I’m thinking Adele. Not because she’s belting out ‘Helloooo!’ through the Lexus-derived sound system, but because, much like the Saaf London songstress, Toyota has taken its merry time to bring its latest offering to market. In fact, where Adele took just four, we’ve had to wait 11 years for this baby. You can imagine how very thankful local Toyota dealers are that it has finally arrived – Ford with its Ranger, VW’s Amarok, Mitsubishi’s Triton and even Isuzu’s KB have all come rolling past in the intervening years. Granted, Hilux is about as strong a brand as it’s possible to get; nonetheless, the world has moved on and Toyota’s workhorse was languishing in the Dark Ages.
Speaking of the dark, Iceland is all of that. Black, in fact, volcanic, stark, a bit like the Southern Drakensberg if someone torched it. Toyota has pretty much taken over the vast island, trails of their new bakkie stringing out across the moonlike landscape, heading to harsh, treacherous territories to test the mettle of both steed and rider. We’re heading south, to the lava fields of Laugarvatn, a line of six bakkies, crimson red and scary blue, an exotic snake in a colourless landscape. The idea is simple – conquer the most intimidating landscape on Earth and we’ll believe they’ve made the toughest bakkie ever. Good thinking.
Like the first listening of Adele’s 25, the Hilux is loud and ballsy. It’s all Japanese origami and severe lines, slashes really, in an attempt to be contemporary. In its high-riding double-cab guise, the effect is acceptable, but take away those massive wheels, bullbars and running boards and the standard-issue single cab model looks borderline silly, a bulbous creature on stick-insect legs, spouting weird alien eyes and buglike flanks. Still, design is hardly the be-all-and-end-all of why we purchase bakkies and your average Vosburg farmer is not going to give a sheep pen of Karoo lamb for what it looks like. It’s all about what’s underneath.
But first, step inside. Here, things have certainly improved. ‘Car-like’ is a much bandied-about phrase, but fair enough in the new Hilux; there is a sophistication here that will give an Amarok a run for its money, and more than a little bit of Lexus evident. It’s all good wherever you look. The standard 7” screen, the multi-function steering wheel, the excellent-quality seats (cloth comes standard) and a whole lot of room: the Hilux has acres of it, especially in the back of the double-cab, where leg and elbow room (this is the widest Hilux ever) are both impressive.
The most important of all, though, is a funky little knob at bottom left on the dash. It’s the 4×4 gubbins and yes, it’s a knob rather than a lever. Hilux has joined the 21st Century and delivers its off-road modes electronically, rather than using levers out of the transmission case. No more stopping, wrestling with a heavy shifter, finding the wrong mode, stopping again, blah blah. Now, just slow down, turn the rotator knob to 4×4 and select high or low range. There’s another switch to lock the rear and front axles. Simplicity itself. I hear Nissan laughing as we speak: ‘What took you guys so long?’
I reach for it now; the Icelandic lava fields loom ahead and our tour-guide-cum-ranger-person indicates it’s time to head off the tar down a rather nasty-looking dirt road. Dirt? Marsh really, a soggy mix of rock, sponge, goo and yuck, the kind of road no sane adventurer chooses for fear of disappearing into the primordial ooze, never to be found, much less towed out of again. Low range engaged, the Hilux snake creeps down the road to Mordor. No drama, as Toyota, clearly were sure of, and it’s only when we step out into the filtrating landscape that it’s clear how treacherous the drive was. Kudos, Hilux: if it could manage this, it should be a shoo-in for the Northern Kalahari.
Back in the cabin and heading to firmer terrain in the south, another feature is evident – it’s extremely quiet in here. The old Hilux, especially in a headwind, could sound like a Massey Ferguson on its last legs, all diesel clatter and un-thought-out aerodynamics. This model has flush glass, wind-tunnel hours, lots of padding and a specially insulated drivetrain. It’s eerie in here; then again, it’s all the better to take full advantage of Adele on the bold new sound system.
That drivetrain is so much better now. At speed across the wasteland, the ladder-
frame chassis, now 20% stiffer, although conversely more absorbent of bumps, is a delight. The revised rear suspension doesn’t only help off-road – on the tar, the longer suspension travel helps cushion the ride, which means more comfort. And the expected pitch and dive don’t really materialise either – they’ve got it sorted down there, and this should be a great cross-country tourer – mated with the right engine.
This is where the other changes have been wrought. I’m in the 2.4 diesel, which, minutiae aside, is more powerful, quieter, more economical and – crucially – more responsive. Given that this should be the volume seller here (the 2.8 diesel will be substantially more expensive), that’s more good news. And when we arrive back at the accommodation and navigate the car park, another advancement manifests – the turning circle has been drastically reduced, meaning parking garages and home manoeuvres will be that much easier to negotiate.
Bottom line? Toyota has pulled it off. Granted, it may look a little dodgy to the arch-conservatives, but it offers enough lifestyle kudos for the weekend warriors, enough strength for the khaki VeldFokus shirts, enough comfort for their partners and enough heritage for the advancement of the brand.
That the load bay is substantially bigger, the electronic aids pretty comprehensive (including trailer sway) and the 6-speed automatic or manual transmission silky smooth will only make it more appealing.
Honestly, we seldom need much of an excuse to love a Hilux in this country, but this time, Toyota has given us a whole, er, truckload. Ranger, Amarok, KB, Hardbody, be afraid. Be very afraid.
In a nutshell
More car-like, quieter, more sophisticated, better connectivity. Still tough
Some of the old, no-nonsense simplicity gone. Jury’s out on the exterior styling
- Engine: 2.4ℓ 4-cylinder turbodiesel
- Power: 110 kW @ 3 400 rpm, 400 Nm between 1 600 and 2 000 rpm
- Performance: 0-100 km/h 12.7 sec, top speed 170 km/h
- Tyres: 17” alloys, 265/65
- Economy: 8.3 ℓ/100km
- Transmission: 6-speed automatic
- CO2 emissions: 219 g/km
- Price: ±R420 000
Ford Ranger XL Plus
The current bakkie king, extremely comfortable, excellent build quality, flexible 2.2 engine, sweet gearbox. 0-100 km/h 12.2 sec, top speed 180 km/h, power 118 kW/385 Nm, price R419 900
Isuzu KB 250D LE
Recently revamped, first class interior, excellent on road dynamics, engine still somewhat agricultural, bulletproof, though. 0-100 km/h 13.4 sec, top speed 178 km/h, power 100 kW/320 Nm, price R435 200