Rise of a Kiwi icon - How New Zealand's love affair with utes grew

New Zealand has a love affair with the humble utility vehicle and it's been growing over the last decade.

Thousands of the vehicles are being sold in the country, eclipsing the number of small cars New Zealanders used to buy in droves.

It means Tuesday was a dark day for some ute-loving Kiwis after the Government announced proposals to add fees onto high-emissions vehicles.

The fees will be used to pay for incentives to buy lower emissions smaller vehicles, either small petrol cars, hybrids or electric vehicles. 

It's been criticised as a tax on farmers or tradespeople who desperately need a ute to do their jobs.

But there's a lot more of those vehicles coming into New Zealand than there used to be and once-popular cars are falling behind.

Ute sales have risen sharply since 2012 and the top two sold in New Zealand in 2018 were the big-booted vehicles.

Ford Rangers rose sharply in popularity between 2012 and 2018, and while the Hilux has stayed in the number two spot, it's taken over even more of the market.

A bar chart detailing the following information: "Corolla	6.07% Hilux	4.77% Swift	3.79% Ranger	3.21% Navara	2.95% Captiva	2.86% Commodore	2.78% Yaris	2.57% Hiace	2.54% Focus	2.46%"
2012 was a different time. Photo credit: Newshub.

Toyota Corollas were once top of the list but have now dropped to third.

According to figures from the Motor Industry Association, back in 2012 2815 Rangers made their way into NZ, compared to 5324 Corollas. 

By 2018 that had switched around and the Ranger was on top with 9904 sold in the country compared to 7300 Corollas.

More Rangers came to New Zealand in 2018 than Rangers and Corollas combined in 2012.

The Holden Colorado has a rags-to-riches tale too, going from 1332 in 2012 to 4583 in the space of six years.

Looking back over the last 15 years of Google Trends, interest in the Ranger and Colorado is almost non-existent until the early 2000s when they suddenly take off.

A graph which shows a yellow line dropping slighty, before being overtaken by a blue line,  and a red line rising steadily.
Photo credit: Screenshot/Google Trends

The Ranger eclipsed the Corolla in searches for the first time in August 2015 and it was always ahead of the hatchback from January 2017 onwards.

It overtook the Corolla in sales from 2015, selling 6818 to the Corolla's 6514. Since then the gap has grown to 2604 car lead the ranger now enjoys.

So we know the cars are certainly popular in New Zealand, but what's making people want them?



A Ranger will set you back $41,000, but people using it for work can write off a portion of that through GST.

In fact, cars are listed in the IRD's GST guide as one of the most common things businesses claim GST back on.

If you're planning on using it at least partially privately though you need to make an adjustment to the amount of GST claimed. 

The IRD uses an example of a man replacing his old business vehicle. Looking at his previous use the man estimates he uses the work vehicle for work around 70 percent of the time, so gets back 70 percent of the GST.

A graphic containing the following information: "Ranger	11.29% Hilux	9.22% Corolla	8.32% Rav4	5.66% Triton	5.38% Colorado	5.22% Cx-5	4.21% Navara	4.17% Sportage	3.75% Swift	3.46%"
Things have changed. Photo credit: Newshub.

In the example the man bought a $23,000 car and got back $2100. Apply the same logic to a $41,000 Ranger where the amount paid in GST is $6150 and he would get $4305 back on tax.

But that's not the only tax write off you can get as utes are also exempt from fringe benefit tax.

Fringe benefits is a tax on work perks, employers have to pay a tax on any benefits provided to the IRD based on the monetary value of the benefit the employee gets.

The IRD has an example of a plumber who uses his company van for weekend trips to the beach. It's a perk so the company must pay fringe benefit tax whether he uses it or not.

A white ute in the middle of a forest.
A Toyota Hilux. Photo credit: Facebook/Toyota New Zealand.

But there are some exemptions from the tax for work-related vehicles and the trusty ute, either double or single cab, is on the list.

There are a couple of other rules too, including that the vehicle needs to be permanently sign written and employees must be notified in writing that private use is forbidden except for travel between home and work, and travel incidental to business travel. 

Changing perceptions


The ute used to be seen as the workhorse of the farm, both in Kiwi's lives and in media. Back to the example of the Ranger, the 2016 ad promised: "tough features to tackle any job".

Across the 1 minute 17 seconds ad the viewer sees a farmer in his Ford drive through rivers, across steep hills and over cracked earth, all while sheep and cattle look on.

Compare it to the 2019 version, which features neighbours hitching a ride in a Ranger to go fishing, surfing or mountain biking.

"The only thing better than your mate's Ranger is your own," it says.

It's not only affecting the Ranger. New Zealand's second favourite car, the Hilux, promoted itself with Swandri as "two Kiwi legends" in 2016.

Come 2018 and Hilux ads are featuring the jaunts of a pair of friends in the "new look Hilux", including going out together in suits wearing aftershave.

There's one shot that emphasises the Hilux's off-road credentials, where it sits on the side of the road covered in mud as its riders drink coffee at a cafe.

Outside of advertising, the change is clear. Paula Bennett shared her concerns about the clean cars proposal with The AM Show on Wednesday, saying the Government better not come for "westie tradies" and their utes.

Mark Richardson quickly pitched in with his own opinion, saying he's an "eastie" and needs his ute as well - for towing his jet ski.