Welcome along Dane.

As AJ has mentioned, ute v wagon is as much personal choice as anything else. We've gone from a Pathfinder wagon to the Triton ute, and I love the ute. That said, securing gear in the back of a ute is more difficult unless you have a canopy (which I've been avoiding, because then it's harder to use it as a ute). Even with a canopy, having a fridge in the back of a wagon will always be a nicer environment - cooler air, less dust, etc.

It's the same with Auto v Manual. Drive a few, and you'll work out what you like. I like auto's offroad, because they're point-and-shoot. But I'm equally at home with a manual. Automatic boxes are much more variable due to computer mapping too, so make sure you drive a few. to explain what I mean a bit better - my old Triton's 4-spd auto is brilliant - responsive, kicks down eagerly, strong. My Dad's newer Triton (which he bought brand new, so we know has never been abused) is indecisive, sloppy and tiring to live with. The old Pathy's automatic box was the best automatic I've ever driven. So make sure you test drive the exact model you're looking at, and you'll get a good feel for how they respond.

Now - as for make/model, which one's better, and all of that. I'm a firm believer that you're hard-pressed these days to buy a dud. For instance:

  • Triton - fantastic drive-away price with full warranty for a brand new car. You can get a new one + mods for less than the price of a base model bare Hilux. Obviously I like them, having one myself!
  • Hilux - wonderful motor vehicle. Legendary Toyota resale. I've driven in a mate's SR5 - it's a stunning motor car.
  • BT50/Ranger - bigger than the Triton, cheaper than the Hilux. Great 5 cyl engine (that makes you pay 6cyl rego ) coupled to an awesome gearbox. Tows with ease.
  • Navara - only one with the option of a coil-sprung rear end. Very comfy inside. Another mate has one of these and it's a really good allrounder.
  • MUX - same tough running gear as the DMax, but in a wagon. Easier to live with around town because it's shorter. Keep your gear locked up safely inside the back. Good friends of ours have one and it pulls their camper trailer with ease. Heaps of room for the kids.
  • Patrol - big and tough and hard to kill. Go anywhere with comfort. Can do it all. Cheap and easy to modify and to repair because there's thousands of them. Brother-in-law has a GU with the infamous 3L motor, and it's never missed a beat despite clocking up almost 400,000kms now and being treated like crap. It's an auto too. Plush inside with a super-soft ride.
  • Pajero - roomy for the family and comfortable, easy ride for eating up the highway kms. Refined inside, like a luxury car. Great around town. More than capable for remote touring or beach work. My brother carts his family around in one, and it takes them everywhere they need to go with ease.

...and so on.

My thinking is "buy the one you like". I would be surprised if you regret it.

What would I do in your position? Personally I'd find it VERY hard to go past a brand new MQ Triton. For the money they are, they're soooooo much car. Pick it up from the dealer with all the fruit already bolted on, and have a drive-away package that's cheaper than an alternative make. While I do prefer the BT50/Ranger twins, the value-for-money of the Triton would win the day. I'd be keeping it for a LONG time, so the lower resale wouldn't really worry me.

But that probably doesn't help you narrow down the field at all!

Good luck!
Matt