WE all know from lessons in life that it’s easier to fall off the perch than it is to get there for the simple reason that everyone wants to occupy the top slot. The same goes for vehicles. The Toyota Hilux has been South Africa’s best-selling vehicle of any type for bigger part of its life cycle which in this case goes back to 2005.
However, nothing in life stands still and there’s no doubt in my mind that in the auto business, a 10-year life cycle is not far off double the industry average which has made the Hilux unusually vulnerable to attack.
One vehicle, and it’s a four letter word beginning with F, has been eating away at the Toyota’s supremacy to such an extent that it has usurped the top slot on the sales charts in some months.
It’s my view that Toyota has coasted to a certain extent, basking in the apparent invincibility of the Hilux and it has now had its hand forced to square up to more modern opposition. This begs the question — where was the outgoing Hilux falling behind? I’d identify space and comfort as well as ride, specific output and economy of the available engines, and dated infotainment systems.
If that sounds like the death knell for the Hilux you’d be wrong because a reputation for toughness and reliability and a dealer network unsurpassed in its geographic dispersion clearly outweighed some of the more cosmetic bits that perhaps don’t worry bakkie owners quite as much.
So, roll along to 2016 and welcome the new kid on the block — the eighth gen (Seventh in South Africa) Hilux — which was presented at the biggest, glitziest launch I’ve ever attended. The venue was at the new Kyalami circuit — which was something of a surprise — that incorporates a short but interesting off-road course and a chance to lap the circuit itself which was awash in Toyota signage and reference to the toughness of the new challenger.
There’s a limit to just how much can be changed in a bakkie when it comes to body architecture and while the new Hilux has retained obvious genes, a sharper new nose with wrap-around lights, flared wheel arches, greater curvature of the cabin and rear lamps that encroach on the flanks make sure no-one will miss the new contender. Indeed, a member of the public sitting outside the circuit fell over himself to get as many photos as possible when we headed out onto the road so the significance of the event did not pass him by.
Inside, the outgoing Hilux had definitely fallen behind so it was good to see better grade materials being employed together with greater design flair expressed in various forms, not least in the inclusion of decorative metallic trim panels, blue illumination, a classy touch screen infotainment unit and clearer instrumentation which in the posher models extends to a 4.2” TFT info display.
The pervasive plastic look has gone and even the seat fabrics have moved up a notch with the standard patterned black cloth being supplemented by optional leather in the smartest models.
The front seats felt more supportive than I remember and I also thought the 60:40 foldable rear seats in the double cab offered improved posture, more head room and better under-thigh support. Oddments space too has been enhanced such that the cabin is not just smarter but a more practical place to be.
Underneath all this titivation sits a revised ladder frame chassis which has been tweaked to improve ride comfort, refinement and torsional stiffness while being stronger still.
I’m no fan of driving unladen bakkies on pock-marked roads because they all ride indifferently so I was most interested to hear about the incorporation and relocation of longer leaf springs in association with beefier dampers intended to ameliorate the dreaded rear axle bounce syndrome.
To assist further, a sensor-activated Pitch and Bounce Control system automatically adjusts engine torque in direct response to road conditions.
Naturally, the new model is also offered with part time 4WD now activated by an electronic rotary switch. Included are low range and new limited slip diffs, front and rear.
Additional aids include Active Traction Control, Hill Start Assist and Downhill Assist Control , all of which proved their effectiveness on the off-road course.
Even a Hilux can’t get anywhere without an engine so fans will be happy to learn that new Global Diesels of 2.4 and 2.8 litre displacement are on offer, each offering a nine percent reduction in fuel thirst. The former offers 110kW and 343Nm (or 400Nm in enhanced form) while the latter, which was sampled, produces 130kW and 420Nm (450Nm for the auto) from just 1 600 rpm. A significant reduction in compression ratios has reduced diesel knock and associated vibrations.
Petrol engine fans have a choice of three motors – a 100kW 2.0, a 122kW 2.7 and a bruising 175kW 4.0 V6 which was sampled on-track.
In terms of transmission, workhorse models make do with a 5-speed manual while smarter derivatives sport either a 6-speed manual or 6–speed auto box with all-new electronic controls to aid efficiency.
The former offers a lower first gear ratio and a 23 percent higher top gear for refined cruising. Selected models are equipped with an intelligent Manual Transmission which matches engine revs on up and downshifts. This works well and makes for smoother progress and less chance of unwanted rear end step-out on greasy surfaces.
For the first time on a Hilux, a Drive Mode switch allows selection of ECO or POWER modes. Doubtless the latter will be activated when the top model CD-6 is put to work hauling 3 500kg!
Three body configurations*are on offer, namely Single, Xtra and Double Cab but whichever is chosen, safety has not been overlooked.
Apart from offering improved deformation resistance and pedestrian protection, every new model is kitted out with at least a driver air bag while the Double Cab Raider offers no fewer than seven air bags which include a driver-side knee bag.
Active safety is looked after by all the usual braking aids together with Vehicle Stability Control and Trailer Sway Control in selected models.
The question now is: Does all this wizardry work?
An off-road excursion in a 2.8GD-6 AT certainly proved the efficacy of the gradient control systems as well as the traction/articulation conundrum while a few laps of the Kyalami circuit in a 4.0 V6 proved the braking system is up to scratch and an excursion in a 2.8 showed how well the intelligent Manual Transmission smooths out shifts.
Certainly, the improvements to the interior ambience were immediately apparent but an open road drive of some 180km (from memory) in a manual and an auto 2.8 was more revealing.
A variety of road surfaces from motorway to undulating A-roads to gravel were encountered and the fact that I travelled a considerable distance in fifth gear instead of sixth in the manual tells you enough about the general reduction in noise levels.
As for ride, the tweaks have definitely resulted in improved comfort and control in an unladen state while traversing undulating smooth surfaces.
Vertical movement is reduced and there’s a lot less shuffling but once rutted and corrugated surfaces were encountered, the rear-end jumpiness and waywardness was still evident but doubtless will not be so obvious with a few sacks of maize in the load area.
The fact is that leaf springs and a solid axle attached to a ladder frame chassis simply can’t match more sophisticated installations but I guess there’s some payback in the form of load capacity and wheel articulation.
There’s no doubting that the NVH factor has moved in the right direction and that comfort levels and interior ambience, including the rather smart and effective infotainment system, now provide passengers with a much nicer travelling environment.
As to whether Toyota has done enough to get ahead of the primary competition in terms of all-round competence is open to debate — it has after all, been playing catch-up — but given the inherent virtues of the Hilux brand, the upgrades are sure to add even greater appeal to a model that really does deserve the icon moniker.
*Please note that all reference to model availability and configuration applies to the South African market. The good news is that the new Hilux is coming to Zimbabwe and it’s not far away. Please contact Toyota Zimbabwe or any of its dealers for an update.
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