Pick-ups and Dropsides are among the most versatile load carriers on the road. Steve Banner takes a look at what's new in this burgeoning market.
Ford has been busy strengthening its hand in the 4x4 pick-up market over the past 12 months. For a kick-off it's launched the, rather lurid-looking, Ranger Wildtrak double cab.
With a two-tone paint finish plus a beefy 156hp 3.0-litre TDCi diesel lurking under the bonnet, Wildtrak comes complete with a long list of goodies. The line-up includes alloy wheels, side steps, tail-light protectors, a rear protection bar with parking sensors, and heated seats partially trimmed in leather.
Ford is also offering the 3.0-litre in the Ranger Thunder. In a first for the Ranger line-up, it's married to an automatic gearbox.
At the time of writing Land Rover was still part of the Ford stable, but set to be sold off; probably to Indian industrial giant Tata. On offer as a pick-up as well as as a hard-top and a station wagon, the Solihull manufacturer's Defender received a makeover last year, swapping its 2.5-litre diesel for the 2.4-litre diesel employed in Transit.
With the same power output as its predecessor — 122hp — it's married to a six-speed manual gearbox. A few alterations have been made to the suspension, including the introduction of new springs, revised dampers and beefier anti-roll bars.
The most noticeable change, however, is to the vehicle's interior. It gets a dashboard pinched from the Discovery plus a greatly improved heating and ventilation system.
Oddment stowage space remains inadequate, however, and whoever is at the wheel still feels uncomfortably wedged against the driver's door.
Land Rover may come to regret that more radical changes weren't made to Defender if Iveco's latest light commercial offering takes off. Due here in the autumn, the Iveco Massif represents a direct challenge to Solihull's rugged warhorse.
Built in Spain by Santana — the Spanish firm assembled Land Rovers many years ago — it too is produced in pick-up, hard-top and station wagon guise, but with a lot more power under the bonnet. It gets a 3.0-litre Iveco diesel at either 146hp or 176hp.
Four-wheel-drive is selectable, with a low-range set of gears available for serious mud-plugging.
Massif could be a contender in the 2008 What Van? Pick-up of the Year stakes. Last year's accolade was won by Mitsubishi's L200 and there's no denying that it was a worthy victor.
Power comes courtesy of a 2.5-litre diesel pumping out either 136hp or 165hp; the extra 29hp is generated by specifying a power upgrade chip. Up for grabs solely as a 4x4 these days, L200 is marketed with either a two-door Single Cab, a Club Cab — that's the stretched version of the Single Cab with a pair of occasional rear seats — or with a four-door Double Cab.
Although an automatic box is available on some models, most L200s are supplied with a five-speed manual. Four-wheel drive is selectable and features a low- as well as a high-range set of gears.
Mitsubishi has additionally come up with a 4x4 system called Super Select. It consists of a central viscous coupling that automatically adjusts the front/rear torque split and includes traction control.
Mitsubishi has always been adept at supplying well-specified pick-ups — double cabs in particular — with an appeal that extends way beyond the traditional pick-up market. Derivatives such as Warrior, Animal and Elegance have done well for the brand, and more recently we've seen the arrival of the Raging Bull special edition.
Aside from Ranger and its Mazda stablemate — both vehicles are virtually identical aside from their badges — Mitsubishi faces stiff competition from Isuzu with its Rodeo and Nissan with its Navara.
The Rodeo range is somewhat limited. It's marketed in the UK solely as a 4x4 double cab, albeit with three different trim levels — Denver, Denver Max and Denver Max LE — and two engine choices.
You can opt for either the 2.5-litre diesel at 134hp or the same engine at 167hp thanks to the importer's use of a Prodrive performance pack.
Nissan offers somewhat more choice. The 4x4-only Navara is sold as either a Double Cab or a stretched two-door King Cab and both derivatives are available with the same three levels of specification; Trek, Sport and Outlaw. The Double Cab can additionally be ordered in top-of-the-range Aventura trim.
No matter which model you pick you get a 2.5-litre diesel good for 174hp. Unusually for a pick-up it's mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, with a five-speed auto available as an alternative in the Outlaw and Aventura Double Cabs.
Nissan too offers special editions. The 'Long Way Down' Navara — produced to coincide with the TV series — is the latest example.
Nissan also makes the, rather more basic, D22 pick-up which is soon to be upgraded. It will get new engines and some new trim.
When we visited last year's Moscow Auto Show we were astonished by the number of Chinese-built double cabs on display built by companies we'd barely heard of such as Zhongxing (it makes the Grand Tiger) and Changfeng Yangzi (it makes the Fine and the Flying).
They struggle to meet mandatory Euro-4 exhaust emission levels, however — especially so far as their diesel engines are concerned — so it's likely to be sometime before they appear in Britain.
One Chinese manufacturer that is active in the UK, however, is Yuejin, with a 138hp 2.4-litre petrol-powered double cab on offer with a conversion that allows it to run on liquefied petroleum gas in a bid to broaden its appeal.
If Tata does take over Land Rover one wonders how long it will be before Land Rover dealers start to sell Tata's stylish-looking Xenon. Not marketed in Britain as yet, it's produced in both single- and double cab guise, as a 4x2 and a 4x4, and with a Euro-4 compliant 140hp 2.2-litre diesel.
A 2.2-litre lump is unlikely to have much appeal to American pick-up customers should Xenon ever be marketed Stateside. They're more likely to favour engines with two-and-a-half to three times the capacity and they still buy the vehicles they love in substantial quantities.
US models such as such as Chevrolet's Silverado, Dodge's Ram and Ford's F-150 can be a good bet for UK customers at present given the weakness of the once-mighty US dollar against the pound. On the downside they're likely to cost you a fortune in fuel, but they'll certainly get you noticed; if that's what you want.
Double Cabs have become increasingly popular in recent years as tax-efficient alternatives to the company car. Because they're classed as goods vehicles VAT is reclaimable if they have a payload in excess of 1,000kg and the driver is viewed in the same way as the driver of a company van when it comes to personal taxation.
Private use of a double cab is treated as a £3,000 a year benefit, with £500 added if the employer provides free fuel, and the driver is taxed on these sums accordingly.
It's worth bearing in mind, however, that travelling from home to work and back in your pick-up — with a stop on the way to buy a newspaper and a packet of mints — is not viewed as private mileage. If that's all you ever do with it, then you'll have no tax liability. Use it for the weekly trip to the supermarket and you will.
Bear in mind too that while nobody likes to pay income tax, the amount you'll pay for the private use of a double cab is roughly one-third of what you'll pay if you elect to run a four-wheel drive SUV like Nissan's X-Trail instead.
If you are self-employed then you do not of course pay company van/pick-up tax; but you can still reclaim VAT on your vehicle if you are VAT-registered.
Two of the main drawbacks of a pick-up's cargo area are that the sides are fixed and the wheel boxes intrude into the load space. As an alternative a number of manufacturers offer vehicles with dropside bodies that clearly avoid the first limitation, and with cargo beds that sit above the wheels so that space is not stolen.
As a consequence the loading height is comparatively high, but a 4x4 pick-up's loading height tends to be high too because of the vehicle's need for sufficient ground clearance should the driver decide to take it off road.
The majority of dropsides used in the UK have bodies constructed by domestic bodybuilders such as Telford-based Ingimex.
Often sold by a light commercial manufacturer combined with the chassis as a ready-to-go-to-work package, they typically feature sides and a tailboard made from anodised aluminium to keep the body's weight down and to maintain a smart appearance. As well as being heavy and requiring painting, steel sides can rust and start to look very tatty very quickly.
Other more-or-less-standard features include a plywood floor — typically 15mm thick — coated with anti-slip phenolic resin. The floor usually sits on galvanised steel cross-members and bearers that run lengthways.
Bodies usually also feature a bulkhead with a mesh or punched steel infill topped off with hinged stops on each side. That way you can lean a ladder against it and the ladder won't slide off and crash to the ground. Load tie-down points are generally provided too.
For example, the dropside body supplied to Volkswagen by Ingimex for Crafter to be fitted as part of VW's Engineered to Go ready-to-go-to-work programme introduced last year features four 125kg-capacity lashing points on the bulkhead. They're accompanied by recessed folding-type deck rings with a capacity of 500kg apiece.
Ingimex has got its feet firmly under the table at a number of other manufacturers. For instance, Renault Trucks has just introduced ready-to-go-to-work dropside versions of Maxity — in effect a rebadged Nissan Cabstar — and Master with Ingimex as its partner. Citroën too sources dropside bodies from Ingimex to be fitted to Relay as part of its award-winning Ready to Run scheme; Ford and Vauxhall are customers too.
A dropside body of the aforementioned type mounted on a 3.5-tonne chassis will typically handle a payload of up to 1,500kg depending on the vehicle's wheelbase and exact specifications.
Some manufacturers offer factory-built dropside bodies instead. Among them are Nissan — on the Cabstar — and Piaggio, whose forward-control Porter pick-up falls into the half-tonne-plus payload category.
It's up for grabs with two different bodies. The standard offering has a cargo deck 1,330mm wide and 1,980mm long while its stable-mate's deck dimensions are 1,400mm and 2,325mm respectively.
Porter is also marketed as a van — it scooped What Van?'s most recent Microvan of the Year award — a tipper and an MPV. No matter which model you choose you'll find it's powered by a 64hp 1.3-litre petrol engine married to a five-speed gearbox, unless you stipulate the electric variant with a range of around 85 miles between recharges.
What's more, Porter can be ordered as a 4x4 as well as with two-wheel drive. That's quite a compendium of choices for such a small vehicle.
There's no shortage of choice for potential customers in this market, but it's a shame that manufacturers, bar one, seem to have abandoned the 500kg-payload sector in the UK.