How ultra-massive utes are taking over Australia


Source: Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio.

Sales of the Ford Ranger are up 42% in January. The 1.87-metre tall 4×4 ute has been Australia’s top-selling car for a while now, and the number of them on the road keeps rising.

But the Ford Ranger is teensy-weensy next to the Chevrolet Silverado. That’s the big ute offering from General Motors ever since it closed down the Holden brand. The Silverado is 1.91 metres tall, more than two metres wide and nearly six metres long. Sales rose 215% in January.

This is what one looked like trying to squeeze into a parking space in January this year.


My head height is just above the bonnet line of the big Chevy. If it hit me while I was walking, I wouldn’t be rolling up the bonnet and windscreen. My neck would probably whiplash and then I’d be smacked back down onto the road.

By chance, a Ford Territory is parked next to the Silverado. That’s what used to count as a big family SUV (the Ford Territory was once among our top 10 bestselling cars), but by contrast, it looks modest.

The RAM 1500 is bigger still than the Silverado, selling even more units. Sales were up 150% in January.

Sales of SUVs have been rising for ages. As consumers wanted something bigger than a big SUV, commercial ute sales began to rise. Now American-style pickups have arrived for those who find a standard 4×4 ute a bit on the petite side.

Sales of sedans and 4×2 utes are plummeting. The change in the flow of new cars will slowly change the composition of our car fleet. As old sedans retire, more and more cars on the road will be enormous.

If you like small cars, bad luck. It will soon make as much sense to buy a Hyundai Getz as to push yourself around on a skateboard. You won’t be able to see anything in traffic and will be destroyed mercilessly in a two-car accident.

If you care about your safety and comfort in traffic, the choices of other people matter. This is where the pandemic analogy comes in: big cars are contagious. If others have big cars, being in a small car is less safe, and offers much less visibility.

You might want to hop into your beautiful restored Volkswagen Beetle, but you’ll have a chassis eye-view of the road if you’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic. And if your small car is hit by a big car, you will be far worse off.

ANCAP ratings determine how a car performs compared with others in its class. It says little about how it will perform compared with other types, and certainly not if it is hit by the median car on the road. So while ANCAP hands out five-star ratings to little cars like a Suzuki Swift or Audi A1, that doesn’t mean their drivers survive in a crash. Indeed, light cars have the lowest crashworthiness in a Monash University study, with an injury risk of 23%, compared with 14% for the most crashworthy vehicle, a large SUV (utes are close behind).

Of course, the chance of hurting someone else runs in the opposite direction. Monash also measures “aggressivity”, and on that characteristic, light cars are best, with the lowest chance of hurting another person in a crash. Large SUVs are worst and, again, utes are close behind.

When Monash balances out the crashworthiness and aggressivity to find a car that protects its occupants best without hurting other road users, medium cars and medium SUVs are best. Utes, vans and light cars are the worst.

Is it any surprise that our road deaths are creeping up (by 5% in 2022 to the highest level in five years, including pedestrian deaths up 22%) as our cars become bigger?

The point here is that the safety of Australia’s car fleet is deteriorating, without any oversight. There’s no debate or discussion about this, just a mindless drift driven by big car companies.

There’s no policy trying to reverse the surge to bigger and bigger cars. There are only limits on the maximum height (4.3 metres), width (2.5 metres) and weight (4.5 tonnes, loaded) of a vehicle before it counts as a heavy vehicle and needs a special registration and licence. So there’s nothing to stop them from getting taller, wider and longer except the dimensions of shopping centre car parks. Expect new shopping centres to have much bigger car spaces.

There is no public debate on the topic of whether we should be supersizing our cars, and no public policy measures, so the outcomes here are consumer-led. Vote with your purchase or get left behind. The big cars are here.

This article was first published by Crikey.


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