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The Toyota HiLux continues to dominate ute sales in Australia despite the arrival of newer - and mostly superior - rivals.
The Toyota HiLux was at least updated in 2011 to keep it fresher as it faces its growing list of competitors.
It was back in 1968 when the Toyota HiLux came into existence and not until 1979 that it even got a 4WD system. So it’s been through the past 43 years of improvement that the HiLux has earned its reputation as a proper, unbreakable workhorse or practical family vehicle.
As of today over 14 million Toyota HiLux vehicles have been sold worldwide, of which a staggering 700,000 have come to Australia (1/20). It’s no wonder then, that the HiLux remains the dominant player in its category and one of the best-selling vehicles in Australia in general.
Nonetheless, times are changing and despite its indisputable credentials, growing competition from cheap Chinese utes, a relentless effort by Volkswagen’s Amarok, the Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50 has meant that Toyota has had to respond.
To give it a more competitive advantage, the updated seventh-generation Toyota HiLux has got its share of new features. From the outside everything from the A-pillar forward has been updated (new bonnet, grille, headlamps and front bumper) and the rear gets new combination lamps (for pick-up models).
The real story however is the added value and price reductions to the new model range, with all 21 Toyota HiLux 4x4 variants gaining between $1960 and $8340 better value. 4x2 buyers also benefit with a host of new features and modest or no price gains, which Toyota says has enhanced value by up to $1640.
To begin our Toyota HiLux review, we set out to test drive the updated HiLux around a challenging four-wheel drive course about 30 minutes out of Townsville. Although the majority of Toyota HiLux 4x4s sold to private buyers will never see dirt, the ability to perform off-road is crucial in the upkeep of HiLux’s tough and robust reputation.
Here is thing about 4x4 utes: the vast majority of them (Great Wall excluded) can perform pretty much any basic to moderate off-roading required. When Volkswagen launched the Amarok, we embarked on an extensive 4WD course that proved the Amarok as being more than capable of overcoming some seriously tough terrain. The same story applies to the Nissan Navara and other Japanese utes. The Toyota HiLux is pretty much the same; it’s excellent off-road and has no problems conquering anything it would ever realistically need to. You can read our Toyota HiLux off-road review for more info.
Compared with the Volkswagen Amarok, the Toyota HiLux is definitely more agricultural. The Amarok’s overall refinement is a level above the popular Japanese ute, but there is a reason for this. While the Europeans have focused heavily on technology and features, Toyota has kept the proven formula of the bulletproof HiLux pretty much untouched.
For example, you simply press a button to put an Amarok into 4x4 low range and you can do this even when the vehicle is moving. As for the HiLux, you need to stop, engage neutral and then use a manual low-high gear lever to achieve the same result.
The Amarok makes do with a 2.0-litre turbodiesel with 120kW (at 4000rpm) and 400Nm of torque (1500-2500rpm). Meanwhile, the 3.0-litre diesel powering the HiLux is only marginally better with 126kW (3600rpm) and 343Nm of torque (1400-3400rpm). You can see from these figures the difference in the technology applied.
What you can’t see, however, is Toyota’s insistence to continue to build a product that has proven its credentials over the last four decades. While it’s still far too early to discuss the Amarok’s long term durability (even though early reports are very positive), the reason Toyota has stuck with its proven system is to keep things simple and the HiLux’s unbreakable reliability a continuing reality.
The reason Toyota Australia has been so successful with the HiLux and other off-road-capable vehicles is not so much that they are significantly better than their Japanese or European counterparts, more that the brand has stuck behind its product by establishing an enormous supply and parts chain across the vast continent that is Australia.
You can be assured that if something was to go wrong with your 3.0-litre turbodiesel Toyota engine (a rarity) in the middle of Australia, the closest Toyota dealership (and there are 258 of them) will have the necessary part or expertise to you in an unbelievably quick time. The same cannot be said with confidence about its major rivals. So while the Amarok and the soon-to-be-released new Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50 are no doubt more technologically advanced, the HiLux remains a proven unit.
This is not the say the HiLux is technologically inept - far from it. The 2012 updated models have gained a significant amount of new features that have been on the wish list for some time. Anti-skid brakes and a new audio system with Bluetooth audio streaming and phone connectivity plus USB is now standard even on the very base model WorkMate variants (which are now offered in Single Cab cab chassis and Double Cab pick-up body styles for the first time).
HiLux SR 4x2 models gain cruise control for manual transmissions and have their seat, steering wheel and door trim upgraded. A limited-slip differential has also been added to all V6 petrol models (previously optional). 4x4 models gain the above and also include sports-style front seats and side and curtain-shield airbags.
Go for the range-topping Toyota HiLux SR5 4x2 and automatic air-conditioning, dusk-sensing headlights and a 6.1-inch touchscreen satellite navigation system are all new features. Double Cab V6 petrol 4x4 models also gain vehicle stability control (ESC), traction control, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.
There are now 35 different HiLux variants (up from 32), so the updated range caters to almost every need. Toyota’s dominance in fleet sales remains unchallenged but it aims to lift its marketshare with private buyers in the turbodiesel sector. New variants, lower prices and added value is the strategy for Toyota going forward.
During the 400km+ drive program from Townsville out to Hervey Bay and beyond, we found the HiLux’s interior to be pleasant and robust. It doesn't feel as upmarket as the Amarok’s but it’s on par with its Japanese rivals. Apart from lack of telescopic steering adjustment, it has features such as steering wheel audio and Bluetooth controls that are not available even on the range-topping Amarok Ultimate.
The front seats are supportive and the suspension is cruisy for city and long highway drives. Sit in the back of a dual cab HiLux and you'll realise it actually has more legroom than a Camry. Given the box-shaped cabin, there is plenty of space for four adults to fit comfortably.
Once we got comfortable in the cabin, it was time for our drive up a mountainous range to reach Townsville’s Hidden Valley Cabins.
On normal roads the HiLux behaves well, is easy to manoeuvre and power delivery is smooth and consistent in the two variants we tested (4.0-litre petrol and 3.0-litre diesel). Get on a bit of dirt and the nanny controls do tend to kick in a bit more than we were expecting (even with weight in the tray to keep the rear grounded).
The 3.0-litre diesel is available with a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic, while the 4.0-litre petrol has the same manual choice but gains an extra gear for the automatic.
The diesel automatic does tend to feel a little sluggish in its torque delivery - as you get up to speed, it’s begging for an additional gear. The manual gearbox delivers better acceleration and is a breeze to use. Nonetheless, the majority of buyers are likely to stick with an automatic gearbox for convenience.
Although adequate for day-to-day driving, both petrol and diesel variants could certainly do with more go. At the very least, we would have really liked to see a range-topping halo model (remember the TRD HiLux?). To give you some perspective, the more expensive Nissan Navara ST-550 is powered by a 3.0-litre turbodiesel driven through a seven-speed automatic that delivers substantially more power and torque (170kW and 550Nm).
One of the more consistent complaints about the HiLux was its 2250kg towing capacity, which has been upgraded to 2500kg. Its main competition can easily outdo this with the Navara and Triton managing 3000kg and the Amarok 2800kg.
Toyota Australia says the issue of increasing towing capacity has been raised with Japan, with the chief engineer of the new HiLux program visiting Australia three times this year alone to better understand local market needs.
Safety remains a point of concern for the Toyota HiLux 4x2 range, with no standard side or curtain-shield airbags on offer. It’s only on the 4x4 SR and above variants that the life-saving technology is added as standard equipement. In comparison, all Amarok variants come standard with a full compliment of airbags and safety features.
There is no doubt that the vast majority of fleets will still pick the HiLux as the vehicle of choice. The real question is whether or not Toyota can convince private buyers to stick with the brand. While the Amarok struggles given the lack of an automatic option, research suggests that Toyota's job of getting new buyers into a HiLux is not as difficult as it may seem, with the company claiming HiLux has an unprompted awareness of above 50 per cent and desirability of above 60 per cent (with no other competitor even near 30 per cent)
The Toyota HiLux is more than likely to remain the dominant ute in our market for the foreseeable future, however, only time will tell if it can fend off the growing list of advancing competitors.
For pricing, more photos and a breakout of features per HiLux variant, look here: 2012 Toyota HiLux Pricing, Specifications & Gallery