Ultimate high-end ute comparision: X-Class v Ranger v Amarok
CASHED-UP tradies are now spending luxury-car money on double-cab utes. More than half the Toyota HiLuxes and Ford Rangers sold cost in excess of $50,000.
For this test we're in the $60,000 to $70,000 bracket, thanks to the arrival of the new Mercedes X-Class. Time to see if these workhorses-turned- show-ponies really can be dual-purpose family cars.
FORD RANGER WILDTRAK
The HiLux is the top-selling ute overall but the Ranger was Australia's favourite double-cab 4WD last year.
It remains the benchmark, even though an update is due in September with autonomous emergency braking, push-button start, and the option of the 2.0-litre twin turbo diesel and 10-speed auto from the upcoming Ranger Raptor.
The Wildtrak is currently listed at $66,950 drive-away but you can pay closer to $60,000 in run-out with some haggling.
Until the Mercedes arrived the Wildtrak was the most technically advanced ute in its class. It still has some technology not yet available in the Benz, such as radar cruise control, lane keeping assistance, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Unique in this trio, the Ranger packs a 230V household power socket. All three contenders have USB and 12V power in the cabin and a 12V socket in the ute tub.
Owners love the Ranger's tough looks and the grunt from the 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel, the biggest capacity engine in the class.
The Ranger was designed and engineered here - although it is made in Thailand - so it feels at home on local roads, with an impressive blend of comfort and handling for a ute.
In this trio, the Wildtrak has the most standard equipment - although the roller shutter on the ute tub can be fiddly - yet it's priced less than the Benz and not much more than the VW. As a dual purpose family car, the Ranger has more knee room in the back seat than the other pair, light yet precise steering, and a strong engine.
None of these utes, however, have a secure place in the cabin to hide a decent sized bag.
The Ranger is noisier than the others and the front disc/rear drum brake set-up doesn't have the same reassuring feel as the four-wheel discs on the VW and Mercedes, but it's the most comfortable on patchy roads.
VW AMAROK TDV6 HIGHLINE
The Amarok, now one of the oldest utes in the class, is holding its age well. Introduced in 2011 with four-cylinder power, VW added the V6 turbo diesel in 2016 to give it a new lease on life. The V6 Highline tested, normally $66,300 drive-away, is currently $58,990 drive-away as part of a long-term deal.
It shares the 3.0-litre V6 with Audi and Porsche SUVs, so it's no slouch. Paired with an eight-speed auto and constant all-wheel drive, it feels like a sports car in this company, clawing its way out of tight corners with ease and accelerating from rest like a slingshot.
The engine has a tough, truck-like sound and the steering is similar to the Ford: light with plenty of turns lock to lock. This means you can place the Amarok exactly where you want, even in bumpy corners. It's an engineering feat such an old chassis is still among the class's best.
That's why it's so disappointing the Amarok hasn't kept pace with safety and technology. It has only four airbags, for driver and front passenger (the Ranger has six and the X-Class has seven), a major oversight in a vehicle that claims to double as family transport. There are apparently no plans in this generation for radar cruise control, lane keeping assistance, autonomous emergency braking or push-button start - technology that VW has at its fingertips.
The Amarok is the only one of this trio with leather seats as standard and height and reach adjustable steering, for the optimum driving position.
As the widest ute here it's most accommodating for shoulder room but knee room comes up short for rear passengers versus the other pair.
All three utes tested have two Isofix child seat mounting points in the rear but the VW can also accommodate a non-Isofix child seat in the middle thanks to an extra top tether latch.
It's well documented the X-Class shares much of its underpinnings - and its key - with the Nissan Navara. However, there are significant changes.
The footprint is wider, the chassis has extra strengthening, the steering and suspension have been given the Mercedes touch and there's extra sound deadening to mute the Navara's 2.3-litre four-cylinder twin turbo diesel.
The seven-speed auto is matched to 4WD hardware that can only be used off-road, at odds with the 4Motion badge on the tailgate. Constant AWD will be standard on the TDV6 X-Class due mid-year.
It's the only vehicle in the class to date with autonomous emergency braking. It has lane wander warning, which vibrates the steering wheel to alert the driver - in contrast, the Ranger's active lane keeping assistance steers the vehicle between the lines.
Inside, the X-Class's presentation is a step up. The instrument cluster, tablet-style display screen and infotainment controller in the centre console are from the C-Class sedan.
The extra width in the body has enabled Mercedes to fit large door pockets. They make up for the tiny centre console and lack of oddment storage between the front seats.
The push-button start is poorly positioned, there's no reach adjustment in the steering and, uniquely among this trio, no Apple Car Play or Android Auto.
On the road, the X-Class is slowest of the three, in part because it's 150kg to 200kg heavier than the Navara.
It isn't far behind the Ranger but the Amarok TDV6 is three seconds quicker in the industry-standard 0-100km/h dash, an eternity in the ute world. The X-Class does a fair job of suppressing noise, vibration and harshness but on the optional 19-inch wheels and tyres it jiggled over bumps more than the others.
The options list is eye-opening. The top of the range X-Class X250d Power starts from $64,500 plus on-road costs but the example tested is $75,520 drive-away.
For example, the sports bar (standard on rivals) is $1551 and the tinted rear windows and sliding back window (standard fitment on top-end Navaras) are part of a $2490 option pack that includes the 19-inch alloys, side steps and roof rails. Leather seats are an extra $1750. At least both front pews have electric adjustment.
As the most powerful and car-like to drive, the VW Amarok could have won this contest had it kept pace with safety and technology.
The Mercedes X-Class is a fair first effort but to justify its epic price premium it needs to be exceptional, not just acceptable.
The Ford Ranger Wildtrak is the best all-round package because it delivers the most equipment for the money and aces the others for comfort.
FORD RANGER WILDTRAK
PRICE $66,950 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICE 3 yrs/100,000km, 12 months/15,000km intervals, $1475 over 3 yrs
ENGINE 3.2-litre 5-cyl turbo diesel, 147kW/470Nm
SAFETY 5 stars, 6 airbags, rear camera, lane keeping, radar cruise control
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VW AMAROK TDV6 HIGHLINE
PRICE $58,990 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICE 3 yrs/unlimited km, 12 months/15,000km intervals, $1728 over 3 yrs
ENGINE 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel, 165kW/550Nm
SAFETY 5 stars, 4 airbags, rear camera
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MERCEDES X-CLASS X250d POWER
PRICE $75,520 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICE 3 yrs/200,000km, 12 months/20,000km, $1850 over 3 yrs
ENGINE 2.3-litre 4-cyl twin turbo diesel, 140kW/450Nm
SAFETY 5 stars, 7 airbags, automatic emergency braking, lane wander warning, rear camera
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This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling