There isn’t another country on the planet as obsessed with 4WDing as Australia. We’re buying more 4WDs, in the shape of both utes and SUVs, than small cars these days and that trend doesn’t look like slowing down. Sure, a good chunk of those SUVs (and even some of those 'lifestyle' utes, even the ones with all-wheel drive capability, are unlikely to ever see a patch of dirt let alone hardcore off-road tracks. But...
Once upon a time, 4WD utes were the domain of technologically impoverished, poverty-pack vehicles with barely a thought given to anything other than payload and durability. Those rough, simple vehicles would look upon their modern-day successors with disbelief. Today’s utes are comfortable, efficient and family-friendly. At the same time they can tow well, haul all of your stuff, and still conquer Australia's toughest terrain off-road.
The evolution of this fast-evolving vehicle segment is showing no sign of abating, either. Ford’s Ranger Raptor makes for high-end off-road performance, German utes are bringing in big power and torque figures, and Toyota has given its top-selling selling HiLux a bit of a ‘rugged’ treatment.
Toyota has kitted up a HiLux to create the Rugged X, adding some off-road gear that many normally look to the aftermarket for, bolt-on accessories that make the HiLux a more potent off-road vehicle.
A big slab of steel is one of the first things on the shopping list for a 4WD that’s looking to get off the beaten track a bit. First and foremost, a bull-bar gives the front end of your 4WD good protection against animal strikes, a hauntingly common occurrence beyond the reaches of our urban sprawl.
The HiLux Rugged X sports a more modern, hoop-less design, which still gives good protection around the intercooler/radiator package at the front of the vehicle. It’s also designed with good off-road clearance, and has a smartly integrated lightbar for those long night drives.
When you’re a motoring journo reviewing 4WDs for a living, you’re often going to push the ground clearance of these stock 4WDs beyond their listed limit. And on a dual-cab ute, the first thing you hit are the side steps. Some of these steps sit tragically lower than the chassis, simultaneously ruining your ramp-over angle and sill clearance. I’ve damaged more than my fair share over the years.
Toyota has fixed this problem on the Rugged X, with some very smartly-designed rock sliders that give good clearance and protection at the same time. These units are proper sliders, bolted onto the chassis and strong enough to support the full weight of the vehicle, while also designed to slide over obstacles. These sliders probably make the biggest improvement to the HiLux off-road.
The rear step is more subtle, but nice as well. Also steel, it gives better protection over a standard unit, along with integrated towing and recovery points. Which brings me to my next point…
Every 4X4 that goes off-road should have rated recovery points, for the sake of safety. These units on the Rugged X are the nicest recovery points we’ve yet seen on a stock 4X4. Designed and made by ARB, who design a lot of aftermarket recovery points already, there’s two fore-and-aft on the HiLux Rugged X. That means you’re recovery options are sorted. Snatch recoveries, double-line pulls and using a bridle for spreading the load are all covered. I reckon you could even pull the HiLux from the side with these recovery points.
While the bolt-ons are great, there are few elements of the HiLux that haven’t changed. The biggest shortcoming are clearly the tyres. 265/75 R17 rubber is a good, logical size for a 4X4 ute. Sure, bigger would be nicer, but better gains would come from a tread pattern and compound that would grip better off-road. And while you’re at it, get something with light truck construction.
The driveline is still the same story, as well: a 2.8-litre four cylinder turbo-diesel, making 130kW and 450Nm. When mated to the manual gearbox, you’ve got 420Nm. It’s an engine that feels more happy off-road than on; a decent shove of torque off the line gives way to fairly average performance through to highway speeds. It’s not quick, nor is it overly slow. Throttle control is good, especially when you use the ‘Eco’ mode for a more gentle, progressive response to right-foot input.
The interior is also SR5 HiLux based, but the Rugged X has some nice options ticked. Leather-accented seats, heated up front, and some nice black instrumentation and roof lining for a more premium overall feel.
This Rugged X is going to have it’s work cut out today, plus some. Because we’ve lined up a different kind of comparison. It’s up against a heavily modified HiLux SR5, brimming with off-road changes and accessories. Let’s have a look at some details.
A combined suspension and body lift, using a combination of parts from a whole lot of providers, makes a huge difference to the overall ground clearance of this modded HiLux. Along with better clearance, there’s improved articulation on offer. This makes room for bigger and better tyres: Toyo’s latest hybrid Rugged Terrain are used, in an LT285/70 R17. It’s a bigger rolling diameter, brought to a stop more effectively than stock brakes by DBA slotted rotors. Furthermore, a diff drop and upper control arms improve the caster and CV angles.
The bull-bar is an AFN unit, which is quite svelte and tucked in for maximum clearance. There’s also a bash plate and sliders, courtesy of Phat Bars, for good protection against impact. It looks good, but that's a side effect; everything included in the build has been done for better off-road capability.
In case you do get bogged, there are recovery points, an 11,000 pound electric winch up-front, some Maxtrax on the roof, and a full suite of recovery gear tucked away. Lucky, because we ended up needing it.
What’s great about this HiLux is that along with all of that additional capability, this thing is built for 4WD touring. There’s a roof tent mounted over the tub, which has enough room to store all of your camping gear (along with 70 litres of water). There’s additional 12V power with solar input, which means this HiLux can take you to literally any campsite in the country, regardless of what lies in the way.
Although the modifications have changed the way the HiLux looks, that’s not Joe’s M.O. in terms of what he wanted. The mods are practical and beneficial. Sure, he might not fit into many car parks these days, and it probably drives a bit differently on the road. But the benefits off-road are plain to see. And they’re there in spades.
Click on the Photos tab for more images of the Toyota HiLux Rugged X and the heavily modified HiLux.