The ute market in Australia is a properly complex one. There are workaday utes (like the GWM Steed) that aim to do nothing but work and provide few creature comforts to ever leave you wanting to use it for anything else, and then there are plush, ‘luxury’ utes (like the Volkswagen Amarok V6 and Ford Ranger Wildtrak) that are so kitted up you wonder if anyone ever uses them for work.
And really, it’s either of the extremes on our market. If you want something that can be both usable as a passenger car (without pissing off occupants) and a proper work truck, you’d find yourself compromising in one or the other department.
Unless of course, you consider the marginalised contenders in the segment. Unloved and overlooked, the Nissan Navara and Mitsubishi Triton might not have the legendary status of the Toyota Hilux, the German refinement of the Volkswagen Amarok V6, or the driving dynamics of the Ford Ranger, but the Mitsubishi and Nissan are hardly bad cars. In fact, in our time spent with them, we often left the experience wondering why it is that other competitors are held in so much higher regard than these two.
So let’s say you already sit a little left of centre, and you want your ute to be the best of both worlds but still be able to scream about your individuality. Then these two are definitely for you.
Engine & Drivetrain
No petrols here, just good ol’ diesels. The turbodiesel mills employed by both the Triton and the Navara are relatively new, and rather refined units, perfectly befitting a modern-day ute. Both are offered with manuals and automatics, and while we’d say that the Navara and Triton are pretty evenly matched in most areas, this is one segment where there is a very, very clear winner.
Under the bonnet of the Triton, you’ll find a 2.4-litre MIVEC turbodiesel mill, which puts out a healthy 133kW and 430Nm. This engine is used across all variants, with either a 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic. While the transmission choices may seem a bit old-hat (five ratios, really) the MIVEC powertrain is amazingly frugal, using a claimed 7.6L/100km on the combined cycle. The MIVEC mill is quiet and generally well-behaved too, and the automatic gearbox is very well calibrated for the job.
The Navara lineup is made up of one engine, with two power outputs. A 2.3-litre turbodiesel does the job either way, though variants below the SL get a single-turbo unit with 120kW and 403Nm. If you’re feeling flush and go for SL-grade or higher, you’ll get a twin-turbo setup that boosts power to 160kW and torque up to 450Nm. The standard transmission is a 6-speed manual (already bettering the Triton), while a 7-speed automatic is also offered (which has the added bonus of making the Triton feel really old).
While the numbers suggest that the Navara can cruise to an easy win in this regard with its superior power on the twin-turbo mills (and literal cruising gears), it’s worth noting that the Triton’s oiler has excellent manners, and the 5-speed automatic gets the added bonus of having been refined continually since it was introduced ever such a long time ago. The Navara excels on the motorway (the automatic gearbox keeps the engine not that far over idling speed), but when you ask it to respond quickly, the gearbox can be a little slow to react.
Ute cabins have changed massively since the genesis of the segment, with manufacturers seemingly besting each other with each generation in a game of ‘Who Can Make It Most Car-Like Inside’ and improving on perceived quality, whilst bearing usability and durability in mind. To that end, both the Triton and Navara score similarly here.
The cabin of the Navara is arguably more passenger-car in presentation, with its architecture full of curves and sweeps and uses metallic-finish plastic liberally. The steering wheel is even lifted off the now-discontinued Altima saloon, and so have the dials, which are incredibly clear and easy to read. The Navara also enjoys ‘Zero Gravity’ front seats that were designed with aid from NASA to provide superior comfort and support (though we can’t tell the difference).
The Navara also has plenty of room in the back, with generous amounts of head- and leg-room. Fit and finish in the Navara can’t be faulted either, with switchgear and panels feeling properly put together and capable of withstanding a lifetime of abuse.
In the Triton, the story is somewhat similar, but somewhat different. The design of the Triton’s interior gives a similar sort of impression as the Navara, that it’s considerably more passenger-car-like than utes of old, but it executes it in a rather different fashion. In typical Mitsubishi style, the interior is very solid and well screwed together, but the look of it errs on the side of boring. It’s inoffensive, which is fine, but it’s also far from inspiring.
Sure, there aren’t soft touch materials around the place like you’d get with a Volkswagen Amarok, but you’re paying noticeably less, something that should be kept in mind. Like the Navara, there’s a generous use of silver plastic around the place to brighten things up, and the steering wheel does have paddle shifters, which we’d like to believe are a nod to Mitsubishi’s illustrious rally sport heritage.
Behind The Wheel
Considering that all utes in this segment sit on a ladder frame, it’s amazing to think (and see and feel) just how much utes have improved over the last few years. They’re not as pliant and forgiving as something like an SUV or as fun to drive as a regular passenger car, but the divide between them closes a little more with every new ute.
Take the Navara for example. Nissan has employed a five-point multilink rear suspension setup, a first in the class, aimed at providing the most car-like ride in the segment without compromising usability and capability. Largely they’ve succeeded, with the Navara suffering from noticeably less ‘fidgeting’ from the rear when driving with an empty tray. The Navara also takes a bit of a knock when it comes to manoeuvrability, as the steering rack requires a tad too much twiddling to get it from lock to lock.
Higher speeds on the motorway reveal that the Navara is a rather good touring companion, with the steering wheel weighting up nicely and the car generally being unperturbed by crosswinds and the like. On rougher surfaces, the complex rear suspension setup will show where it falls short: There are multiple cases where the Navara has hit bump-stops more often than the competition while on test, when carrying a moderate load in the tray. Thankfully towing has not been compromised, with the Navara capable of towing the same 3,500kg capacity (braked) as the rest of the class.
The Triton’s ride and handling, in comparison, doesn’t appear to have been compromised much by missing out on the complex rear suspension setup that the Navara employs. The Mitsubishi rather impressively stays flat through corners, while still proving capable of soaking up garden-variety road imperfections without skipping a beat.
While the powertrain setup might strike some as inadequate at first glance, we can attest that behind the wheel of the Triton, you really don’t notice it. The auto gearbox is really well calibrated to the engine, and proves to be very usable both in town and on the motorway, and out in the bush too. The 2.4-litre MIVEC mill the Triton uses is an all-new design, and as such, exhibits very little of the noisy, rattly operation that you’d expect from an older diesel powerplant. If you intend to use your ute in town mostly, the Triton is definitely the better bet.
The Nissan Navara and Mitsubishi Triton are definitely left-field choices when compared to the Big Three in our market, but that’s hardly because they’re inferior. The Mitsubishi’s new diesel motor is truly remarkable for a mass-market, rough-and-ready mill, while the Navara’s interior and ride mark it out as one of the most car-like in the segment.
Both the Nissan and Mitsubishi have proven themselves equally capable on tarmac, trading blows in different settings. The Navara is definitely the cruiser of the two, while the Triton is noticeably better suited for town work. The Navara is also the more spacious of the two, while the Triton is marginally better to drive.
But while the Navara’s superior gearbox options and more chiselled look made a strong argument for themselves, we found ourselves favouring the Triton. Its road manners are truly astounding, and the engine’s refinement and frugality are nothing to scoff at. The 5-speed automatic might seem like a point of detraction initially, but after a while, it proves itself entirely capable of the job at hand. Further, Mitsubishi has an excellent reliability record that we have yet to find a demerit against, whereas the Navara name might be enough to scare some off (if you don’t know why, read this).
Winner: 2018 Mitsubishi Triton
The Triton will appeal to every kind of ute buyer, aided further by its wide range of body styles. You can rest assured though that whichever Triton might tug at your heartstrings, its rugged reliability and unflappable dependability will see you right for a very long time, indeed. Couple that with the great value offered across the range, and the Triton will very easily make the shortlist for plenty of ute buyers.
Runner Up: 2018 Nissan Navara
The Navara is a great motorway cruiser, and is definitely more of a ute-in-a-suit than the competition. This is a car that you can permit to sway you with its looks, and then fall for with its capability. Did we also mention it’s good value?