OPINION: Running a Manawatu beef and sheep farm plus a business specialising in accessories for four-wheel-drives, Tim and Karyn Crawley need no convincing about the merits of traditional work-first, off-road vehicles.
Even so, they’re not mired by current trend. If their working habit can ease the impact of fossil fuel addiction, then why not?
At a time then when unfurling legislation to bring New Zealand up to speed with global best-practice emissions standards is signalling change to many traditional driving habits and choices, this couple’s tread-lightly electrification experience might seem pertinent.
They have been impressed how comfortably their Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, a petrol car with an electric motor helping it along, rubs shoulders with their hard-out mud-plugger choices, two Toyotas – a Hilux and a Land Cruiser – and a Ford Ranger, in daily toil, including out on their Mt Biggs farm.
Sure, the tough rigs aren’t likely to be put out to pasture. A couple with more than 30 years’ familiarity in work and play with full-blown all-terrain fare recognises the acronym “recreational activity vehicle” basically means “light-duties, urban-oriented”.
It is after all, built on a car platform, has car trimmings and lacks the off-road must-haves of a generous ride height and a low-range gearbox. In fact, a RAV4 Hybrid doesn’t even have an orthodox transmission with gears.
Yet these elements haven’t impeded the five-door model from being, in the right conditions, an occasional “Prius of the paddocks” and is often used for towing a tandem trailer that might haul anything from sheep and bales to a quad bike on short- to medium-haul trips where it is the cheaper-to-run option.
The frugal fuel usage and low emissions promised by a hybrid were core considerations when the couple bought the RAV4 more than a year ago.
Then it was all about picking a safe, comfortable and efficient vehicle for the regular drive between their business in Palmerston North and a sister operation they were running in Hastings.
“The multipurpose aspect was also definitely of interest as this was the first hybrid we knew about that had a proper tow rating,” says Tim.
“But we were also travelling more than 1000 kilometres a week at that stage … we had been using the Hilux but cost of running was coming into it.”
Averages of just 4.2 litres per 100km easily achieved on long, constant speed driving show its cost per kilometre value. The car-like ambience made it more comfortable and relaxed than a ute and there were other benefits.
Tim enjoys the drivetrain’s punch for overtaking. “The torque is a real bonus for the hybrid; you don’t want to spending too much time on the other side of the road.”
For Karyn, it’s the confident driving feel. “I love the way it sits on the road and it handles really nicely, including on gravel.”
Farm-side versatility has been a learning experience.
“We can hook up our tandem axle trailer and throw all sorts of stuff on that, and into the back, and it has no trouble. When you put the rear seats down you can get a lot of stuff into it … for rural people, this sort of thing is a big plus.”
One eye-opener for Karyn was a staff four-wheel-drive training day. “Everyone else was in utes, but we took the RAV along as well and it did the hillclimb and hill descent with ease – on road tyres.”
Adds Tim: “It’s quite capable, apart from the ground clearance. That’s really the only thing that holds it back.”
The feel-good conforms to an environmental consciousness that saw their farm secure BioGro organic certification in 1992, though they understand the broader context of where this effort stands.
Realistically, and despite it proving very popular with Kiwi new car buyers, it’s important to remember this is a tale of electrification, rather than fully-electric. A hybrid still burns fuel, the power that goes into the battery comes from the engine and the battery merely assists the engine.
The real advancement, then, lies with vehicles that charge from mains electricity – plug-in hybrids or fully electric vehicles.
Or, for that matter, from hydrogen fuel cells, which are basically still electric cars – though in a different way, through using the world’s most abundant chemical element to create a chemical reaction to generate electricity, which then drives a motor.
The Crawleys aren’t at all put out by that being an eventual pathway.
Tim says: “Apart from the savings and the obviously lower carbon footprint a lot of the functions that even a hybrid provides are brilliant for off-roading; you’ve got the torque delivery, you’ve got regenerative braking. It just gives you a whole lot of benefits because of the nature of the systems.”
It’s the when and how that remains a question mark.
The Clean Car scheme that comes into place on April 1 and can add up to almost $6000 in additional cost to any new vehicles with CO2 emissions above 192 grams per kilometre – a cut-off that snares every current ute – is intended to dilute interest in diesel utes and ultimate divert attention to cleaner derivatives.
Yet there’s no hard evidence to show anything electric to fully suit rural needs is good to go yet.
China’s LDV has an electric ute coming later this year, based off its T60 one-tonner and yet to be priced, though the national distributor is promising a sticker lower than $80,000, the cut-off for eligibility for Government’s electric vehicle rebate. It’s rear-drive, falls 100kg short of usual one-tonne payload capability and has a maximum towing capability of 1000kg, 750kg unbraked. Range is around 335 kilometres. A demonstrator brought from China has an 88.5kWh liquid-cooled battery, but it’s not clear if this size will come here.
Electrically-assisted versions of current market favourites – in ascending order that’s the Ranger, Hilux and Mitsubishi Triton – are said to be under development, none yet has a firm release date.
Ford has indicated the new-generation Ranger out in June might deliver with some form of electrified drivetrain from 2023, but there’s no absolute commitment yet. It releases from June with 2.0-litre four-cylinder and 3.0-litre V6 biturbo diesel engines in the mainstream versions, and a twin-turbo V6 petrol in the Raptor.
A survey to gauge the availability of plug-in or full electric light commercial vehicles between now and 2025 was conducted recently by the Motor Industry Association.
The organisation that lobbies for most new vehicle distributors says there’s indication that three hybrid models, four plug-in hybrids and three fully electric choices, covering four-by-two and four-by-four, will become available in that time.
By comparison, there will be many more choices in vans – two hybrids, seven PHEV and 23 fully electrics.
It’s a reminder that vans have much higher global appreciation, whereas one-tonne utes are only really more popular in relatively few markets. Outside New Zealand, where utes accounted for 21 per cent of all new vehicle sales in 2021, the other strongholds are Australia, parts of Asia, South America and South Africa.
Volume potential speaks when it comes down the pace of product development, says MIA spokesman Mark Stockdale.
“Utes, in terms of manufacturer product plans, are not the highest priority in terms of electrification.
“You can look at other markets to see why that is. In Europe, where they are leaders in electrification as a function of environmental policy, the van does the work, on road, that utes do in New Zealand.
“”But we’re a much bigger farming nation proportionally and utes here have a much bigger role off-road.”
As much as the EV supporters’ club keeps talking up the likes of the Tesla Cybertruck, Ford F-150 Lightning, Hummer and Rivan R1T truck, there’s genuine doubt how any of those primarily recreationally-focussed models could be relevant to the realities of life on New Zealand farms.
They’re either too big, too extravagant, too unorthodox, too US-centric and will potentially be too expensive.
That the Ram and Chevrolet Silverado full-size pick-ups that sell here now already cost twice as much as a farm-favoured Hilux and Ranger derivative raises doubt about how versions with electric assistance could achieve even price parity, let alone an advantage.
“I cannot imagine too many people driving an F-150 around their farm,” laughs Karyn. “They’re just monstrous …. too big and too heavy.”
So it’s easy to understand why diesel retains such strong support, Stockdale says: “There’s nothing better. They’re fit for purpose.” He says despite more utes being seen in cities “more than half are sold in the provinces where users are more likely to be the agricultural sector.”
What impact will the Clean Car scheme make? The MIA anticipates a brisk sales pace prior to April 1 and a drop-off immediately afterward, yet believes purchasing patterns long-term will remain strong. Stockdale wouldn’t bet against the Ranger this year continuing its 2021 accomplishment of being the country’s top-selling vehicle.
For really heavy work, the Crawleys concur, their Land Cruiser and utes are still the top dog choices by … well, a country mile, basically.
That’s not to say a fully or partially electric workhorse mightn’t one day meet the old-school talents.
“So much comes down to durability, power and range,” says Tim. “Plus there’s how you set up a recharging infrastructure on the farm.
“It’ll all evolve, I guess … but utes are an essential vehicle for a lot of New Zealand rural people. They have to have a ute.
“I certainly think a ute in a PHEV or fully electric configuration could ultimately have a lot of benefits, but you can understand why it’s taking a long time for the technology to come through.
“The thing about a ute is that, when it’s being used properly, it’s often being treated to the harshest environments we can throw at any vehicle.
“When you’re seriously off-road and going through rivers and streams then you have to have the same absolute faith in the electronics and the drive system that we put in the stuff that’s out now.
“On top of that, there’s the load considerations and the towing … you’d have to tow three tonnes and more.”
They don’t disagree that utes are being bought as trophy trucks, yet say the state of farm utes their Autokraft 4×4 business tends to suggests the rural sector prizes practicality well ahead of prestige.
“They’re definitely farm utes and they are definitely worked hard.”