HILUX. It’s an almost Pavlovian response to the question, “What’s the best double-cab 4×4 bakkie out there?” From farmhand to family runabout to light cavalry in Third World conflicts, there’s little Toyota’s iconic one-tonner can’t handle. So, when the refreshed model was recently launched, we simply had to see if the modest tweaks Toyota had made would prove sufficient to keep it ahead of the pack. The CAR team travelled to Klipbokkop Mountain Reserve near Worcester in the Western Cape to, with the help of off-road expert PG Groenewald from the Goodyear 4×4 Academy, introduce the new Hilux to such tough rivals as the Volkswagen Amarok, the recently refreshed Mitsubishi Triton and the Isuzu KB, as well as some budget contenders in the form of the Tata Xenon and recently launched GWM Steed 5. Would the Hilux still be able to hold its head high after a combination of gruelling off- and on-road challenges, or would we crown a new king of the 4×4 diesel double cabs?
THE SAME, BUT DIFFERENT
There was a mixture of admiration and disdain when Toyota applied curvaceous styling to the rugged Hilux in 2005 and, while aesthetics are an objective matter, the updated model’s looks seem set to again divide opinion.
The front sports a new bonnet with strong strakes framing the air scoop and flowing down into a chromed trapezoidal grille with three louvres. The headlamps have been squared-off and feature a slight protrusion that echoes the strong shoulder line, while the taillamps feature neat, clear lenses with element dividers.
There’s plenty of room in the back and rear passengers will appreciate the generous reardoor aperture.
The Hilux now rolls on 17-inch rims as standard and is actually more masculine than the outgoing vehicle – possibly a counter to the butch, boxy styling of its latest rival, the Amarok.
VW’s double cab has presence in spades and looks suitably solid. Access to the rear is good, with a wide-opening door leading to a spacious rear with supportive seats and plenty of leg- and headroom. While some remarked that the 17-inch wheels look a bit lost in those squared arches and commented on the difficulty of berthing such a large vehicle in an urban parking bay, it still holds great appeal.
The same could not be said of the Triton which, despite a recent restyle of its headlamps, grille and bumpers, is still something of an oddball in the boxy bakkie fraternity with its curvaceous styling. The weird “cut” in the rear of the cab lends the Triton plenty of space for the rear passengers, who will enjoy head and legroom aplenty.
The KB soldiers on with very few noticeable changes to its relatively low-slung boxy body, the profile of which is largely shared with the Steed 5. Although both have a clean, rugged appearance, their body shape results in a tight ingress to cramped rear quarters with upright pews, a high floor and limited headroom.
In the Steed 5’s favour, the styling has moved away from the Steed 3’s VW Magellan-aping nose and is thankfully bereft of the excess chrome lashings that Chinese firms tend to associate with premium products.
The Xenon is an archetypal double cab, looking neither pretentious nor overly cheap. The optional R18 000 chrome bar kit does lift the overall appearance, which is otherwise highlighted by an upsweep in the passenger door windows. Despite its outward dimensions, space in the back of the Xenon is surprisingly pinched – with the driver’s seat in its rearmost setting (a necessary stance given the tight driver’s position), rear passengers are left with scant legroom and a boltupright seatback. At least the door aperture and headroom are good.
In terms of load-lugging ability, the Hilux sits at the bottom of the pile with a payload capacity of 815 kg, followed by the Amarok, which can carry 862 kg. The KB is capable of accommodating a load of up to 900 kg, while the Triton’s curvaceous styling belies its ability to shoulder a load of 902 kg.
Both the Xenon and Steed 5 can lug considerably more than their more expensive counterparts with payload ratings of 1 000 kg and 1 090 kg, respectively. This is possibly an upshot of the increased likelihood that they will be bought as much, if not more, for work than leisure. It could also go some way to explaining their appreciably firmer rides compared with their more leisure-oriented rivals here.
But looks can only get you so far … PG had lined up some challenging tests for our six double cabs. First up was a trip to Klipbokkop’s quarry for an axle-articulation obstacle, where a vehicle’s ability to keep all four wheels on the ground to maximise traction is essential and the locking differential fitted to all the vehicles, bar the budget duo, would come into play. The KB drew first blood, marginally showing the greatest composure, keeping its tyres on terra firma and utilising its 360 N.m of torque at 1 800 r/min to effortlessly crawl out of the ruts. There was a hint of rear-wheel-lift from the other premium bakkies, which still completed the obstacle without too much drama.
The GWM, and especially the Tata, cocked their rear wheels early in the obstacle and scrabbled to extricate themselves.
The next challenge was one that PG claimed would be the mark of any diesel-4×4 bakkie worth its salt; a climb in lowrange at engine idle up a rocky 28-degree slope. As expected, the Hilux, Amarok, KB and Triton sailed through this obstacle, but everyone was apprehensive of the budget duo’s chances. The Xenon was unable to traverse the slope in idle, stammering to a halt halfway up, and only negotiating the obstacle with some careful feathering of the throttle. Given the Steed 5’s 23 kW and 20 N.m power and torque deficits to the Indian, we were sure it too would come unstuck, but the near- 200 kg-lighter Chinaman surprised everyone, especially PG, by crawling to the top without any problems.
Driving in heavy sand showed the Hilux and KB to be the most confidence-inspiring of the group; their good low-down torque, surefootedness and smooth gear changes with ideal second-third ratios lent themselves perfectly to the controlled momentum-carry exercise that is sand driving.
The Triton was similarly impressive, with its easily modulated clutch, slick gearshift and plenty of torque winning it further plaudits from both PG and the team.
Despite its slope-climbing hiccup, the Tata acquitted itself fairly well on the sand. Its longthrow gearshift didn’t lend itself well to smooth progress, but once on the move it skittered across the sand without too much hassle.
The GWM was similarly affected by less-than-ideal gear spacing and further hampered by low-slung struts for the rear leaf suspension and spare wheel that conspired to it being the first vehicle to bog down.
But it was the Amarok’s notchy gearbox and difficult-to-modulate clutch that proved the talking point of the day. The difficult first-second action would mean hurried gear changes that would leave the big VW shuddering on the sand while the all-or-nothing clutch meant that the vehicle would either stall or surge forward on a tsunami of 400 N.m of torque – neither of which help with smooth momentum or the measured clutch-work required of off-roading.
Perhaps the most eye-opening exercise of the day involved a series of braking tests on a loose gravel surface, which highlighted the effectiveness of the Hilux’s new array of standard safety features comprising stability control linked to ABS and EBD. Stopping and stability have proven weak points of the Hilux in the past, but the new model’s stability system unobtrusively intervened to cut the power when traction was in danger of being lost at speed on dirt tracks, inspiring greater confidence in its stability. The Hilux set the mark for the others to beat, coming to a standstill from 80 km/h in a surprisingly short space.
Both the KB and Amarok (when using its more aggressive off-road ABS system) managed to stop roughly five metres off the mark set by the Hilux, while the Triton took another few metres to come to a halt. In the case of the Amarok, our off-road expert commented that its tyres had a more road-biased tread than those of the Hilux, possibly contributing to the stopping distance and going some way to explaining some of its shortcomings off-road.
The GWM and Tata didn’t cover themselves in glory here, either, both scrabbling to a standstill around five to eight metres after the Triton.
Some sceptical members of the CAR team had another go with the Hilux to see if the comparatively impressive stopping performance could be readily replicated – it could, with little effort.
What was apparent by the end of the day was, despite impressive performances from the KB and Triton, it was the Hilux that proved the most confidence-inspiring of our sextet off-road. With the exception of the stability-control system and uprated brakes, Toyota hadn’t changed much about the Hilux’s off-road setup and didn’t really need to. But while the Hilux trod fearlessly on the rough stuff, its Achilles’ heel has always been its suitability for everyday driving … Could this be where the king comes under fire?
HITTING THE ROAD
The Triton’s reputation as a surprise package really came into focus on the road, with a number of the test team considering it the most comfortable and carlike in this respect. The ride is firm but forgiving, with a couple of testers remarking that it was the most comfortable bakkie of the six, the gearshift slick and the clutch light and easy to modulate in start-stop traffic. Even the steering – a traditional bakkie weakpoint – was lauded for its responsiveness, although the large turning circle did hamper manoeuvrability. The engine proved powerful and torquey, producing good results in terms of both off-the-line and overtaking acceleration. There was a spot of harshness about it when cold and under hard acceleration, but the overall refinement and NVH levels were seen to be of a good standard for a vehicle of its ilk. Like the exterior, the facia design of the Triton is a mixed bag; the combination of finishes and the odd fussy detail didn’t appeal to everyone, but the layout is straightforward enough and the perceived quality good. The only serious black marks against the Triton are the ergonomics and braking. Some testers commented that the placement of the transfer-case lever on the driver’s side of the transmission tunnel means that a resting clutch leg would often touch the lever, with the vibration through the lever resulting in a numb thigh on longer drives. The Triton’s ABS also felt as though it had to work hard to rein in the vehicle.
Criticism of the Amarok’s gearbox continued to dog the big VW on tarmac. Although the shift sports a short-throw action, it simply proves too notchy to be hurried or make smooth progress. The lack of clutch modulation doesn’t help matters; its on/off action and diesel throb through the pedal makes town driving a demanding exercise. Once on the move, however, the Amarok is in its element, serving up a composed ride with little bodyroll complemented by nicely weighted steering and strong brakes – it equals, if not slightly eclipses, the Triton in terms of on-road ability.
The 2,0-litre engine has come in for a great deal of scepticism from many quarters, but it’s a strong unit; its 120 kW and pack-leading 400 N.m of torque makes the Amarok a brisk, if somewhat noisy, performer. The cabin is huge and smartly appointed, and features the most comfortable and supportive seats, both fore and aft, of the lot.
The testers were also quite taken with the KB’s on-road demeanour. Whilst not as dynamically adept as the Triton due to its vague steering, the KB still serves up a comfortable ride. The powerplant, although vocal and prone to vibrate, feels strong and boasts plentiful lowend torque. Although the gearshift has a long-throw action, it is smooth enough in operation and the clutch is light, making town driving a pleasure.
However, the KB really shows its age in the cabin. It has an uneasy mixture of car-like detailing around the air vents and binnacle combined with utilitarian plastics and a cheap-looking sound system. The seats are also a (back)bone of contention with little in the way of lateral and lumbar support, making long drives rather uncomfortable.
Of our budget duo, the Xenon proved to be the more competent on-road. Although it has high NVH levels and a gearbox with a longthrow action and baggy feel, the Xenon’s engine is a far gutsier performer than the Steed 5’s, its comparatively decent acceleration both off the line and in gear making it a more relaxing proposition than its relatively underpowered Chinese rival.
With just 80 kW under its belt and noisy, straight-cut gears, the GWM isn’t very relaxing on the road and failed to crack 140 km/h when tested. The GWM also features the harshest and least-forgiving ride of all the vehicles here, with the Tata being comparatively composed and comfy over road corrugations.
The Steed 5 does, however, claw back some points on the packaging front. Room up front in the Tata is tight, with many of the test team needing to shove the seat right back to get comfortable behind the wheel. The perceived quality, although a step up from the company’s more utilitarian offerings, lags behind that of the Steed 5 and items such as iffy illumination of the ventilation controls at night and a oddly oversized gear knob stand out.
In fact, the Chinese bakkie’s interior was something of a highlight – granted, it visually borrows much of its architecture from the KB, but it feels well put together and fuss-free, and thankfully lacks the nauseating aroma that seems to bedevil many of its fellow Chinese vehicles.
Where the Tata really comes unstuck, however, is in the omission of airbags – a real eyeopener when you consider that it does feature ABS and all of its companions here, the cheaper Steed 5 included, feature dual front airbags as standard (the Amarok adds side airbags and the Hilux these and window ‘bags). Tata has, however, confirmed the Xenon will receive dual airbags in March 2012.
So, where does this leave the Hilux on the road, not traditionally its strong ground? Well, in its latest guise, it sits fairly pretty. The previous model’s somewhat workmanlike facia has made way for a more car-like setup, with a wider central section hosting a smart touchscreen infotainment system with USB connectivity and Bluetooth preparation, revised ventilation controls and a smart metallic-effect trim finish.
The visual appeal of the cabin materials has noticeably improved which, along with a redesigned steering wheel featuring audio and ancillary controls, lend the new Hilux a far more upmarket ambiance. There’s plenty of room in the cabin, both fore and aft, and the front seats are supportive and well bolstered.
On the road, the Hilux isn’t quite as accomplished as the Amarok, but it’s certainly not unpleasant to drive. An appreciable amount of body-roll presented itself when tackling bends and the ride can become bouncy on uneven surfaces, although not jarringly so, but the addition of stability control keeps proceedings under control. Although the 3,0-litre turbodiesel unit is fairly old now, it still delivers the goods. NVH levels appear to have improved over those of the outgoing car and, although the engine is not all that tractable at lower speeds in a high gear, it feels free-revving and strong when kept in the power band. Thankfully, the exercise of doing so isn’t a chore thanks to a light, easily modulated clutch and positive gearshift. There’s a satisfying wieldiness about the Hilux that makes it quite pleasurable to pilot, both on the open road and in tighter town driving. It appears that the countryman has grown some street smarts.
Detractors will groan and fans will rejoice with the news that the Hilux’s claim to the diesel-4×4 double-cab throne remains intact. As much as some would like to see the king usurped, there simply isn’t a rival here with the means to do so. Rather than rewriting the book, Toyota has simply honed the Hilux’s successful formula; it has retained its strengths (formidable off-road ability, strong build and practicality) while neatly addressing its perennial weaknesses (so-so road manners, comfort, safety and odd-ball looks) to produce a segment leader.
These virtues counter what were previously the Amarok’s advantages over the Toyota. The Amarok has the Hilux’s number on-road and gives it a run for its money off it, but that niggling gearbox/ clutch combination and lingering questions over the robustness of its powerplant mar what is otherwise an impressive package.
The Triton proved an unexpected favourite with many members of the team thanks to its spacious cabin, refined manners and very respectable off-road ability. Get past the love-it-or-loathe-it looks and the Mitsubishi offers good value in this company – probably even more so when approached as a second-hand proposition.
The KB is an oldie but a goodie – as proven and trusted in many circles as the Hilux. As PG stated, Isuzu’s stance of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is understandable as a good balance of respectable onand off-road ability count in its favour, but the reluctance to stray from a successful formula means there’s been little in the way of progression – maybe the upcoming model will add the necessary creature comforts and refi nements to make the KB a viable Hilux alternative.
Our budget duo of the Xenon and Steed 5 move double-cab ownership within reach of a greater audience but with varying degrees of success. The Tata’s gutsy engine and decent ride are let down by low levels of perceived quality, a lack of airbags and an agricultural feel. It’s a capable off-roader and represents a lot of metal for the money, but it demands more of the driver to achieve what the others take in their stride and is less forgiving when things go wrong. Given the length of time Tata has had at its disposal to build a quality bakkie, there hasn’t really been too much progression since the Telcoline.
As such, its biggest problem is probably the Steed 5 – proof that the Chinese, despite their reliance on old technology, are fi nding their feet in the bakkie market. Although noisy and slow, the Steed 5’s decent perceived quality and surprising off-road prowess (not to mention the bargain-basement price) won it some unexpected plaudits from the team – the only aspect that stops us from wholeheartedly rating it as an all-round leisure vehicle are its hard ride on tarmac and underpowered engine.
In conclusion, in terms of allround ability as a leisure vehicle, the Hilux still sets the standard. It will, however, be interesting to see what Ford’s all-new Ranger has to say about that …
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