With the recent influx of a new would-be contenders to the local pick-up throne, Toyota South Africa Motors (TSAM) announced an update to the Hilux range, as well as a range extension for Xtra Cab models and the local production of the latter. We drove the the revised Hilux in bakkie country – a Free State farm.

Believe it or not, the outgoing Hilux design was introduced in 2005 and remained extremely popular until this facelift was ushered in - testament to its long tradition of being a best-seller. “Nearly 860 000 Hilux vehicles have been sold in South Africa since its introduction in 1969,” said Calvyn Hamman, senior vice president of sales and marketing for TSAM. To put its popularity into perspective, last month alone TSAM sold in excess of 2 500 Hiluxes – only selling second-best to VW’s Polo Vivo, an affordable compact.

Still, Toyota wasn’t just going to let the Hilux roll on and expect sales to grow, what with the Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50 and VW Amarok representing a new wave of pick-ups – so much so that Hilux chief engineer Koaru Hosokawa reportedly made several trips to South Africa noting the development process and interacting with customers.

But that’s all technical stuff, and the Hilux’s upgrade is little more than a facelift, really. So here are the key changes on the 3,0D-4D Raider 4x4 DC model I sampled at the De Brug military facility near Bloemfontein

Design-wise, the Hilux has received a fresh face thanks to two new grilles with horizontal beams and squarer headlamps. There’s also a particularly strong character line that runs up from the grille over the bonnet – emphasising the tough character the Hilux portrays. The profile has been granted new side mirrors with integrated turn indicators, wider fender arches on premium models and newly designed 15-inch and 17-inch (model dependent) alloy wheels. At the rear, clear coverings over the reverse and indicator light distinguish the Hilux’s night-time image, as well as a tailgate-mounted third brakelamp.

Inside, Hilux enthusiasts will immediately notice the new facia design and silver detailing on the multi-function steering wheel. The instrument cluster now boasts a cylindrical theme with Optitron instruments that feature red needles on white digits with amber and chrome accents. Overall, these minor revisions do quite a bit to make the Hilux feel a little more passenger car-like, even if only before you start up the engine.

The new facia also houses (on this model) a touch-screen multimedia unit with CD player, RDS radio function, Bluetooth and iPod and USB connecting ports. Interestingly, the system has a button designated Map/SatNav, but it seems that prospective customers will have to factor in a standalone GPS unit over and above the cost of a Hilux, because TSAM currently has no plans to bring the navigation function to South Africa.

There’s nothing particularly different beneath the skin on the Raider model, except for brake assist and EBD to go with ABS, and VSC traction control.

The power delivery is rather agricultural especially on this diesel unit; it really is a matter of gearing for about-town cruising and extra urban driving because tractability is an issue in the higher ratios at low speeds. Still, once you’ve become accustomed to keeping the 120 kW/343 N.m diesel in its powerband and forgive the chunky shift action, a Hilux isn’t that hard to commandeer anywhere.

That the Hilux is a easy to drive is a large part of the appeal (automatic diesels seem to be finding favour with a dedicated few). But a lot of the Hilux’s winning factor lies in its seemingly indestructible off-road ability. Despite the rough terrain that formed most of our driving route out in the Free State, the Hilux simply shrugged off the various challenges we subjected it to with ease. Some might be more inclined to rave about its good axle articulation and ability to climb gradients on little more than idling engine speed, but that’s nothing new. What I was most impressed with was the lack of squeaks and rattles from the cabin – sometimes at speeds of up to 60 km/h on heavily rutted gravel roads.

With a truly wide model range now more than ever and really good specification, the Hilux seems immovable at the top of the local bakkie market, but there are still other good pick-ups out there which suit pockets and individual tastes. Still, you can’t go wrong with a Hilux, can you?