Hilux SR5 flatdeck: Tray chic for the country

Even a basic traydeck Hilux is a long way removed, now, from the farmer’s friend that Crumpy made famous.

FOR those of us of a certain age, Hilux will surely always be defined but what will arguably always be one of New Zealand's most beloved advertising campaigns.

Combining an iconic Kiwi author, odd couple comedy, and off-road driving, the Crumpy and Scotty television adverts of the 1980s and ‘90s cemented the image of Toyota’s one-tonne ute as being tougher than anything the most rugged New Zealand conditions could throw at it.

The storyline’s consistent thread of an unruffled country guy showing the wimp from the city was a deft send-up of classic Kiwi clichés. Would it still work today?

Quite apart from causing multiple nosebleeds within the Advertising Standards office, you have to also think that the ute scene has also u-turned now.

While one-tonners are achieving volumes that could never have been contemplated back two decades ago, today’s market condition is surely such a wholly different, more world that you’d be forgiven for thinking the priority these days is less about getting it right for the land than making sure it looks glam enough for the landed.

The volume leaders are models that wouldn’t have been even considered as sales starters 20 years ago.

Anyone suggesting back then that a maker could get away with putting an automatic transmission into a doublecab, fitting it out with luxury touches – plus some safety features that weren’t even in concept vehicles back then -  and selling them for the same money as a pretty decent car would have been thrown in the water trough and told to sober up. Yet all those things have happened.

More is to come. It’s possible, already, to spend more than $80k on as vehicle whose primary function, let’s not forget, is to carry stuff on the back that you would never want to put into a cabin. It’s entirely probable that the Mercedes X-Class could raise the bar higher still.

Toyota hasn’t gone to those extremes but it has done well enough selling toilers as toys. To the point where, if that Hilux ad was to be shot today, you’d have to think the gumboot was so much on the other foot, now, that you’d be seeing Good Keen Man Barry Crump in the secondary role, being taught a few lessons by Lloyd Scott’s city-wise sidekick; potentially in how to ensure optimum parking outside a chic café.

As for the workhorse variants that are core to the whole ute ideal? They’re still around, of course, but are far more low key.

Given that most distributors don’t bother to have them on press drive, when in the wake of a launch for the line’s early onset facelift (occurring two years into production) – where, yes, we played in mid to high grade fare – an opportunity was given to spend further time with an SR diesel doublecab auto expectation was that it would be more townie truck time.

What a surprise, then, that the test vehicle was anything but; so fully farm-fettled that it had everything but a bale of hay and a couple of sheepdogs … it’s been a long time coming since I’ve driven a ute with a proper flatdeck. Even longer, perhaps, since I’ve driven any new vehicle on painted steel rims.

Talk about cheap and cheerful, right? Well, maybe a bit less of the first. When you can access a highly-specced wellside doublecab edition for little more than $60k these days, it did come as a bit of a shock to learn that the rural runabout lists for $54,890, pre-accessories. Of which this unit had a few: A towbar, for $1177, front and rear floormats (each set costing $58) and, not least, that steel deck tray, a $3923 item.

Range-wise changes meted Hilux in November were relatively modest, mainly in respect to some fiddling with the styling; at SR level the trim has also been smartened up and the audio improved, but that’s about the extent of it.

Toyota probably didn’t want to push the boat too far, there’s a sense that they feel that the product is well sorted already.

Fair point? Even though the Toyota has relinquished the ute sales crown to Ford, after an incredible reign of more three solid decades, there remains quiet satisfaction within the Japanese brand camp that regardless of Ranger’s overall dominance, Hilux has never lost its crown in four-wheel-drive.

Speaking of. It’s always seemed a shame to me that Japan’s No.1 continues to employ an old-school part-time four-wheel-drive. Although able to be shifted from rear- to all-wheel-drive on the run, but there’s no on-road four-wheel- wheel-drive option, putting it behind the Mitsubishi Triton and VW’s constant-4WD Amarok.

What difference would that make? Assuredly, you wouldn’t feel the benefit on dry seal. But the sense that, once it gets wet and slippery, the stability control earns its keep suggests it could do with all four tyres digging in and offering traction as well as grip.

Vehicles with constant four-wheel-drive also feel more settled when towing; using the Hilux to bring a mate’s MX-5 race car from his town to mine – a two open road drive – went without hitch, but there were occasions when I wondered how it would compare with my own Subaru Outback.

The ‘should I, shouldn’t’ issue plays more prominently on dirt and gravel roads; I suspect a Hilux in this traydeck format has less weight over the back wheels than a wellside and good throttle control only goes so far. It certainly has propensity to get tail-happy quite quickly when the back tyres don’t get good bite. Another good demonstration of why prevention is better than cure. One way of reducing the effect is to switch from power mode into economy; this has marked effect on throttle response.

Going full off-road is where no questions arise clear cut. You should engage four-wheel-drive as soon as you get through the farm gate; it is designed precisely for the conditions that exist beyond that point. From thereon it’s simply a matter of tailoring the other settings as conditions require.

SR5 variants of the HiLux are fitted with a rear differential lock as well as low-range and high-range 4WD. Approach and departure angles measure 31 degrees and 26 degrees respectively and off-road performance is supported by decent underbody protection.

Back for a moment to the towing, which was no sweat for this rig. Hilux’s rating was reconfigured with the revision, so now it is good to haul 3500kg; I figured that the combined weight of my trailer, Conrad’s MX-5 and the weight of some ancillary bits and bobs, included four rims with fitted with tyres, probably only came to around 60 percent of that, at best.

The 130kW/450Nm turbodiesel four-cylinder ran easily enough. That saying, it’s not an engine that particularly stands out in any respect; the outputs are fine, but it doesn’t produce the same degree of mid-range punch as some others and isn’t the quietest of performers, not least under throttle when it can roar quite raucously.

The engine is discernibly sharper in its responses with the power mode alone, but it also is noisier. It doesn’t reap any great benefit in fuel consumption either, consuming about 10.0L/100km for the whole week, this understandably bumping up on instant read-out while it was hauling the trailer.

This generation Hilux went on a bit of kilogram binge in the interests of achieving a strengthened ladder chassis and enlarging in its dimensions. There are pros and cons. It feels more solid than the last; no rattles or creaks and a sense that it’ll take the knocks.

On the hand, in a dynamic sense, it’s one of those utes to which the descriptive ‘car-like’ does not easily attach. It just doesn’t drive that way.

For general refinement … it’s not the best, with more tyre and wind noise than you’d continence from a car or some other rivals. Steering feel is not brilliant, either.

Let’s not get into discussion about degrees of safety because that’s not a rational discussion. As utes go, the Hilux does a decent dynamic job. But it also reminds why those who chose to drives these things as they would a car do so at their peril.

You’re always aware that slow ‘n steady, no sudden moves or actions, and leaving plenty of space to the vehicle ahead in event of the need for a sudden stop is the best approach. The ride definitely improves with weight aboard, not so much passengers as cargo. In an unladen state, the suspension and 18-inch wheels relayed small surface imperfections prominently. But, hey, you can’t expect a magic carpet ride, right?

Safety is five-star, thanks to the inclusion of seven airbags, stability control and a reversing camera which now offers a very much-improved service, thanks to the display screen being a much resolution device. All that stuff is great to have. As recently as 2005, remember the very concept of a utility with stability control and any kind of half-decent safety score seemed fatuous. Five years before that, even airbags and antiskid brakes was ludicrous. And, yet, now, all boxes are being ticked by an increasing count of brands.

How far can we go with this? Toyota still cannot provision a Hilux with forward collision warning, though it says it is working getting this. It also lacks the active cruise control and lane keep assist functions starting to be offered by some competitors.

Whereas the exterior package shouts a degree of work-first austerity, the cabin is altogether at a different level; all the mod cons – a decent stereo with Bluetooth and air conditioning – and some quite plush trim. The hose-it-to-clean vinyl trim and rubber floor treatments that were good enough in Crumpy’s day are long gone, it seems. The SR level delivers materials that would not look out of place in any Corolla, with dark cloth for the seats and carpet. I’m told these are very resistant to abuse and easy to keep clean, but you’d think it’s not the kind of environment for country muck. At least the plastics are still workmanlike in finish.

Shortcomings? The front seat isn’t as supportive as it looks to be, there’s no digital speedo and, in Toyota typical style, the sporadic layout of some of the buttons and switchgear is annoying. A bit more logic would go a long way.

What particularly narks is the infotainment setup. Toyota talks vaguely of technical complications but really it is probable that only sheer bloody-mindedness about having to stoop to use a proprietary system – and, conceivably, pay licensing rights to do so – is the reason why every Toyota (and Lexus) still has to forego the brilliant Apple CarPlay software offered on numerous rivals.

Cupholders beneath the front outboard vents work well to keep drinks at the appropriate temperature, with further drink stowage in the centre console. At least you get a 12-volt outlet, USB point and 220-volt accessory socket are equally note-worthy.

The rear seat provides just enough headroom for a 191cm occupant to sit behind a similarly-sized driver.

Driving a farm-ready Hilux was a real novelty; I cannot recall the last time Toyota sent one out. For so many years now, they’ve been steering us toward the glam editions. One of the surprises from this experience was that those patently more upmarket versions really don’t cost a lot more. I guess that’s just one reason why they are so popular.

Hilux mightn’t be as smart as some rivals, now, but it still covers the basics well, and the extra niceties afforded the update model is appreciated. It also delivers a ton of evidence to support the notion that Toyota tough is more than merely a slogan; it’s a statement of fact.