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Look among our used utes for sale and you’ll find almost as much variety in style, equipment and specification as the types of vehicles that we used to perceive as being much more mainstream – SUVs for example.
That’s because the days of utes being simply commercial vehicles to carry bricks to the building site or lug hay around the farm are long gone. A second hand ute is just as likely to be a great family vehicle as it is a tradie's workhorse. So why have they become so popular?
Utes have always been very popular in New Zealand, but over the last decade or so they have become very popular with an enormous range of buyers, including many who wouldn’t have considered this type of vehicle before. A used ute is not necessarily just a workhorse; it can just as easily be purchased for family or recreational use (or all three). Hence the tag that seems to have stuck to modern utes: they are now “lifestyle” vehicles.
The basic concept of a one-tonne ute hasn’t changed a lot in that time: it’s still a light truck on a ladder frame with a tray on the back – or in some cases a bare chassis that allows you to create whatever utility arrangement you like.
What has changed is the image and specification of utes. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where that started to happen, but if you take a look at examples of the used Ford Ranger you’ll see that around a decade ago, the Wildtrak model was introduced and really struck a chord with buyers outside the usual ute market: it was dressed up almost like a luxury or sports vehicle, with special trim and fancy wheels. It was a Ford ute that could easily replace a sedan or wagon.
Most ute makers have followed suit and offer dressed-up models to appeal to buyers of more mainstream vehicles. Private and business buyers have also followed that trend with their own accessory choices; go looking for a second hand Nissan Navara, for example, and you’ll find many that have been dressed up with accessories and equipment. Not necessarily an ordinary Nissan ute.
The image of a 2nd-hand ute appeals, no question. But these models can also be genuinely practical family and recreational vehicles; they’re certainly not all show.
Double cabs are by far the most popular, and they make for good family transporters. The high seating position makes children happy, as does the idea that they’re riding in a “truck”!
There’s an element of safety that appeals to many buyers as well. While it’s true that utes do not have the ride and handling of a conventional car, they do have incredible tough underpinnings and the high ride height provides an advantage in traffic.
A ute tray provides a lot of scope for load-carrying, including things cars simply can’t swallow – like the family bikes or kayaks. Fit a canopy and you can carry gear just as securely as a conventional wagon too.
In fact, the sheer range of accessories offered for most big ute brands is a real selling point for many. But a second hand Ford Ranger or used Nissan Navara can be the gateway to a lot of cool stuff that can help you personalise the vehicle to suit your own unique needs.
Despite the explosion of lifestyle-type utes, the key thing to remember is that the basic configuration of these light trucks hasn’t changed. They haven’t gone “soft” and can still all the stuff they used to do.
Others might actually need to use that ability for work and play, and the big-name utes are still well up to the task. If you need to tackle rough terrain in your used Ranger or tow a 3.5-tonne boat with your second hand Navara, you can rest assured that they will do it.
Most utes are powered by strong turbo diesel engines, which are capable of very high mileages if maintained correctly. They have a relaxed character in different driving situations as they produce high torque from very low engine speed. And while utes are larger and heavier than your average sedan or wagon, those unstressed diesel engines can still be quite economical if driven sympathetically.
If you don’t need off-road ability, 2WD utes have also become very popular in recent years. Most retain the look and high ride height of their 4x4 siblings, but they deliberately avoid the extra weight and complexity of the off-road hardware, with further benefits in fuel efficiency and maintenance/repair costs.