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What is a ute?

Utes, also called pick-up trucks and utility vehicles, are the vehicle of choice for tradespeople and farmers, plus people who get out into the rugged wilderness as either part of their job or for their hobbies.

From single-cab to double-cab, wellside to flat deck, how do you choose the right ute? There are pros and cons for utes vs cars, station wagons and SUVs.

What features do utes have?

The majority of modern utes tend to have the following features:

  • Tall suspension with a high ride height (although, there have been car versions of utes in the past from Holden and Ford)
  • Four-wheel drive with lockable differentials (although, two-wheel drive utes are available)
  • Diesel engine (although, some petrol engines are available)
  • Loading area behind the cab

What cargo area configurations are there?

There are two main types of cargo areas in utes:

  1. Wellside (formed metal sides with a hinged rear gate)
  2. Flat deck tray (either no sides, or hinged sides and a rear gate)

The length of the cargo area depends on the cabin size.

Cargo area cover

Wellside utes will either have a canvas tonneau cover, a rigid lid (either hinged or a roller lid), or a rigid canopy with windows.

Roller cover on a wellside ute. The plastic boot liner is slippery – anything in the tray will move around under acceleration and braking

Flat deck utes don’t have a cover, but could have lockable toolboxes, cages or custom attachments.

Double-cab ute with a snorkel and galvanised flat deck with cargo barrier protecting the rear window

As flat deck utes usually have side rails as opposed to tie-down hooks, you can secure more to them (tie-down hooks are often only rated to a couple of hundred kilos).

This single-cab ute has a cage

What cabin configurations are there?

There are three types of cabin arrangement

  1. Single cab (driver and front passenger seats) – this gives the largest cargo area
  2. Extra cab, king cab or super cab (a space behind the driver and front passenger for pets, items and small passengers)
  3. Double cab (one row of seats behind the driver and front passenger) – this has the smallest cargo area
Extra cab ute with racks for long items

What are the advantages of a ute

  • With their high ground clearance, rugged tyres and strong suspension, utes are more capable of driving off-road than equivalent-sized cars.
  • As utes tend to have a diesel engine, they are often used for towing.
  • Utes are built more ruggedly than cars and hold their value over time as they are expected to last longer
  • It is classed as a commercial vehicle for tax purposes
  • Because the cargo area is accessible from three sides, it’s easier to put things into and get things out of a ute than a station wagon or SUV
  • You can separate dirty or smelly items from the cabin of the vehicle
  • With a boot liner, heavy items can be carried without risking damage to the interior of the vehicle
  • There are endless options for customisation of the ute’s tray to suit what you are loading
  • Good forward visibility.
Your average station wagon can’t do this

What are the disadvantages of a ute

  • Their weight and poor aerodynamics translates into poor fuel economy
  • They are noisy, both from tyre noise (if off-road tyres are fitted) and from the diesel engine
  • Even secondhand options can be expensive compared to a car or SUV
  • Nowhere to hide everyday items like a laptop when you leave the vehicle, i.e. everything in the cabin is on display to potential thieves, and you can’t necessarily put it in the tray, unless you have a lockable rigid cover
  • If you don’t have a cover, everything on the ute’s tray is open to the elements
  • The tailgate is heavy
  • People can find them more difficult to manoeuvre than a car as they have worse turning circles and, because of their height, are more difficult to judge when parking (although, technology such as reversing cameras and sensors helps)
  • As there are no barriers in the tray, items will slide around
  • The tray is likely to become dirty more quickly, meaning if you want to store items in the vehicle that need to be kept presentable, the only option is in the cabin
  • There tends to be not as much room for rear seat passengers as in a large car or SUV, and there is no seven-seat option; the rear seats themselves are upright because the ute has to have a flat back to the cabin
  • They don’t fit in many older garages as many utes are over 5 metres long and can be much taller than cars; some older multi-storey car parks can be off-limits, too
  • They are more expensive to run than a smaller car
  • Diesel engines are not suited to lots of short urban trips – a diesel engine takes longer to heat up, and it needs to be run at higher speeds for a longer period of time to burn off the diesel particulates
  • Technology for safety and convenience tends to lag behind cars and SUVs, particularly for rear seat passengers
  • Suspension can be bouncy when not loaded – if the tray is empty, all the weight is on the front wheels
  • High centre of gravity means poor cornering performance compared to a car
  • If you have a hinged rigid cargo cover, this limits the height of the things you can carry in the tray
Double-cab utes have a shorter tray than single-cab utes – they motorbikes would fit in the whole tray with a single-cab ute, but the tailgate has to be down in a double-cab ute
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Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

Posted in Advice
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