They’re as Aussie as meat pies and backyard cricket – but there’s a sad reason why the iconic ute is becoming a less common sight on our roads these days.
In recent years, sales of American “pick-up trucks” have been booming Down Under, with figures proving the US-style vehicles – like the RAM 1500 Chevrolet’s Silverado – are exploding in popularity.
The trend was also pointed out on Reddit recently, with a user writing: “Why are there suddenly more American ‘trucks’ on the roads? They’re an absolute eyesore. Extremely square and ‘boxey’ looking. Why are people picking this over our utes?”
The post was inundated by responses, with thousands of Redditors agreeing with the original poster, and outlining a range of theories about what had sparked the trend.
“We don’t make utes anymore,” one person wrote, with another adding: “We should never have let the car industry leave our shores – we should have fought to maintain our place in the manufacturing world, especially given what has happened during the Covid years.”
“It’s because (of) the government Covid increase in tax offset for equipment purchases. It increased to the point where you could afford these utes, $150k I believe. So many more started to be purchased recently,” another claimed.
It was clear that the vehicles were not popular with many Reddit users, with posters variously describing them as “big and obnoxious” and “vile petrol guzzlers”.
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And it’s not just a theory – there really are more of these types of vehicles on our roads than ever before.
In 2021, General Motors Specialty Vehicles (GMSV) reported 2118 Chevrolet Silverado sales, and earlier this month, the 5000th locally-remanufactured vehicle came off the assembly line in Victoria.
And RAM Trucks revealed last month that 604 units had been sold in September – up 45 per cent on 2021 year to date, with a total of 17,115 RAMs sold to Australian customers since production began.
This surge in demand has seen other car giants sit up and take notice, with one of America’s best-selling vehicles – the Ford F-150 pick-up – on its way to Australian shores next year, followed by the expected arrival of the Toyota Tundra in late 2023 or early 2024.
Like the popular RAM 1500 and Chevrolet Silverado, the F-150 will also be imported as a left-hand-drive model, and then converted to right-hand-drive locally, with that relatively new conversion capability emerging as one of the major forces driving the surge.
The trend has also emerged following the death of Australia’s car manufacturing industry, after Ford, Toyota and GM Holden all shut down their local production facilities in 2016 and 2017.
But Alex Jeffs, automotive expert at comparison site Finder, told news.com.au that while cars are no longer manufactured on Aussie shores, we “still have a massive appetite for utes”.
“Because of that, these global brands have come up with ways to bring their left-hand drive vehicles out here and convert them in a fairly cost-effective manner,” he explained.
“Aussie manufacturing of vehicles may be gone, but the right-hand conversion industry is thriving. Back in mid-2019, RAM even had to move to 24-hour production to keep up with demand.”
Apart from Aussies’ deep passion for utes, Mr Jeffs said there were also several other factors at play that explained the explosion in popularity of the US vehicles.
“Covid for instance saw the rise of the staycation. With more people buying caravans, many of these large trucks have much larger towing capacities than your standard ute,” he said.
“The popular RAM 1500 can tow 4.5 tonnes compared to the Toyota HiLux, which is one of Australia’s favourites and good for 3.5 tonnes.
“You also see a lot of them kitted out with toolboxes and the like in the back and as some of these large trucks are being used for work purposes, there are tax incentives that make them appealing to businesses.”
James Voortman, chief executive of the Australian Automotive Dealers Association, agreed that the right-hand conversion industry had been a gamechanger.
“The main reason (behind the growth) is these brands like RAM and Chevrolet partnering with local manufacturers to start converting … and now it’s being done at scale,” he said.
“The demand was always there, but we’d never had factory-backed conversions before, which is why we’ve never seen the volumes we’re seeing now.”
Mr Voortman pointed out that RAM went from selling just 400 vehicles in 2017 to nearly 5000 this year alone, proving the trend.
“That’s a massive growth, and we see the trend continuing as a number of other brands enter the market,” he predicted.
He said the demand was driven by the fact that these vehicles were finally readily available, and because they satisfied certain needs.
“They have immense towing capability – they can tow 1000kg more than a traditional double cab ute, so tradies carrying heavy machinery and people towing large boats, caravans or trailers benefit,” he said.
“They also double up as a lifestyle vehicle, as you can go off-road and not sacrifice the ability to transport the family around as it’s still a very comfortable car.
“For these reasons we’re likely to see even more sold in the coming years.”
However, Mr Voortman said the trend didn’t spell the death of the classic Aussie ute.
“We are still seeing fairly strong sales of Ford Rangers and Toyota HiLuxes, and even though we are seeing massive growth in US-style pick-ups, they are still a small proportion of the total ute market,” he said.
“Having said that, I understand why they are fairly divisive vehicles – they are very large and some people feel threatened by the size, they don’t like the fact they will have to try and park next to them at the local shopping centre,” he said.
“There’s also a growing environmental voice questioning whether we need these kinds of cars, although it’s fair to say many of these vehicles are being electrified overseas … so we might see more electric cars in Australia.”
He said while the nation faced economic uncertainty in the near future, he believed the vehicles would still prove popular.
“Clearly we’ve got some economic headwinds coming our way and it will be interesting to see how it affects the new car market, although US-style pick ups are often used for work purposes and are treated more as a necessity by tradies, so there would be some protection against those economic forces,” he said.
“Who knows where we will be in the next 12 months, but the demand for these vehicles is very high, and it’s a question of how many we can make, rather than how many people want to buy.”
Bob Graczyk, Head of RAM International, recently addresses the sales boom, revealing that Australia was considered to be a “super important market” outside of North America, given the “phenomenal” growth in recent years.
“Outside of the US, we sell more full-size pick-up trucks than Ford and GM combined, and Australia representing a market share of more than 70 per cent is a big contributor of that,” he said.
“It’s a dedicated group here that love RAM and it comes through in everything they do in Australia, so we are super proud of having more than 17,000 people out there driving our trucks.”
In fact, to keep up with demand, RAM Trucks Australia’s “significantly expanded production facility” now boasts “three dedicated production lines running 24-hours per day”.
With 641 employees, RAM Trucks Australia is now the biggest vehicle manufacturer in the country.