My brother-in-law owns a 2008 TRD HiLux 4000SL, which acts as a regular reminder of Toyota Australia’s attempt more than a decade ago to tempt newer and younger customers to the brand. Or, as the company might as well have also said: to eradicate the disparaging “white goods on wheels” comments associated with its cars.
The Japanese brand was already top of the sales charts, but in the post-Celica/Supra/MR2 years its models owed their popularity purely to Toyota’s reputation for quality and reliability, and great service from its vast dealer network.
Nothing wrong with that, of course, and it was still easy to recommend Toyotas to buyers for these very reasons.
But Toyota’s local arm could only glance enviously at all the popular go-faster Falcons and Commodores coming from Ford/FPV and Holden/HSV, as well as plenty of exciting European models.
So, in 2007, Australia became the first market in the world to launch turnkey cars under the Toyota Racing Development (TRD) banner – first with the TRD Aurion sedan, followed a year later by the TRD HiLux ute.
Both were powered by Eaton-supercharged V6 engines with a 241kW from 3.5-litres and 225kW from 4.0-litres, respectively, for some handy performance.
The Aurion was a half-decent effort, too, though I have a stronger recollection of the TRD HiLux launch.
With then senior Toyota executive (and former Holden boss) David Buttner in the passenger seat, we were casually chatting about the industry as well as his upcoming holiday – all while I was trying to man-handle the fast-but-sketchy TRD ute around corners, arms twirling busily with the glacial steering and tyres protesting at the Toyota’s persistent and all-too-successful pursuit of understeer.
It was a model that led many to suggest TRD was an abbreviated word.
By early 2009, with less than 1000 TRD sales (not helped by the global financial crisis), this “new breed of Toyota” was axed.
The same year, however, a key moment happened in Japan. Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company’s founder, became president. And he was not just a car enthusiast but a keen racer.
Subaru of course must share credit for the 86, which was a virtually identical twin to its BRZ with both cars using a Subaru platform and engine.
But while the 86 and Supra have naturally headlined Toyota’s return to sportiness, there’s another turning point that is transforming the reputations of the company’s regular models.
It’s called TNGA – Toyota New Generation Architecture.
Introduced in 2015, every Toyota underpinned by this family of platforms so far has not simply been better to drive than previous-generation models but has been one of the best to drive in its segment.
If not driver’s cars here in the strictest performance/dynamics sense, the Camry, C-HR and Corolla in particular provide highly accomplished ride and handling that should be appreciated by anyone who enjoys driving for the sake of driving.
Even the third-generation Prius, the first to utilise TNGA, is decent to drive, if not as impressive as those aforementioned Toyotas.
Then there’s the new RAV4 – arguably the biggest revelation after its poor-riding, poor-steering predecessor.
Even in its most basic form – the GX with a six-speed manual – is satisfying to drive with its cosseting ride, well tuned and perfectly geared steering, lively 2.0-litre petrol engine, and a stick-shift that has an unexpectedly pleasant action (shame about the vague clutch, though). In hybrid form, it’s the best mid-sized mainstream SUV you can currently buy.
I can’t wait to drive the new Yaris – and not just the GR hot-hatch version coming later this year. For large families, all bodes well for the fourth-generation Kluger large SUV when it finally gets here.
If only it were feasible for the current HiLux to go on a TNGA platform to make it vastly better to drive (the unladen ride in my brother-in-law’s TRD version is actually better, and that’s saying something).
The mass-selling ute aside, though, Toyotas are now becoming the right goods – cars that we can at last say are endearing not just enduring.