Along with being one of the most popular vehicle segments in Australia, buyers aren’t necessarily putting away their wallets after driving off the showroom floor. The 4x4 ute is a massive favourite for aftermarket modification, and for a huge variety of reasons.
Many are chasing better off-road capability on tough 4WD tracks, while others are tricking up their rigs to spend weeks at a time on the road. And, of course, many just want to look tough during the weekly grocery shop.
This massive predilection Australia has with 4x4 modification has not been lost on vehicle manufacturers, who are keen to cash in on some of this additional spend. While Ford has chased a staunch look and improved off-road performance via a massively widened and modified suspension set-up in the Raptor, Toyota has gone about it a different way: bolt-on barwork.
There are three chief reasons why you might want to plump for the 2019 Toyota HiLux Rugged X over a normal SR5 HiLux: bullbar, rear bumper and slider steps.
Steel has been the long-time favourite for adding some protection and improving the clearance of your 4WD, and Toyota is sticking with what works. Steel is strong enough to handle big impacts, whether it’s a roo at 60km/h or a rock step at a slow crawl.
The bullbar Toyota has used is designed to improve your approach angle, especially at an angle around the wheels. And although it’s missing hoops for really thorough protection, it does give stacks of protection around the important steering and cooling parts of the car.
Sliders are also an improvement: they are well designed with a wedge shape underneath, mounting sturdily to the chassis and crossmember in the three different spots. They’re a much better option than your typical side steps off-road, in terms of both clearance and protection.
And finally that rear step, which looks deceptively normal, is also of the iron/carbon alloy variety. It’s a nice design, giving you good protection once again, along with integrating with a towbar and step.
What’s perhaps most important with this Rugged X is the inclusion of rated off-road recovery points, front and rear. These are the real deal, built to safely handle the high dynamic loads that come with off-road recoveries.
There’s a handful of Australians who lose their lives every year because of a recovery gone wrong. And who knows how many count themselves as the lucky ones? Often, it’s simply because the gear being used isn’t rated and fails.
We recommend that before heading off-road, Australian 4WDers should ensure they have safe options for recovery at the front and rear of their vehicle. With the Rugged X, this problem is utterly solved. Using a rated bow shackle and other gear, you can now effect a recovery in a much safer manner. The points on the Rugged X are a top-shelf design.
What hasn’t changed? Plenty. It’s the same 2.8-litre engine making 130kW at 3400rpm and 450Nm at 1600–2400rpm when mated to the automatic gearbox. If you opt for the manual, torque numbers change: 420Nm at 1400–2600rpm.
It’s an engine that can feel lethargic at times, and the extra 207kg of accessories certainly doesn’t help the matter. It’s an engine happiest when not working hard, giving a nice degree of refinement when working with a slight throttle and low revs. It’ll go faster, but not a whole lot. And it makes a bit more of a song and dance as well, and you probably won’t be enjoying the experience.
In terms of off-road gearing, the HiLux has always been quite good. This stays the same here, especially with the automatic variant. Although gear ratios aren’t much different in the gearbox, diff ratios are different between auto and manual.
What else hasn’t changed is Toyota’s excellent off-road traction-control system, which is amongst the best in the segment. Wheelspin is controlled remarkably well, at a variety of different speeds, managing your momentum with great control.
There’s also a locking rear differential, but doing this disables traction control. So while your rear is now locked 100 per cent, the front has gone from very well controlled to completely open. One step forward, and two steps back. Because of this, and because the traction-control system is so good, the rear locker almost becomes irrelevant.
The suspension is also the same, mostly. The spring rate at the front is increased to help accommodate the extra heft, but doesn’t overly change the way the Rugged X drives on-road and off-road compared to an SR5. The rear springs get slightly more supple from the extra weight, and articulate very well off-road.
So, what difference do these changes make when the chips are down? Without a doubt, the Rugged X is an improvement over a normal HiLux. Sure, you could bash your way down the same tracks without the bolt-ons, but chances are you’d leave half of the car behind on the track.
Clearance is improved, but you’re able to approach and negotiate tight challenges more confidently, and you’re not going home via the panelbeater for a quote if you do hit. The sliders, in particular, are of huge importance in terms of saving the HiLux from serious damage.
Although Toyota swapped 18-inch wheels for a more practical 17-inch size, the tyre style, diameter and construction remain the same. A smaller wheel means there’s a bit more sidewall available for off-roading – a good benefit. However, great gains would be made with some good all-terrain or mud-terrain tyres.
So, it’s great off-road. However, that’s only part of the challenge for a 4WD ute these days. It needs to be a decent workhorse as well. So, in an effort to find out how it tows, we did what nobody would probably ever want to do: tow another 4WD ute on a car trailer.
When using an automatic gearbox, the HiLux is capable of towing 3200kg. Opt for the manual, and that number strangely goes up to 3500kg. I’ve towed around 2000kg with a manual HiLux previously, and it wasn’t a pretty exercise. The manual is geared much higher, with big gaps in between ratios that leave the 2.8-litre engine panting, and the driver sweating.
With that at the front of my mind, I jumped into the auto HiLux with a fair amount of trepidation. This trailer is much heavier, and I didn’t think it was going to be pretty. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The auto gets an extra 30Nm at the flywheel, which probably gets soaked up by the gearbox before it gets to the wheels.
That distinct lack of power does disappear, mostly. It’s still never a ute that’s going to be accused of being overpowered; however, the big change in overall gearing, especially in the final drive ratio, makes a difference.
Whereas the manual HiLux was effectively reduced to being a four-speed gearbox because fifth and sixth are both unusably high, the lower and tighter ratios of the auto, along with a fairly smart-thinking and responsive gearbox, get the best out of the 2.8-litre engine.
Up to around 70km/h and towing a stable load of around 2.7 tonnes, the HiLux didn’t give a whole lot of room for complaint or praise. The steering stays compliant, and the rear springs come into their own without sagging down hard. A touch more acceleration would be nice, but the engine does give enough for conservative, cautious traffic negotiation.
Get up to highway speeds and throw in some hills, and you would prefer not to be in a hurry. That being said, the gearbox is quick to downshift and hold engine revs where they are meant to be, but you won’t be holding the speed limit on the incline.
It’s not a bad performer, and would suit occasional towing, but you can certainly do better if towing is towards the pointy end of your preferred strong suits.
It’s great to see a vehicle manufacturer make a serious effort to improve a vehicle, beyond simple aesthetic tweaks and decals. Toyota has done that with the Rugged X: the additional barwork improves clearance and protection, with a detriment of increased weight (and all of those negatives that come with it).
However, at that core role of being an off-road-capable 4WD, the Rugged X is a definite jump up the ladder. Add in some good off-road rubber, and you’ll have yourself a very, very capable 4WD (almost) out of the box.
NOTE: As an off-road specific review, this content does not fit within the structure of our established review scoring system and has thus been left unscored. You can see more of our HiLux reviews, with scores, in our HiLux showroom.