Ute-based 4x4 wagons make a lot of sense, both from a vehicle manufacturer’s point of view as well as a consumer’s. Carmakers like them because it’s much easier to make a vehicle off an existing platform than to develop an all-new model, and it also provides benefits of scale, which helps the bottom line. Consumers like them because of their tough commercial-vehicle underpinnings that can stand up to the rigours of off-road driving, yet their revised suspension set-ups (rear coil springs instead of leaf springs) ensure they offer much better ride comfort than the utes on which they’re based.
1. Ford Everest
Based on the Ford Ranger, the best-selling 4x4 ute in the land, the Everest wagon is an excellent tourer with good on-road manners and strong off-road capability.
Four-wheel drive variants of the Ranger start at $52,990 for the base-spec Ambiente, $58,990 for the mid-spec Trend and range through to $74,701 for the top-spec Titanium.
The Everest offers a spacious and comfortable interior with a generous cargo area when the third-row seats are not in use. All Everest models are equipped with safety features such as Dynamic Stability Control, Traction Control, Rollover Mitigation and Trailer Sway Control, along with a full complement of airbags. The Ambiente scores 17-inch alloys, an impressive 10-speaker audio system with an 8-inch colour touchscreen and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, and reversing camera.
The Trend model adds features such as 18-inch alloy wheels, Driver Assist Technology (adaptive cruise control, forward collision alert and lane keeping system), satnav, automatic high beam and a power tailgate.
In addition the Titanium has leather trim, power operated third-row seats, panoramic sunroof, Active Park Assist, Cross Traffic Alert, a tyre pressure monitor, LED headlights and 20-inch alloy wheels.
All Ford Ranger models are powered by Ford’s 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The engine makes a healthy 143kW of power at 3000rpm and 470Nm of torque from a low 1750-2500rpm, providing strong on-road performance with a relaxed character that eats up long distances.
Ford has done a fantastic job tuning the Everest’s suspension to suit local conditions and despite its commercial vehicle underpinnings it provides excellent ride quality and good handling, with well controlled body roll when cornering. The Everest also has a torque-on-demand full-time 4x4 system that automatically apportions drive front to rear as required, which inspires confidence on slippery surfaces.
Off-road performance is good thanks to a combination of factors including impressive ground clearance (225mm), short front and rear overhangs, reasonable wheel travel, excellent low-range reduction, an effective traction control system and a locking rear diff. The Everest also has Ford’s Terrain Management System (TMS) with different drive modes tailored to different terrains: Snow/Grass/Gravel, Sand and Rock modes.
The Everest is one of the more expensive offerings in class but it is packed with safety and convenience features, and arguably offers better on-road ride and off-road capability than its peers.
2. Holden Trailblazer
The Trailblazer is based Holden’s Colorado ute and there are three models in the line-up, all powered by a 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.
The base spec Trailblazer LT starts at a reasonable $47,990, the LTZ is $52,490 and the top of the range Z71 costs $53,490.
While not quite as big as the Everest, the Holden Trailblazer offers a comfortable interior with an attractive albeit dark interior. Standard equipment on the LT includes 17-inch alloys, 7-inch colour touchscreen with Apple Carplay/Android Auto, rear park assist and reverse camera, electronic stability control, hill descent control, hill start assist, trailer sway control and a full complement of airbags.
Additional features on the LTZ include 18-inch alloys, 8-inch screen with satnav, remote vehicle start, leather trim and heated front seats, front park assist, forward collision alert, lane departure warning, blind spot alert, rear cross traffic alert, tyre pressure monitor and electronic climate control. The Z71 has special design features including black alloy wheels and special seat logos.
The Trailblazer’s 2.8-litre turbo-diesel makes a claimed 147kW of power at 3600rpm and a whopping 500Nm of torque at 2000rpm. Engine performance is good and the six-speed auto is a smooth shifter.
On the road the Trailblazer a compliant ride over poor surfaces, and its electric power steering offers a responsive feel. The part-time 4x4 system can be shifted on the fly but four-wheel drive must be disengaged when driving on sealed roads.
Off-road performance is not as good as some other vehicles in class due to the Trailblazer’s lack of ground clearance, ineffective traction control and the abscence of a rear diff lock (it makes do with a limited-slip rear diff). Having said that, low-range gearing is good and the engine offers loads of torque from low in the rev range.
The Trailblazer is a well-priced option in the ute-based 4x4 wagon category. It misses out on some of the goodies offered in other vehicles in this segment, but it’s still loaded with safety and convenience features, and delivers strong on-road performance.
3. Isuzu MU-X
There’s no disguising the fact that the Isuzu MU-X, which is a wagon variant of the company’s D-MAX ute, looks very similar to the Holden Trailblazer. After all, they are based on the same platform.
Despite similarities, the MU-X is a very different vehicle to drive than the Trailblazer. The Isuzu MU-X it is powered by a 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine that can be mated to either a six-speed manual gearbox or an optional six-speed auto. The range consists three models: the $48,000 LS-M, the $50,300 LS-U and the auto-only $56,100 LS-T.
As you’d expect of such closely related vehicles, the MU-X offers similar interior space to the Trailblazer, but it has unique interior styling. Standard equipment across the range includes traction and stability control, hill descent control, reverse camera, rear park assist, six airbags and LED headlights. The base-spec LS-M has a 7-inch touchscreen for audio control, while the higher grades get an-8-inch screen with satnav added. The mid-spec LS-U has climate control and fog lights, while the top-spec LS-T also adds leather trim, electric adjustment for the front seats, a rear 10-inch screen and smart-key entry and start.
Despite modest claimed peak power and torque outputs (130kW at 3600rpm and 430Nm at 2000-2200rpm) the MU-X offers decent on-road performance. The 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine has a nice spread of torque and is quieter and smoother than some others in this segment.
Ride quality is good over poor surfaces thanks to a relatively soft ride but, on the downside, this translates into slightly more body roll than some others in class when cornering; it’s not excessive but noticeable.
Off-road performance is similar to Trailblazer although the MU-X seems to offer more ground clearance. Low-range gearing is reasonable and there’s plenty of torque, but the limited-slip rear diff isn’t as good as a locker when full wheel travel is reached.
The Isuzu MU-X is one of only two vehicles in this segment to offer a manual gearbox (the other is the Toyota Fortuner), so if you like shifting gears then it’s definitely a good option.
4. Mitsubishi Pajero Sport
The Pajero Sport is Mitsubishi’s 4x4 wagon variant of its popular Triton Ute. There are five- and seven-seat variants and all are well equipped and keenly priced.
All Pajero Sport variants are powered by a 2.4-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine mated to a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission.
The base-spec model is the five-seat Pajero Sport GLX, which costs $47,500, while the seven-seat GLS is $51,000 and the top of the range seven-seat Exceed is $56,000.
Standard gear on the Pajero Sport GLX includes 18-inch alloys, Mitsubishi’s excellent Super Select II 4WD selectable on-demand 4x4 system, airbags all-round, traction control, stability control, trailer stability assist, hill start assist, reverse camera and parking sensors, 7-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, and climate control air conditioning.
The Pajero Sport GLS adds a rear diff lock, leather trim, electric-adjust front seats, dual-zone climate control, front parking sensors, rain-sensing wipers and dusk-sensing headlights. In addition the top-spec Exceed has forward collision mitigation, adaptive cruise control, Ultrasonic Misacceleration Mitigation System, blind spot warning, multi-around monitor, heated seats and eight speaker audio system.
Despite the smallest capacity engine, the Pajero Sport offers sprightly performance. Claimed peak power and torque outputs are 133kW at 3500rpm and 430Nm at 2500rpm, and the engine works well with the smooth-shifting eight-speed auto that has a ratio for every occasion.
Ride quality is very good on bumpy surfaces and the Pajero Sport offers lively handling compared to some of the other vehicles in this segment. The selectable on-demand 4x4 system allows four-wheel drive to be engaged on the road, which provides added security and confidence when driving in the wet.
Off-road performance is reasonable, although ground clearance and departure angle aren’t great, so you have to be careful when driving over drainage mounds or exiting gullies. Engaging the rear diff lock (on GLS and Exceed models) cancels the traction control, so in some situations it’s of no benefit at all.
The Pajero Sport offers excellent value for money when you consider how much equipment it’s loaded with, as well as the eight-speed auto and the Super Select II 4WD system.
5. Toyota Fortuner
The Toyota Fortuner is the wagon variant of Toyota’s ever-popular HiLux ute, with a slightly shorter wheelbase and a coil-spring rear suspension set-up rather than leaf springs.
All Fortuner models are powered by a 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine. The base-spec Fortuner GX and mid-spec GXL are available with a six-speed manual gearbox or optional six-speed auto, while the top-spec Crusade comes with the auto only. Prices are $42,590 for the GX and $47,490 for the GXL. The auto transmission adds $2000. The auto-only Crusade is $56,990.
The base-spec Fortuner GX is equipped with 17-inch alloy wheels, traction control, stability control, a rear diff lock, a 7-inch touchscreen display, a full suite of airbags, cool box, auto headlights, reversing camera and rear diff lock. Additional gear on the GXL includes intelligent transmission (manual), paddle shifters (auto), downhill assist control, 4.2-inch colour multi-information display, satnav, keyless entry and start, roof rails and reverse parking sensors
Crusade also gets leather trim, an 11-speaker JBL audio system, power adjustable and heated front seats, power tailgate, climate control air conditioning, LED headlights and a 220V power outlet.
The Fortuner’s on-road performance isn’t exactly startling, with the 2.8-litre turbo-diesel pumping out a claimed 130kW at 3400rpm and and 450Nm at 1600-2400rpm (auto) and 420Nm @ 1400-2600rpm (manual). The engine is, however, one of the smoothest in class and is well matched to the six-speed auto, which provides smooth shifts and tall final drive ratios for relaxed highway touring.
On-road ride and handling is well sorted thanks to local tuning of the suspension. The ride quality is good on secondary roads but isn’t quite a match for the class-leading Ford Everest.
The Fortuner has reasonable ground clearance and offers good approach and departure angles, which help it in off-road terrain. The traction control is also quite effective but unfortunately it deactivates when the rear diff lock is engaged.
The Fortuner is a good thing but its competitors have comprehensively outsold it so far in 2017, which has prompted Toyota to recently drop prices across the range. It will be interesting to see what impact this has on future sales.