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Car reviews - Toyota - Hilux - utility range

Our Opinion

We like
Toyota engineering and build quality, new-look nose styling, refined driving experience – for a ute, rugged off-road ability, more diesel variants, revised pricing on 4x4 models, resale value
Room for improvement
Lack of ESC and curtain airbags across the range, drab interiors, exposed position of new sat-nav screen on flagship SR5

Toyota logo7 Sep 2011

IF you lined up the 43 car companies in Australia and asked them to name one vehicle from a rival range that they coveted the most, we bet London to a brick that the Toyota HiLux would get the vote.

Consider the facts: HiLux has been the number-one selling light truck for 14 straight years with a segment market share of about 25 per cent it is not only one of Australia’s top three vehicles, but number one outright in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory 700,000 HiLux utes have been sold in 43 years, and most are still out there, driving gigantic parts and service business it has one of the highest badge recognition ratings in the land but best of all – and this is what makes Toyota rivals really jealous – it has one of the best repeat purchase percentages of any vehicle.

Loyalty, HiLux is thy name.

If you then lined up the HiLux customers and asked them what Toyota should change on HiLux at facelift time, the first request would probably be something like: Don’t mess with the basic formula.

And so, Toyota hasn’t. You will not find any fancy electronic suspension controls, eight-way electric seats or faux carbon fibre trim on this facelifted HiLux – the first major workover since the current generation was born in 2005.

We just get more of the same, with a little bit more, such as more diesel variants, more safety with ABS across the range, a higher towing capacity (2500kg) on 4x4s, and more practicality, with cruise control on more models, Bluetooth phone connectivity on all models and sat-nav standard on the top-self SR5 models.

The second request from customers would be: How about a bit more value. Afterall, HiLux has always been at the premium end of the price spectrum, milking its reputation for all its worth.

And that has been the biggest change with the new range, with more accessible pricing, mainly on the popular 4x4 variants that are out-selling their 4x2 workhorse stable-mates by about two to one and counting.

Of course, you can’t have a facelift with a few cosmetic changes, and so the HiLux gets new sheet-metal forward of the A pillars, plus fresh grilles and bumpers, along with redesigned taillights and a few other bits and pieces. As well, interiors get a lift with new audio systems, fresh trim and sports seats in the 4x4 SR models.

From our perspective, these are all worthwhile, with the SR5 in particular getting some extra dash with an all-chrome grille.

The powertrains – a 2.7-litre petrol, 3.0-litre diesel and 4.0-litre V6 – are all unchanged, although the V6 variants are a bit scarcer, as buyers have spoken with their wallets: diesel is king. Several slow-selling V6 models have been euthanised.

Toyota has countered with more diesels – including 4x4 and Xtra Cab and Double Cab variants for the first time – and sharpening the value by variously adding stuff and cutting prices.

Unfortunately, we can’t tell you how these base models drive, as our test run through rugged countryside around Townsville at the media launch was restricted to mid-range SR and flagship SR5 pick-up models, all with 4x4 and all with 17-inch wheels.

We did get to sample both the V6 and trusty diesel, taking both on a mix of highway, urban and torrid bump-stop-bashing off-road tracks that sort the sheep from the goats.

There was one ‘bugger’ moment when one of the vehicles staked a tyre on a sharp rock in the first five minutes of off-roading, but we came away with our admiration for the HiLux intact, as this humble ute really is the quiet achiever and the vehicle for all seasons.

Quiet and refined at highway speeds, totally at home in the bush and easy to live with in an urban environment, the HiLux just gets the job done.

We wonder why, however, Toyota does not cut to the chase and go all diesel with the HiLux. Well over 90 per cent of all HiLux utes departing the showrooms these days are powered by the 3.0-litre four-cylinder diesel, which, at 126kW and 343Nm is handy, without being class-leading.

We shall answer our own question by stating the Toyota position, which is: while there is reasonable demand in a niche, a HiLux model will be there to satisfy the customer.

Still, like the 90-odd per cent of current customers, we could not go past the diesel that breezes through all tasks, from load lugging to rock hopping, with greater efficiency, albeit with the ever-present chatter.

The 4x4 selection is via the old manual stick shift – no fancy push-button stuff here, thanks – with a choice of low and high range, as before.

The alternative to the basic five-speed manual gearbox is a five-speed automatic transmission (four speed on four-cylinder petrol applications) that does the business, even at quite high speeds.

Even though the vehicles we drove were not spared any bumps or thumps in several hours of dirt driving, we did not detect any squeaks or rattles – one of the true triumphs of the HiLux, thanks to its careful design and Thai build quality.

On the bitumen, we remarked time and again about the refined experience, although the ride can get choppy over undulations, as you would expect from a load lugger.

Off road, the stiff suspension tends to crash into sharp bumps – this is no SUV – but with every bump comes the reassurance that all the springs, dampers and suspension arms under the body are built to take it, again and again.

Inside, the HiLux can only be a Toyota, and a utilitarian one at that. Acres of hard grey plastic abound – no chance of the kelpie scratching that – along with fuss-free trim that is never going to win any prizes at the Australian Design Awards. So, that is a relief for current HiLux owners who wouldn’t have it any other way.

SR5 buyers now get a scattering of silver contrast trim to break up the unrelenting greyness, so they might have to trim the kelpie’s claws.

The base Workmate models even get good old-fashioned vinyl seats – a request from the likes of mining companies that otherwise have to fit seat covers to fend off the dirt.

Bluetooth phone connectivity will be a winner at all levels – especially with corporate OHS officers – as will sat-nav in the SR5 level that is the favourite tool of tradies who spend a lot of time racing from job to job while doubling as weekend warriors.

Speaking of the sat-nav, this is clearly an afterthought in the HiLux, jammed into the double-DIN audio slot in the dash where it bathes in bright sunlight making it a little difficult to read. Next time, we expect a dedicated and recessed LCD screen like real cars.

And while we are handing out the brickbats, our biggest disappointment with the new HiLux is the lack of electronic stability control (ESC) and curtain airbags across the range. Yes, the SR5 Double Cab models have ESC standard and SR Double Cab buyers can get it as part of a $1500 safety pack that also includes traction control, 17-inch steel wheels that look remarkably like Holden Commodore police issue, fender flares and other odds and ends.

But all the other models miss out, at least until the new generation of HiLux due in about 2014. Meanwhile, several rivals are already moving to make this vital change, along with curtain airbags.

Those rivals – including the new locally developed Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50 – are undoubtedly make life tougher for the HiLux as they are rolled out over the next few weeks and months.

Still, the HiLux is still the one that sets the pace in most respects, and all challengers are going have to be better than just good to dislodge Toyota’s tough guy from its pedestal.

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