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Toyota and Isuzu join the beefed-up bakkie race. The former brings Dakar experience while the latter gets its mojo from Iceland...

It began with the Ford Ranger Raptor. It was the first bakkie that could back up its bulked-up appearance with pukka off-road racing performance (in contrast to the many DIY attempts plying our roads). This has seemingly created an all-new niche: the action bakkie. Whereas most performance divisions demand more power, this is not a prerequisite of the action bakkie. The OEMs rather focus their attention on visual appeal and technical prowess over broken surfaces. Toyota and Isuzu are the latest players.

The recipes

Nasser Al-Attiyah won the 2019 Dakar Rally in a proudly South African-built Hilux. In doing so, he cemented Gazoo Racing (GR) as a global trademark for Toyota, although locally, the brand is still in its infancy. CAR was deeply impressed by the Yaris GRMN during Performance Shootout 2019 and you can read all about the GR Supra in our recent road test. To apply a similar motorsport infusion to the ever-popular Hilux would appear a natural progression.

Externally, the sporty Hilux gets a black bonnet, go-faster GR stickers, special side steps, extended wheelarches and bespoke 17-inch wheels with Bridgestone rubber. The grille with large Toyota lettering is a distinctive addition.

Technically, the Hilux’s suspension gets an upgrade via stiffer front springs and red, monotube dampers all-round, tuned for this application. However, the rear leaf springs remain standard. Remember, GR-Sport is only the second-tier performance level, followed by GR and the top-level GRMN grade.

The CAR team was divided on the bakkie’s visual appeal, with comments ranging from “a support vehicle to the Dakar team” to “plainly transport for a Toyota sales rep in need of attention”. The wheels, one inch smaller than those fitted to the Legend 50, appear slightly undersized.

The red stitching on the seats and steering wheel, the plaque with the serial number on the centre console (only 600 GR-Sports will be produced), piano black panels and red inserts across the dash lift the ambience of the standard Hilux. The instrument cluster looks fresh and the now fully integrated, eight-inch infotainment system with rotary knobs for volume and tuning is streets ahead of the old clunky unit. Some irks remain, though: limited reach adjustment on the steering column and an antenna mounted in the windscreen in line of sight of taller drivers.

Isuzu has limited racing pedigree to call upon and contacted specialist Icelandic company Arctic Trucks (AT) to tweak its D-Max. Since 1990, AT has focused on re-engineering four-wheel-drive vehicles for challenging conditions. Interestingly, the kit provided by AT is installed at Isuzu’s production facility in Port Elizabeth.

All the cutting and welding is done before the body-in-white is returned to the production line prior to entering the paint shop. It is later pulled from the line again for fitment of the rest of the AT package, including those massive 35-inch tyres (the spare is a standard size). The firm has trained a special team of technicians to conduct 50 conversions annually, following the same production standards as the base D-Max.

The result is an imposing vehicle which elicits smiles and stares wherever it goes. Although not all bakkie owners will admit this openly, secretly most wish their pick-ups could look like a supersized Tamiya radio-controlled off-road bakkie or a shrunken monster truck. The flared wheelarches and massive BF Goodrich tyres take centre stage. Fox dampers are added but the powertrain remains standard with no gearing adjustment despite the huge boots.

The cockpit is standard D-Max fare but there are some welcome touches in the form of padded surfacing on the facia and armrests. There is no reach adjustment on the steering column, however, and the infotainment system isn’t as easy to use as the Toyota’s.

Performance on-road

The Hilux powertrain is a known entity but road testers did comment the transmission calibration feels more responsive than before. First impressions on the suspension upgrades are that the system feels slightly firmer than the already stiff standard setup on-road, a point we will revisit in the off-road section.

Our rigorous road test procedure produced a 0-100 km/h time of 12,45 seconds, with the braking test yielding an average of 3,19 seconds for the punishing 10-stop routine from 100 km/h. Understandably, these are similar figures to a non-GR spec Hilux but are still slightly disappointing for a vehicle with visual links to a Dakar racer.

The ageing engine tech of the Isuzu made itself heard and produced a fastest 0-100 km/h time of 12,54 (we tested a standard version at 12,51 seconds in 2017) which is only a smidgen slower than the GR-Sport. This is remarkable considering the added rotational inertia of those wheels and the higher overall gearing. Do not expect much overtaking punch above the national speed limit, though, with a tardy 120 km/h to 140 km/h acceleration time of 11,07 seconds (compared with 8,56 seconds for the GR-Sport). The Isuzu’s fuel consumption is impacted, too, with a fuel route figure of 9,6 L/100 km compared with the more-efficient Hilux’s 8,4 L/100 km.

Although the AT35’s speedo was recalibrated for the increase in wheel size, it still over-reads significantly with a true speed of 112 km/h at an indicated 120 km/h (the GR-Sport also over-reads by a similar margin). Braking performance was more than acceptable considering the off-road-biased rubber, with an average stopping time of 3,20 seconds.

The AT35 rides well on smooth roads but as soon as imperfections hit the wheels, the oscillations are felt after the bumps have passed owing to the flexing of rubber. This, plus the added tyre noise, limits long-distance comfort at speed. It takes a moment to get used to the elevated ride height and care must be taken on twisty sections, while parking in town can be a real challenge. In short, the AT kit ultimately impacts daily driving, just like the Raptor’s additions knock the Ranger’s everyday usability.

In contrast, the GR-Sport feels nimble and is easily placed, not dissimilar to a standard Hilux. Refinement levels are high and the cabin is well insulated against engine and wind noise. If you have to drop off the kids at school, the GR-Sport is a more sensible choice (although the youngsters will love the AT35’s looks).

Performance off-road

These bakkies are designed to get dirty, so we embarked on a 400 km round-trip from Cape Town to Gansbaai covering tar, dirt and sand to gauge their overall competency. To assess the suspension performance of the GR-Sport, we took along an example of the recently launched Hilux Legend 50 for comparison. Covering lengthy, rough-dirt sections with both Toyotas, the team was hard-pressed to find substantial differences in the suspension. The GR-Sport’s setup is a tad firmer, offering slightly better control, but in no way is the difference as marked as with the Ford Ranger and Raptor.

The Isuzu was in its element when the tar ended. Again, those massive black hoops made all the difference, as they offer immense grip. Ground clearance of 268 mm (up 48 mm) and exceptional approach, break-over and departure angles meant rocks had little chance to damage its underbelly. Not as composed as the GR-Sport on fast-flowing roads, the grip advantage allowed the Isuzu to shine as the speed decreased over rough sections. Sand driving was a cinch and its pilot was more relaxed than the driver of the GR-Sport when an incline up a particularly soft section loomed. The AT35 later revelled in the brilliant white sand at Atlantis; the closest it is likely to get to sheet ice in Africa, although the driver craved more power when trying to scale the steep dunes.

TEST SUMMARY

Kudos to Isuzu for breathing life into an ageing product by offering the AT35. It’s the most visually exciting production bakkie you can buy. However, it’s compromised on-road and heavily favours slow off-road driving in low-grip conditions. Much as we adore the AT35’s quirky charm, it is difficult to recommend as an everyday vehicle. The fact that its asking price is uncomfortably close to R800 000 does not help (and each replacement tyre costs a whopping R5 000).

The GR-Sport is more balanced and refined, suited to daily chores and off-road adventures alike. It outscores the AT35 in this test while offering better value for money. Whether it’s worth R40 000 more than the equivalent Legend 50 is another matter; the latter model looks classier and offers near-identical performance.

The fact that only a limited number will be produced speaks to the individualists who prefer their bakkie to stand out in the sea of Hiluxes on our roads. We, however, would much rather opt for a Legend 50 or wait for a full-fat GRMN version to take the fight to our reigning action-bakkie champ, the Raptor.

ROAD TEST SCORE
Hilux Toyota Hilux 2.8GD-6 double cab 4x4 GR Sport
74 / 100
  • Price: R750,800
  • 0-100 km/h: 10.8
  • Power ([email protected]/min): 130 KW @ 3400
  • Torque ([email protected]/min): 450 N.m @ 1600-2400
  • Top speed: 175
  • Claimed cons. (l/100 km): 8.5 l/100 KM's
  • C02 emissions (g/km): 224 g/KM
D-Max Isuzu D-Max 300 3.0TD double cab 4x4 LX Arctic Trucks AT 35
70 / 100
  • Price: R822,000
  • 0-100 km/h: 10.8
  • Power ([email protected]/min): 130 KW @ 3600
  • Torque ([email protected]/min): 380 N.m @ 1800-2800
  • Top speed: 175
  • Claimed cons. (l/100 km): 8.6 l/100 KM's
  • C02 emissions (g/km): 227 g/KM

While fiercely loyal Toyota Hilux double-cab owners would argue there was little need for continued development of their favourite bakkie past the fourth-generation model (introduced in 1983), the incremental evolution of this popular range has seen it dominate local sales charts for close to 50 years. That said, a lot has changed in the double-cab market in the 12 years since the last new Hilux (sixth generation) was launched, most notably in the shape of its competition.

It’s long been rumoured that one of the reasons for a delay in the launch of the latest Hilux has been the interim introduction of vehicles such as the Volkswagen Amarok and current-generation Ford Ranger. Both VW and Ford target lifestyle-oriented buyers by offering higher levels of comfort and refinement over and above the levels of toughness associated with this segment. Certainly, the Amarok, if often scorned by the “hard-core” off-roading (and farming) community, has highlighted the fact that modern double-cab ownership need no longer be associated with a compromise in comfort.

Where the Amarok has been perceived as being too cushioned since its 2011 introduction and the outgoing Hilux a little too utilitarian, the current Ranger has made significant inroads into Toyota’s segment domination by successfully bridging the gap between these two rivals. Recently facelifted to coincide with the launch of the (Ranger-based) Everest SUV, as well as to introduce a more rugged stance, the Ford represents the biggest challenge to the success of the all-new Hilux.

While the aforementioned purposeful stance of the revised Ranger range is emphasised by this flagship Wildtrak model’s unique paintwork, exclusive rollover bar and one-size-larger (18-inch) alloy wheels, there’s no denying the air of purpose imbued by the chrome-highlighted, F150-Series-inspired grille updates granted to XLT Rangers that rival the Hilux’s Raider spec.

There might be no shortage of brightwork on the new Hilux Raider’s grille, but most CAR testers agreed that the Toyota, while visually aligning itself with other models in the group’s portfolio, is less imposing than the Ford when seen in a rear-view mirror. That said, the new Hilux has grown and is both wider (5 mm) and longer (61 mm) than the Ranger, but slightly narrower. Viewed in profile, the Toyota has the more predominant snout (1 000 mm versus 905 mm) but, despite this, the Hilux boasts the greater claimed approach angle (31 versus 25,5 degrees) of the two.

Packaging
By updating the facia of the Ranger to mimic that of the recently introduced Everest SUV, Ford has included nearly every modern convenience available on its top-of-the- range Fusion sedan. This includes the company’s intuitive Sync2 touchscreen (and voice-activated) infotainment and Bluetooth system, as well as (in XLT and Wildtrak specification) climate control and comprehensive onboard trip computing. Two of the most obvious improvements to the Hilux’s roomier cabin, aside from Raider-spec leather upholstery and matching multifunction steering wheel, is the absence of a secondary transmission lever and the inclusion of a sophisticated-looking new touchscreen display unit. While the neat rotary drivetrain-mode selector is more convenient to use (and frees up interior space), we cannot say the same for the fussy infotainment system; as clear as its display may be, it attracts dust and requires too much concentration (i.e. eyes from the road) to operate.

A welcome addition to the Hilux is reach adjustment on the steering column to supplement the rake function. While our taller testers prefer an even greater range of adjustability, this small convenience will no doubt help with seating comfort. Despite its steering column offering only height adjustment, however, there were no complaints about driver comfort in the Ranger. A more raised driving position in the Hilux counters the car-like configuration of the Ranger, and this, in turn, means greater visibility from the cabin of the Toyota.

As confirmed by our measurements, it’s the Ford that offers more leg- and head-room in the rear seats. While Isofix anchorage points are a welcome inclusion in both models, it’s surprising that neither manufacturer thought to offer ventilation ducts for rear passengers. The Toyota’s sliding rear window offers some consolation.

Powertrains
Replacing the well-known 3,0-litre D-4D engine in the Hilux is an all-new 2,8-litre turbodiesel. It delivers 130 kW of power and 420 N.m of torque (from 1 400 to 2 600 r/min) when mated with a six-speed manual gearbox, and 450 N.m (1 600 to 2 400 r/min) when paired with a new six-speed automatic transmission. Having experienced both options, the manual version in this exclusive first test and the automatic at the international Hilux launch, it’s evident this drivetrain is the trump card in Toyota’s armoury. More refined in its workings than the recently updated 147 kW 3,2-litre Duratorq powerplant fitted to the Ranger, the Toyota’s engine also outperforms its five-cylinder Struandale-built competitor on the road and burns less fuel in a combined cycle.

Dynamics
Combining this livelier powertrain with the lighter (by nearly 200 kg compared with the Ranger) Hilux body, the Toyota feels easier to manoeuvre, both around town and off the beaten track. Ford fans will counter that the Ranger feels more substantial than the lithe Hilux, yet it’s difficult to argue against Toyota’s track record for durability. Despite Ford’s adoption of an adaptive electric power-steering system in the Ranger line-up, it’s the hydraulic setup in the Hilux that feels more intuitive while offering greater feedback.

An area where the outgoing Hilux drew heavy criticism when compared with nearly all of its rivals was ride quality. Significant improvements have been made in this department, but there remains a firmness and resultant jostle to the new vehicle’s on-road manner that seems destined to remain an Achilles’ heel, even when up against the Ranger Wildtrak on its standard 18-inch wheels and lower-profile tyres. That said, like its predecessor, putting a load on the Hilux’s rear leaf springs improves its ride quality.

A day spent off-road with both vehicles proved that they are only as capable as the person behind the wheel. Both bakkies feature on-the-fly shifting into all-wheel drive for gravel-road expeditions and, while you’re likely to feel more bumps over broken surfaces in the Hilux’s cabin than the Ford’s, both double cabs are composed on loose surfaces. Both the Ranger Wildtrak (and XLT) and Hilux Raider offer stability control and trailer-sway-control systems. The Hilux’s braked towing mass has increased to match its rival’s 3 500 kg maximum.

Effective low-range transfer cases and hill-descent control, together with one-touch rear-differential locks, add to their go-anywhere prowess. Of interest is the fact that the Hilux offers a maximum wading depth of 700 mm compared with the Ranger’s 800. Bragging rights? Heading into town, we were grateful for the Hilux’s (relative) lightweight manoeuvrability compared with the bulk of the Ranger, even if the Ford offers the tighter turning circle of the two.

On the open road, the punch offered by the 2,8-litre Toyota engine, mated here with a slick six-speed manual transmission, came to the fore. Not only did it feel more powerful than the Ranger’s Duratorq motor – which, admittedly, was robbed of some performance by its lethargic automatic transmission – but it also proved the more refined and frugal.

TEST SUMMARY

While the two vehicles featured here have glaring differences, most notably in their final specification and transmission configurations, we have enough experience of both the XLT-specification Ranger and the automatic transmission on the Hilux to be able to compare them head to head.

In assessing double-cab bakkies, it’s always been CAR’s position to favour the most competent lifestyle-oriented vehicle. Within the first few kilometres of driving the two back to back, it was clear the Ranger edged the Hilux when it came to on-road ride quality. The initial advantage looked to be Ford’s. As Ford continues its impressive local growth, the Ranger in particular continues to gain favour with buyers thanks to its solid build quality and specification, as well as the impressive balance it strikes between workhorse and leisure duties.

But the Hilux has caught up - its impressive new powertrain trumps the Ford’s engine not only in terms of performance but also, crucially, at the pumps. The Hilux is also cheaper. In 4x4 XLT guise mated with
a six-speed automatic transmission, the Ranger costs R19 000 more than the equivalent Hilux Raider 4x4 AT. Add to this saving the Toyota’s unrivalled resale values, reputation for reliability and massive dealer network, and the Hilux is afforded breathing room in terms of how closely it matches the slightly more luxurious Ranger’s sophistication.

As mentioned in our Top 12 Best Buys feature, we look forward to sampling more examples of the new Hilux range and we’re particularly interested to find out whether other engine options (including the new 2,4-litre turbo-diesel) make the grade. For now, we’re suitably impressed with Toyota’s bakkie ... impressed enough to hand it the victory in this test by the slimmest of margins.

*From the March 2016 issue of CAR magazine.

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