While a dog might be a man’s best friend and diamonds a girl’s for any tradesman it’s a good van that plays the role of best buddy. Interior space, comfort, practicality and most importantly reliability are all factors for tradies to consider when choosing a suitable van mate. But for many there is only one trusty stead that appeals, the Toyota HiAce, with no substitutes accepted. But why is the HiAce the default decision for so many tradesmen, courier drivers and shuttle van proprietors? Car and SUV saddled up with the heavyweight of Toyota’s HiAce stable the ZX to find out more.
Exterior design may not be the secret behind the HiAce’s success, while no van is a sexy beast the HiAce aesthetic is boxy, basic and in ZX form – burly too. She’s a big rig with a length of 5.38 metres and an extended height of 2.28 metres, wheelbase is 3.1 meters and it tips the scales at around 3.2-tonnes. The exterior styling has changed little on the fifth generation HiAce since its debut back in 2005 but there is a new black front bumper, reworked halogen headlights and a silver-barred grille that goes some way to giving this workhorse a more modern face. With a low side profile and a thin section of green-tinted glass, there is also plenty of prime real estate on the HiAce for sign writing. Standard wheel fitment is 15-inch steel rims that are hidden behind six-spoke silver wheel covers.
Our test vehicle was fitted with sliding doors on both flanks for loading cargo with the HiAce able to be parked close to a wall or be fully packed on one side with access through the other. The rear tailgate is huge and creates a full size opening for long or bulky cargo. The cab seating is fairly high and while there’s a handle pull and a step, a day of hauling yourself in and out of the big HiAce could be tiring, especially for shorter drivers.
Inside the ZX there is an expansive amount of space behind the front seats but not all that much in front. The seats are finished in a suitably tough grey cloth and are accommodating but only adjust for reach and recline. If you have the factory partition fitted, it may prove difficult for tall drivers to get the seat back far enough from the controls to be comfortable on longer journeys. That said, the steering wheel is tilt adjustable and the bus like driving position allows for commanding visibility. The third middle seat is only suitable for part time duties; it’s narrow, completely flat and has a now unpopular lap belt. But it does fold forward to provide a handy worktop for invoice books or laptops, even offering a closable hatch for loose items and extra cupholders. There’s plenty of other small storage areas in the cabin including a wide split glovebox, door bins with bottle holders and various cubbies for wallets and cell phones.
The switchgear and instrumentation in the HiAce is basic but modern and car like. The dials are large, easy to read and house a digital clock and odometer. Chunky air-conditioning control dials look ready for heavy-duty use and the CD stereo has two speakers, Bluetooth capability, and the all-important auxiliary port for plugging in iPods. The gearstick is well positioned pushing out from the dashboard just above the pull and twist handbrake, it has a big knob and is easier to work than a lower floor mounted unit. As you’d expect from Toyota the HiAce’s build quality is nails tough and it would be hard to find more durable plastics in any vehicle.
Behind the cabin is a huge space ready to be fitted with tradesmen’s cabinets, extra rows of seats or just left for hauling goods. Load space length is 3470mm, width is 1730mm and height 1635mm. It’s a practical space with a low loading level, a step on the rear bumper, plastic floor covering and multiple tie down hooks for securing cargo. There’s also door triggered interior lights and all five doors are locked and unlocked by remote central door locking.
But for all the modern bells and whistles what really matters to many tradesmen is what’s happening under the bonnet or in the HiAce’s case, under the seats. Unclip and tilt up the passenger pew and what you’ll find is Toyota’s recalibrated 1KD-FTV diesel engine. With a 3-litre displacement the turbocharged motor now delivers 100kW of power and a healthy 300Nm of torque. That marks a 20kW/24Nm increase over the older motor. Peak torque is available from just 1200rpm and fuel economy is now rated at 8.7l/100km combined, with the manual gearbox.
Transmission options include a 4-speed automatic box or as we tested a 5-speed manual. The gear ratios have been tweaked to match the stronger engine with the final drive ratio now taller for making best use of the improved performance.
On road, the HiAce is surprisingly lively in acceleration when unladen. It’s not going to drag off many cars at the lights but it never feels like it’s taking an eternity to get up a steep hill either. The 4-cylinder diesel is a willing unit that has plenty of low down torque and is well settled at open road cruising speeds. It can sound coarse when pushed but generally does its thing without fuss. In the wet you can spin up the rear wheels if you’re too heavy on the gas but the HiAce is generally a very predictable handler with no more body roll than you’d expect from a vehicle of this generous height and length. The gearbox is easy to use with a short throw on the stick and a slightly notchy feel. The clutch pedal is light and doesn’t have excessive travel. The speed sensitive power steering also works very well keeping light in parking lots but firming up a level at speed. Refinement is mixed, while the engine is only intrusive under load there is some booming through the large load area and the ride can get pitchy on rougher road surfaces. However, some weight over the rear leaf sprung suspension may calm things down.
In terms of safety the HiAce is much improved but is still limited (like most vans) by it’s cab forward body shape. Safety features are lead by ventilated front disc brakes that feel firm and reassuring under foot. There’s also an ABS braking system with brake assist, driver’s airbag and seatbelt pretensioner. If you’re riding shotgun things may not be so rosy.
After road testing the HiAce ZX it’s easy to see why it’s the best mate of many Kiwi tradesmen and also popular for various other applications. It’s easy to drive, has a practical and highly durable cabin and expansive load area with thoughtful features and access. While it may not be the most comfortable or fastest vehicle on the road the HiAce is a tool and it performs its duties without fuss and with a potentially long lifespan. The ZX is the Goliath of the HiAce range and while it’s not altogether suitable for daily suburban jaunts, owning a vehicle this practical could make you very popular. Or you could just use it for business. That’s the HiAce’s multipurpose nature.
What we like:
- Practical and accessible loading area
- More powerful diesel engine
- Bulletproof cabin fit out
- Easy to drive nature
What we don’t like:
- Limited driver’s seat adjustment
- Uninspiring exterior design
- Safety is improved but still far behind passenger vehicles
Who will buy this car: No brainer – tradesmen, courier drivers, wholesalers who distribute goods and shuttle bus or small tour companies.
Cool Factor: Fairly low, you might get approached by the rare and strange breed that is van enthusiasts asking if it’s the latest ZX HiAce. If this does happen it’s probably best to flee the scene.
Words and Photos: Adam Mamo