Extra-cab ute comparison: Ford Ranger v Mazda BT-50 v Nissan Navara v Toyota HiLux

#hashtags: #Mazda BT #XTR #Mazda

So you don’t want a single-cab ute, and you can’t quite stretch to a dual-cab in terms of budget … the extra-cab ute is the pick-up truck for you.

This style of ute caters to the needs of buyers who want the flexibility of four seats, but tray space closer to that of a single-cab variant.

And while we label them extra-cab utes as a generic term, each manufacturer likes to put their own spin on the body style – here we have the Ford Ranger XLT Hi-Rider Super Cab, the Mazda BT-50 XTR Freestyle Cab, the Nissan Navara NP300 ST King Cab and the Toyota HiLux SR Extra-Cab.

These variants all sit below their dual-cab counterparts in terms of pricing, with a ballpark range of between $44,000 and $50,000. Admittedly, you can get dual-cab models for less, but generally not at this specification level.

As you can imagine with that price range, buyers who choose extra-cab utes are after a bit more than a workhorse. And that’s particularly true of people who purchase the pick-up style models we have here, as they’re commonly used by motorcycle riders and – beware, buzzwords approaching – owners with active lifestyles.

Seriously though, the tray means you can chuck mountain bikes, BMX bikes, dirt bikes, jetskis, snowboards and more in the tray without worrying about damaging interior plastics. In addition, the extra space behind the front seats means you’ve got seating, or secure storage, if you need it.

As for these four utes in particular, there are a few specification quirks that we’ll get to soon. But represented here are the two biggest-selling utes on the market, the Ranger and HiLux; then there’s the new-generation Navara which misses out on coil-spring rear suspension in King Cab guise; and we’ve also brought along the BT-50, which was updated last year and surprised our judges with its all-round competency in dual-cab guise in our mega test late in 2015.

All are diesel, all can load and tow, all have four seats and ‘suicide doors’, and all deserve a spot in this test where we’ll aim to help you choose the best ute for your needs.

Pricing and specifications

As mentioned above, there are differences in the specs that we’ve got for this test, and that was mainly down to price and availability.

For instance, the Toyota HiLux SR Extra-Cab 4×4 tested here is a $44,490 plus on-road costs proposition, which makes it the cheapest on this test. But that’s only because it comes solely with a six-speed manual gearbox – there’s no auto Extra-Cab HiLux anywhere in the world. Weird, right?

The next dearest is the seven-speed automatic Nissan Navara ST King Cab 4×4, which is $45,490 plus on-road costs. You can get a manual version at $42,990 plus on-road costs, so like-for-like against the Lux it’s actually cheaper.

Then there’s the Ford Ranger XLT Hi-Rider Super Cab, at $46,690 plus on-road costs. The biggest point to make about this model is that while it may look like a four-wheel drive, it isn’t: it’s a 4×2, with Ford lacking a 4×4 extra-cab in the sub-$50,000 price bracket, unless you’re buying the manual-only XL, which we asked for, but wasn’t available to us.

The most expensive vehicle here, somewhat surprisingly, is the Mazda BT-50 XTR Freestyle Cab 4×4, which is priced at $49,675 plus on-road costs for the six-speed auto (or $47,675 for the manual).

All four have mixed bags when it comes to standard equipment, too.

Two have satellite navigation as standard: the Ford, with its updated Sync 2 media interface, and the Mazda, with its aftermarket touchscreen unit. If you buy the Navara ST or HiLux SR you’d better hit up Super Cheap for a Garmin to tack on the ‘screen, then.

On the subject of media, all four have Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB and auxiliary inputs, and the HiLux and Ranger have voice control systems. The Ford even has digital radio, where the Toyota has embedded Pandora connectivity and internet capability through a paired phone.

The Ford’s Sync 2 touchscreen is the equal-biggest here, with its 8.0-inch display matching the Mazda’s touch-capacitive unit. The Toyota has a 7.0-inch touchscreen, while the Navara’s little 5.0-inch colour display doesn’t respond to finger pressure, no matter how hard you push it.

The Nissan and Toyota lack in-built satellite navigation, while the Ford has that tech, and the Mazda features both on-road navigation and HEMA off-road mapping, which is excellent if you plan to explore away from the well-beaten path.

The Ford offers dual USB inputs, an SD card slot and auxiliary port, not to mention a rear-mounted powerpoint (230-volt, 150-watt) for charging laptops and the like. No other ute here can match that user-friendliness, and the Ranger also has a six-speaker sound system where the others have four-speaker units.

There are other differentiators: the Mazda and Ford both have dual-zone climate control, where the Toyota and Nissan have dial-driven temp control for the whole cabin.

All four have automatic headlights, while the Mazda and Ford also have auto wipers.

The Toyota has daytime running lights (though they’re halogen units), as does the Nissan (LEDs). The Navara and the Ranger both have sports bars, and the latter’s chrome-laden bar even has lighting for the tray integrated into it. It’s worth noting that Ford throws in a towbar at no cost on XLT models, too.

All vehicles have side steps fitted as standard, but the wheel and tyre packages vary greatly.

The HiLux has tough looking 17-inch black steel wheels (which every CarAdvice tester was a massive fan of, if only for their ‘boss’ appearance) with 265/65 Bridgestone Dueler A/T all-terrain tyres. That rubber gives an indication that this truck is designed with off-roading in mind more than some others here, and that’s backed up by the fact it’s the only one that isn’t rolling on alloys.

The Nissan has the smallest wheels on test, 16-inch units running Dunlop Grandtrek AT20 all-terrain tyres in 255/70 specification: a little bit of extra sidewall, but a little less girth.

The Mazda and Ford both have 17-inch alloy wheels with the former running Dunlop Grandtrek At22 all-terrain tyres in 265/65 specification, while the latter has Bridgestone Dueler H/T highway tyres – because who needs all-terrains on a 2WD ute? – with identical tread size to the Mazda and Toyota (265/65).

When it comes to safety kit, all four vehicles have airbag protection for those up front and those in the rear. There are dual front airbags, front side airbags and curtain airbags to protect those in the rear from side impacts, and the Toyota and Nissan both have driver’s knee airbags, too. All five have the maximum five-star ANCAP crash test rating, too.

As for back-up safety, the Navara, HiLux and BT-50 each have rear-view cameras if you choose the pick-up body style. The Navara and HiLux both show the view through the centre screen, where the BT-50’s display is up in the rear-view mirror, and can be washed out in bright light.

The Ranger doesn’t come with a rear-view camera as standard in XLT specification, which is rubbish, but it is the only one here with rear parking sensors fitted.

That said, it’s the only vehicle of this quartet to have the option of high-tech safety items including adaptive cruise control with forward collision alert and autonomous city braking, not to mention automated high-beam lights. The pack also has lane departure warning and lane-keeping assistance, and the rear-view camera (displayed on the Sync 2 screen) is part of it, and unlike the other utes here, it has dynamic guidelines to help you see where you’ll end up when steering, too. That option box costs $1100 to tick.

Inside

We’ve already mentioned some of the specification differences between these four utes, and there are elements of some that are inherently easier to deal with than in others.

The Ford, Mazda and Nissan, for instance, all have dual bottle/cup holders in between the seats, where the Toyota misses out on one. The Nissan, too, is the only one with rear-seat airvents.

The Ford, Nissan and Mazda lack reach adjustment for the steering wheel, while the Toyota has it – which is a bonus for those with long legs and short arms.

The Ford has, by far, the easiest and most intuitive media system. It is clear, nice to navigate and quick to load. The Toyota’s screen is also good – it has a simple display and while there are some ill-thought-out controls, it’s second best.

At the other end of the scale is the Nissan’s screen, which is pixelated, very slow to load and near impossible to figure out without reaching for the instruction manual.

The Mazda’s screen is marginally better than the Nissan’s, though the menus are hard to learn, and it is frustratingly slow to boot up when you start the car. Thankfully you don’t have to wait for the rear-view camera to show up in the screen, as it’s up in the mirror instead.

As for seating, all four have less-than-ideal levels of space in the second row for bigger adults – check out fellow tester and human brick wall Trent Nikolic in these images! – and buyers with younger children will need to choose carefully, too…

That’s because neither the Nissan nor the Toyota have child-seat anchor points at all. The Ford and Mazda have top-tether points only, and those rearward-opening back doors mean that getting little ones in and out is quite easy.

But of the four, the Nissan is by far the worst in the rear, despite the front part of the cabin arguably being the most SUV-like of this quartet.

It has ledge-like flip-down seats that offer very little in the way of support (or comfort, according to Trent), and the backrest is extremely upright. It’s more cramped than the others, too.

The next worst was the HiLux, which has rear seats that cannot be folded up but can be pulled out (as do the Ford and Mazda). Each has small storage areas for the jack, and you could probably fit snatch-straps and the like. But the Toyota had less headroom than the Ford and Mazda, though it was the only one with opening (pop-out) rear windows.

Trent was our guinea pig for all four and rated the Mazda highest for comfort, but said all of them were “pretty rubbish for use every day”.

As for access, the Ford, Mazda and Toyota all featured logically-placed door levers close to the doorjamb, while the Nissan’s lever is mounted, somewhat inconveniently, further in to the cabin.

Load and towing

Each of these utes can haul some serious heft, and when it comes to towing there’s plenty of pull on offer, too.

All but the Mazda will tow a trailer up to 3500 kilograms (braked), or 750kg un-braked. The BT-50 has 3350kg of braked towing capacity and 750kg un-braked.

When it comes to tray usability, all four vehicles have hard-mounted tie-down hooks.

The Navara’s four tie-down hooks are quite high-mounted, which means smaller items may be a little harder to secure than in the other three vehicles, which have theirs mounted low or mid-way up the tray sides (the HiLux has four loops, and the Mazda and Ford have six).

That said, the Navara is one of only two utes here with a 12-volt plug in the tray – the other is the Ranger, and the Ford is the only one here to come with a full tub-liner as standard.

Our BT-50 had a secondary battery setup with a 12V plug, but that’s certainly not standard. The BT-50, though, is the only ute on test with a tailgate strut that lets the lid drop slowly, rather than thunk down.

In terms of tray space, there’s not much in it.

The Navara’s tray floor measures 1750mm long, 1560mm wide (and 1130mm between the arches), with a depth of 474mm.

The Ranger’s tray floor is long, at 1847mm, and on par for width with 1560mm available and 1139mm between the arches. The depth is better than some, at 511mm.

Being co-developed with the Ford, the Mazda’s tray dimensions are remarkably similar. In fact, they’re identical, at 1847mm along the floor and 1560mm from left to right, with 1139mm between the arches and a depth of 511mm.

The HiLux’s tray splits the difference between the Mazda/Ford pair and the less copious Navara, with a floor length of 1805mm, though it is the most narrow at 1515mm across. The tray is the shallowest of the four vehicles here, too, at 450mm.

While these particular utes may not be coping with the big loads of their cab-chassis or single-cab compatriots, none are terrible in what they can cop. The Navara has the lowest payload of these four, with 999kg for the auto model (the manual ST King Cab 4×4 is good for just a little more: 1002kg).

The next best is the HiLux with 1005kg, which continues the trend of Toyota not quite matching the mass capabilities of rival utes (in our dual-cab test the HiLux had the lowest payload).

It’s a big step up from there to the BT-50, which has an impressive payload of 1163kg in this configuration, and the top hauler here is the Ranger, with an 1176kg payload capacity in 4×2 guise (if you opt for the Ranger Freestyle Cab XLT 4×4, though, that would drop to 1082kg).

Engine and drivetrain

The ute with the smallest engine here is the Nissan Navara, but it’s the only one with twin turbochargers. The 2.3-litre four-cylinder diesel engine produces competitive levels of grunt despite giving some displacement away to its rivals, with 140kW of power at 3750rpm and 450Nm from 1500-2500rpm. As tested, it is fitted with a seven-speed automatic gearbox.

The next-biggest engine is fitted to the Toyota – it’s a 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel unit, producing less power and torque than the downsized Nissan unit. The ‘Lux has 130kW of power at 3400rpm and 420Nm of torque from 1400-2600rpm. It has a six-speed manual gearbox.

The Ford and Mazda both use the same five-cylinder turbo diesel engine producing 147kW of power at 3000rpm and 470Nm of torque – but for the Ford, the peak torque spread is between 1500-2750rpm, where in the Mazda the wall of churn spans from 1750rpm-2500rpm. Both have six-speed auto gearboxes as tested.

The highest claimed consumption of the vehicles on test is the Mazda BT-50, at 9.2 litres per 100km, while the Ranger with its rear-drive layout (and still that big five-cylinder engine) ranks second-worst, at 8.5L/100km. Then it’s the HiLux at 7.6L/100km, and the Navara at 7.0L/100km.

Part of the Navara’s lower fuel use rating comes down to the fact it is dimensionally the smallest vehicle here, and it’s also the lightest at 1911 kilograms versus the HiLux’s 2045kg, the BT-50’s 2056kg and the Ranger’s 2098kg. That final figure is surprising, given the Ranger isn’t hauling the extra hardware of the 4×4 mechanicals.

And while we didn’t match those fuel consumption figures, the rankings worked out to be the same on test, with the Mazda using a claimed 10.5L/100km, the Ford 10.0L/100km, the Toyota 9.1L/100km and the Nissan 8.8L/100km.

On test, all assessors agreed that the BT-50 and Ranger had the most usable drivetrains, with effortless grunt on the move available at the touch of a throttle.

As we found on the dual-cab test, the Ford’s throttle response was a little more enthusiastic than the Mazda’s, meaning it felt a little more rapid on take-off, but also a bit more touchy when it came to small throttle inputs. The Mazda was smoother in the way it revved, and that made for more enjoyable commuting, particularly in stop-start traffic.

All judges were impressed by the quiet, refined nature of the five-cylinder when inside the cabin of the Ford, though it was a little louder at idle in the Mazda.

Another quirk we noted during our dual-cab test was replicated in the gearbox behaviour of the Ford and Mazda, with the latter more likely to hold gears a bit longer than the former. All told, though, the five-cylinder drivetrain is a corker no matter which vehicle it’s fitted to, and leaves little to be desired.

The HiLux and Navara both have strong powerplants, too, with the latter offering up strong mid-range pulling power but a wheeziness at lower speeds and in lower gears. There’s a frustrating amount of mid-range diesel rattle in the Nissan, too, though its gearbox generally behaved very well, responding appropriately to all demands placed on the drivetrain.

The HiLux? Well, to miss out on offering an automatic gearbox sniffs of protecting dual-cab sales to us, because hey, imagine walking into a dealer and being talked up to a dual-cab of the equivalent spec for an extra $4000 – the salesman would be rubbing his hands together.

Cynicism aside, there’s not a lot to complain about with the HiLux’s stick-shift drivetrain, which was found to be largely usable and surprisingly city-friendly.

The engine offers excellent pulling power, particularly if you hit the Power Mode button. There’s an Eco Mode button, too, if that’s your thing.

The manual transmission is smooth shifting, with a nicely weighted clutch action and decent shift feel. Engaging reverse is a little fiddly at times, as you have to push the lever across all the way to the left and up.

All testers remarked on the long gearing of the HiLux – you can leave it in second gear and roll at 20km/h near idling speed or get as far as 80km/h if you rev it out. The question was raised as to whether a shorter diff ratio might lessen the load on the engine somewhat, and also enhance driveability, because if you shift early in second gear in particular, third is deep.

If only the auto was offered in the Extra-Cab, the HiLux would be a lot more user-friendly.

On the road

We towed a jetski, we loaded a motorcycle, and we drove all four utes with empty trays on- and off-road, and there was little to split them.

Now, the off-roading we did wasn’t overly serious, but it was clear that the Ford, with its rear-drive layout and highway-focused tyres, wasn’t as happy as the other three utes here despite having decent credentials for off-road work.

The ground clearance of the Ford is rated at 237mm, which is equal to the BT-50 and better than the Nissan (229mm), but not nearly as great as the HiLux (279mm).

The Ford’s approach angle is 29 degrees and its departure angle is 20deg (at the towbar), which is still decent but not as good as the HiLux (31deg approach and 26deg departure) or the Navara (32.2deg approach and 26.5 departure). The BT-50’s approach angle is 28.2deg and its departure angle is 26.4deg.

The three 4×4 models all have switch-on-the-fly rotary dial controllers with 2H, 4H and 4L modes, and all four utes have rear differential locks, too. Apart from a jaunt on the beach for photos, we stuck with 2WD (and in 2WD, there was limited movement on sand before the bog-watch alarm was sounded).

The Mazda was undoubtedly the firmest riding of the four on the rutted, dusty gravel track where we did most of our off-road driving, with the Navara and Ford not far behind. The most refined of the four off-road was the HiLux.

Conversely, on-road the HiLux was the least comfortable. Its highway ride was questionably firm with no load on board – you could describe it as the sort of suspension setup that makes you think you should hit up the gym a bit more often, such is the jiggle that takes place over rippled surfaces.

That said, with a load on board it settled nicely, but when towing – albeit with a light load – it was still sharper than most.

The Mazda was also on the firm side, but not quite as uncomfortably so, on sealed surfaces. It felt at home with a load in the back or in tow, as its suspension settled to a more comfortable level with weight on board.

The Nissan’s ride was a mixed bag – relatively smooth at the front end, but jostling at times at the rear, particularly without weight on board. With a bit of mass added it was better, but still not the best, feeling a little imbalanced between the front and rear.

As was the case during our dual-cab test, the Ford’s ride was, on the whole, the best of the bunch. It was nicely settled with no load on board, and smooth on sealed surfaces. With a rough surface under-tread, it wasn’t quite as surefooted as the others, feeling a little bouncy over bumps.

The Ford’s electric steering system offers fingertip-light reactions, and it means the ute feels a lot smaller than it actually is when you’re parking or driving at low speeds. As speeds rise the resistance increases, though it is sharp and accurate, too – perhaps even a little too much at highway speeds on the straight-ahead position.

Depending on your preferences, the Mazda’s steering could divide opinion. It is heavy – like stirring concrete heavy – at low speeds, and that means parking it is more painful than it really should be. That said, its steering is direct, linear and very natural at higher speeds and through corners.

The Toyota’s steering was a nice blend of weight, responsiveness and directness. It proved relatively easy to twirl the tiller when parking, and at open-road speeds it was accurate and easy to hold on the straight-ahead.

The Nissan’s steering was easily the worst of the lot. It is slow – dreadfully slow, in fact – at low speeds, and takes a lot of arm work to get the nose to go where you want it. It’s heavy, too, and while it is slightly better at higher speeds on straighter roads, as soon as you go in to a corner it understeers and you need to be at the ready to wind on lock. It’s really frustrating.

Ownership

All four of these utes offer less-than-benchmark warranty cover as standard – if you want the best in the business, check out an extra-cab from Mitsubishi or Isuzu, which both have five-year/130,000km warranty deals.

Toyota has a three-year/100,000km warranty, and so do the Nissan and Ford. The Mazda has a two-year/unlimited kilometre warranty package, but if you haven’t hit 100,000km after two years, it extends to three years/100,000km, whichever occurs first. Odd.

As for servicing, the Toyota requires visits more regularly than its rivals – every six months or 10,000km, whichever occurs first. That could see you become annoyingly familiar with your Toyota dealer, but at least you won’t be forking over much cash every time, with visits capped at $180. The capped-price scheme lasts three years or 60,000km. So, to 60,000km, it’ll cost you just $1080.

Mazda also requires the BT-50 to be serviced every 10,000km or every 12 months, whichever occurs first. The cost over 60,000km works out to be a staggering $2793.

The Ford requires maintenance every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever occurs first. Using the same benchmark of 60,000km, it would cost you $1905.

The Nissan requires maintenance the least-regularly of these four vehicles, with servicing due every 12 months or 20,000km. Over the same 60,000km distance the Nissan would cost $1743.

The HiLux isn’t only the cheapest to buy, then… and if we take a little look at resale values, say after three years or 60,000km as provided by Glass’s Guide, the Toyota again argues a strong case.

After three years/60,000km, the Toyota is calculated to retain 59 per cent of its value, followed by the Ford (58 per cent) and the Mazda and Nissan (55 per cent).

Verdict

This is probably the most difficult comparison test we’ve conducted in recent times in terms of naming a decisive victor. It’s simply not that clear cut in this instance.

For example, the Nissan Navara NP300 ST King Cab offers decent value for money as well as very good economy and power, but it is let down by its cabin ergonomics and woeful steering.

The Mazda BT-50 XTR Freestyle Cab is too expensive, comparatively speaking, and it also costs too much to service. But it nails the brief for performance and practicality arguably better than the other utes here.

The Ford Ranger is probably the most rounded and commuter-friendly model of these four thanks to its lovely road manners, but the lack of a rear-view camera as standard is a joke, and the lack of an automatic 4×4 model in this price range is a bit of an oversight.

The Toyota HiLux SR Extra-Cab hits a few balls out of the park – it is well priced, it has a solid interior and offers up a smack down for off-road credentials. But it’s only available as a manual in extra-cab guise, and that will undoubtedly rule out a lot of buyers.

Of our four testers – Anthony Crawford, Trent Nikolic, Curt Dupriez and myself –the latter three said they’d take the HiLux home if push came to shove, manual gearbox and all. Tony said for him it was always going to be the Ranger, even though it’s not 4×4.

And that’s a good point – if you don’t need a 4×4, the Ranger would be the logical pick. But if you do need off-road capability, then you’ll need to consider what matters most to you.

Click the Photos tab above for more images by Christian Barbeitos, Brett Sullivan and Glen Sullivan.