Winner: Toyota HiLux SR5
The perennially popular Toyota HiLux SR5 surprised judges this year with a narrow victory over its Ford Ranger XLT arch-rival. Since the ute category’s inclusion in the Australia’s Best Cars program back in 2013, the Ranger has virtually made it its own, only succumbing once before in 2015 to the eighth-generation HiLux. Keeping the two sales heavyweights honest this year was the new and significantly improved Mitsubishi Triton GLS.
In one of the closest-fought battles among all categories, the Triton proved to be a real dark horse, rising from a sixth-place finish last year to take third spot only 10 points astern of the winner. The Ranger was closer still with only a six-point deficit to the HiLux. And that is after all 24 score lines have been tallied up for each vehicle.
The HiLux made up ground this year with its value for money compared to the more expensive Ranger, which has seen an increase in price against the HiLux, though overall both trail the cheaper and better-equipped Triton. HiLux owners fare best on service department costs, too, and Toyota’s recent welcome move to a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty brings it in line with its adversaries.
Design and function wise, the three trade blows fairly evenly in most areas. However, the HiLux trumps its rivals for safety, carrying a five-star ANCAP crash rating to the latest and more stringent 2019 test protocols. The other two are five-star rated also, but still only to the earlier 2015 ratings.
These three load-luggers are all equipped with the expected quota of airbags, ABS brakes and ESC. In recent times all have gained a similar, though not identical, raft of more advanced driver assistance tech to put them at the forefront of the ute class. For both the Ranger and HiLux, this list includes speed/road sign recognition and, just on the HiLux, an active cruise control system, while the Triton features rear cross-traffic alert and misacceleration mitigation.
All seating positions in this trio offer good comfort levels, though the Triton’s new front seats were rated the best in the category. Rear passengers also benefit from its new mid-roof mounted cool-air circulation system’s superior performance, compared to the HiLux’s console-mounted rear vents, which is a feature missing from the Ford.
The new Triton’s updated interior has a much more premium look than the old model, helping level its build and finish score with the HiLux and Ranger. The new interior is easy to interact with and the recently added driver-assistance tech carried the Triton to a leading ergonomics score. The Ranger’s switch gear, by comparison, felt a bit too fussy, though the judges liked Ford’s SYNC voice control system. There was praise, too, for the HiLux and Triton’s steering reach adjustment, along with the usual tilt-only adjustability generally found in most utes including the Ranger.
All three of these dual-cabs acquitted themselves well on the bitumen and second-class unsealed roads, whether unladen or lugging around four judges inside and a 500-kilogram payload in the tray. Triton’s new six-speed auto and other mechanical revisions now make it a worthy competitor in this company. The HiLux’s 2.8-litre turbo-diesel offers a respectable level of performance, on and off-road, and like the Triton, it feels more refined, though the Ranger’s larger-capacity engine does feel that bit stronger. All conquered our off-road test loop with ease, including some steep and badly rutted climbs. However, the judges noted the Ranger was more likely to rub its belly than the other two.
The fact the final scores for this intrepid trio are so darn close means whichever one of these you choose, you’ll be getting a great example of what the modern ute can offer. But the HiLux reigns supreme this year, confirming why it’s again the top-selling vehicle in Australia.