In rugby terms, the story of the latest Hilux is akin to a great test match that looks like being an opposition romp — until an outcome-swinging last-minute local comeback.
Before getting into that, here’s a question: How do you feel about being told everything good about a Kiwi icon ute is due to Aussie input?
At its own release of the MY21 line, Toyota Australia has reinforced how much of its own effort went into re-engineering and redesigning the one-tonner that still probably sells as a core element of the Kiwi lifestyle.
From Toyota Australia’s general manager of product planning and development, Rod Ferguson: “I'm sure if Hilux could talk, it would definitely have a strong Aussie accent.”
Fair call? Well, it’s credible. Much of the development for the model’s mid-life facelift occurred there; Toyota's Melbourne design centre crafted the facelift and Australian engineers handled the lion’s share of the engineering rework.
Don’t let it get to you. For one, they’ve done abrilliant job. For another? A neat Kiwi trump card has now been played. It’s a variant called Mako and it’s a Hilux unlike any other. Anywhere.
That will sound like a bold statement to make about the new flagship whose creation is astory in itself. Distilling everything down, having decided it needed a hero truck to take on the Ford Ranger Raptor and discovering that Toyota Japan couldn’t oblige, TNZ decided to create a homegrown special, built on demand.
To get a Mako, you must first buy the most expensive mainstream diesel auto Hilux double cab, the SR5 Cruiser, then have it sent off for a refurb, adding $21,000 to the sticker.
Mako uses quite a few trim bits —notably the entire front bumper, but also the bash plates underneath, LED light bar, easy-access recovery hooks, unique fender flares, side steps and customised tray — from something Aussies know and only get, a model called the Hilux Rugged-X.
The Kiwi version, however, goes a few steps further with an increased suspension lift, unique black Rhino 18-inch alloys and Maxxis RAZR All-Terrain tyres. The suspension changes see an ARB Old Man Emu setup used for 40mm lift front and 50mm lift rear; this includes bypass shocks with adjustable compression and rebound control. The leaf springs have also been upgraded.
The refit has seriously impressed across the Tasman. They’re a little chastened by how the Rugged-X seems puny by comparison. The world’s best Hilux? Well, they’ve suggested it might be. Having wangled, subsequent to the revised Hilux press launch, a day in the sole example so far created, I reckon Mako is definitely a game winner.
While Mako will raise Hilux’s status, it’s the mainstream line that’ll do the heavy lifting saleswise.
It’s now an 18-strong line-up not including Mako, in which, across the board, prices have edged upwards slightly by either $1000 or $1500 on 4x2 models and between $500 and $2500 for 4x4 models.
A styling makeover that borrows some cues from Toyota’s North American market trucks, retuned suspension and more powerful engines for all diesel models are core changes, plus there’s additional tech, including new connectivity to enhance the user experience.
The core 2.8-litre turbo diesel now has another 20kW, while peak torque on auto diesels climbs 50Nm. Manuals have an unchanged 420Nm torque peak but it’s available across a broader rev range.
The performance boost is the result of a new cylinder block and pistons, a larger turbo, new exhaust manifold, increased fuel injection pressure and cooling improvements. It’s accompanied by a10% reduction in fuel consumption and 11% lower CO2 emissions.
The big change inside is impossible to miss. All MY21s gain a larger 8.0-inch touchscreen —in place of previous 6.0- and 7.0-inch screens — which is a significant benefit, not least because it hosts Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality. Also highly welcome is a revised 4.2-inch multi-info display with a digital-speedo readout that’s equally convenient.
In other areas, the most obviously altered editions are the SR, SR5 and SR5 Cruiser models. These have new projector headlights, while from SR5 level there is the addition of parking support with front and rear proximity sensors, new LED taillights, redesigned LED headlights with a chrome surround, new wheels and heated door mirrors.
The SR5 Cruiser is plushest, by some margin. It gains a nine-speaker JBL audio system, an auto-dimming interior mirror, new 18-inch two-tone grey/ black alloy wheels, blue ambient lighting in the doors, new matte and piano black interior surfaces, welcome lights in the mirrors and a new leather-accented two-tone grey/black seat trim. It also has the largest price increase.
Toyota says the upgrades are a response to customer feedback. Ostensibly, they’re also to give Hilux more of a fighting chance against a certain other. It’s a matter of some ‘‘sensitivity’’ that while the current-generation Hilux has become the bestselling Hilux of all time, it has failed to dislodge the Ford Ranger from ute market leadership since 2014.
Hilux was well beaten last year, with 7126 registrations against Ranger’s 9483, and looks set to stay in the No 2 spot this year as well, barring a surprise upset.
Toyota conceivably has a chance to get back on top next year, as that is when Ford ends sale of the current Ranger and swaps to a new model that becomes a co-share with Volkswagen, a process that might limit stock count during changeover.
Drive day was restricted to 4WD SR and upwards models, all autos, mainly in double-cab well-side format, with a route from TNZ headquarters in Palmerston North through to New Plymouth.
This first drive delivered positive vibes. From my point of view, the real points of owner pride will be the drivetrain and the suspension revisions.
The 2.8 is quieter than before and the torquespread is appreciably broader and more easily accessed; the extra grunt from lower revs evidences nicely and the six-speed auto doesn’t mind at all about having to handle all that extra muscle. The engine has more spirit in Sport mode but, really, there’s so much oomph it’s OK to leave it in Eco mode and enjoy the fuel savings.
Utes can be bouncy, skittery things when unladen. That’s just the nature of the type. But Hilux used to be particularly so and it could be wearying. Now there’s a noticeably more compliant and sophisticated ride.
Sure, it’s not car-like, but bumps are soaked and it doesn’t wobble. Given none of the load-carrying ability has been sacrificed, you can hardly complain. And in unladen state, you get to enjoy a safer, more balanced and more predictable drive.
The power steering has been revised but is still hydraulically assisted. It feels better than before, albeit heavy compared with the electric power steering setups now coming into this category. The brakes deliver a more modulated pedal feel.
The only element lacking that would offer even more improvement is an ingredient just the VW Amarok offers in this sector: Full-time fourwheel-drive. Yes, Toyota’s system does allow for high-range all-paw engagement on seal, but only in certain circumstances. And the 4WD now has a rear auto limited slip differential which works when the ute is in two-wheel-drive. But so often you can’t beat having all four wheels working all of the time.
The updated cabin is nicely done; it’s inevitable there’ll be some hard plastics because Hilux is a worker at heart, but you get a quality, tight finish.
The screen’s integration works best in the Cruiser — it sits snugly above the air conditioning panel, whereas models with manual air con are less well integrated. In these, the bottom of the screen hangs out enough to impede sight of some controls. Atall driver will need to duck slightly to see if the A/c is active, for instance.
What doesn’t make sense is that Toyota has implemented technology to better suit phone integration yet delivers just one USB charging port in the cabin.
Hilux’s upgrade of driver assist and accident avoidance technology has been gradual, but rewarding. However, crash testing protocols keep ramping up and Hilux’s five-star safety rating from the only regime that matters here, the Australasian New Car Assessment Programme, was delivered under a protocol that has since been toughened. To get the same score now it would need more kit. As I write, the Isuzu D-Max is the sole ute to have aced the new test.
Has Toyota done enough to see Hilux through its remaining years on sale? It’s undoubtedly a much better truck, now, than it was five years ago.
The imponderable in writing this now is not knowing, yet, how good the opposition is. But we won’t have long to wait. The D-Max goes on sale locally very soon and its Mazda BT-50 doppelganger will be out in November. The next-generation Ford Ranger is due in the second half of next year.
- Richard Bosselman