despite their diesel engines (see the previous point), relatively unwieldy on the road (compared with a conventional car at least) and often laden with rugged off-road hardware that you really don't need for everyday driving.
Putting aside the utes that are actually used as light-commercial workhorses, it's undeniable that a large number of these load-luggers are serving as family and lifestyle vehicles. Having a double-cab four-door body means a less useful tray, but this style accounts for 90 per cent of ute sales in NZ. City-friendly automatic transmissions have grown in popularity over the past five years and now account for the majority of sales.
Witness also the race among ute-makers to produce upmarket models with lavish equipment levels and look-at-me styling: Ranger Wildtrak, Hilux SR5 Limited, Colorado Z71 and any number of special-edition Volkswagen Amarok models.
What's going on? I'll tell you. SUV-type models are single most popular type of vehicle in NZ - bigger even than utes - which means that raised ride height, a "command" driving position and some semblance of off-road image are givens for the majority of new-vehicle buyers.
But there's a problem with modern SUVs.
As they have risen in popularity, they've become more mainstream. More comfortable. Very few have proper off-road ability because that compromises on-road comfort. And while very few SUVs/crossovers ever go off-road, the notion that they can is a huge part of the appeal. Modern SUVs are not tough, and that's a turnoff for many buyers.
Enter the one-tonne ute, which has advanced enormously in performance and refinement over the past five years, without losing any of its traditional off-road ability. Utes are the real thing, and for the family/lifestyle buyer under pressure to be riding high, they're a very cool alternative to a "soft-road" SUV that seems more at home on the school run than splashing through rivers. Even if said ute is still actually doing the school run.
This reaction against the dumbing-down of SUVs is also seen in the rise of "utes with boots": SUV wagon models that are based on tough pickups. Consider the Ford Everest (a Ranger underneath) and forthcoming models like the Toyota Fortuner (based on Hilux) and Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (it's a Triton really).
Will utes fall victim to the same softening? Not as long as they're still required for actual work.
But consider this: there's a new fashion for utes that have all the ground clearance of 4WD but run instead with 2WD powertrains. Models like the Ranger Hi-Rider and Hilux Pre-Runner account for 35 per cent of ute sales and growing. You have been warned.
But for now, utes are the credible SUV alternative. Because trucks are tough.