How does Australia's most popular ute stack up as a family car?
The Toyota HiLux remains the third-best-selling vehicle in Australia, helped by its rugged good looks, unbeatable reputation for reliability and durability and the Australian appetite for practical utilities.
But with the mining boom beginning to show signs of decline, the Toyota HiLux has had to evolve and cater to those that can also utilise it as a family car, while it remains a true workhorse during the day.
For that reason we are reviewing the 2014 Toyota Hilux as a family car. We previously reviewed the exact same vehicle here, but focused on its attributes as a ute.
To get the obvious out of the way, the HiLux is not a family car. It may have five seats, with the middle second row seat finally enabled with a proper three-point seat belt (previously lap only), but it’s ultimately just a ute. It has gained standard stability and traction control for 4×4 models (as tested here), which means it achieves the maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating.
While the Hilux has for years hidden behinds its veil of reliability and indestructibility, the competitors challenged Toyota by making utes equally good off-road (and as work horses), but with interior quality and driving dynamics that rival passenger cars.
Our 2014 Toyota Hilux SR5 4x4 automatic is powered by a 3.0-litre turbo diesel engine which first appeared all the way back in the year 2005. With 126kW of power and 343Nm of torque, it’s by no means the most powerful diesel in its class (outgunned by both aforementioned rivals, and many other diesel utes on the market), but remains a faithful and trusted power source, sipping a claimed 8.7 litres of diesel per 100 kilometres (though we struggled to get it below 9.6L/100km).
Though it’s almost 10 years old now, it has no doubt gained plenty of improvements over time. Still, it follows Toyota’s ‘Kaizen’ philosophy of small improvements in each iteration rather then major changes coming each generation. A good thing if you prefer tried-and-tested over continuous innovation.
The same applies to the five-speed automatic transmission, which lags behind the Ranger and its Mazda BT-50 twin’s six-speed and the Amarok’s class leading eight-speed shifter.
For a good technical breakdown of the equivalent Toyota HiLux vs Ford Ranger vs Volkswagen Amarok (including all towing figures), click here.
Jump inside and you could easily argue that the Toyota HiLux is a car designed and engineered for the purposes of a workhorse. The reality is that this current seventh-generation HiLux came out all the way back in 2005, meaning it’s core underpinnings were thought about more than a decade ago.
The old-school air conditioning display and its surrounding buttons would almost be desirable if Toyota was doing a retro-style tribute to the original HiLux, but in fact, it’s just how the car is, old.
For a 2014 model year vehicle, the HiLux’s interior is out-dated by any standard of measure. Thankfully the 6.1-inch display which incorporates all your infotainment needs, including a surprisingly good satellite navigation system as well as Bluetooth connectivity and audio streaming, helps bring the car into the 21st century – somewhat.
On the plus side, you can indeed fit four large adults inside the HiLux without too much trouble. The front seats, though a little hard, are large and supportive while the rear has ample leg and headroom with enough room to occasionally fit a fifth passenger for short journeys.
During the course of the week we had our HiLux review vehicle, we also fitted a regular child seat in the back seat with great difficulty, given how cumbersome the rear seats are to pull out and kept in an unnatural position while the child seat anchor is clipped on.
Nonetheless, it’s a job you need to do once and then it can accommodate young kids as well. Although it’s worth nothing that the lack of ISOFIX anchor points will limit newer child seats.
As a vehicle to drive, the HiLux is relatively uninspiring. The 3.0-litre diesel heart does its best to get up and go and there’s plenty of torque for overtaking traffic - thanks largely to the smooth-shifting automatic transmission - but the real issue is its general driving dynamics.
Without a load in the tray, the HiLux rides over almost any surface with tremendous suspension play. The smallest of bumps will upset the balance and rear seat passengers tend to bear the brunt of it.
Corners are almost an inconvenience in the HiLux. The ute’s traction control system works overtime to maintain front and rear balance considering the amount of body roll that occurs when it is pushed into a corner with even the slightest enthusiasm and generally well below passenger car pace.
If you do happen to have a few hundred kilos in the back, it becomes far more drivable. But for the occasional ute user, its weight, cumbersome dynamics and poorer fuel economy than an equivalently-sized SUV mean its hard to argue for as a family alternative.
Of course, it will do the job just fine if you drive it as a ute first and foremost, but compared with the car-like dynamics of the Ranger and Amarok, the HiLux feels at least one - if not two - generations behind.
Despite all this, HiLux’s strong sales figures suggest buyers prefer to go with a trusted brand over creature comforts, but it’s worth having a serious think about why you’re buying a HiLux.
If it’s primarily as a workhorse, then the Toyota ute does indeed make sense, considering it keeps its value and is unlikely to ever let you down.
However if you’re after a more family-friendly ute with all the practicalities of a HiLux and more than likely, equally excellent reliability, the Ford Ranger or Volkswagen Amarok would be a better buy. Besides, both contenders require yearly or 15,000km service intervals compared to the HiLux’s six-monthly or 10,000 km schedule.