Ute sales boom

Silver Ford Ranger

Toby Hagon and Bruce Newton

Posted July 19, 2021


Utes no longer just do the work during the week, getting down and dirty on the weekend for everything from kids’ sport to a family adventure.

It wasn’t long ago when utes were just that: utility vehicles used to carry tools and timber.

Fast forward to 2021, and utes have morphed into adventure machines, family cars and the favoured ride for young blokes who once may have aspired to a Commodore or Falcon.

Ute sales are booming. In the first half of 2021, a record 116,860 utes were sold. More than one in five new vehicles is now a ute.

Blame it on flexibility.

Utes can carry about a tonne, follow a LandCruiser into the bush, tow 3.5 tonnes and pack the family in as a bonus. It doesn’t hurt that they look tough and macho, the sort of cars someone from Brighton or Ballarat would be happy to step out of. 

"Over the past decade, there's been a tangible step-change in the perception of the ute," says Ford Australia Customer Pathfinder William Brook. 

"Traditionally, it tended to be solely considered as the domain of the tradie - a reliable workhorse intended to get the job done. Now that’s no longer the case, and the ute is universally renowned as a complete companion for a multitude of active lifestyles, catering to families, thrill-seekers, touring empty-nesters and adventurers."

Little wonder we’re on track to buy around 230,000 utes this year, comfortably eclipsing the record 211,285 sales set in 2019.

The Chevrolet Silverado.
The RAM 1500.

Stepping up and kitting out

Many new utes are anything but cheap transport. The growth in the ute segment has come predominantly from five-seat dual-cab versions with diesel engines. Whereas Aussie utes were once based on passenger cars, modern utes use a truck-like construction, albeit with passenger safety features and technology. More than half of utes sold last year cost more than $50,000, many of those exceeding $60,000. Get serious, and it's easy to splash out six figures on a ute, especially with the growth in full-sized American pickup trucks such as the Ram 1500 and Chevrolet Silverado.

“The ute market has been growing like mad, and in our opinion, it will keep growing," says Ryan Walkinshaw, director of Walkinshaw Automotive that converts Chevrolets and Rams from left to right-hand drive in Melbourne. He says the lack of luxury car tax on utes and the government’s instant asset tax write-off has helped ute sales.

“It has been developing from nothing, the bigger segment of the market, with the US trucks; we are seeing a lot of old HSV customers going into Rams and Silverados.”

4WD utes now dominant

That’s a marked difference from the early 2000s, when utes made up about one in 10 sales and Ford and Holden utes ruled the roads, most of them driving only two wheels. In 2007, 4x4 utes overtook two-wheel-drive models and have surged to be the chosen ride. These days, 87 per cent of utes sold are 4x4s.

It helps that the Australian Tax Office provides Fringe Benefit Tax exemption for utes, albeit with a rider, stating that non-work-related use is “minor, infrequent or irregular”. You don’t have to venture far to realise some have stretched those definitions. After all, you hardly need chunky tyres, a snorkel and a blaring light bar to carry plumbing or electrical gear. Utes no longer just do the work during the week, getting down and dirty on the weekend for everything from kids’ sport to a family adventure.

"Utes are even serving the role that has in recent years has been reserved for SUVs," says Brook. "Our data also confirms that women are increasingly active in ute purchasing decisions.”

Silver Mitsubishi Triton

The Mitsubishi Triton.


 

Ford vs Toyota

Two of the 17 utes on sale make up more than half of all sales: the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger.

Since 2016, the Hilux has topped the Australian sales charts, and utes occasionally take out the podium of top sellers, beating the Corollas and Mazda3s that once filled the void left from the Commodore and Falcon.

But whereas the HiLux all but owns the budget-focused bottom end of the market, the Ranger is winning in the 4WD segment. From 2016 until June this year, Ford has sold 202,895 Ranger 4x4s compared with 198,026 HiLux 4x4s. The Ranger’s success is partly due to models such as the Wildtrak, FX4 and Raptor - nameplates that make you want to adventure.

“We are also seeing much more of a recreational 4x4 focus, with the associated off-road accessorisation, and expect this to continue,” says Brook.

Ford has led the market in exploring how much people will pay for a ute. The Raptor sells for upwards of $80,000, bringing major suspension and design modifications that had previously been left to the aftermarket.

Finding the limit

There was seemingly no end to how far utes could be pushed. Of the 17 models now on offer, most have an image leading variant dripping in off-road accessories. But Mercedes-Benz found that limit with its X-Class. The first ute from a luxury brand arrived in 2018 with big expectations, but never lived up to the three-pointed star and failed to convince many to part with the price premium.

Not that it's likely to slow manufacturers sniffing out how far people are willing to go.

Many believe American pickups are only just finding their feet. Toyota is exploring selling its mighty Tundra Down Under. And there’s a new breed of next-generation utes such as the Ranger and Volkswagen Amarok being developed in Australia. They will be designed to take hybrid and/or electric powertrains as utes look to take the plunge into the world of EVs - all of which will open a new chapter in the evolution of the classic one-tonner.


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