It’s taken the officials from the popular Ford Falcon vs Holden Commodore V8 Utes racing category to raise the question that few Australians dare to ask. Will there still be an Aussie ute around by 2015? And if there isn’t, what will they race instead?

For anyone working to a five-year plan, it’s a valid question that must be under scrutiny in Holden and Ford boardrooms, in Australia and in Detroit. Chances are that it has already been answered.

The Aussie ute is one of the few Aussie icons yet to fall to imported alternatives or be hijacked by an overseas company – but there is not much in it. A trend in sales figures over the past decade cannot be ignored.

The versatility of the AU Falcon's cab-chassis design was an instant hit with buyers.

Back in the year 2000, Ford sold 10,493 utes in the first full year of the AU Falcon cab-chassis against 8,342 Commodore utes.

Even if the AU sedan could never be as popular as its VT Commodore rival, the order was reversed with the ute. Ford seemed to have made the right choice opting for the cab-chassis over Holden’s unitary styleside ute, offering full load flexibility with the refinements and safety of a current passenger car.

This was at a time when the imported cab-chassis light trucks were still a long way short of the local product in handling, grunt, braking, safety and cabin comfort.

VU Commodore's unibody design was in stark contrast to AU Falcon's cab-chassis. It still is today.

Also in 2000, Ford struggled to shift 2,568 4×2 and 3,254 4×4 Couriers while Holden found homes for 10,564 4×2 and 8,286 4×4 Rodeos. It is fair to observe that Holden, by not offering a Commodore cab-chassis, more than made up for it in extra Rodeos which offered more drivetrain options than Ford’s Courier.

And even if the Commodore ute surrendered 2000 sales to the Falcon, Holden’s single Commodore ute style was probably more profitable and easier to build.

It’s worth noting that also in 2000, Toyota was selling 10,261 4×2 and 11,830 4×4 Hilux examples while Nissan sold 2,079 4×2 and 2,635 4×4 Navaras – both significant figures.

FG Falcon ute has never been better, yet sales have been in constant decline.

A decade later, in 2010, Ford’s FG ute range – the best in the local company’s history with its combination of style and cab-chassis versatility – struggled to find 9,099 buyers in a buoyant ute market. By comparison, the Commodore ute soared to 11,405 with just one body style.

But that’s not the end of it. The old generation Colorado (Holden’s rebadged Rodeo) had slumped to 2,229 4×2 and 11,007 4×4 sales; a reflection of its old school refinement, size and drivetrains which explains why the 4×2 models took a big hit.

Ford’s PK Ranger (a rebadged Courier), in its last year of the old series amidst plenty of news leaks about the ground-breaking 2011 PX model, found 4,850 4×2 and 9,836 4×4 sales. Even more significant were the 14,935 4×2 and 24,961 4×4 Hilux sales and the tiny 1,747 4×2 and massive 19,424 4×4 Nissan Navara sales.

It is the transition in the Navara sales from 2000 to 2010 that tells the story. From a respectable also-ran in 2000 and almost incidental 4×2 presence in 2010, the Navara 4×4 range is now within reach of the all mighty Hilux.

For that, Nissan can thank its D40 Navara range; itself a model that shares its cabin with the respectable Pathfinder passenger model.

The rise and rise of the Nissan Navara reflects the changing tastes and needs of the Australian ute buyer.

Any informed Aussie light truck fan can tell you what’s going on here. Faced with a choice of a comfortable, quick, safe and refined 4×2 FG Falcon single cab-chassis with extra toughness, or a comfortable, quick, safe and refined 4×4 Navara/Hilux dual cab-chassis – but with extra clearance, traction, toughness, seating for five and higher driving position – more Aussies are now looking at the latest dual-cab imports.

This battle for Aussie hearts and minds has only just begun, with the new VW Amarok, latest PX Ford Ranger and coming Holden Colorado still to enter the fray with all guns blazing, along with some really tasty Hilux and Navara upgrades.

And for the ‘sports-car-with-a-big-boot’ buyer, faced with a choice of Ford’s sports versions of its 4×2 FG Falcon cab-chassis with basic rear live axle and leaf springs, or Holden’s VE Commodore V8 performance ute with looks, handling and grip to match, buyers are cementing Holden’s dominance of this niche category.

And there is little Ford can do about it, in the absence of a V8 entry model and a grippy IRS rear end that can cope with more power in the top models.

So if Holden can’t muster more than 11,405 Commodore ute sales when it virtually owns the sports ute category, is there room for Ford as well?

Stylish VE Commodore ute now dominates the local 'sports ute' market.

Does it make sense for Ford to design a whole new rear end specifically for its sports models, when winning even half the difference in Commodore ute sales won’t make a big difference? If Ford was lucky, it might pull an extra 2000 sales from a diminishing pool.

But it’s the year to date (YTD) 2011 figures that are really alarming. By the end of November 2011, in what is already a record year for automotive sales, Falcon ute sales had plummeted to 6,420 and Commodore had dropped to 8,889; the absence of a V8 accounting for the loss of at least 2000 Falcon ute sales.

Meanwhile, the 10,854 PX Ford Ranger 4×4 sales have already comfortably overtaken the full 2010 figures – and that’s with only some of the new range on sale. Toyota already has 22,776 4×4 Hilux sales in the bag and Nissan 18,652 Navara 4×4 sales.

Sign of the times. Toyota's HiLux pickup has been Australia's favourite ute choice for many years.

So, is the end of the Aussie ute in sight?

Has the new-found passenger car levels of refinement, safety, grunt and space for five in the imported light trucks made the original Aussie ‘coupe utility’ concept redundant?

Is the sports ute market still healthy enough to support another generation of Ford and Holden entries? Or would a Ranger/Colorado/Hilux/Navara with a disc-braked IRS cradle hanging off the rear and hot V8 petrol engine fill the gap?

Regardless of any local loyalties, it is not hard to see why the V8 Ute race category is looking at its future options right now. TJ

 

 

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