Since the current-generation Toyota Hilux was launched back in 2005, its rivals have become variously faster, fitter, larger and more generally car-like.
Hilux, meantime, has maintained its enviable reputation for rugged go-anywhere reliability by journeying to the ends of the earth, quite literally. As most Drivesouth readers will know, back in 2008, television's Top Gear team tripped to the North Pole by Hilux.
Less known is the fact that specially prepared Hiluxes are also the ute of choice for Antarctic adventuring, with one such vehicle reaching the South Pole just last November.
Between these icy extremes of latitude, if there is a particular mountain, sand dune, or steaming jungle that someone wants to conquer by ''truck'', the chances are that a Hilux will be chosen.
Similarly, and despite a slew of talented recent arrivals, such as the new VW Amorak, the latest Ford Ranger and the Mazda BT-50, the Hilux remains New Zealand's ute of first choice.
Last year, despite significantly disrupted supply, it was the country's second-top selling new vehicle of any type and - once again - New Zealand's favourite ute, registering 70% more sales than its nearest rival.
Toyota makes no secret of the fact that this generation of the Hilux is nearing the end of its model life, and that the facelift carried out last year will be the last before the arrival its successor (see below).
While the previous engine and gearboxes carry over, styling changes have been made to the nose and tail, major revisions carried out on the interior, and a general upgrading of equipment levels has also occurred. At the same time, the bean-counters have been redoing their sums to price the Hilux more sharply than before.
Drivesouth stepped aboard the flagship SR5 double cab to reacquaint itself with the Hilux in its updated guise. The vehicle supplied was the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel with the five-speed manual transmission. The recommended retail for this variant of the SR5 is $59,390.
The upgraded cabin is cleanly styled and comfortable, especially up front. Hard plastics reflect utilitarian purpose rather than price-cutting, and in typical Toyota fashion the test car's interior fittings were well put together, and rattle-free.
An innovation is the centre display screen, which gives touch-screen access to the sound system and Bluetooth controls as well as plug-in slots for an SD card and USB. Both the Bluetooth and plug-in iPod interface worked seamlessly on test.
Controls for the dual-zone climate control nestle under the display screen, while above it sits the display screen for clock, compass, and trip
Toyota's tilt at the five-star crash test rating achieved by the latest utes from Ford, Mazda and VW will come with the current Hilux's successor. In the meantime, the Hilux carries a respectable four-star score. Front, side and curtain airbags are standard on the SR5, along with full-electronic stability programming and anti-lock brakes.
A couple of menial round-town tasks were included in the test brief (delivering two tray loads of bark chips home and conveying a full load of junk to the lasdfill), but the arrival of the SR5 also gave an excuse for some long overdue back-country adventuring.
While no major mountains were conquered, the Hilux remains a vehicle 100% in its element traversing Otago's fabulous hinterland.
Engine and gearbox-wise, the Hilux may play second fiddle to some of its rivals now, but the gap is surely more obvious with the automatic (still a four-speed, where rivals boast six) than the manual that is the subject of this test.
Peak outputs of 126kW of power and 343Nm of torque, the latter on tap from as low as 1400rpm, still provide a reasonable foundation for solid performance. Having all that torque on tap from low revs makes for effortless cruising, and its generous spread across the rev range aids mechanically smooth progress over poor ground.
Similarly, the five-speed manual box is hardly ground-breaking, but it has an easy, smooth, deliberate action nonetheless.
Switching between 2WD high, 4WD high and 4WD low on the conventional transfer box is similarly fuss-free.
Standard-cycle testing in controlled conditions produces a fine 8.3-litre return for the SR5 turbo-diesel manual, which gives the Hilux an economy edge over more powerful rivals. In real-world conditions, the test car bettered that result during easy highway driving. Even with a considerable component of rough, slow-speed four-wheel-drive work included, it still managed a respectable 9.9l/100km result overall on test.
Again, while the Hilux's road handling is less car-like than some recent arrivals in the light commercial segment, the SR5 is still a reasonable steer on the open road. As with any ute using a leaf-sprung rear suspension, ride quality tends towards the bouncy when lightly laden, but settles down with a load in the tray.
All of this adds up to a Hilux which, appropriately upgraded in its latest guise, remains entirely fit for purpose. Alternatives may have moved ahead in several areas, but when recent changes are considered in combination with the Hilux's enviable reputation for retaining its resale value, there
is little doubt that enough has been done to keep it king of the sales charts until an all-new and presumably bolder) successor appears, most likely in late 2013.
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