Work utes are bare bones. Recreational utes are expensive. Somewhere in the middle exists a fairly happy medium.

The trick is to build a ute that has enough in-built toughness to cut it during the nine-to-five, yet still offer enough space, comfort and safety that you’re not short-changing your family on weekends.

Some manufacturers get closer to this ideal than others, and this trio represents the utes that most successfully tread that middle ground.

Throw in the fact they incorporate four-wheel drive, and they make a compelling case as work utes that can tow a decent trailer and tackle a winter worksite, as well as offering proper off-road ability for the family that takes its fun seriously.

How do they compare on price?

Firstly, full disclosure: the reigning champion, the Toyota HiLux Workmate, couldn’t be supplied this year, so we’ve subbed in its closest relative, the HiLux SR 4x4.

The differences amount to a 2.8-litre engine versus the Workmate’s 2.4, some trim differences and optional alloy wheels and navigation. And, of course, a bigger price tag, in this case $51,190 by the time you add those alloys and the sat-nav option.

The Ford Ranger XLS Double Cab 4x4 is the most expensive as tested, but it does get additions such as digital radio, keyless entry and climate-control air-con as part of an optional $1950 tech pack that also gains sat-nav and push-button start. While the basic price is $51,390, by the time you’ve added the fruit, the sticker leaps to $53,340.

Volkswagen’s Amarok Core TDI550 at $51,990 hits the market a few hundred dollars above the Toyota as tested, but there were no options on our test car. Instead, you do get digital radio and a fairly basic form of climate-control air, but you miss out on navigation and keyless entry.

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My maximum budget is 30,000

What are they like inside?

Here’s where the Volkswagen starts to look like pretty good value. Long after you’ve forgotten about climate-control air and such, you’ll still be impressed by the quality of the interior presentation and materials every time you step aboard.

The leather steering wheel is lovely, and the whole thing looks of a piece and a distinct step up in quality. There are plenty of grab-handles and even twin vanity mirrors, but the Amarok misses out on rear air vents and cupholders. Plenty of storage spaces and an airy feel are nice compensations, though, as is the fact that the VW is clearly the roomiest.

Ford’s Ranger, meanwhile, feels a little more downmarket with plastics that are more obviously plastic and small instrument screens. The touchscreen is a better size, though, and there are lots of 12-volt, USB and auxiliary ports, as well as a 240-volt outlet in the rear.

The Ford is the only one with carpet on the floor, but it’s cheap looking and feeling stuff, and doesn’t have the practicality of the others’ rubber mats. Back-seat occupants in the Ranger still miss out on air vents, but the chilled box in the centre console might be of more use.

Toyota has also added a chilled bin to the HiLux SR, but beyond that it’s a bit spartan with less dash-top storage, fewer USB and auxiliary ports, and the info screen looks like a total afterthought.

The Toyota, however, is the one that offers reach and height adjustment for the steering column. The rear seat, meanwhile, is quite good in comfort terms with decent padding and support despite an upright seat-back, and the vision out is great despite the lack of height adjustment for the front passenger’s seat, forcing those in the back to look around that person.

The Ranger is even better in the rear, though, with more sculpting of the cushions, even better vision out and more legroom.

The rear seat is also where the Volkswagen’s extra cabin width works for it again. The height adjustment for the front passenger’s seat means those in the back seat can look over them to the front and, in fact, the VW has the closest to proper stadium-style seating.

The rear seat base also folds up to allow for bulkier loads in the rear of the cabin if necessary. That extra beam is also the reason the Amarok is the only one of these three that will take a standard pallet between the wheel arches.

You also get a simple but effective tray-liner, four tie-downs, and a light for the load area, although the VW doesn’t have a cargo barrier to protect the rear window.

The Ford does, in fact, have a cargo barrier (as does the HiLux), and while it’s not as wide in the tray, it does have the smallest wheel-arch intrusion. Four tie-downs are fitted as standard, as they are on the Toyota, but unlike the Ford’s low-mounted anchor points, the HiLux’s are mounted high on the side of the tray, making them less versatile.

In outright towing and payload terms, the Toyota trails the field with a tray capacity of 920kg and a towing capacity of 3200kg with a braked trailer. That compares with the Ford’s and Volkswagen’s almost identical payloads of 991kg and 989kg respectively and their identical 3500kg towing limit.

Which is the safest car?

Ford has always taken the high ground on safety with the Ranger, thanks largely (in the case of the XLS) to the six airbags, reversing camera, and five-star safety rating.

From June this year (or about the time you read this), the picture will be even better as the XLS Ranger picks up the autonomous emergency braking from the more expensive Ranger variants, something the others here don’t have.

The Ford also has beautifully calibrated stability control, which is in stark contrast to the Toyota’s clumsy ESP program that, we think, could be almost counterproductive in a safety sense. The system intervenes so early and so forcefully that it seems to drag the vehicle further towards whatever it was the driver was trying to avoid.

The HiLux was also marginal for braking power and needed a lot more real estate to come to a complete stop than its peers. Beyond that, the Toyota also gets a five-star safety rating and features a standard reversing camera.

The most contentious safety package, meanwhile, lives in the Amarok Core. While the Volkswagen does have a five-star rating, it’s been achieved despite the Amarok not having rear airbags. Clearly, this is a matter for the individual buyer, but we can’t ignore it, and it remains the biggest black mark against the VW’s safety credentials.

The ESP calibration is, like the Ranger’s, well considered and not likely to give even inexperienced drivers a nasty surprise when it intervenes.

How much do they cost to maintain?

All three vehicles have five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranties, so the real difference in the cost of ownership is more likely to revolve around servicing costs.

Actually, the only real difference in the respective warranties is a two-year extension (to seven years) on the HiLux’s powertrain components provided the vehicle has been serviced by a Toyota dealer.

All three also have capped-price servicing plans available, but while Volkswagen and Ford specify service intervals of 12 months or 15,000km, the HiLux needs a service every six months or 10,000km.

Given the typical annual distance travelled by vehicles of this type, it could mean the Toyota has double the downtime in any given time frame.

The capped-price servicing arrangement also sees the Ford and Toyota steal a few points from the VW. The Ranger and HiLux will cost $1430 and $1434 respectively for the first three years, while the Volkswagen dealer will require $1835 for the same three years’ worth of servicing.

What do they have under the bonnet?

While there’s a view that the modern obsession with efficiency has bred homogeny, a quick look under the bonnet of each of these utes reveals that in this market, manufacturers remain prepared to go their own way.

Which explains why, even though common-rail turbo-diesel technology rules here, there’s a four-, five- and six-cylinder engine beneath the hood of the Toyota, Ford and Volkswagen respectively.

The 2.8-litre unit in the Toyota is the smallest here and the least powerful with 130kW and 450Nm of torque. It’s also the most obviously diesel with a fair bit of clatter and vibration, and it’s mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with a transfer case giving the low ratios for off-road.

The Ranger’s 3.2-litre five-cylinder unit is the next rung up the power ladder with 147kW and 470Nm and another conventional six-speed automatic. Like the Toyota, the Ford is part-time four-wheel drive with a transfer case taking drive to the front wheels when needed. The Ford is not only smoother, quieter and more refined than the HiLux, it’s also faster with noticeably more urge on tap.

That leaves the VW as the big hitter thanks to its 3.0-litre V6 engine that provides 165kW of power and 550Nm of torque, comfortably more than the others. It feels beefier, too, with a lot more dash on the open road, and a level of refinement and smoothness the rest can only dream about.

The wildcard is the VW’s eight-speed automatic transmission that, thanks to its low first ratio, allows it to do without a low-ratio transfer case. The VW is also the only one of this group that features permanent all-wheel drive, so it’s a simpler vehicle to operate in variable conditions.

Which is the most economical car?

With a combined fuel economy figure of 8.4 litres per 100km, the HiLux is potentially the most economical vehicle here. Throw in the 80-litre fuel tank and you have a theoretical 950km range.

The VW and Ford are very close in consumption terms with combined numbers of 8.9 and 9.0 litres, which, when combined with the 80-litre tank in each, means you’re looking at 898km and 888km of range respectively.

The curveball is that the Ranger’s five-cylinder engine uses AdBlue (along with a particulate filter) to clean up its emissions, and this requires refilling roughly at each service at a cost of $75.

Which is the best car to drive?

Utes like these ones have truly come a long way in terms of how car-like they can be to drive, which is always a good thing given that duality of purpose.

But even though it’s a new design, the HiLux seems to be the one most firmly rooted in the past in the way it responds and feels to drive. While it’s acceptable in isolation, compared with the others here, the Toyota seems a bit crude, particularly in ride-quality terms. 

That’s especially true of the engine, which is noisy and clattery, and is teamed to an automatic transmission that can feel a bit lazy at times. The brakes are the weakest of the bunch, too, while the calibration of the stability control is, frankly, awful compared with the 2019 pack.

The Ranger, meanwhile, does a better job of nailing the basics, we reckon. Its engine is more responsive and refined, the transmission is cleverer, and the steering is actually quite faithful and imparts a greater sense of confidence.

But it’s the VW that absolutely wipes the floor with the rest when it comes to a polished driving experience. That V6 engine is nothing short of epic and never feels stressed or stretched even though it’s doing more.

Our main gripe would be the VW’s unladen ride, which is not as good as the Ranger’s, and that vehicle remains the best riding with nothing in the tray.

But add our test weight of 600kg and three big blokes, and things change. At that point, the Ranger becomes the least composed and least impressive with what feels like a too-soft rear suspension.

The Toyota is better at shrugging off the same load, but it’s the Amarok that emerges as the best compromise when loaded thanks to steering that remains tactile and suspension that copes more effortlessly.

And that engine, of course, that barely feels a load in the first place.

Any problems I should look out for?

Volkswagen’s appalling corporate behaviour that led to the Dieselgate fiasco a few years ago has tarnished the brand’s reputation and turned a lot of buyers off a VW diesel engine. Of course, cars built after the soot hit the fan don’t have the same legal and emissions issues, so there’s actually nothing to worry about on that front.

Both VW and Ford have learned about the foibles of clutchless-manual transmissions the hard way, and all of these vehicles instead use conventional automatic-transmission technology.

The only other grey area is the way the Amarok gets around not having low-ratio gears for off-roading. Instead of using gearing, it tends to slip the gearbox’s torque converter, which might accelerate wear down the track if the vehicle is used exclusively for bush-bashing.

On the other hand, it might be a perfectly fine way to give the VW its rock-crawling ability, but engineers we spoke to don’t necessarily agree.

Which one should is 2019's best 4x4 work ute?

Another close decision with just a single judge’s point separating them, this competition came down to the Ranger and Volkswagen.

While by no means a poor vehicle, the HiLux was eliminated pretty early on, mainly because it can’t match the others for convenience and refinement, yet neither does it put that slightly gruff persona to much advantage when it comes to carrying a load through the week.

But as the country’s best-selling nameplate, the HiLux will continue to do well, trading on not only its solid reputation, but also the spectre of great resale value when trade-in time comes.

The Ranger finished a close second thanks to its classy driving experience and the fact that it gets almost everything close enough to spot on. But the interior is a bit lacklustre and the Ford struggles the most with a load on board, and that definitely played against it.

Which means that for our money, the Volkswagen Amarok is the one to buy. It lacks the autonomous braking of the Ford, and the lack of rear airbags is a big black mark against it.

In fact, that will automatically rule the VW out for some buyers, and fair enough, too. But if you can see around that (and deal with the potential consequences), then the Amarok emerges as the most complete performer of the lot.

The V6 engine is a lesson on how to build a modern turbo-diesel, and even though the Amarok lacks a low-ratio transfer case, the early ratios in the eight-speed auto are sufficiently low for it to do what 99 per cent of people will ask of it.

Perhaps if the Ford had been a fraction cheaper to buy, the race would have been even closer. At which point, of course, we’d have been talking about a dead heat. 

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Warranty
Standard
Ranger
5 Years
Amarok
5 Years
Hilux
5 Years
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27 COMMENTS
Buzz — 03 Jun 2019 11:23

Finally they get it right. The others arent even close