How utes are supporting the few auto jobs left in Australia

The Ford Ranger continues to be Australia's highest selling vehicle in 2024.
Photo: Ford

The Ford Ranger continues to be Australia's highest selling vehicle in 2024. Photo: Ford Photo: Ford

Riding on the back of the humble ute, Australia’s automotive industry is showing signs of life.

Although new vehicles haven’t been manufactured in Australia since the closure of Ford, Holden and Toyota plants in 2016-17 led to tens of thousands of job losses, the design and engineering of utes is fundamental to the few thousand skilled jobs that exist in what remains of the local auto industry.

Ford has led a rash of recent ute activity, but Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen, Holden’s successor Chevrolet and their local engineering partners are also players.

There is more action to come and with it the prospect of more jobs.

With ute prices and demand trending upwards, there is lucrative income to be made from what was once a spartan tool of trade.

You can now spend comfortably more than $70,000 on a Toyota HiLux and more than $80,000 on a Ford Ranger.

Not only are these two the most popular selling new vehicles in Australia, they also headline the segment that is the biggest.

A record 230,000 utes should be sold this year, or about one in five of every new vehicle that leaves dealer showrooms.

A generous instant tax write-off and no luxury car tax impost has helped that popularity, but so has their versatility.

The utes attracting the most interest from private buyers are the more expensive dual cabs with decent safety and comfort equipment levels, five seats, a diesel engine, 4×4 off-road systems, a tray with up to one-tonne payload, and substantial 3500-kilogram braked towing capability.

Plenty of buyers accessorise their go-anywhere dream machine with another $10,000 to $20,000 worth of bolt-on bits including snorkels, big wheels, bullbars and even suspension lift kits.

The recent burst of new models has underlined how critical utes are to the viability of Australia’s automotive industry.

The 2022 Ford Ranger is arguably the most significant ute for Australia’s automotive industry. Photo: Ford

Ford leads the pack

Undoubtedly the most significant is the new-generation 2022 Ford Ranger that over the past five years has been almost entirely designed and engineered at product development facilities in Melbourne, Geelong and the nearby proving ground in the You Yangs.

The Ranger sells in more than 180 countries and is the only ground-up new vehicle program still under way in Australia.

Ford says more than 2000 people work locally to make this program happen, which makes the blue oval by far the biggest auto employer in Australia.

The good news is that even as the heavy lifting on the new Ranger is completed, Ford’s Aussie outpost is tackling more projects that should keep those thousands of staff employed for years to come.

“The confidence level is pretty high at the moment,” design chief Max Wolff said.

“We have got this [Ranger] and we have ongoing work to support this and we have other programs that I can’t be too specific about.

“You can’t predict the future with 100 per cent certainty, but we have a great talent base here and I think we have proven our worth over the last 20 years or so as to how strong this team is here in Melbourne.”

Nissan’s second-generation Navara Warrior is turning lots of heads. Photo: Nissan

Thailand tune-ups

Nissan Australia has just launched its second-generation Navara Warrior.

Although built in Thailand, it is further developed for local off-roading conditions with Melbourne-based partner Premcar, which also swaps over and adds components and cosmetic parts on its own small assembly line at a rate of about nine cars per day.

Essentially, this vehicle cuts out the trip to the 4×4 accessories shop and is $10,000 more expensive than the most expensive standard Navara.

Australian Premcar engineers test the Navara Warrior in Melbourne.

Volkswagen has engaged Premcar’s rival, the Walkinshaw Automotive Group, to develop local variants of its Amarok ute and advertises the connection on TV.

Toyota’s local division has performed a nip and tuck to the HiLux, developing a model called the Rugged X.

Australia’s No.1-selling brand says more Aussie-only models are planned to emerge from its new $40 million R&D centre in Melbourne.

Now Premcar, which is led by former Ford engineers, wants to offer a kit to convert utes like the HiLux, Ranger, Amarok and Navara from dirty diesel engines to emissions-free electricity.

‘A real opportunity’

The sheer size of the ute market and the unlikely arrival of any factory-developed electric utes here for years makes Premcar boss Bernie Quinn believe the plan could be viable.

“I think electrified utes are a real opportunity and I think it’s going to be a while before one reaches the market here,” Mr Quinn said.

“It’s still a concept, there’s not a prototype yet. We are doing the business case analysis at the moment.”

Premcar boss Bernie Quinn sees a big opportunity in adding emissions-free engines to utes. Photo: Premcar

Although the Walkinshaw Automotive Group is best known for its Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) performance Commodore V8 business, it now makes much of its income converting Chevrolet Silverado and RAM full-size trucks from left- to right-hand drive at its Melbourne factory on behalf of these US brands and their local business arms.

These are huge vehicles nearly six metres long with massive V8 engines and equally impactful price tags beyond $100,000.

They are selling in record numbers in 2021.

Walkinshaw has also locally developed a range of after-market performance, towing and cosmetic parts for these huge vehicles to cash in on the accessories craze.

Attracted by the Aussie success of the Silverado and RAM, Thailand’s RMA Group is expected to soon confirm it has secured the rights from Ford to import the F-150 from the USA and convert it to right-hand drive in a new Melbourne facility.

The big Ford outsells both the Chevrolet and RAM in the US.

The experts have no doubt there’s sales space for the Ford here, which means utes driving more jobs into our auto industry.

“The ute market has been growing like mad, and in our opinion, it will keep growing,” says Ryan Walkinshaw, director of Walkinshaw Automotive Group.

“Financially it makes sense and as a statement for an individual buying a vehicle that shows on the outside how they feel on the inside, they really fit the bill.”

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