Feature: Future utes


One day, the idea of an electric ute will be a very real option. Here are three extremes that (according to their respective websites anyway) you can put deposits down on right now.

That the ute would ever disappear from the new vehicle market has never really been questioned until now.

In the pre-COVID ‘before times’, back when New Zealand’s new car sales figures seemed impervious to the principles of gravity, utes – or one particular ute anyway, the Ford Ranger – represented the top privately purchased model in the country. Not just in the ‘light commercial’ segment but in the entire market.

For the last few years, a double cab ute has been more keenly sought by buyers than nan’s hatchback or the traditional family station wagon. Utes are, not to labour the point unnecessarily, massively popular. Even in town.

So, now that New Zealand’s post-pandemic new vehicle market has contracted by a shocking 90%, now that fossil fuel reserves have – depending upon which expert theory you subscribe to – a limited life span counted in mere decades, now that there’s even more pressure on vehicle manufacturers to conduct their resource-pillaging business as cleanly and greenly as possible, what future now for the dependable ute?

Much like its passenger-focused car cousin, the ute won’t go anywhere; it’ll just have to evolve. It’ll still need to carry stuff, tow things, and transport people and their items up goat tracks. It’s just going to have to rely on a different form of motive power to do it all.

So, if you think the concept of an electric vehicle begins with the lowly Nissan Leaf and ends with the Tesla Model 3, think again. It seems like the utes of the future will be electric, too. In undergoing such a transformation though, they just have a hell of a lot more to prove.

Tesla Cybertruck

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Cybertruck by name, cyber truck by nature

Tesla’s Cybertruck certainly has become the shiny angular metallic elephant in the virtual showroom.

Whether you think of the Cybertruck as utterly revolutionary or some sort of private prank Elon Musk is pulling on the world at large will probably depend upon your opinion of Tesla as a whole.

As appealing to green-minded futurists as they are to early adopter tech fiends (with a side-serving of screechy Millennial YouTube influencers), Teslas definitely are popular. More than that, the electric vehicle manufacturer is, without doubt, the catalyst for the largest wholesale change to the way cars are designed and built since – well, since the invention of the car itself. Through sleek, clever, powerful versions such as the Model S and Model 3, Tesla has brought the idea of a practical long-range electric alternative to the forefront.

And it has also released the Cybertruck.

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The Cybertruck’s interior is as minimalist as every other Tesla thus far

Innovative or just indulgent, either way, the Cybertruck – from its steeply raked roofline to the cyber-punk graffiti iconography that goes along with it – is probably the most head-turning new vehicle to be unveiled in recent memory.

But would it actually be any good as a rugged work truck? Well, retro-futurist styling cues aside, on paper at least, it looks to have some dependable engineering behind it. Its entire exterior shell is manufactured from ultra-hard 30X cold-rolled stainless steel to provide it with what Tesla says is a super durable "nearly impenetrable exoskeleton".

It can be specified with one, two or three electric motors, meaning you can have a rear-wheel-drive Cybertruck just like a Holden Maloo! Naturally, dual or triple motor drive would see the ute at its most practical off the main road. It also benefits from 35-degree approach and 28-degree departure angles, adaptive air suspension, and a tow rating of 3.4 tonnes.

The ute’s design blurs the line between where the cabin (which can seat up to six) ends and the tray begins. The ‘flying buttress’ styling of the wellside tray masks a reasonable cargo area with a 1588kg payload capacity. Tesla says the sliding lockable tonneau cover is strong enough to stand on too.

The biggest issue with the Cybertruck as it looks right now (and Musk has been bolshy in suggesting it is a ready-to-manufacture design) is that no one knows how it would perform in a crash test. Those sharp creases might be engineered from tough materials but simple physics suggests the thing could impact in upon itself like a deckchair. Rules around having visible sidelights and sightlines from inside the minimalist cabin might also play against it ever being produced in great numbers.

The Cybertruck represents the sci-fi end of the spectrum. But who knows when, or if, it’ll eventually go on sale?

Bollinger B2

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Another manufacturer with a love of set-squares... Bollinger

Nothing to do with champagne, the Bollinger B2 is probably the most fit-for-purpose electric ute in existence right now. In the greatest Land Rover-aping tradition, it looks like a shed with wheels. But it’s actually a pretty clever and endlessly practical go-anywhere machine.

It takes its name from company founder Robert Bollinger and the B2 is actually the second release from the EV start-up: a boxy Hummer-esque SUV (cleverly called the B1) came first.

The B2 – which has also just been announced in cab-chassis configuration – features some impressive numbers: 614hp (458kW), over 900Nm of torque, a 3.5-tonne tow rating and a 2268kg payload.

The Bollinger B2’s party trick is its full-length cargo carrying ability. Because there’s no engine up front, the truck is configured to carry extra-long loads: up to 16-feet of cargo through a cavity that (once the rear seats have been clipped out) extends the full length of the vehicle. Fencing contractors should take note. The entire rear cab wall can fold down, leaving the truck open-backed to accommodate extra bulky stuff, too, although, I’m not sure what the ANCAP safety verdict on such a feature might be (in the US, manufacturers such as Jeep can get away with folding windscreens and detachable doors in a much more straightforward manner than the Australasian testing regime allows for).

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Utilitarian and basic, the Bollinger B2’s cab still features some great subtle styling ideas

The interior has a similar utilitarian vibe, although, there’s plenty of nice finishing details if you look closely. This might not be quite as easy to hose out when finished as, say, a Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Series, but it comes close. With the ability to remove almost every panel, right down to door mirrors, there is certainly a degree of Baja 1000 rally-readiness about the Bollinger.

If you like your vehicles with exposed rivets and all the svelte subtleness of a bomb disposal robot, then the Bollinger will be worth a look when it eventually goes on sale.

Rivian R1T

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The Rivian R1T looks the most ‘market ready’ of current electric ute options

I’ve saved the best for last – in my mind at least.

You might not have heard of the Rivian R1T, but it’s actually the reason we even have the Tesla Cybertruck. Old mate Elon had been promising a Tesla pick-up for years but was easily distracted by launching cars into space and trying to ensure Model 3s left the factory during the same calendar year in which they were promised to buyers. Meanwhile, a below-the-radar start-up carmaker called Rivian set about designing and building what’s probably the most wholly complete ground-up electric truck concept we currently have.

The speed with which the Rivian appeared, not to mention the many pages of praiseful copy the R1T received from pundits all over the world, panicked Musk into rethinking his entire truck strategy. Well, actually we don’t know if that’s true. But, ever the showman, Musk clearly needed Tesla to be something completely different from this unexpected newcomer. And it certainly was different.

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The R1T boasts plenty of cavity storage about the bodywork, thanks to its lack of traditional mechanicals

The Rivian, though, looks to have been engineered with mass-market appeal in mind. There are some smooth Jetsons-ish aspects to it, but by and large, it looks like any other oversized American pick-up. It also has plenty of clever features, such as an active chassis system, 750hp (559kW) from its quad motor set-up and, thanks to minimal oily bits underneath it, more lockable storage spaces than any truck of its type, which would be handy for tradies. Because it has massive batteries on-board, you can even plug powertool rechargers into sockets in the wellside tray.

It also boasts a five-tonne tow rating (putting it firmly in the Silverado and RAM realm) and will wade to a depth of three feet. Yep, you can go river crossing in this electric vehicle – if you’re brave enough. Like the Bollinger, the Rivian’s dense battery pack also gives it a low centre of gravity, meaning it should hug those corners when you’re back on the coarse chip.
As a ute that apes what we’ve come to expect of such vehicles, the Rivian R1T looks like a comfortable battery-electric replacement.

The future, later 

Of course, the enormous caveat on all three of these EV utes is that none of them are currently on sale in New Zealand. Nor are they on sale in their homeland. Mass production is a topic that goes completely unmentioned on their respective websites.  

Each one is available to pre-order for pennies (US pennies). But when they’ll actually be available to test drive and buy – let alone in a right-hand driving country down at the bottom of the world – is anyone’s guess. Weirdly, Tesla makes the best play of enticing would-be owners with language that suggests the Cybertruck is imminent, which is audacious for a vehicle that seems to have some serious safety rating hurdles to overcome first.

The fact is turbo diesel utes are here to stay for some time yet. And with every generation of the nameplates we know and love now – Ranger, Hilux, Triton, Amarok, and the rest – getting more efficient, more powerful, and safer with each update, the utes of today will remain popular for work and play.

And manufacturers are still clamouring to add a practical light commercial variant to their model lines. Renault is contemplating bringing not one, but two models of ute to New Zealand. The engineering experts behind the all-new Land Rover Defender have said a flat deck truck version would be possible to build – and probably sought after in certain circles. And the rumour that Hyundai is likely to build a double cab ute now appears to be fact, with spy shots of a Santa Fe-based wellside test mule now even having a potential model name pinned to it (the Santa Cruz) according to some sources.

Utes will continue to allow their owners to do what they’ve always done. And they’ll always do it better with every new generation. At some point in the future, though, even ute owners will be swapping the fuel bowser for the fast charger.

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