Top 5 Hero Utes that’ll take you from town to country

5 hero utes tested in the outback

Which one should you choose? Ford Ranger Raptor, Toyota Hilux Rugged X, Holden Colorado Z71 Xtreme, Mercedes-Benz X350d Power, and Volkswagen Amarok Ultimate V6 580. Actually, there’s really only three to choose from…

If you could personify cars then the modern dual-cab ute could be a touch of Arnold Schwarzenegger blended with liberal doses of Matt Damon and Harrison Ford and a smattering of Hugh Jackman. Tough, versatile, vaguely stylish, never afraid of a fight – and aspirational. Which helps explain the assortment of off-road utes we’ve assembled for this rugged outback test.

5 hero utes tested in the outback

Some are obvious: the Toyota Hilux is a stalwart of the game and has toughened up as a Rugged X. Ford’s Ranger has managed to muscle in on the Toyota’s terrain, the muscles bulging bigger as a top-of-the-range Raptor. Late in its life Holden figured out what modern Aussie blokes like in transport and honed the Colorado, seen here in Z71 Xtreme trim…but Holden’s announced it’s shutting up shop, so this is a very last hurrah.

Then there are relative newcomers, the freshest of which is the Mercedes-Benz X-Class, tested with a V6 engine in the X350d…although as of this month, Mercedes-Benz will stop making the X-Class. Another one bites the dust. We’ve got another V6 from Volkswagen with the Amarok 580, providing a broad spread across a near-$20K price spread. Between them there’s $350,000 of go-anywhere hardware with 24 cylinders, six turbos, 37 gear ratios and enough diesel-infused testosterone to start a bar brawl.

5 hero utes tested in the outback

Toyota Hilux Rugged X

There’s nothing flashy about the Hilux. The engine is decidedly meh; it’s a 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel making a measly 130kW and a slightly more enticing 430Nm. It goes okay but is outclassed by almost everything it competes with. Perhaps the appeal lies in reliability. Hiluxes have a reputation for going on for decades with very few troubles. There’s every chance the 2.8-litre four-cylinder has been designed for longevity over short-term thrills. Here’s hoping…

As with regular Hiluxes, the Rugged X is slightly smaller than its prime rivals. That’s most noticeable in width, where the cabin feels snugger than the likes of a Ranger or Colorado. But the appeal with the Rugged X lies in its modifications to toughen its demeanour, in turn stretching the price tag to $62,490+ORCs. The good news is the DNA runs deep.

The Hilux starts life as a very capable ute in rugged terrain. As well as solid off-road credentials – including good underbody protection and lashings of clearance – it has an quick-acting brake traction control system that does a beaut job of keeping the wheels that have traction turning.

As a Rugged X the Hilux is modified into something suitable for bush work. Plastic bumpers have been replaced with a winch-capable metal bullbar which also hugely improves the approach angle. There’s rocksliders for the sills, a towbar, recovery points front and rear, and a snorkel, all the basics. Missing are suspension and tyre changes, but those tend to be very personal choices. The result is the most bush-capable ute on the market, with the possible exception of the Ranger, and one that’s good value too.

There are frustrations elsewhere. The infotainment system lacks Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. It also lacks a volume button, instead requiring presses of the virtual buttons on the 7.0-inch touchscreen to adjust something most drivers do regularly. In keeping with Toyota’s long-running marketing campaign there’s no vanity mirror on the driver’s side, at least giving you an excuse to have a hair out of place. So, the Hilux is great at lifting heavy things, but far from pampering.

Price $62,490+ORCs Engine/transmission 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel, six-speed auto Power 130kW at 3400rpm Torque 450Nm at 1600-2400rpm Gadgets Sat-nav, digital radio tuning, auto emergency braking

We love Its off-road capability and the sense you can punish it hard We loathe The engine is as exciting as rolled oats without the honey X-factor Err, not much, although the bullbar is well thought-out Last thing Also… there ain’t a set of high beams as good as the Hilux. The addition of an LED light bar to the already-great high-beam lights of the Hilux makes for midnight daylight.

Ford Ranger Raptor

The Raptor is something of a gamechanger in Aussie utes, and not just for its $76,490+ORCs price tag. It’s the first ute to get serious with suspension modifications that dramatically change the DNA of what has morphed into more of a racing truck than a garden variety ute.

Wide wheel arches house bigger tyres (a specialised version of BFG’s popular all-terrain) attached to suspension designed for high-speed offroading, which gets rid of the leaf springs in the rear and replaces them with coils, which, in turn, trade significant load capacity. Key to the longer travel suspension are Fox Shocks. For anyone into their mountain bikes or motocross machines they’ll no Fox is a name known for controlling bumps. And that’s exactly what they do in the Ranger Raptor.

From the first speed hump it’s clear the Raptor is a very different beast to a regular Ranger. There’s more initial compliance that softens the blow. And instead of bucking and bouncing on the return to earth there’s a beautifully controlled dispersion of energy, almost like a spider landing from a fall. The result is a car that not only allows for faster travel over any sort of bump – big, small, or the Goldilocks version – but one that also behaves more like a car.

Off-road it’s a massive improvement on a regular Ranger. Yet the real surprise is that it also makes for a better on-road car, which is a relief for the vast majority of us that will spend more time on bitumen than gravel. Elsewhere, the Ranger package is unchanged. That means a spacious and accommodating interior and sensible controls.

There’s good smartphone connectivity with the 8.0-inch touchscreen and the occasional extra feature, such as the Baja drive mode (it sharpens throttle response and allows for more wheelspin) and gearshift paddles. There’s also a 10-speed automatic, which makes for plenty of gear shifting. But it’s impressively smooth and does a terrific job of tapping into the performance on offer from the modestly-proportioned engine. At 2.0 litres it’s small enough to frighten off those yearning for muscle, but there’s a full 500Nm of torque to play with. Impressive by four-cylinder standards, but short of the latest V6s.

Price $76,490+ORCs Engine/transmission 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin-turbodiesel, 10-speed auto Power 157kW at 3750rpm Torque 500Nm at 1750-2000rpm Gadgets Apple CarPlay/Android Auto

We love That suspension; brilliant at hammering over big bumps while bringing better control elsewhere We loathe The grip of the tyres in the wet; be prepared to slide around! X-factor Just look at it. Even better, look underneath it! Last thing Also… don’t tell your friends that the Raptor is slower than other Ranger dual-cabs with the latest 2.0-litre engine. That’s because all those mods add a couple of hundred kilos to the weight.

Holden Colorado Z71 Xtreme

It was a good idea while it lasted, but anyone chasing a Z71 Xtreme – or any Holden, for that matter – will now have to sniff around on the used-car market. Blame it on General Motors’ decision to give up a brand that once dominated in Australia.

After decades of V8-powered sports utes, the Xtreme was the pinnacle of Holden toughness, taking the Colorado package – itself massaged from its underwhelming beginnings – and adding loads of fruit (and substance). Local engineers made the most of the call to muscle up the Colorado, starting at the front.

As part of the jump up in price – at $69,990 the Xtreme was $5000 more than a regular Z71 – engineers replaced the plastic bumper with a steel one. As well as allowing for more serious attacks due to an improved approach angle, it also houses a winch. And there’s a hint of James Bond with the way it’s hidden behind the numberplate. Swing that up and there’s easy access. The Xtreme also gets wheel arch flares, an extended sports bar and black highlights, as well as 18-inch Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tyres designed to better fend off an attack from a rock or stick.

But you’re more likely to need the winch more than on some of our rivals in this group. That’s because the Holden’s traction control ain’t great, occasionally letting wheels spin for too long. And there’s no locking rear differential.

Elsewhere, the Xtreme is far less extreme. The gruff 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo musters up 500Nm of torque and a healthy 147kW. So it pulls strongly and builds speed nicely, although it’s far from the last word in refinement. Similarly, the six-speed auto is honest but unexciting.

And while the cabin nails the size and basic dimensions, the lack of reach adjustment to the steering compromises the driving position. Thankfully the 8.0-inch touchscreen is more up-to-date and gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, partially making up for the lack of active safety gear.

Price $69,990+ORCs (if you can find one) Engine/transmission 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel, six-speed auto Power 147kW at 3600rpm Torque 500Nm at 2000-2200rpm Gadgets Apple CarPlay/Android Auto

We love The grunty engine and the clever locally-developed accessories that make up the Xtreme pack. We loathe Some of the interior plastics and the driving position. X-factor Where once Holdens were common they’ll soon be rare. Last thing Also… it’s 150kg heavier than a Z71, so it’s no longer a one-tonner.

Mercedes-Benz X350d Power

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the Mercedes-Benz X-Class has been an expensive mistake for the world’s oldest car market. Dreams of luring ute buyers away from their Fords, Toyotas and Nissans have come crashing down, to the point where Benz has announced the end for the first ute from a luxury brand (production winds this month).

It doesn’t take long to realise some of the issues, the most obvious of which is price. Our top-of-the-range X350d Power is a (gulp) $79,415 proposition. Sure, you get a grunty Merc V6 engine, some advanced active safety kit and the quietest cabin ever fitted to a workhorse ute.

But you’re still (unbelievably) asked to pay extra for leather seats and a sports bar. Of course, there’s plenty of Nissan to the X-Class, starting with its basic underpinnings and some panels. That said, Mercedes-Benz has infused plenty of flair into the X, starting with the design. Plus it works well as a ute.

Bounding along the roads of the Flinders Ranges reinforces the efforts gone into making it drive better than the Navara it’s based on. It’s a classy ute that delivers comfortable on-road touring and the ability to keep the pace up over corrugated gravel, rocky river beds or sandy tracks.

The V6 engine is also a winner, at least once you’re moving. There’s a full 190kW to play with driving through a seven-speed auto. While there’s 550Nm of torquey backup it’s the power peak that best defines this 3.0-litre diesel, its free-revving nature characterising the rise to triple digits.

From a standstill, though, it’s lazy to initial prods of the throttle, the turbo taking a second to wake up. It’s a shame, because that makes the slow-speed stuff – and around town motoring – less enjoyable than it should be. But hey, at least in V6 guise the big Benz has a constant four-wheel drive system, good for on-road and dirt-road traction, unlike its part-time 4×4 rivals. On those country roads that meander from gravel to bitumen it makes motoring that little bit easier.

And the Merc is ultimately a moderately accomplished off-roader, with solid clearance and traction. Granted, it won’t go the distance with the Ranger Raptor and Hilux Rugged X, but it’ll devour challenging tracks and trails with relative ease. And comfort. It’s just a shame you have to pay so much for the privilege.

Price $79,415+ORCs Engine/transmission 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel, seven-speed auto Power 190kW at 3400rpm Torque 550Nm at 1400-3200rpm Gadgets 360-degree camera

We love The look and the grunty V6 engine. We loathe The turbo lag. The price tag. And the infuriatingly impractical interior. X-factor The three-pointed star on the bonnet. Last thing Also… Get in quick (if you must) because X-Class production ends this month.

Volkswagen Amarok Ultimate 580

For a truck that’s only been around since 2011 the Volkswagen Amarok has made quite an impact. Moreso since the arrival of the V6 in 2016. It doesn’t take long behind the wheel to appreciate the level of engineering. Volkswagen showed the big boys how to make a ute drive more like a car, with terrific body control and a level of comfort few can match. In the twilight of its life it’s still arguably the best available.

The latest V6 engine also makes quite an impact, with up to 580Nm of torque – the best in the class. With 190kW – or more when the turbo is overboosting – it’s also loaded with power, something the eight-speed auto taps into nicely. It’s a shame so much effort has been put into the way it drives while overlooking some key safety considerations; there are no airbags for those in the rear, for example, and the Amarok doesn’t get the active safety kit (like autonomous emergency braking) in the Hilux.

But there’s heaps that has been done right. The cabin is genuinely thoughtful in terms of hidey holes, the driving position and seat comfort. Volkswagen may be relatively new to utes but it’s clearly leveraged its knowledge of commercial vehicles to ensure the Amarok keeps occupants content for hours at a time.

That makes a big difference on our South Australian adventure. It also helps having permanent four-wheel drive, so no worrying about when to engage it. One thing the automatic Amarok doesn’t have is low-range gears. It’s the only one here without that dual-range transfer case.

Hardcore off-roaders will rue its absence, but for the majority of adventurers out there they’ll be surprised how far it can go with just those high-range ratios. It helps that the Amarok has an eight-speed auto with a fairly low first gear, but that’s still not enough for those rock crawling moments can which need a little more control. Fortunately, Volkswagen finally arranged to get a V6 Amarok with a manual transmission on-sale in Australia. Stay tuned for our review of that.

Price $72,790+ORCs Engine/transmission 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel, eight-speed auto Power 190kW at 3250rpm Torque 580Nm at 1250-3250rpm Gadgets Apple CarPlay/Android Auto

We love The way it drives and the thoughtful interior. We loathe The lack of safety. the Amarok is the only new dual-cab ute without potentially life-saving rear curtain airbags. X-factor It’s a wide ute and feels it, from the pallet-welcoming tray to the cabin. Last thing Also… the Amarok can make more than 200kW in short bursts (only in cooler weather) courtesy of an overboost function that thrusts more air through the turbo.

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If it's on four wheels, Toby Hagon has probably driven it. From the latest supercars to rock-hopping off-roaders (or anything in between!) he loves a road trip and works on the thinking that no road is too long or windy. The former National Motoring Editor at Fairfax these days runs his own show, contributing to Wheels, Which Car, News Corp, Qantas magazine and ABC Radio, and MotoFomo.