Taking rough with smooth: How Toyota Hilux coped with 750km of gruelling desert tests
First drive in Namibia: Toyota Hilux
I began writing this first-drive report on Toyota's new Hilux pickup at dusk in a dry riverbed in Namibia, a vast 'other-world' country north-west of South Africa. I could hear baboons nearby. It was chilly with skies so clear the stars seemed closer than at home.
It was a long, long way from home but, in many ways, the challenges we faced were similar: how well could a new pickup cope with severe conditions?
We were there to find out by putting the new Hilux through 750km of gruelling tests over rocky, narrow, angular mountain passes, teeth-jarring gravel roads, hostile desert and some of the world's biggest sand dunes.
We drove on some tarmac too, because the pickup is now becoming such an attractive proposition/alternative for many people looking for a 'lifestyle' vehicle. They want 'car-like' comfort and equipment in the cabin and on the road. Could the Hilux be tough, durable and comfortable all at the same time? Could the workhorse be the steeplechaser as well?
We spewed clouds of desert dust in finding out as we convoyed through lunar/Martian landscapes. Those roads were not only a test of ability to stay on course - no easy task at 100km/h - but to see how much vibration and noise came through to the cabin as well. It certainly was mixing the rough with the smooth.
What an adventure we were to have.
First, however, a few basics. This eighth-generation Hilux is effectively on sale in Ireland as you read this. It costs from €29,250. The prices are around €3,000 up on the old one. However, Toyota say there had been no real increase for a long time - this is the first all-new model since 2005 (revised 2011).
There are significant developments. There is a brand new single-turbo diesel engine (replacing 2.5-litre and 3-litre). It pumps 148bhp and has a serious hike to 400Nm in torque. We experienced some memorable instances of that pulling power. It, and a vastly overhauled suspension (on a much strengthened ladder-frame construction), have helped nudge towing capacity to 3.5 tonnes (Single Cab; 3.2 for Double Cab). There's a new 6spd manual (up from 5spd) and auto transmission. Manual gearshift was excellent. They have also designed it to reflect the duality of demand: smart looks and plenty of muscle.
Overall sales of pickups are ahead of last year with the Hilux in front, followed by Ford's Ranger and Nissan's Navara. Other rivals include the Volkswagen Amarok, Isuzu D-MAX and Mitsubishi L200.
Even though nearly half the year is gone, Toyota still expect 200 people to buy a new Hilux this year and 375 or so next. These pickups are bought by the self-employed, particularly farmers, as well as fleet concerns such as the ESB.
Increasingly, however, people want them for less arduous tasks. That means they often need to be a workhorse and family car.
Importantly, there is more head and shoulder room in the cabin and in the rear, as one accompanying passenger, brave man, can testify.
I suppose the quality/layout of materials in our Double Cabs showed how far the genre has developed. Take away the context and put someone into the Hilux cabin and they'd be hard pressed to differentiate between it and an 'ordinary' car interior.
Okay, the on-dash switch to get you from 2WD to 4WD High and 4WD Low (such enormous torque) might be a little giveaway.
That aside, I know plenty of cars that are noisier on the road than this was over poor surfaces. They've done a big job in that area - and with engine noise. The suspension helped too (wheel travel is up 20pc, and boy did that count on rocky routes where keeping all four wheels grounded wasn't always possible).
One small thing to note is you can't change from 2WD to Low ratio on the fly (dash located switch; no longer a second gear-lever).
You need to shift to Neutral, turn the knob half way to 4H, wait a couple of seconds and then press it into Low.
Furthermore, I had to crouch a bit to get into the cabin. The floor/seating is high (great for visibility) but the penalty is the aperture between it and the roof isn't as expansive.
The chief engineer, Toyota's Hiroki Nakajima, told us how he had visited dozens of countries to get feedback from users to improve the cabin and quality of handling and ride on the tarmac. After pounding it over all sorts of terrain, he's entitled to feel his efforts paid off handsomely.
On-road, the big leap forward is quietness and ease-of-drive. Off-road the new Active Traction Control system got us through a few rough spots. This applies the brake to a slipping wheel and gives more torque to those with better grip.
Look, I'm sure I could get into nitty-gritty comparisons with rivals over who has what and I'm sure the Hilux wouldn't top all the tables.
But that doesn't detract from what we learned from this odyssey: that it can take the rough with the smooth across a huge canvas of conditions while keeping you nice and comfortable.
I've driven bad roads in my time. Some of those Namibian tracks were right up there, but the level of insulation and sealing was excellent. We were doing anywhere between 80km/h and 110km/h on fluid underfoot conditions but I had absolutely no concerns. And we could chat at normal levels - a good sign of little noise intrusion.
On we drove, high on the 2,000 metre plateau, taking in the wonder of red, brown, white, black and grey ever-changing landscapes; small and larger boulders lying where most have lain for millions of years, as if God had rolled them out like dice across the second most sparsely populated country on Earth. Here and there we'd spot zebras, oryx, warthogs, baboons. The midday heat seared my pale face as I alighted at base camp. After lunch it was serious off-roading, toughing it out against hostile, rocky pathways.
We crawled at acute angles, pushed up steep inclines, down sharp, ravine-like gouges. Hours of it in biting heat (we had air con) and still no sweat to the Hilux. If it can get by all that, we said, nothing in Ireland is going to faze it.
That night I slept well in my tent and next morning showered under African skies (a man, David, poured hot water into a little overhanging pouch at 6.15am precisely) and started towards the endless horizon. Still the same rattling roadways; still all quiet on the Hilux front.
And then we came to the sand dunes. I've driven down ski slopes, gone mad on frozen Arctic lakes, waded bonnet deep in dark pools, but the size and slope-angle of those towering sand mountains struck awe.
The adrenalin pumped. 'Go', I was told over the radio. I floored it, scampering up a sharp, willowy incline and got to the top, heart-in-mouth.
The hard thing was to slow precisely at the crescent so I didn't go flying and roll over out of control downhill.
Going down was nerve-tingling too. As I went over the edge of several sharp plunges, all I could momentarily see was sky. Nothing else.
Then as the car's nose dipped, I focussed on near-vertical descent in First-Low all the way. Touch a brake and I risked rolling over more often than a minority government. I'll never forget the sensation.
But it wasn't about me really. The car did the work. And that's probably the best thing I can say about it over the 750km of driving - be it in sixth high or first low.
It took rough and smooth in its stride all the way.
Hilux - the facts
Line-up and prices: 2.4-litre Single Cab DLX 6spd manual (6MT) €29,250; Double Cab DLX 6MT €36,500; Double Cab SR5 6MT €39,895; Double Cab SR5 6spd auto €41,650, Double Cab Invincible 6MT €45,850 and Double Cab Invincible 6AT €47,650.
Entry level trim (DLX) includes 17ins wheels, Hill Assist Control, rear diff lock, seven airbags, air con, Bluetooth, front cool-box, Jack-knife key.
Next up is SR5 grade with Safety Sense, driver fatigue warning, Active Traction Control, Downhill Assist Control, trailer sway control, cruise control, 7in Toyota Touch multimedia, retractable mirrors, front fogs, privacy glass and side steps.
Range-topping Invincible adds 18ins wheels, leather trim, heated front seats, LED low beam headlamps, auto headlamp levelling, auto air con, chrome side steps.
There is no stop/start; load bay cover and tow bar are extra. There is a lockable tailgate.
More than 18m Hilux pickups have been bought worldwide in nearly 50 years.
Many of the 5,000 sold in Ireland are still going.
Toyota says a stronger ladder chassis, reinforced deck structure and Active Traction Control (A-TRC) lift its 4x4 capabilities to Land Cruiser levels.
The gear lever is shortened to feel more like a car's.
Head/ shoulder room up 8mm/19mm respectively.
Expansion foam injected throughout the bodyshell structure to cut noise. Extensive engine bay soundproofing.
Top cargo deck width is up to 1,645mm.
There are ECO and POWER settings.
The ladder-frame chassis has three times the deformation strength of its predecessor.
Upgraded leaf spring, twin shock absorber rear suspension.
New Limited Slip Differential.