It’s a question asked all the time, should I tow with a ute or a wagon, and why?
Ten years ago this wouldn’t even have been an article, it’d have been a one-word answer – wagon. Utes at the time were slow, lacked comfort features, had poor safety, were underpowered, uncomfortable and poor off-roaders. All they offered was greater bulk carrying capacity and payload, but many towers didn’t need that capability, so wagons were the clear choice.
Today the picture is quite different, and utes are outselling wagons because the capability gap has closed. Or has it, from the perspective of a tower, not an off-roader or a tradie? Time for some analysis.
Here’s the three styles of ute body, compared to the wagon equivalent – Triton and Pajero Sport
WHAT’S ON THE MARKET?
We can group both utes and wagons into three capacity classes – small, medium, and large. The small wagons are the SUVs such as the Toyota Kluger, Nissan Pathfinder, Land Rover Discovery Sport and Hyundai Santa Fe – not all of these are physically small, but usually at 2000kg and under, their towing capacity is well down on the next classes up. The medium wagons are the likes of the Toyota Prado and Fortuner, Ford Everest, Isuzu MU-X and Mitsubishi Pajero Sport – those last four are wagons developed from utes, and their capacity is around 2500-3100kg. The big wagons include LandCruiser LC200, Nissan Y62 Patrol and the Land Rover Discovery just about makes that cut too, as these are all 3500kg rated.
For the utes, the only really small one is the Great Wall Steed, tow rated to 2000kg. The mediums class is huge as these are the top-selling vehicles in Australia, including the Ford Ranger, Toyota HiLux, Mitsubishi Triton, Mazda BT-50, Isuzu D-MAX, Nissan Navara, VW Amarok but no longer the Holden Colorado or Mercedes-Benz X Class. All these are rated around 3000-3500kg. The large utes are all special imports or right-hand-drive conversion – the likes of the RAM 1500 and 2500, the Toyota Tundra and Ford F-250, and they go up beyond 6000kg with the right equipment such as a pintle not a 50mm towball.
This Pod trailer weighs less than 1000kg loaded, a third of this Everest’s maximum tow, so the Ford is easily able to pull it across sand. Trying to do the same with say a Kluger rated to 2000kg would be much harder work, and the same goes for dragging a trailer up and down freeway hills at speed. Always buy as much tow capacity as you can afford!
SO WHAT’S IMPORTANT FOR TOWING?
Lots of vehicle choice, but the first thing to say is that size matters for towing. A big, heavy vehicle, be it ute or wagon, will be better for towing than a smaller vehicle, so any ute/wagon comparison has to be between vehicles of similar size. Taking the small class first. If you’re reading this, then you’re probably a recreational caravan tower looking at towing 2000kg or more. That means the small classes are too small for your purposes. Reasons? Few caravans are under 2000kg, you’ll often find the SUV’s towball mass is problematic even if you find a light van, the SUV payload is small, and the suspension is designed to be soft for lightly-loaded suburban runs, not towing, with limited aftermarket options. Nevertheless, for small trailers such as campers with trailer weights of 1500kg or under that will stay on bitumen, the small class is an option
What we’ll focus on for this article is the bulk of the market, which is the medium class, the likes of Everest vs Ranger, and MU-X vs D-Max. The differences we’ll describe for this class largely carry over into the other size classes.
The biggest of the wagons such as the LC200 are no match for the tow capability of the big American utes like the F-250, as you can see from the wheelbase alone in this photo, let alone the extra mass, power and features such as towing mirrors. Recommend for trailers 3000kg and over
TOW RATINGS AND TOWABILITY
Utes win the battle of the tow ratings, as the lowest ute is about the highest wagon. For example Ford’s Ranger tows 3500kg (in theory) compared to the Everest which is 3100kg, and the Isuzu D-Max tows 3500kg compared to the MU-X on 3000kg. The lowest utes are the Triton on 3100kg, and HiLux on 3200kg (the now-discontinued manual HiLux towed 3500kg, which is a reminder that maximum tow weight often varies depending on engine and transmission, so check your specific vehicle).
The average tow rating across Colorado, Triton, Ranger, HiLux and D-Max is 3360kg, whereas for Trailblazer, Pajero Sport, Everest, Fortuner and MU-X it is 3000kg. Payload averages are 970kg vs 646kg, and those figures were calculated from similar trim levels, all automatic diesels.
But before we award the win to the utes, let reality intervene. The maximum tow rating is a now a significant marketing number for utes, taking over from maximum torque. Car marketers push for the highest possible tow rating, and a very good example of this was the PX Ranger which was first released with a 3350kg rating. But that looked poor compared to the 3500kg rating of competitors, so Ford made some minor changes to the chassis – not the engine, transmission or anything else – and upped the rating to 3500kg. I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the marketing people forced that change on the engineers.
When you do the maths to figure out what you can really tow, you may find that the headline rating isn’t actually that achievable in real life for either class of vehicle, and especially so for the utes. I wouldn’t want to tow anything more than 3000kg with any of the medium vehicles, if that.
The Ranger XL and other “tradie” utes offer new-car capability but without any modern luxuries for a very cheap starting price, but that may well be enough luxury for you. Base-spec wagons have somewhat fallen out of the market, so utes are your new ‘poverty-pack’ option. On the other hand, no ute can match the performance or luxury of the Jaguar F-Pace or Maserati Levante, rated to tow 2400kg and 2700kg respectively … but for a lot more money!
RIDE, HANDLING AND PERFORMANCE
Ride and handling is important, because you want a safe, predictable, comfortable, low-effort vehicle for towing. Here wagons have the edge. They run softer suspension, and utes generally run leaf springs at the back, which ride relatively harshly and aren’t great for handling. That said, while the difference is noticeable, most people find the modern ute’s ride and handling is more than good enough for their purposes. Certainly, a MY2020 ute rides and handles better than an MY2000 wagon, and that never stopped people exploring Australia.
Another advantage wagons have is that they are typically all-wheel-drive (AWD), and the utes have part-time 4WD systems which must be run in 2WD when on high-traction surfaces like bitumen. Examples here are the AWD Everest and Prado, vs the part-time Ranger and HiLux. There are some exceptions, for example the MU-X and Fortuner are part-time and the Triton ute is AWD, as are auto Amaroks, but generally you should prefer an AWD drivetrain for towing because it offers greater traction and stability when accelerating, cornering and even slowing down using engine braking. The difference becomes more apparent on wet roads and on dirt.
As far as sheer power to weight ratios go, it’s even. The engines and gearboxes are often shared, and the unladen weights are close so there’s very little in it when comparing ability to maintain 110km/h on freeway hills.
Almost all vehicles are ANCAP-rated five stars these days, but like towing, that headline rating doesn’t tell the full story. I once tested a Suzuki Swift Sport against an AMG A45, and noted both were five stars, but the AMG had a plethora of advanced electronic aids which the Suzuki lacked. In the same way, wagons tend to beat utes on safety, usually on advanced electronic safety aids, which ANCAP calls SAT or Safety Assist Technologies. For example, the Prado has rear traffic cross alert and the HiLux doesn’t. The Triton has a single child restraint tether, the Pajero Sport has two ISOFIX mounts, and three tethers. Generally though, the safety gap is closing, and higher-spec utes often equal mid-spec wagons. The Ford Everest Titanium has active park assist, whereas the Ranger version is more basic.
The ute can fit more in the back, once you’ve added a service body or canopy, but you’re more likely to need drawers or similar to access all that space compared to a simpler setup for a wagon
STORAGE AND SEATING
The ute wins for storage when you’ve set it up (more on that below). You’ll have a squarish-storage area of around 1500x1700mm, dimensions the wagon cannot hope to match. The ute’s cabin is also separated from the cargo area, which means opening up the back doesn’t mean unlocking the cabin, it takes less effort to heat or cool the smaller cabin, and dirty gear like chainsaws or jerry cans don’t pollute the cabin. However, the wagon may be able to seat seven, and even seat five better than the ute (unless it’s a US derivative).
The ute does, however, offer huge flexibility in body types and what you do aft of the cabin. You can keep the tub, add a canopy, or remove the tub and add a tray or service body. Wagons don’t offer anything like that choice.
Where the smaller utes can’t compete with the US trucks like RAM, is the rear-seat accommodation
PURCHASE AND SET-UP COST
I averaged the price of Colorado, Triton, Ranger, HiLux, D-Max, Trailblazer, Pajero Sport, Everest and Fortuner for the same popular mid-spec – and it was a close result, just $200 in it. But, that’s not the whole story; you also need to consider set-up costs.
For towing heavy your typical list includes a towbar, towing mirrors, electric brake controller, possibly upgraded suspension and a long-range tank. That’s going to be the same whether you have a ute or a wagon, with the possible exception that the ute may not be as in need of a suspension upgrade as the wagon. However, the ute is going to need something on the tub to make it a secure and weatherproof space, unlike a wagon which doesn’t.
At minimum, that’ll be a canopy and you’re looking at between $2000 and $5000 depending on the quality, and whether you want features such as central locking, which is useful but then means you can’t lock the canopy and let people into the front only. It’s also difficult to get inside the cargo area of a ute which is around 1500mm long, especially with a tailgate that adds another 400mm plus, so you’ll probably want some form of basic storage system such as drawers. And you then need to consider that dustproofing a ute tub is extra effort, especially around the tailgate and with cheaper canopies. Overall, I’d say a wagon is cheaper to set up for the average tower, given the purchase price is likely to be the same.
The other cost consideration is your luxury/cost equation. Utes can go cheap and basic, well basic by 2020 standards. I checked driveaway prices for a base-model Ranger 4X4 XL dual-cab, which would cost me $53,011, whereas the cheapest Everest is $59,680. The Triton GLX 4X4 dual-cab manual is $37,240 but the cheapest Pajero Sport is $45,990. I wouldn’t rule out these basic utes, as they are still ANCAP five-star rated, have aircon, Bluetooth and lots of other features. They also have the advantage of being lighter, and therefore offering more payload.
On the other hand, if you want real luxury, then a wagon is your choice. The likes of the Toyota Prado Kakadu or Pajero Sport Exceed simply aren’t available in ute trim levels, although Ford’s Wildtrak is comparable to Ford’s top-spec Everest Titanium trim.
Wagons win on two counts, maybe three. They are slightly shorter than utes by around half a metre, with tighter turning circles by nearly a metre, and rear visibility is often better. They are also more likely to have reversing cameras, parking sensors, and even 360-degree surround cameras. However, the difference is not great, and utes can be driven into tight shopping centre car parks too, they just take a little more care and thought when manoeuvring. I would suggest a ute with aids such as cameras and sensors is easier to manoeuvre than a wagon without.
Both wagon and ute will take tourers anywhere they wish to go off-road, but in a direct back-to-back comparison but wagon will edge the ute. This is because of the shorter wheelbase, meaning a greater ramp-over angle, often better departure angle as there’s less overhang, better suspension flex from coil springs, and better manoeuvrability due to a shorter length and tighter turning circle. Wagons are also more likely to have advanced electronic calibration, for example the Everest has Ford’s Terrain Management system but Ranger does not, except for the Raptor. These systems make a small but noticeable difference off-road.
The range of modifications available to you depends more on which specific vehicle you’ve bought more than whether it is a ute or wagon. Vehicles that are popular for towing or off-roading will have more accessories; ones that aren’t, won’t. Examples of accessories tourers may wish to fit include bullbars, heavy-duty suspension, long-range tanks, replacement towing mirrors and storage systems. You can find these for, say, the Ford Everest and Ford Ranger, but not for the Land Rover Discovery or LDV 60.
Utes and wagons operate under different regulations and have slightly different running costs. My ute rego in Victoria is less than that of my road car, for example, but my toll road fees are higher for the ute. You’ll also find that because utes are commercial vehicles, their emission standards lag a little behind wagons, which is why MY2020 Everests have AdBlue, and MY2020 Rangers do not.
GO BIGGER THAN RANGER/EVEREST/HILUX/PRADO – THE LARGER OPTIONS
The comparison above is mostly aimed at the medium vehicles such as the Everest and Ranger. The large 4X4 wagons – Patrol, LC200 and Discovery – all tend to be better towers than the medium utes, as they weigh 2500kg plus, have relatively short rear overhangs, powerful engines and all-wheel-drive. The Discovery is the only question mark as now some versions cannot tow 3500kg. The big American utes are even better than these large wagons. We’ve done a back-to-back test of an LC200 vs an F-250 and Silverado – and the wagon lost, badly.
If you’re looking to tow, both the wagon and ute will do the job. My personal view is that I’d tend towards a wagon for comfort, performance, convenience and cost, unless you particularly need the payload and bulk carrying capacity of the ute.
There are also 2WD versions of some 4X4 vehicles, namely Everest, Ranger and MU-X which offer the same tow capacity and everything else except the 4X4 drivetrain, but they’re lighter and cheaper. We’ll explore that option soon.
Finally, regardless of your choice, don’t believe the headline tow figures for any vehicle!
UTE OPTIONS, CABS AND DRIVETRAINS
Wagons are just wagons, not real option for any variation, except for rare short-wheel-base vehicles such as the JL Wrangler three-door and forthcoming Land Rover Defender. Utes, on the other hand, offer real choice. There’s three main body styles, all on the same wheelbase:
- Single-cab – two-seat, usually sold only as a cab-chassis (with no tub)
- Dual-cab – five-seater with a full-size second row. Also known as a crew-cab, or double-cab.
- Extra-cab – four or five-seat, cab size part-way between single and dual-cab, enough room for small, basic seats. Usually has small doors than open forwards called suicide doors. Also known as king-cab, or super-cab.
Typical lengths for your tub, tray or service body are 2400mm for a single-cab, 2100mm for an extra-cab and 1800mm for a dual-cab.
Not all body styles are available in all transmission and drive options. Typically the highest-spec models will be only 4X4, automatic, diesel and dual-cab, and the single cab, manuals and petrols tend to be lower-spec models aimed at commercial owners. Ford’s highest-spec single cab is the XL, and their highest-spec extra-cab is the XLT – the top-end Wildtrak trim is for dual-cab 4X4s only.
The dual-cab is best for anyone who will regularly transport more than one passenger. I would preference extra-cabs over singles as if it’s just two of you travelling the tub loadspace in an extra-cab is more than ample, and it’s nice to have a little larger cabin than a single – you can recline seats, carry passengers if needs be, and store things like cameras or a small fridge on the back seat. The exception would be if you want to carry something like slide-on camper so you’ll need maximum room behind the cabin, although some slide-ons are designed even for dual-cabs.