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NZers still crazy for those big boy utes

For every new electric car purchased in New Zealand last year, we bought 64 mostly-diesel, double-cab utes. Nikki Mandow drives us through the figures.

The latest vehicle sales figures show New Zealanders' obsession with grunty, gas-guzzling, double-cab utes continues unabated. Which is bad news for the environment.

In 2018, Kiwis bought almost 10,000 hefty Ford Rangers – that’s more than any other new car. And Ford Rangers were the top-selling car in New Zealand for 2015, 2016 and 2017 as well.

Meanwhile, the second best-selling car last year, with 8000 registrations, was the Toyota Hilux – another double-cab ute.

Just these two models, the Ranger and the Hilux, took 11 percent of the new car market last year, according to Motor Industry Association figures.

The more modest Toyota Corolla only nuzzled into third place, with 7300 cars sold, around 5 percent.

But there’s more. Out of the top 10 cars sold in 2018, five were utes, two were SUVs (another tall, bulky, tough-looking vehicle) and just three were ordinary passenger cars.

For the month of December, there were only two normal-sized cars on the Motor Industry Association’s top-10 list, alongside five utes, two SUVs and the VW Tiguan, a so-called crossover vehicle, part-SUV and part-passenger car.

Does our love affair with utes matter?

If you are aiming to reduce CO2 emissions, it definitely does.

The trouble is that we are buying gas-guzzling double-cab utes and SUVs, and not buying smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. We are definitely not getting into better-for-the-environment electric or hybrid electric vehicles.

The 2018 figures show more than 75 percent of the vehicles we bought last year were big – SUVs, utes and a smattering of vans and other commercial vehicles.

Only 10 percent of vehicles sold were classified as “small” on the MIA list.

And electric vehicles made up a measly 0.5 percent of all new cars sold. Even if you add in all the hybrids, you only get to just over 2 percent.

For every electric car we bought last year we bought 64 mostly-diesel, double-cab utes. Which is a problem for a government trying to do something about carbon emissions and climate change.

As the graph shows, CO2 emissions have come down markedly over the last decade or so on all segments of New Zealand's car fleet. But SUV emissions are still significantly higher than those for ordinary passenger cars.

And double-cab utes, which come into the ‘light commercial’ category, are worse for the environment now than passenger vehicles were in 2006. On the graph, the ute fuel economy line ends above where the ordinary car line starts.

Why do we love utes so much? Anyone who’s driven round the more upmarket suburbs of Auckland has come up against a late-model double-cab ute (if they aren’t already driving one). No longer are they the scruffy, tradie vehicle of the past, packed with tools and topped with ladders.

Instead they are high-end, smartly fitted out vehicles with two rows of seats, like your average family car, but with a flat truck bed (often covered) at the back.

And according to the Motor Industry Association statistics, about half of the utes being sold are being bought by individuals – not companies. So these utes are not just for tradies and farmers anymore.

Also, it’s mostly men buying them. About eight men get themselves a new ute for every woman that chooses one.

In love with our utes

If you are into cars, then being CEO of the Motor Industry Association is the job for you. David Crawford gets to drive a different car every three months, so has driven a couple of different double-cab utes, including the Ford Ranger.

He says in the old days, utes were utilitarian, with not many creature comforts. Not any more.

“Now they have a very nice fitout. But they are also a very practical vehicle, a workhorse, a holiday vehicle, easy to drive. They are great if you are going mountain biking, surfing or camping, and you can tow the boat.”

A common or garden double-cab Ford Ranger won’t leave you much (if any) change from $50,000, and the top-of-the-range Raptor model retails at more than $80,000.

Companies like VW and Mercedes are getting into the top end ute market, with cars in the $80,000-$90,000 range.

Crawford says one reason utes are increasingly popular is they are classified as a commercial vehicle, so people buying them through their business can claim their GST back.

He reckons if the Government is serious about getting CO2 emissions down, they should be looking at more incentives on electric vehicles, including cutting the amount of fringe benefit tax businesses pay for personal use of a company vehicle.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw recognises meeting the Productivity Commission’s target of having a light vehicle fleet made up of more than 95 percent electric or zero emission vehicles by 2050 will be a colossal challenge.

In a recent interview for the Newsroom-Radio NZ podcast Two Cents Worth, Shaw told Bernard Hickey we’re going to need to radically change our car-buying habits.

“You’ve got about 4.2 million vehicles in the fleet today, if you want to replace those [with electric vehicles], you’d be doing so at a rate of 131,250 a year for the next 32 years and every year you don’t replace them at that rate you have to add that to the following years,” he said.

Last year we bought almost 3500 electric vehicles. So, that’s only 127,750 off the target.

Newsroom's Bernard Hickey and Nikki Mandow, and a double-cab ute. Photo: RNZ/Dan Cook

See more about the environmental implications of our double-cab ute addiction in Two Cents' Worth, Newsroom's new podcast with Radio NZ.

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