Pickup trucks really are becoming a lot like (luxury) cars
Way back in the heady days of 2011, when trucks were trucks, cars were cars and everybody knew their proper place, Nissan introduced a version of the Navara called the STX 550.
Its $67,990 pricetag made most recoil in horror, but there was a reason for it: it was powered by a 3-litre turbo-diesel V6 engine courtesy of Nissan's Alliance-partner Renault (the "550" indicated the torque output). It was a hi-tech engine for the ute-world, matched to a seven-speed transmission.
The STX didn't tow any more than the standard (450Nm) four-pot Navara of the time, nor did it really look that much different. Its unique selling proposition was that it wasn't all about functionality. It was unashamedly the poshest ute on the block (not merely the backblocks) and if it happened to cost a bomb, so be it. But it was a niche product, no doubt about it.
Fast-forward to 2017 and we'd all be staggered if there wasn't an upmarket version of every pickup on the market. These one-tonne trucks really have become SUV-substitutes for many, with impressive driving dynamics, comfort/convenience features to rival passengers cars - and enormous pricetags that don't seem to scare people off.
It's true that discounting is de rigeuer in the light-commercial market, but so is OTT-accessorising. So whatever the transaction price, it's often just the start of the spending.
Modern pickups are massive, both literally and metaphorically. Year-to-date, Kiwis have purchased nearly as many of these light-commercial machines as all the medium/large SUVs under $70k put together.
Not that we need to limit ourselves to $70k. The new V6-powered Volkswagen Amarok starts at $73,990 and tops out at $82,990, which really is in luxury-car territory. Seven-ratio gearboxes are so 2011, don't you think? The Amarok has an eight-speeder.
Are these kinds of pickups luxury product, though? On-road dynamic capabilities have certainly improved out of sight in the latest generation of models. They're still not strictly car-like - how could they be, with the requirement for extreme off-road and towing capability - but they're now comfortable and practical enough to serve as day-to-day transport.
And they do have something that's absolutely essential for a luxury product: status.
The sales performance of the most popular models is staggering. Ford NZ hit an all-time monthly sales record in June with the Ranger, breaking the 1000-barrier for the first time. Toyota only missed hitting four figures with the Hilux by a handful of sales. To put all of this into context, the best-selling passenger-car for the same month was the Toyota Corolla, with just over 500 registrations.
Ranger isn't necessarily trying to be a car. Indeed, its unashamedly "trucky" (technical term) look and feel is surely a big part of its success. But it does also demonstrate how pickups are rapidly catching up to cars and SUVs in terms of equipment.
The Ranger is available with all of the following: radar-controlled adaptive cruise control, distance alert with collision mitigation, and lane departure warning with steering assistance (possible because Ranger has now moved to electric power-steering assistance).
Admittedly, this suite of active safety gear only comes with the flagship $69,640 Wildtrak - but it will surely start to filter down the range and it does demonstrate the compatibility of such technology features with this ute platform.
The only other model that comes close to that level of active-safety technology is Holden's Colorado, which offers forward-collision and lane-departure warning on its LTZ and flagship Z71 models.
Information and entertainment technology is an emerging trend in one-tonne utes as well - even the very latest phone-projection capability. Late last year Ranger moved up to the latest version of Ford's proprietary "infotainment" operating system, now called Sync3. Aside from the usual visual and voice-recognition features, Sync3 now integrates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in a neat way, allowing you to mix and match projection and Sync features in a way that few other makers (car or otherwise) have yet managed.
Phone projection is also standard on Colorado and is starting to spread across the Mitsubishi Triton range, currently on the top VRX models. Nissan has its own thing called NissanConnect, which gives you access to some online services such as Pandora music streaming through your mobile.
One-tonners are uniformly enormous in relation to cars: over five metres long. It's a measure of their popularity as urban vehicles that every one of the top-five-selling pickups feature reversing-cameras to minimise parking hassles (well, guess they can help off-road as well).
Ranger, Hilux, Colorado, and Triton have cameras on all wellside models, while Nissan includes the technology on Navara ST and STX. The forthcoming LDV T60 ute also promises a 360-degree camera setup.
Navara: that brings us back to where we began. It's also a model that's taking us forward in a couple of different ways. Again, courtesy of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, Navara is providing the base for the French brand's Alaskan ute. Expect to see that here before year's end, probably in high-specification versions to start with. As is the fashion.
Navara also provides a base for the much-anticipated Mercedes-Benz X-Class ute, although the German maker has only used the Nissan as the framework for a completely different product. We've seen the X-class in concept form already, but the finished product is due to be unveiled to the world as you're reading this. Watch this space.
And of course, as we say hello to the new generation of "pickup-trucks", we have to wave goodbye to the traditional Australian "ute" - which is technically a car-based model with a tray, although the two terms have rapidly become interchangeable.
When Holden winds up its production operations across the Tasman in October and the Aussie Commodore is no more, we'll have seen the last of the idiosyncratic ute that was originally an Australian invention.
Holden is giving the Commodore-based ute a big sendoff with the special-edition $74,290 Magnum. Just 51 individually numbered examples are allocated to NZ. Then, it's pickup-trucks all the way
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