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BUYING ADVICE

BEFORE YOU MODIFY A UTE - CHECK OUT A LIGHT TRUCK
You can buy a 4WD light truck for less money than most modified utes.

 

At OTA we’re constantly amazed by the lengths people go to, trying to upgrade unsuitable utes for heavy-payload and heavy towing bush work. A 4WD light truck can be a much safer, cheaper and fully-warranted alternative.

 

Light 4×4 trucks are being increasingly marketed to tradies and service industries as alternatives to utes, boasting much greater payloads, even at the car-licence gross vehicle mass (GVM) of 4495kg. As popular-brand 4WD ute prices soar and their tare weights go up, the resulting RRP vs payload calculations don’t look too flash.

A light 4WD truck doesn’t have the modern ute’s ‘cool’ factor, but can still be a tradie’s weekend off road tourer as well as a work vehicle during the week.

The bonus is much roomier crew cab accommodation. Some 4×4 light trucks seat seven, in comparison with ute seating of five, although the inboard rear seats in Japanese trucks have lap-only belts. Alternatively, the crew section can be converted into storage space.

Typical light 4×4 truck pricing is above the price of a base-model 4WD ute – but payloads of the available single-cab light 4WD trucks range from 1.3 tonnes to 2.2 tonnes at car-licence GVM. Payloads at truck-licence GVMs range from 3.9 tonnes to 4.6 tonnes.

Those payload figures make it possible to have a tradie-truck during the week and, with a slide-on camper or motorhome pod, bush accommodation on weekends and on holidays.

An increased availability of single tyres on both axles of Japanese 4×4 light trucks further increased their appeal.

A downside of the Japanese models is their poor ride quality on rough surfaces, but after-market suspension bits and super-single tyres can mitigate that to a large extent. Euro models ride much better, but have had availability issues and offer far less parts and service support in the bush.

Fuso

 

 

The Canter started the whole Japanese light truck 4×4 business, back when it was branded ‘Mitsubishi’. The Canter 4WD model has a special chassis, shaped as a shallow ’S’ that raises the front section over the drive axle, while providing a low load height behind the cab.

Its purpose-designed chassis and small-capacity engine combine to keep weight down, giving the Canter the best payload rating of Japanese light 4×4 trucks that have two-speed transfer cases, at 4495kg GVM.

The Canter is reasonably well equipped, with twin SRS airbags, Hill Start Assist, ABS/EBD drum brakes and conventional multi-leaf springs, but no cruise control.

The Canter comes with a Thornton-type limited-slip rear differential that has positive wet-clutch locking ability.

Ride quality is poor on rough surfaces.

 

Engine:  Three-litre, four-cylinder DOHC diesel, Euro 5

Performance: 110kW @ 2850-3500rpm; 370Nm @ 1350-2840rpm

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Transfer case: Two-speed with 1.987:1 low range ratio

Wheelbase(s): 2815mm; 3415mm (single cab); 3415mm (crew cab)

Payload at 4495kg GVM (including body weight): 1935kg (single cab); 1670kg (crew cab)

Payload at 6500kg GVM (including body weight):  3940kg (single cab); 3675kg (crew cab)

Maximum gross combination mass (GCM): 10,000kg (3500kg trailer maximum).

 

 

Hino

 

 

Hino’s model is the 300 Series 817 and it’s the best equipped of the Japanese offerings. Standard equipment includes Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) – a first for a Japanese-built truck in this category – four-wheel disc brakes, driver and passenger SRS airbags, cruise control, upgradeable air compressor and reversing camera.

Overall gear reduction in first-low is 65:1 and an Eaton No-Spin self-locking rear diff centre is a dealer-fit option. Also available as a dealer-order option is an All Terrain Warriors’ Warrior 300 wide-single tyre fitment, in place of the standard narrow-single-front and duals-rear arrangement. Single-tyre GVMs are 6700kg and 7500kg – the latter, using 19.5-inch wheels and tyres, is the same GVM as that of the dual-tyred truck.

Hino has also developed a winch-compatible and tested aluminium ‘roo bar, in conjunction with East Coast Bullbars. Hino dealers can also fit an eaton NoSpin rear diff centre.

Hino adopted different chassis construction from others in this segment, with duplicate chassis rails at the rear, bolted beneath the standard rails. The upper rails mount the engine and cab, with space underneath for the front drive axle, while the lower chassis at the rear mounts the back axle and suspension. It works, but the design adds to tare weight, giving away around 300kg to the Isuzu NPS.

The Hino 817 also gets the transfer case from the much higher-rated GT truck – strong, but heavy. That allows fitment of a dealer-optional Allison 1000 six-speed automatic transmission, in place of the standard manual box.

Ride quality is slightly better than the Fuso Canter and Isuzu NPS, but not good.

 

Engine:  Four-litre, four-cylinder OHV diesel, Euro 5

Performance: 121kW @ 2500rpm; 464Nm @ 1400rpm

Transmission: Six-speed manual (dealer-option Allison Auto available)

Transfer case: Two-speed with 2.224:1 low range ratio

Wheelbase(s): 3500mm (single and seven-seat crew cab)

Payload at 4495kg GVM (including body weight): 1335kg (single cab); 1090kg (crew cab)

Payload at 7500kg GVM (including body weight): 4340kg (single cab); 4095kg (crew cab).

Maximum gross combination mass (GCM): 11,000kg (3500kg trailer maximum).

 

 

Isuzu NLS

 

Isuzu has two entrants in this light truck class: the low-ground clearance NLS and the high-clearance, low-range-geared NPS.

The NLS is a 4WD derivative of the NLR range, retaining its independent, torsion-bar front suspension, disc front brakes, taper-leaf rear suspension and chassis height. It’s by far the best-riding and handling of all the Japanese 4WD light trucks and shares its engine hardware with the Isuzu Ute range.

NLS models feature ABS and ASR traction control, limited-slip rear diff, Hill Start Aid, driver and passenger airbags and ECE-R29 cab strength compliance. Options include TPMS, satnav, up to four cameras and an aluminium bull bar.

Overall gearing in first gear is limited by an on-demand, single-speed transfer case, to 26:1.

For buyers who want only increased slippery camp site and rough-ground traction the NLS is a ‘traction truck’ that’s around the same price as a ute and can be driven on a car licence.

Driver and passenger comfort is aided by integrated air conditioning, a contoured, adjustable driver’s seat, central locking, cornering lamps, electric windows and mirrors and an updated multimedia system.

 

Engine:  Three-litre, four-cylinder DOHC diesel, Euro 5

Performance: 110kW @ 2800rpm; 375Nm @ 1600-2800rpm

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Transfer case: Single-speed with viscous coupling

Wheelbase(s): 2740mm (single cab); 3360mm (six-seat crew cab)

Payload at 4495kg GVM (including body weight): 2200kg (single cab) 2065kg (crew cab)

Maximum gross combination mass (GCM): 8000kg (4000kg trailer maximum).

 

 

Isuzu NPS

 

 

Isuzu’s NPS 45/155 is the market-leading 4×4 light truck and Isuzu has kept its proved specification quite basic: ‘lazy’ five-litre engine; drum brakes; limited-slip rear diff and conventional multi-leaf springs.

A plus for serious off-road use is that the engine complies with Euro V emissions requirements without the need for a diesel particulate filter (DPF). It’s the only compliant diesel in the 4×4 light truck market to do this.

The concessions to modernity are twin SRS airbags, ABS, Hill Start Assist, cruise control, powered mirrors and an optional automated manual transmission (AMT). The AMT is Isuzu’s third generation design and works, on and off road, as a two-pedal box.

Overall gearing in first-low in both transmissions is 54.5:1.

Ride quality is poor on rough surfaces, but after-market fitments include suspension upgrades and wide-single tyres.

 

Engine:  5.2-litre, four-cylinder SOHC diesel, Euro 5

Performance: 114kW @ 2600rpm; 419Nm @ 1600-2600rpm

Transmission: Five-speed manual and optional five-speed AMT

Transfer case: Two-speed with 1.842:1 low range ratio

Wheelbase(s): 3395mm (single cab and seven-seat crew cab)

Payload at 4495kg GVM (including body weight): 1545kg (single cab); 1305kg (crew cab)

Payload at 7500kg GVM (including body weight): 4550kg (single cab); 4310kg (crew cab)

Maximum gross combination mass (GCM): 11,000kg (3500kg trailer maximum). Maximum trailer mass at 4495kg GVM is 4500kg.

 

 

VW Crafter

 

 

Like the other European brands the VW Crafter is most commonly bought as a front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive van, but 4Motion four-wheel-drive cab/chassis with up to four tonnes GVM are available. 4Motion models are based on the front-wheel-drive chassis, with a propshaft driving the rear axle.

Ride and handling are vastly superior to Japanese light 4WD trucks.

All Crafter 4Motion variants are single-tyred, four-tonnes GVM models, with hill descent control and rear diff lock optional. Ground clearance is 195mm.

Safety and equipment levels are passenger-car like and include six airbags, daylight running lights, ABS with EDL and emergency city braking and hill start assist. Four-wheel discs, traction control and ESP are standard, as is adaptive cruise control and regenerative braking. Mirrors are powered and heated.

 

Engines: Two-litre diesel, with single or twin-turbo, Euro 6

Performance: 103kW @ 3500rpm and 340Nm @ 2000rpm; 130kW @ 3600rpm and 410Nm @ 2000rpm

Transmissions: Six-speed manual and optional eight-speed automatic

Transfer case: Single speed, on demand 4WD

Wheelbases: 4490mm (single and six-seat crew cab)

Payload: at 4000kg GVM (including body weight): 1930kg (single cab); 1871kg (crew cab)

Maximum gross combination mass (GCM): 6500kg (2500kg trailer maximum).

 

 

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

 

 

The Sprinter 4×4’s previous four-cylinder OM651 and six-cylinder OM642 engines were replaced in 2022 by a single four-cylinder, two-litre OM654 engine, that complies with Euro VI emissions standards. This new engine has aluminium block and head, plus Nanoslide, iron-carbon cylinder wall coating.

AWD models come only with the top-shelf 140kW/450Nm engine, with twin turbochargers, coupled to a new 9G-Tronic nine-speed auto. The 4×4 system is on-demand, with torque proportioning between front and rear axles, via a single-speed transfer case.

 

 

Where the previous Sprinter 4×4 used components fitted by Oberaigner in Austria, a former Mercedes-Benz partner company, the 2023 Sprinter’s transfer case and front differential are from Magna Steyr, who developed the 4Matic system for Mercedes-Benz car models.

The 4Matic system is integrated with ESP and 4ETS traction control to aid driving dynamics. Like all European cab/chassis the Sprinter comes with a full suite of passenger-car-like dynamic and passive safety features.

Cab/chassis Sprinter 4x4s have one GVM rating only – 5.5 tonnes – and have rear duals. Ground clearance is a claimed 190mm and wading depth, 350mm.

 

Engine: Two-litre diesel, twin-turbo, Euro 6

Performance: 140kW @ 3600rpm and 450Nm @ 2000rpm

Transmission: Nine-speed automatic

Transfer case: On-demand 4WD

Wheelbases: 3665mm, 4325mm (single and six-seat crew cab)

Payload: at 5500kg GVM (including body weight): 3200kg (single cab); 3000kg (crew cab) Maximum gross combination mass (GCM): 7500kg (2000kg trailer maximum).

 

 

Iveco Daily

The Daily 4WD that was launched in Australia in 2013 featured live beam axles front and rear. It was an immediate success and was subsequently upgraded in 2017 and 2018. In service issues were premature wear in the transfer case bushes and braking imbalance – both of which were addressed.

At the Brisbane Truck Show in 2019, Iveco previewed its replacement that featured a return to independent torsion-bar front suspension that early Daily 4x4s had in the 1990s. This model also had a new two-speed transfer case, replacing the previous three-speed unit.

Our first drive in a dealer’s cab/chassis revealed considerable driveline noise and vibration, so we weren’t surprised when the planned product launch was postponed.

A few Daily 4x4s were sold to mining companies in 2020-2022, with a road speed limit of 80km/h.  A revised transfer case became available in 2022, but our brief drive in a 2023 dealer truck showed that performance and ride quality were excellent, but there was noticeable transfer case whine.

A relaunch, with a ‘fixed’ transfer case, was planned for mid-2024.

If it ever becomes available, the 2024 Daily 4×4 is powered by the familiar three-litre, four-cylinder diesel, but with Euro 6 compliance and outputs of 134kW and 430Nm. The standard box remains a six-speed, but the new auto is an eight-speed ZF Hi-Matic. Three differential locks are standard.

Like the other European cab/chassis the Daily 4×4 has a full suite of dynamic and passive safety aids.

Iveco Australia has stipulated only one GVM rating of seven tonnes, so as with the Sprinter cab/chassis, there is no car-licence variant.

 

Engine: Three-litre diesel, twin-turbo, Euro 6

Performance: 134kW @ 3500rpm and 430Nm @ 1500rpm

Transmissions: Six-speed manual and optional eight-speed automatic

Transfer case: Two-speed

Wheelbases: 3480mm, 3780mm and 4175mm (single and crew cab)

Payload at 7000kg GVM (including body weight): 4000kg (single cab); 3660kg (crew cab)

Maximum gross combination mass (GCM): 10,500kg (3500kg trailer maximum).

 

 

Ute conversions

Other AWD buying choices for a DIY motorhome are the RHD-converted 3500-series light 4WD trucks from RAM, Ford and Chevrolet, out of the USA. Pricing is steep, from around 150 grand and ute tubs are the only available bodywork, but a Yank Ute makes a bold statement!

Yet another route is to extend the chassis of a 4WD ute – Ford Ranger size – and add a third axle. This addition can be done as a full 6WD conversion, or as a 6×4, with a ‘dead’ trailing axle. Both conversions retain the existing rear drive axle and propshaft, but the 6×4 doesn’t involve the cost of an additional drive axle, inter-axle diff and jackshaft, so it’s obviously cheaper than a full 6×6 job.

For most light-truck purposes, a 6×4 is adequate and the chances of getting bogged by having only the front driving axle and the non-driving third axle with traction are slim. In the case of Six Wheeler Conversions’ refit the rear drive axle retains around 60-percent of imposed load in most circumstances and the rear axle travel is around 300mm, making it unlikely to be ‘hung up’ on rough sites.

Professional conversion companies have second manufacturer status, so a brand new cab/chassis can be converted before first rego and the upgraded GVM and specs are granted national compliance approval. A typical 6×4 converted and compliant, brand-new, base-model ute, complete with new, longer tray is around the $95-110,000 mark.

 

 

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