Toyota’s long-serving Hilux ute is a bit of a legend really. Not just for its ongoing sales success but also for the stories of ridiculous robustness and unlikely war zone application. Crossing the Sahara desert without a drop of oil or having surface-to-air missiles launched off their decks, some Hiluxs certainly have to earn their reputation. But the Hilux’s battles aren’t just fought by militias in Africa or the Middle East it’s caught up in a war right here in NZ. The dominance of Toyota’s pickup is no longer total, it faces threats from all sides, the torque thumping Nissan Navara, Great Wall’s low rent V240 and the slick VW Amarok.
How can the Hilux best arm itself for the challenges ahead?
With a new safety package on its top spec SR5 model double cab, that’s how. Sure, it’s not as exciting as another 50Nm of torque from its diesel mill or some fierce new exterior styling but safety upgrades extend the Hilux’s appeal as a true work/play proposition. It’s also reason enough for Car and SUV to get back behind the wheel of a Hilux and revisit this ageing superpower of the ute segment.
Exterior design remains unchanged for the 2011 model Hilux and while it’s a fairly neutral aesthetic that still has its tough guy appeal, the slab-sided and boxed-back design is beginning to show its age. First unveiled in 2005 the seventh-generation Hilux is facing competition from more curvaceous and street-styled competitors like Nissan’s Navara and the upcoming 2012 Ford Ranger. To combat this threat the top spec Hilux SR5 has scrapped its standard 15-inch alloys in favour of more blinging 6-spoke 17-inch rims. It’s a small touch but is surprisingly effective in modernising the Hilux look. A full-sized matching alloy spare wheel is also included. Elsewhere the SR5 separates itself from more agricultural Hilux variants with touches like chrome plated side mirrors and door handles, fog lamps, a rear step bumper and recessed fog lamps.
Inside it’s business as usual for the SR5 with varying shades of grey plastics and silver trim. While the interior materials aren’t exactly high-grade everything feels robust, well screwed together and can wipe clean. The Hilux switchgear is well placed and clearly ordered in a condensed control stack with chunky air-con dials and an easily worked 6-disc CD stereo. The instrumentation is large and bright, placed behind a leather wrapped steering wheel that houses audio and vehicle info display buttons. Other handy standard kit includes a lockable glovebox, Bluetooth phone capability, trip computer, power windows, remote central locking and pollen-filtered air conditioning. There’s plenty of cupholders, small storage options and grab handles that give the Hilux cabin a user-friendly feel. The front seats are comfortable, supportive and adjust for height; they also look good trimmed in a light grey cloth. However the light grey is a colour that will show dirt easily on both the seats and the cloth door trims so owners will need to be careful. The light grey is repeated in the carpets but black plastic mats wisely protect the footwells. In the double cab the rear seat is much more than just a token gesture. The rear doors open wide enough for easy entry and exist and there is enough legroom for adults to ride comfortably.
Under the air-scooped bonnet the 2011 Hilux remains mechanically unchanged. The 3.0-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder diesel produces the same 126kW of power and 343Nm of torque. While these stats were once impressive, nowadays some key competitors are offering diesel mills with more power and up to 100Nm more torque. That said, power figures don’t tell an engines life story and don’t take into account reliability and longevity – virtues this motor has in spades. The Hilux is no slouch either, on road it offers fair pace for a ute, it feels light moving off the line and happily hums along at highway speeds. It has the ability to tow or haul heavy loads with its full compliment of torque available from 1,400rpm. With a respectable, if not class-leading, 2.5-tonne braked towing capacity the Hilux can tow all day without missing a beat.
The top-spec Hilux is available with either manual of auto transmissions, our test vehicle was fitted with Toyota’s trusty 4-speed automatic box. It switches gear fairly smoothly and has a relaxed character with suitably long ratios. Unless you stamp on the go-pedal at every opportunity the auto box won’t go hunting for gear or make unexpected shifts. Fuel economy isn’t bad for a 4-speed, rated at 9.3l/100km on the combined cycle.
While there is nothing new mechanically, the Hilux SR5 double-cab is the first model in the range to receive more advanced electronic safety systems. Both vehicle stability control and traction control is now included giving the SR5 added appeal for those seeking a dual-purpose ute that can work all week and be a safe family cruiser on the weekends. The new safety package has also refined the Hilux’s on road dynamics. In 2WD mode and with no weight over the leaf-sprung rear end, the Hilux used to be twitchy and prone to wheelspin. With the 2011 model that’s been eliminated, the stability control adjusts engine output and braking force to each wheel preventing either understeer or oversteer. This makes the Hilux more of a point-and-shoot ute to drive with the traction control systems also limiting wheel spin when starting off in wet or loose conditions. The Hilux achieves grip easier and is more competent on tight-cornered tarmac. The larger 17-inch wheels haven’t affected ride comfort negatively either and with the long suspension travel most bumps and dips are absorbed.
Off-road the Hilux is still up for any skirmish with its 210mm ground clearance, 30-degree approach angle and 23-degree departure. A separate gearstick selects 4WD high and low range rather than a more modern dial/switch arrangement. When the terrain gets really rugged there is a low range crawl function and the stability control system can be switched off with the push of a button.
So what’s the deal with the 2011 Toyota Hilux? Well it’s all about the new safety features. Following the introduction of six airbags in 2009, Toyota has again improved its highest-spec Hilux and pushed its credentials as a family-friendly SUV alternative. Priced from $60,390 the SR5 remains at the premium end of the ute segment and will have to fight hard when the new Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50 go on sale later this year. For now, the Hilux waits for its own reinforcements and falls in behind its off-road abilities, enduring styling and immortal reputation. If you’re in the market for a work/play ute then the 2011Hilux SR5 should still be on your radar because it comes bearing gifts; 17-inch rims for you and a much-improved safety package for your family.
Price: from $60,390
What we like:
- Safety upgrades are a smart move
- Reliability and durability
- Spaciousness in the dual cab, Off-road prowess
What we don’t like:
- Torque and towing figures are down on key competitors
- Plasticky interior
- Struggling to keep up with newer utes in the market
Who will buy this car: Those who want a dual purpose ute. Hilux fans who can afford the highest-spec model.
Cool Factor: It’s a ute not a Lamborghini so it might not be considered the hottest ride on the road. However few machines gather the same respect as the humble Hilux.
Words and Photos: Adam Mamo