TWENTY-TWENTY was a memorable year, mainly for reasons we’d rather put behind us and forget. However, through the turmoil the auto industry delivered a small but solid group of new four-wheel drive vehicles that are worthy contenders for our 4X4 Of The Year crown.
2021 ISUZU D-MAX
MAZDA BT-50 XTR
TOYOTA HILUX SR5+
JEEP GLADIATOR RUBICON
LAND ROVER DEFENDER
The vehicles are a mix of all-new models and some updated ones, the revival of an old name, a few utes and a single wagon. It’s an interesting spread across a broad price range and different styles of cars.
4X4OTY comes to you a bit later this time as, due to the opening and closing of borders and lockdowns, we couldn’t get our testing done at the usual time in December. Even now, we had to shoot-out with a limited field of finalists to find a winner.
PAST 4X4OTY WINNERS: 1980s
As always, the vehicles are judged not against each other but against a long-established set of criteria. This is what allows us to test and score a $40,000 work ute alongside a $100,000-plus luxury four-wheel drive.
4X4OTY JUDGING CRITERIA
VALUE FOR MONEY is judged according to a vehicle’s equipment level, safety features and price relative to its direct competitors. Just because a vehicle has a high price doesn’t mean it’s not good value, in the same way a cheap car doesn’t always represent good bang for your buck.
BREAKING NEW GROUND refers to advancements in technology and design. How a vehicle has raised the bar in the class it fits in and taken 4x4s to a higher level. If a vehicle has the latest safety features, worthy engine technology or an advanced driveline, it will score well here.
BUILT TOUGH refers to how strong a vehicle is and how well it will cope with the rigours of tough off-road driving environments. Will it be up to the task of carrying loads and outback travel, or fall apart at the first hurdle?
BUSHABILITY is how well a vehicle is equipped for off-road travel. Suitability of the standard tyres for rough roads, touring range, available accessories and underbody protection are just some of the factors considered here. Is this a vehicle you would choose to drive around Australia the rough way, or is it best left to the suburbs?
DOING THE JOB is judged according to a vehicle’s design brief. Does a luxury vehicle have all the latest in comfort and convenience features and do they work in the real world? How well a ute carries a load, or a seven-seater accommodates a family will all come in to play here.
At the end of a week of testing both on- and off-road, our team of testers score each of the vehicles against the five criteria to give each car a score out of 50. The car with the highest combined score wins – nothing else comes into the outcome.
AFTER five days of testing and with only four cars left after day two (read about that later this week), there was no obvious winner, yet each of the drivers had shared their opinions, likes and dislikes on each car.
They agreed that the new D-MAX is a step up over the previous model but questioned whether or not it has strayed away from its dependable, value-for-money selling point now that it has more tech and its prices are higher. They agreed the working-class LS-M has everything you need in a touring or working 4x4, but all thought it was priced high when compared to other vehicles in its class.
Ron Moon commented: “The D-MAX is a solid, reliable dual-cab ute but seemed expensive with the accessories added.” That pretty much summed-up all the opinions.
The Isuzu’s Mazda brother appeared better priced for the equipment included, even though it was one spec level above the D-MAX. One tester mentioned it felt better put together and more solid, and that he’d happily pay the extra money for it. Even though it failed to proceed on day three of the test, the drivers rated it better value-for-money and better priced among its competitors in the dual-cab ute class.
“I’ve never been so impressed with a Hilux before,” said Ronny at the end of day five of testing. “It ticked all the boxes, whether you want it for work or play.”
This echoed the judges’ opinions of the Toyota with one saying, “This is what the Hilux should have been when it was released five years ago; it’s taken Toyota this long to get it right.”
The Hilux SR5 wasn’t the highest scorer in any criteria but it scored consistently across the group.
Throughout the week it was obvious that each of the drivers loved getting behind the wheel of the Gladiator, but they all complained about the cramped space in the driver’s footwell as well as some other ergonomic grievances. However, there was no questioning its off-road ability, even if it was widely agreed that it needs a raise in ground clearance. The $80K price of the Rubicon model and the lack of a diesel engine variant were also causes for concern for the Australian market.
The high purchase price was again in question when we spoke about the Defender, especially when you consider the last one was almost half the price. Sure, the new model is nothing like that last one and has the latest tech features in it to make it more capable, safer and easier to live with, but is it worth twice the price of the old one? The complexity of accessing some of the Defender’s user controls was also a bit much for some.
All agreed that the Defender was very capable and nice to drive no matter the terrain or road surface. A few mentioned the poor ride quality when you have the suspension jacked up to its highest level.
WINNER: TOYOTA HILUX SR5
THE Toyota Hilux SR5 took out our 4X4 Of The Year award with consistently high scores across the criteria from each of our judges. Scoring 181 from a possible 250 points, the Hilux edged out the Defender (175), the Gladiator (172), the BT-50 (153), and the D-MAX (145 points).
The Hilux didn’t put a foot wrong all week, simply getting on with the job at hand as any working ute should do. Its available wheel travel and excellent ETC calibration make it very capable off-road, while leaving nothing off the table on it. The level of standard features in the SR5+ grade make the Hilux great value-for-money at $63K (+ORC), especially when you line it up against the many other utes in its category.
The extra performance and driveability Toyota has tuned out of the 2.8-litre engine gives the Hilux a new lease on life, waking up what was described as a lacklustre performer in the past. When you add that it recorded the lowest average fuel consumption on this test, the value-for-money aspect looks even better.
Toyota has listened to the market and made the changes to make the Hilux great again, and its sales number since the updated model was launched in September reflect as much.