The new Hilux is more 'Mad Max' than 'Lawrence of Arabia'
A rugged ride in the desert in the new Hilux is more 'Mad Max' than 'Lawrence of Arabia', says Campbell Spray
The full sun was up - just the moment for mad dogs and Englishmen to make their appearance, and we were staring at the dunes in front of us, massive and foreboding.
A buzz, a bit like an annoying insect, began to be heard, getting louder all the time and then, out of the same dunes, which had been a backdrop for the latest Mad Max film, a vehicle shot out as if on fire.
Up and down impossible gradients and at very nasty speeds, the Toyota Hilux challenger in the Paris-Dakar race seemed to take to the air before, in a swirl of noise and sand, coming to a rest in front of a salivating bunch of motoring hacks. Out stepped the driver and then, of course to rub in his whole superstar status, he was followed by his beautiful blonde girlfriend who shook out her long hair and took ownership of his helmet and the whole scene.
The event in Dune 7 just outside the Namibian port of Walvis Bay was the glamorous side of the launch of the latest generation Hilux. With less glamour but with more awe-inspiring hands-on experience for this driver, for whom a trip to Glendalough is still an event to be savoured, were drives across the Namib Desert and rock climbs up along treacherous mountain tracks. All to satisfy Toyota's quest to prove that the new Hilux was the best of its breed, as well as having almost saloon-like comforts while doing the rough stuff.
Up until early this summer, a backie was what a girlfriend had demanded from me and my trusty old bike at the end of many a night out and after many a pint. The iron steed would groan a bit but I minded not, I was in love or lust - I have forgotten which - and my pedals were in thrall.
Come a couple of decades later, here I was in southern Africa and I found out what a "bakkie" was really about. Alongside the lion, the bakkie is king of the African terrain as it is anywhere where ruggedness is needed, the possibility of five seats up front and truck-like carrying capacity. These are SUVs of serious purpose, loved over here by farmers and builders, but for more everyday motoring in the wilds of Africa. Of course, who could not have seen the hordes of Isil and their like storming across Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in their own versions? The Hilux, Ford Ranger, Nissan Navara and their ilk are nothing if not versatile.
When driving the Hilux, I felt I was like a toddler at the zoo or sweet counter, not knowing quite where to go but knowing I wanted it all. Luckily, Toyota was employing a local event and safari company to keep us on the straight and narrow - while we were driving at least. These South Africans and Namibians in their shorts, bush shirts and hats seemed like man mountains who would happily wrestle with crocodiles before breakfast; but it was their authority and confidence that really raised them up, and over a few pints they became mortal, which only showed more fully the charismatic leadership they could give as we travelled over rocks I couldn't have walked over, and through sand hills that could have buried regiments.
It is big people's territory, and the guys and women lived up to it. These are, as I have said, vehicles for farmers, builders and small traders - people of determination with a rugged, independent lifestyle. They, like the Hilux, will get thing done whatever the odds. Load up the back, point the nose and we'll get through. Jump in and we'll give you a start, a hope for the future; a chance for a better life. There's so much future in these vehicles and so much past. The first Hilux hit the streets - or rather the rugged path -in 1968 and the new one is the eighth generation in nearly 50 years, with total sales of around 18 million units.
It is an important launch. Toyota knew it had to catch up with the competition in terms of comfort and quietness. It aimed to surpass them and got a whole new emotional response. Given the extra comfort, Toyota is hoping that here and in Europe the Hilux might become a lifestyle choice, but probably just not yet.
If the Apocalypse happens and I have to do a runner from hordes of zombies marching on Phibsboro, the Hilux will be my lifestyle choice. My colleague, Irish Times motoring editor Michael McAleer who was my co-driver in Namibia, told me that Top Gear had turned Hilux into an icon. He later wrote that "The Clarkson-era show bought an 18-year-old Hilux diesel with 190,000 miles on the clock. It then proceeded to crash it into a tree, submerge it in the ocean, hit it with a wrecking ball and set it on fire. The piece de resistance was to place it atop a tower block that was then demolished in a controlled explosion. Still it kept running."
But what of the new one which we drove across the Tropic of Capricorn and for hundreds of miles across the Namib desert, up mountains and down the almost sheer cliff faces of dunes?
It isn't really my area of expertise, though the comfort, off-road abilities and pure rugged handsomeness intrigued me, though I am beginning to sound very tri-sexual - men, women and machines. Oh, well, take it when you can is the mantra of the over-60s.
The top 4x4 magazine in southern Africa is Drive Out. Last month's issue features "Hilux vs The Rest . . . the bakkie fight to beat the winter chill" and pits Toyota's latest model against the Volkswagen Amarok, Ford Ranger and the Isuzu KB300, announcing: "Let's be honest, the arrival of a new bakkie, especially a new Hilux, is about as contentious as the choice of a new Springbok coach" (Nissan and Mitsubishi weren't included as the latest models are yet to arrive.) After absolutely exhaustive tests, Jaco Kirsten, the magazine's editor, and three colleagues plump for the Ford Ranger - just. Jaco adds that "both of them can do almost everything equally well, both are capable off-roaders, have modern interiors and superb on-road handling". He finishes by asking if the Hilux has leapfrogged the Ranger as a total package. "The answer is no. That doesn't necessarily say something negative about the Hilux. Rather, it tells us just how good modern double-cab bakkies have become."
However, that was tough Africa; as an SUV driver over here - and I draw support from Autocar, commercial motor magazines and other publications - I was so impressed with the Hilux ease of control when given the confidence to really let rip. Once done, it was so rewarding. It didn't feel like driving a commercial and never a van.
I wonder about the touchscreen and some pretty flimsy cup-holders. They might not survive the Hilux's otherwise long life.
The 2.4 diesel is a bit noisy to start up - especially at 6.30am in an African bush camp - but the automatic version is a dream to use.
The general view is that the new Hilux is a massive improvement on its predecessor which will put it in a stronger position than before. Prices for the double-cab version start at €36,500. There will be a lot of takers.