Ultimate pick-up trucks

Once the tradesman’s favourite four-wheeled workhorse, the “ute” now comes with executive extras, writes Simon de Burton

Jeep Gladiator, currently US only, from $33,545
Jeep Gladiator, currently US only, from $33,545

Elon Musk’s November reveal of his futuristic Tesla Cybertruck didn’t go entirely to plan. While attempting to demonstrate the strength of its supposedly bulletproof glass, Tesla chief designer Franz von Holzhausen smashed two of the behemoth’s windows with a metal ball.

Ford Ranger Raptor, £48,500
Ford Ranger Raptor, £48,500 | Image: Charlie Magee

But the subsequent news that the $39,900 machine (slated to arrive in 2021) would be available with a built-in camping feature – complete with pop-up tent and fold-out kitchen – certainly provided evidence that the once humble pick-up truck has turned a corner, a fact already demonstrated by the accelerated uptake for a class of vehicle that was previously regarded solely as a commercial workhorse. 

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Pick-up trucks – or “utes,” as the Australians like to call them – have been given a luxury makeover that has taken them on a journey all the way from the tradesman’s entrance right around to the front door. It’s a phenomenon that Liam Campbell saw emerging around four years ago when he set up an increasingly popular website called Professional Pickup. Rather than being a dubious rival to Tinder or Grindr, the webzine is rich in information about the latest trucks – an increasing number of which combine the appointments of an executive saloon car with the off-road capability of a high-end SUV and the carrying capacity of, well, a pick-up. 

The luxurious interior of the Ford Ranger Raptor
The luxurious interior of the Ford Ranger Raptor | Image: Charlie Magee

According to Campbell, drivers in the UK first began to take notice of pick-up trucks just over 20 years ago when tax laws were relaxed, allowing buyers of vehicles with a one-tonne payload to reclaim VAT.

The Tesla Cybertruck is planned for 2021
The Tesla Cybertruck is planned for 2021

“During the past few years, the makers have caught on to that and have started to produce pick-ups that are far more luxurious and more sophisticated than anything that has gone before – and they are proving really popular with the growing number of people who use their leisure time for activities such as surfing, horse riding, mountain biking, glamping and so on,” he explains.

The Gravity version of the Jeep Gladiator
The Gravity version of the Jeep Gladiator

“The pick-up bed can carry a large amount of gear and can be made secure with an aftermarket top; four‑wheel-drive and a high towing capacity make them ideal for pulling boats or horse trailers; the interiors are as comfortable and quiet as a high-end car and performance is ample for long motorway journeys.” 

Nissan Navara, from £22,350
Nissan Navara, from £22,350

Robert Prior, founder of Dartmoor-based Liberty Trails, which provides bespoke horse-riding holidays, recently acquired a Volkswagen Amarok.

Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian X, £32,200
Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian X, £32,200

“I chose the Amarok because it is both luxurious and of very high quality,” he says. “If I collect clients from the airport, I know they will be comfortable and that the load area will easily swallow their luggage.”

Isuzu D-Max Arctic Trucks AT35, from £39,995
Isuzu D-Max Arctic Trucks AT35, from £39,995

Ford’s Ranger Raptor, meanwhile, is a souped-up, luxxed-up take on the regular Ranger, Europe’s bestselling pick-up that shifts more than 50,000 units annually. Ford launched the Raptor on the sands of Morocco to demonstrate its appealing combination of cosseting interior comforts and impressive off-road ability. Inspired by the giant, desert-racing F-150 SVT Raptor that is sold in America, the Ranger version boasts six terrain modes at the driver’s fingertips, ranging from “normal” for road use to “Baja” for high-speed, dune-jumping antics.

Volkswagen Amarok Aventura Black Edition, from £50,270
Volkswagen Amarok Aventura Black Edition, from £50,270

Leather sports seats, an 8in touchscreen infotainment system, dual-zone climate control and a 10-speed, Formula One-style paddle-shift gearbox are just a few of the features that mark it out as a thoroughbred rather than a workhorse. The navigation setup even has a “breadcrumb” feature that will get you back to civilisation if its vast off-road tyres and long-travel suspension tempt you to take it really deep into the unknown. But, should you wish to put it to work, it will carry five people in comfort; the open back features a 5ft-by-5ft load tray; and the tow bar integrated into the rear bumper is good for pulling up to 2,500kg.

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At around £48,500, the Raptor is certainly hovering around luxury car territory – but it’s the things that no ordinary car can offer that are making it and its rivals increasingly appealing to the growing number of people who want a comfortable and highly practical vehicle for day-to-day use but for whom the great outdoors beckons at playtime.

Nissan weighs in with the Navara, which, in its range-topping £37,245 N-Guard specification, has a moody, all-black exterior with matching black alloy wheels and hand-stitched leather seats. Japanese rival Isuzu, meanwhile, has just updated its top-of-the-range D-Max Arctic Trucks AT35. It is fitted with new Bilstein suspension, meaning it can tackle even tougher terrain; while inside, leather trim is standard, alongside a 9in colour touchscreen with Bluetooth connectivity, DAB radio, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, sat nav and nine speakers. The manual version costs £39,995, the automatic an extra £1,000.

Also from Japan comes the latest generation of Toyota’s legendary Hilux that can be had in range-topping Invincible X form for about £36,000. The jewel in the crown of Mitsubishi’s L200 series, meanwhile, is the Barbarian X, which brims with features more commonly found on luxury SUVs. Ambient interior lighting, double-stitched upholstery, electronically adjustable seating and smartphone trays with built-in charging ports are all part of the £32,525 package.

But perhaps the most tantalising high-end off-road vehicle of 2020 comes from one of the longest-established makers in the four-wheel-drive business. After years of speculation, Jeep last year launched its Gladiator, which is aimed squarely at the high-end leisure market and brims with features designed for outdoor life – including large lockable storage bins beneath the rear seats and a hidden, self-charging, waterproof and dustproof Bluetooth speaker system that can be whipped out for impromptu tailgate parties. 2020 sees the release of a new Mojave version, designed for higher-speed performance in desert conditions. Currently available only in the US, the Gladiator range starts at $33,545 (about £26,000); at the time of going to press its release in the UK remains to be confirmed. 

Conspicuously absent, though, is any new challenger from Land Rover, which this year launches its long-awaited all-new Defender. Land Rover tells me that there are no plans for a pick-up version, but I’m hoping it will change its mind. I’d settle for a two-door pick-up based on the short-wheelbase model – but if there were a long-wheelbase, five-seater version equipped with all the extras, I reckon it would beat all comers. Even without bulletproof windows and a tent…

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