Cue the crowd. Wild celebrations. Over in Japan, the festivities are just as elaborate as in the platteland. The Hilux is back, as is the Fortuner, and the stage has been remapped, or, as the suits at Toyota would have it, back to the status quo. That means the Hilux is centre stage again with the Ford’s Ranger playing the supporting role, at least in the sales battle.
So, what is behind the rebirth of the Hilux – and the Fortuner for that matter? To test the arsenal they bring to the brutal SUV/bakkie fight, Motor headed into the Northern Cape Karoo just as winter was setting in. Freezing weather, dust, the worst roads we could find, and some of the longest stretches that were totally lethal for fatigue. If a car’s going to break – or break you – it’s here, in the beautiful landscapes of Fraserburg, Loxton, Vosburg and Calvinia.
Our route took us up the N7, towards the biodiversity of Nieuwoudtville, then up Vanrhyns Pass to Calvinia, left to the windmills of Loeriesfontein, across the dirt expanses towards Brandvlei, and onwards, beyond the salt-testing grounds of Hakskeen Pan down to Loxton, through Fraserburg and, finally, down the TeekloofPass to the N1. No easy task indeed, and all in one weekend. There’s a reason a slew of international manufacturers use this routing to test their vehicles to the breaking point. As if to underline this fact, the first indication of the task at hand came at the top of Vanrhyns Pass – a stranded Porsche Panamera, the latest face-lifted model, nursing a steaming engine, awaiting the backup crew. Smile and wave, lads. I sailed on past. By now, I had the measure of the Hilux’s cruising abilities, and was starting to develop a certain admiration for the blood-red Japanese bruiser.
But first, the basics – Toyota’s success with the Hilux and the Fortuner rests on three things – new engines, new interiors and new chassis. The new engines are the 2.4 GD and 2.8 GD-6, both turbocharged, both cleaner, more economical, more responsive and far quieter than before. We had the 2.8 on test, a sweet unit that is well mated to the manual 6-speed box, which is also new. The new interiors (later) are car-like, derived from the Lexus school of organic swoops and plains, and feature a load of electronics and safety kit. Finally, the chassis has been upgraded, automating the four-wheel-drive system with a dash-mounted, rotating dial for two, four, high- and low-range selections.
Beyond the punishing Vanrhyns Pass, the landscape of the Great Karoo flattens, the sky gets big and the distances intimidating. The tar road stretching from Calvinia to Loeriesfontein is fast and winding, empty and end-of-the-world-ish. It was here that the promises Hilux had made earlier about its cruising ability were to be delivered. It exhibits hugely improved manners on the open road, the i-MT (intelligent manual transmission) matching the best revs for smooth gear changes, and the clutch and steering are lighter, sharper and cleaner than before. Indeed, there is a degree of actual fun involved in driving the Hilux that wasn’t there earlier. It’s much more immediate in its responses, less agricultural than before, and the power-drive mode makes a notable difference in overtaking situations when the immediacy of throttle response is crucial to both safety and fun.
Beyond Loeriesfontein, with its quirky windmill museum, the road soon morphs into wide, loose dirt, well tended but tricky. We had loaded the Hilux with camping kit and a generator than was being delivered to a farmer friend in Vosburg – the extra weight made quite a big difference on the gravel; the Hilux’s rear suspension is a solid axle, set-up for strength (the independent system is reserved for the Fortuner) and can be pretty crashy without sufficient weight over that axle. As it was, the bakkie negotiated the stretch with commendable ease, the steering again coming out as the real hero – light but communicative, with excellent feedback about the road and the front suspension. It promotes a degree of confidence that is gold out there in the wilds.
At the Hakskeen Pan, we watched a Scandinavian video of a V8 Ford Mustang slip and slide around the pan. The backup vehicle was a Ranger and there was an interesting back-and-forth discussion about the relative merits of both. The consensus, gleaned after a couple of laps
in each other’s cars, was that the Ranger is a sledgehammer to the Hilux’s scalpel.The Ford is a bit of a brute, it’s solid, the companion you want when you’re heading into a challenging landscape, while the Hilux hides its toughness under a cloak of sophistication. The new interior, grand seats, added space at the back, and the electronic infotainment console are best-in-class, and match that of the VW Amarok. The Ranger is better insulated, the Hilux more fun to drive, but both are excellent, so choosing is a tough ask.
Back on the road and it was time to drop off the generator in Vosburg, down possibly the worst farm road in SA. Articulation of the suspension was tested to the extreme and passed with flying colours, the bakkie able to crab across rutted dongas with ease and minimal fuss, the lockable differential making quite a big difference. The Toyota’s arrival and departure angles were decent too; it may wear a mantle of upmarketness, but the Hilux is still at home in the veld.
Job done and back down through Loxton and Fraserburg, there was just the one test left – Teekloof Pass. The tarred route down the escarpment is notorious for terrible cambers, sudden drop-offs and unexpected, sharp right-handers. Here, the brakes were tested – and in one case, the emergency programming of the ABS too – and, again, the car passed with remarkably few white-knuckle moments. Bite is pretty good and progressive feel is excellent, there was no fade from the discs and stopping power was unaffected, even at the bottom of the demanding pass. Almost disappointingly, Leeu-Gamka appeared much sooner than expected. The busy N1 loomed and, after two days of mostly empty dirt-road driving, its clogged frustrations were not greatly welcomed. And that seemed the Hilux’s strongest endorsement – its abilities mean the urge to explore more rural routes gets stronger the longer you live with it.
Hilux has certainly done enough to deserve its reclaimed first position in the sales charts, and the future looks rosy. But, there are a few speed bumps – the new Nissan Navara arrives soon, and the leviathan VW Amarok gets that much-anticipated 3.0-litre TDi engine next year. Whether either results in another changing of the guard remains to be seen. Watch this space.
In a nutshell: Toyota Hilux 2.8 GD-6 Double Cab 4×4 Raider
Still tough, excellent cruiser, engaging drive, good value
Harsh ride if unladen, infotainment system quite fussy
- Engine: 2 755 cc 4-cylinder turbo
- Power: 130 kW @ 3 400 rpm, 420 Nm @ 1 400–2 600 rpm
- Performance: 0–100 km/h in 11.20 sec, top speed 180 km/h
- Tyres: 265/65/R17
- Economy: 8.5 ℓ/100 km
- Transmission: 6-speed manual
- CO2 emissions: 224 g/km
- Price: R541 000
Ford Ranger 3.2 Double Cab 4×4 XLT
High, tough, adored, superb cabin, quiet, excellent off-road 0–100 km/h in 12.3 sec, top speed 170 km/h, power 147 kW/470 Nm, price R555 900
Isuzu KB 300 D-TEQ Double Cab 4×4 LX
The most agricultural 4×4, though sporting the best ride. Feels bulletproof 0–100 km/h in 13.2 sec, top speed 170 km/h, power 130 kW/380 Nm, price R563 500