Hardcore and here – Hilux muscles in and means business

The generation eight Hilux aims to raise the bar – can it also even the score against a certain rival?

NEVER one to miss a beat, Toyota New Zealand inadvertently managed during the media reveal of the latest Hilux a nice little homage to the previous work undertaken by the chief engineer of the new one-tonner.

It came early into the two-day exercise, the first part of a 174km run from Palmerston North to Akitio, a teensy seaside village on the Tararua coastline.

The brand had promised 90 percent of this drive would be off-road; a bit of a stretch as it transpired. Almost every centimetre was, in fact, on a gazetted route, though some parts were definitely not suitable for ordinary cars, or for that matter most crossovers or sports utilities.

They started as they meant to go on by taking North Range Road – a deep rutted workout that wends between the Tararua Range wind farms overlooking Toyota New Zealand’s Manawatu base.

This is actually a public thoroughfare, but not one anyone should attempt with anything less than a full-blown mud-slogger – something that might surprise those who often come up here in their road cars to view the wind-driven power generators close up.

But they access from the ‘top’ end, that is from the Manawatu Gorge. We’d come in mid-point via a forest road normally closed to the public, then turned right, to make for the road’s other access junction, with the Pahiatua Track.

This section is totally wild and uncared for. The pitfalls are a series of massive holes, each easily large enough to swallow a small car. Something like the smallest car Toyota builds, the iQ, wouldn’t have even touched the sides.

And there’s that nice little link back to Hilux, and the bloke who directed its six year development. Hiroki Nakajima was reportedly more surprised than anybody when Toyota handed him the task of developing the all-new eight generation of this revered model – it was his first truck and a total departure from his usual portfolio, creating small passenger cars. His last job was that iQ, Toyota’s teensy Smart-sized city car.

Nakajima-san wasn’t with us, but it would have been easy to imagine how horrified he would be about putting his last baby into this environment – yet how delighted he might have been seeing us put his latest to the test.

I can report it did as well as any past Hilux: Even when the ruts and chasms were deep and steep enough for the truck to be three-wheeling, it never missed a beat, simply plodding through in low range and at low pace.

The challenges didn’t stop there. After a quick (and dry) stop at the Tui Brewery at Mangatainoka, we took another back country diversion, this time to another ‘forgotten’ byway deep within the district.

The Puketoi Road is actually one step above the ‘paper road’ status that is afforded North Range Rd, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, because it starts out as rough metal run then diminishes to become a wholly  unformed surface for the climb to the top of the Puketoi Range.

The views are stupendous but it’s not a drive for the faint-hearted; dizzingly steep drop-offs, blind corners and little too to manoeuvre should oncoming traffic be met make it a stern challenge. Throw in the challenges of the climate – mud, washouts and bog holes are common in the winter and you can expect to be buffeted by high winds across the summit almost all year round – and it’s another true adventure course.

It turns out that this route would have been lost if not for the efforts of local farmers, who see it as a handy short-cut between the bigger farming community of Pahiatua and Pongaroa, a one-pub township in the heart of this district.

Although they managed to talk the council into keeping the route gazetted, it has not been tended to since and, the highest sections could barely be called a track, now. Again, there were sections that you wouldn’t want to tackle in inclement conditions, but even though our drive can just a day after a bout of heavy rain, once again Toyota’s truck wasn’t overly tested. It took this bouncing, bucking, wheel-lifting and traction-sapping trek in its stride as well.

That Hilux did so well is hardly a surprise; this is an environment in which every generation seen in New Zealand has excelled. Nonetheless, perhaps because the outgoing item proved embarrassingly flawed in certain respects, this one has been beefed up, from its ladder frame to its body, brakes to suspension.

All the same, adding extra toughness wasn’t the primary ask of Nakajima. His first job was to utilise an expert focus required for iQ; provide a smarter approach to occupant space and comfort. Not necessarily make it more car-like, but rethink what tough needs to be in this age where utilities are increasingly being used as family rides or, at least, for work during the week and for other duties during the weekend.

That’s why, on first glance, you might forgiven for thinking the exterior, though patently all new in panel shape, is just a small step-up from the outgoing model, whereas it’s the interior and mechanicals where greater attention to detail was given.

For instance, apart from the retention of some patently hard-wearing plastics, it loses the utilitarian design for premium, car-like interior that is more spacious than ever before. It is also feature-packed with equipment like start/stop button, floating touchscreen display, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, power-operated windows and cruise control.

Don’t be fooled in thinking that they haven’t forgotten the primary mission, though. This model rides on a stiffer ladder-frame chassis that has slightly increased the overall weight, but improved vehicle rigidity and towing capacity, though the on-hook maximum differs depending on the model you buy into.

The four-wheel-drive manual is the heaviest duty beast, with a 3.5 tonne rating, while the rear-drive low-rider model is the lightest, with 2.5 tonnes. Payload has also increased to a maximum of 1240kg on certain models.

Keeping with towing, a trailer sway control is now one of Hilux’s added passive and active safety systems, while addition of a reversing camera should surely be welcomed by safety advocates given that SUVs and utes are cited for a high percent of driveway deaths.

In respect to the little ‘uns, all versions have a pair of Isofix child seat positions with top-tether where a full sized second row of seats are present.

SR5 safety equipment is also capped off by new LED headlights that are complemented by match LED daytime running lights and a self levelling function for when the cargo area or tow-bar is loaded up.

The mainstay four-cylinder diesel is also the latest generation GD direct injection and turbocharged 2.8-litre shared with the Land Cruiser Prado. It comes in three states of tune within the four Hilux grades (S, SR, SR5, and SR5 Limited): 123kW/343Nm for the 2WD low-rider models and higher output for the PreRunner and four-wheel-drive versions, with 130kW/420Nm (manual) or 130kW/450Nm (automatic).

The lowest output offer marries to a five-speed manual that has been cycled through at least two previous generations of Hilux (and feels it) while the others are hooked to far more modern six-speeders.

Hilux is still the only one-tonner on the market with petrol power. A 175kW/376Nm 4.0-litre V6 is available for the rear drive entry S and four-wheel-drive SR5 Limited.

When more than 90 percent of utes (and SUVs) are sold in diesel form it’s hard to see why Toyota sees the need, but they insist there’s still a core following for this kind of engine choice.

The benefits are smooth and effortless acceleration, plus (unsurprisingly) when the traction aides are loosened it’s the easiest engine with which to invoke wheelspin, a trait that further cements the bragging rights accorded the most powerful ute in the segment. On the other hand, you naturally pay penalty at the pump: The cited heaviest thirst is with the four-wheel-drive Limited, which the factory reckons is good for no better than 12.0 litres per 100km. That’s worse that most six-cylinder sedans now. By way of comparison, the diesel version of that model is good for 7.6L.

The previous 76-litre fuel tank has swollen to 80 litres which has increased range from about 900km to approximately 1100km for the most efficient versions.

But anyway, back to that PreRunner. That model was the primary focus of the second day of the Hilux introduction, when we left the four-wheel-drives parked up and shifted across to the rear-drive models.

In past generations these have generally been given short shrift; indeed, even now, the four-wheel-drive versions still capture the majority of sales, with doublecab SR and SR5 taking the lion’s share.

However, the rear-drive scene is taking greater importance. You’ll know that last year the old model lost a 32-year sales lead in the one-tonne segment to the Ranger and might think this regime change was only a matter of time. By then Hilux was nine years old and being shown up by more refined, better equipped rivals, notably that Ford.

You might not know defeat wasn’t total. Hilux never lost its crown in four-wheel-drive. Where it was hurt was not having a match for two specific Rangers; the Hi-Rider - a rear-drive with a four-wheel-drive look, trimmed out for family users  - and the four-wheel-drive Wildtrak, which established our taste for the strange concept of a luxury workhorse.

Previous Hilux also lacked diesel automatic across rear-drive, a lapse that couldn’t be rectified because by the time the market for this configuration took off, Toyota Japan had already determined to curtail development of the old model. Unfortunately for TNZ, since 2013 – when that decision was made – this drivetrain configuration has accounted for half all rear-drive ute sales here.

Those boxes are now ticked. In addition to the traditional low-ride-height single-cab, extra-cab and double-cab models, there’s the PreRunner (a name borrowed from the US) to go against Hi-Rider, in double-cab configuration, five offers over three specification levels, starting at SR and topping with the Limited specification that also arrives in four-wheel-drive form. So, four more new higher-end models to take on a pair of Wildtraks.

But, then, there’s more of everything now. Twenty-one variants now – nine rear-drive, 12 four-wheel-drive, most in 2.8-litre turbodiesel four (in three states of tune) but a couple with a 4.0-litre petrol V6, both shared with Land Cruiser Prado – against 12 previously, would seem to have every Ford covered.

If PreRunner buyer trends mirror those of HiRider, then it’s potentially going to largely become a townie truck. But even though it has the premise of being a show pony, that doesn’t mean it cannot also perform as a workhorse. Nor does it show aversion to being chucked into the country, as the day two drive programme evidenced.

This had us heading up toward final destination Napier through a large coastal farm and then up into the southern Hawke’s Bay; this time all on better-formed roads but lots of gravel, a couple of bumpy seacliff stretches plus the novelty of a brief stop at the spot with the world’s longest place name: Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapiki- maungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu.

Keeping away from the main roads was reinforcement that Hilux - even when sporting luxury car smarts (but only in a ‘blokey’ way, there’s no vanity mirror for the driver) - is still for the heartland.

Shifting through a pair of diesel four-wheel-drives, a base manual flatdeck extra cab and a SR5 Limited auto doublecab on day one, then three rear-drives – two diesels plus a V6 in entry S spec – to Napier ticked off every power combination, but there was no hope of covering all the spec/bodyshape combinations, so vast is the selection.

It’s easy to refine the choice, however: Basically, the six-speed manual and auto diesel in its higher state of tune offers best flavour and SR trim and above is tastier than entry S unless you want a truck purely for toil.

The lowest thrust diesel also struggles to appeal; it’s tuned for hauling loads, not high speeds, and engine roar is intrusive and it’s working hard enough at 100kmh to dissuade anyone going much faster. It’s not that the engine lacks puff; the gearing is quite short – by highway pace you’re in top and searching for that ‘extra’ gear that isn’t there. But there’s no disgusing that it’s a toiler; look inside and you find hard-wearing fabric for the seats with easy-to-rinse vinyl on the floor. 

Slip to the six-speed editions and it’s a different kind of truck. The shift quality is much better and the engine runs smoother, quieter and all the sweeter.

The manual SR5 also offers iMT, a feature that automatically matches engine speed to road speed on down changes, giving you the equivalent of a double-declutch down change. Some sports cars do the same, but with Hilux it’s here to assist with towing – a popular use, obviously, with TNZ attesting towbars are the most popular accessory, with 90 percent take-up.

The sweetest riding and most dynamic Hilux is the one that has the four-wheel-drive looks but drops the four-wheel-drive running gear.

Leaving that hardware behind also reduces the kerb weight by around 70kg; there was no opportunity to directly match-race any four-wheel-drive with its PreRunner equivalent, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter has a performance edge. It’ll probably have sweeter steering and perhaps a more compliant ride. Some might call it ‘car-like’, but I’d hesitate: It’s tidy enough but... Well, a truck is a truck is a truck, you know.

The most telling factor is that the rear suspension is still leaf-sprung as per the previous version. The leafs are 100mm longer, 50mm wider apart and have a front attachment point 100mm further forward for more suppressed road vibrations and reduced body roll, especially when loaded.

At the front end, the set up is double wishbone with a fatter anti-roll bar for improved road manner, while damper rates all round have been revised and relocated to improve stability at speed.

Still, it’s probably going to be a better kind of truck for those who want to strut and that’s all. There’s also a good financial argument for going ‘lite’: The premium for four-wheel-drive over PreRunner is between $10,000 and $15,000 depending on model.

As for specification? The SR’s tell-tales for toil are easily identified: Blacked-out steel wheels, a more basic tailgate design, exposed latches and external tie-down hooks say it’s still the worker’s mate.

The SR5 versions are more dressed-up inside and out, with 17-inch alloys, LED lights, extra chrome, keyless start, sat-nav and a handy 220-volt power outlet for charging your laptop. These also have carpets and a more premium seat fabric as well as monochrome version of the top-spec multi-information screen, and thirsty occupants can fit two 600ml drink bottles in the cooled glove box. The Limited has all this plus leather, eight-way power front seats, climate control in place of more orthodox air con, more chrome, and 18-inch alloys.

Improvements? The absence of a rear differential lock for PreRunner might seem unfortunate, given that Ranger HiRider has one, though whether it’s a cited requirement for the average customer remains to be seen. I mean, if they really want extra traction, they’d probably prefer to simply buy a four-wheel-drive, yeah?

Other points: The Ranger has a stronger engine and, from memory, might feel a little bit better planted on the road.

The Toyota misses out on two advanced driver aides, active cruise control and automatyed braking, now available to Ranger. But it is clearly tough, pretty well-equipped, offers in more model choices and has a heap – like more than 250 – options. It also is more refined than its predecessor and more pleasing to drive on, and off, road.

Let battle commence.