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CHOBE, Botswana – Thanks to its success in the Dakar Rally (and similarly gruelling off-road events), Toyota Gazoo Racing has become something of household name in recent years. And with the Hilux now celebrating 50 years of service in South Africa, it’s the perfect time to launch the GR-Sport derivative, alongside the long-awaited Legend 50 range.

While the latter treatment has become somewhat of a tradition at Toyota South Africa Motors – remember the Legend 35, 40 and 45 that came before? – the new GR-Sport variant is something a little different. Yes, the Japanese firm has joined the very popular movement of adding a dash of “macho bling” to its bakkie.

Well, the trend actually started some time ago, when single-cab bakkie owners wanted to stand out (as much as those in their GTIs and GSis, perhaps?). They would swop sensible wheels for ridiculously hard-riding over-sized mags (with the minimum of rubber wrapping), add a metallic paint job (that may or may not include purple or green), bolt on a free-flow exhaust and, well, be noticed.

Nowadays, though, the double-cab bakkie has taken over. So Toyota now beckons the “stand-out” crowd with its GR-Sport. Looks mean a lot to a double-cab buyer and this one certainly gets you noticed thanks to the blacked-out treatment for the alloy wheels, door handles, side-mirror caps, side steps and grille. On the latter, the traditional Toyota logo is replaced by large chrome “Toyota” letter that is reminiscent of the FJ series … except even larger.

The bonnet and roof are also finished in black, but not just a monotone hue; no, the automaker has added a faint, almost dark-blue metallic sheen to the paint. Just three body colours are available – white, red or black – each complemented by bold Gazoo Racing decals.

Inside, you’ll find black leather upholstery with red stitching as well as a red strip in the facia to brighten up the darkness. Toyota has interestingly made a few ergonomic adjustments to the GR-Sport’s cabin (as well as those of the Legend 50 models and 2,8-litre Fortuner variants), with a new, larger eight-inch touchscreen arrangement gaining physical dials for volume control and tuning. Of course, the good ol’ digital clock (complete with flashing colon) has been retained, perhaps now also forming part of the legendary heritage.

While the Legend 50 runs on 18-inch wheels, the GR has 17-inchers wrapped in 265/65 tyres for better off-road suppleness. This combines with stiffer suspension and monotube shock absorbers to noticeably improve off-road manners and agility. However, it also results in a slightly harsher ride. The steering is a tad sharper, too, allowing for a quicker directional response.

Toyota opted not to hand the GR-Sport any more oomph, preferring instead to employ the 2,8-litre turbodiesel engine with an unchanged 130 kW and 450 N.m sent to all corners via a six-speed automatic transmission with a low-range transaxle. And that’s certainly sufficient grunt to have some fun off the beaten track.

The roads we travelled during the launch route (covering areas of Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia) were very dry, enabling us to confirm the impressive dust-worthiness of the cabin (obviously using the air-recirculation function). Furthermore, the many deep ruts formed months ago in the rainy season tested the suspension. Again, no bottoming out or rattles and shakes here, despite the firmer set-up.

The rest is standard Toyota fare, with no obvious flaws and that familiar solid feel that suggests it’s perfectly at home in the bundu. Should the GR-Sport tickle your fancy, take note just 600 units (up from the earlier allocation of 535) of the GR-Sport will be offered in South Africa, each with a numbered plaque between the front seats to remind you of what you’re driving...

GOEREPAN, Northern Cape – We travel to the edge of the Kalahari to sample the latest special edition of Toyota's Hilux bakkie...

Hey, this Hilux looks a little different...

Indeed it does. What you’re looking at here is the new Hilux Dakar, a limited edition model that not only has some bespoke trim inside and out, but significantly, introduces an all-new nose to SA’s favourite bakkie.

I must say, I like it.

Me too. The current Hilux’s pointy nose isn't everyone’s cup of tea and, given that this new grille has been implemented within three years of the model’s launch – an unusually short period in the Hilux's traditionally lengthy generational life-cycle – Toyota has clearly taken heed of the market’s tastes. The new gloss-black honeycomb grille is deeper and squarer than before, giving the Hilux a blunter, more macho nose that’s more in keeping with the SA-built pick-up’s rugged persona. A metallic grey surround blends into LED headlamps of a more familiar shape and a metallic grey skid-plate provides the final accent on what is a far more handsome visage.

Is this new look just for the Dakar edition, or will we see it on the rest of the Hilux range, too?

For the moment, it will appear only on Dakar-badged derivatives, but it will be rolled out to other models in the range over the rest of the year. From what I could glean from the Toyota folk, who were understandably not keen to play all their cards at once, the new nose will appear on the more lifestyle-focused Xtra and double-cab models, whereas the workhorse derivatives will likely retain the current grille.

Got it. So tell me more about this Dakar model. What else does it come with? Are there any changes to the powertrain or suspension?

No, this is a purely cosmetic exercise. The outputs of the 2,8 GD-6 turbodiesel remain unchanged and it’s available with the existing six-speed manual (130 kW and 420 N.m) or six-speed torque converter automatic (130 kW and 450 N.m). There is also a 4,0-litre V6 Dakar double-cab variant with unchanged outputs (175 kW and 376 N.m). Similarly, the suspension setup is untouched.

What you do get besides that new nose is some gloss-black exterior trim on the door handles and on the power-retractable side-mirrors, plus a restyled rear bumper with grey trim that echoes the grille’s metallic surround. You can specify your Dakar model in four exterior colours: Glacier White, Chromium Silver, Graphite Grey Metallic and the new Inferno Orange Metallic.

Must be some interior tweaks too, right?

Yes, there are some upgrades to the standard Raider specification, though you’d better like black as it’s the only colour theme available. That said, it would’ve been my choice regardless. The upholstery is black leather with light-grey contrast stitching (standard Raider models feature fabric), plus there are metallic black trim accent panels (replacing the silver versions standard on Raider models) and black headliner (light grey on Raider).

The touchscreen infotainment system gets an upgrade over the Raider too, and now includes sat-nav along with the standard Bluetooth, USB and CD/DVD functionality. The system also includes an on-board trip computer and customisable home screen with a bespoke "Dakar Edition" graphic on start-up, as well as white-faced gauges (with orange needles) in the instrument cluster.

Given the fact that there’s no change to the mechanicals, should I even bother asking what it’s like to drive?

Please do … it might be a familiar drivetrain, but the place we drove it certainly wasn’t.

Go on…

The launch was held on the Goerepan and for those of you – like I was – who are unfamiliar with this place, it’s about a 100 clicks north of Upington and right on the edge of the Kalahari desert. It’s a salt-pan with a white-and-red crust cut through by tyre marks and surrounded by dunes of fine red Kalahari sand covered with tufts of thick desert grass. It was also where the Toyota Gazoo Racing team was testing its 2019 Dakar race cars with its drivers – Dakar legend Giniel de Villiers and young Henk Lategan – bombing across the landscape at speeds that defy logic.

I know this because I was in the passage seat for one of these runs, wide-eyed under my helmet as Giniel utterly recalibrated my perception of what a motor vehicle can do off road. The way it dealt with the hard-edged dongas and ramped dunes at speed speaks volumes to the level of engineering team principal Glyn Hall and his team have put into the chassis and suspension.

At a far more sedate pace, we also got to do a few loops of a different course in the Dakar edition ... and one less inclined to separate your vehicle’s wheels from its chassis. Our press units were all manual versions – an opportunity that served to remind me just how good this Hilux transmission is. With a shorter throw and more precise action than, for example, the Nissan-sourced system experienced recently in the Mercedes-Benz X250d, it feels robust and hooks straight into the meat of the 2,8-litre’s rev band.

On the drive through to the Goerepan from Upington, the Hilux’s road manners were again evident with power mode engaged (there’s an eco one, too) giving the 2,8-litre oil-burner enough overtaking punch to get past some of the road freight. The ride is still firmer than that of its main competition though, with some chatter coming through the cabin when the asphalt gets a little bumpy.

Tyre pressures down and low-range selected, we headed off into the dunes, where the Hilux trundled up and over some steep inclines and traversed soft sand that offered little traction under a hot Northern Cape winter sun. In low range, thanks to the turbodiesel's wide torque spread, I rarely needed to change out of third gear with the momentum it provided seeing us sail through without getting stuck.

One final thing: you may be happy to know that Toyota has increased the service plan period on 2,8 GD-6 models from five years or 90 000 km to nine services or 90 000 km, while the 4,0 V6 model receives an increase to a six-service/90 000 km period (previously five years). The warranty period is three years or 100 000 km and applies across the Hilux range.

Nice! Good looking vehicle, clearly with the Hilux’s inherent toughness. The only questions I have left are about pricing and availability.

Across the nine available versions, the Dakar edition extras basically add around R17 500 to the sticker price. Toyota SA will produce a run of 6 000 units – 5 000 double cabs and 1 000 Xtra cabs. Check out full pricing here...
Toyota Hilux Dakar

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