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Road Test Toyota Hilux


So we have coupes that are convertibles, all-wheel-drives that are people movers, and sedans that are sports cars.

It's the same in the commercial vehicle world, where a growing number of people want a workhorse for the week and a toy for weekends.

It's this combination that's made the SS Commodore and XR Falcon utes so popular with tradesmen and extreme sports fanatics.

But things have gone further and Holden has a hit on its hands with the Crewman, a classy cross between a ute and a four-door Commodore sedan.

It's not a new idea. Many Japanese companies produce one-tonne workhorses with double-cab bodies, but the Holden is forcing its rivals to become better at both jobs.

So along comes the latest Toyota Hilux.

There are 30 models in the line-up, priced from $20,990.

But Toyota is not going to settle for sales at the bargain end of the action. It wants to sell something to everyone as well as create a new image for its working-class hero.

It is obvious in the advertising and it's just as obvious in the bolder body.

But there is even more to the story because the Hilux has been born from a new Toyota project called the Innovative International Multi-Purpose Vehicle.

The idea is to create three vehicles, including a people mover, from the same basic mechanical package, saving money and allowing them all to be built at the one factory in Thailand.

It is a big deal for Toyota and it should – should – mean a better deal on the vehicles in showrooms, as well as access to the people mover and four-wheel drive to come.

It's easy to go on and on about the Hilux because there is so much to talk about: so many models, so many engines and so many body choices, with either rear or four-wheel drive.

But the basics are petrol and diesel motors up to 4.0 litres; single, extended and double-cab bodies; Work Mate, SR and SR5 equipment levels; and prices all the way up to $51,850.

But the hero is easy to choose. It is the Hilux SR5, which is the closest in style and function to an SS or XR ute. There are nine SR5 models.

It is being pushed because Toyota Australia's research shows about 35 per cent of Aussie utes never go to work, and only 20 per cent of Hilux owners take their utes playing. So that's a big area for potential growth.

"Sports utilities have become a status symbol and in some instances they're the new sports cars," Toyota Australia sales and marketing head Dave Buttner says.

"More people are choosing to buy pick-ups as their daily and sports transport."

It is a repeat of the pattern in the United States and it shows why the new Hilux is a full size larger than the previous model. It has more power, a more refined suspension and more equipment, including twin airbags.

ON THE ROAD

The biggest question that needs answering in a Hilux test has nothing to do with the vehicle.

It's all about picking which version of the vehicle. There are too many choices.

This time around, since the Hilux would be driven mostly during the V8 Supercar weekend in Perth, we decided to tick all the boxes. We also wanted to know how the Toyota hero would shape up against Holden's Crewman, even if you cannot get a Hilux with a V8.

So we settled on an SR5 double cab with an automatic gearbox and four-wheel drive, and it was delivered in basic black. Just the sort of thing a successful painter might have for their work-and-play motoring.

The bottom line came in at $49,850, close to the Crewman Cross6 at $44,490, but a significant step up from rivals including the Nissan Navara, Mitsubishi Triton and even Holden's Rodeo.

Part of that is down to the price premium Toyota can always put on the class leader – it has been ahead in sales and driving for generations – and part is down to the size and equipment upgrade on the latest model.

The styling and equipment made the biggest impact when we collected the Hilux. Oh, and the 200kg of sandbags the Toyota people had put in the tray to settle the ride and handling.

The Hilux looks a lot bigger and tougher and that will give it an important weapon to combat the Rodeo, which got a similar upgrade last year. We had previously rated the Rodeo V6 as our work star, though the Commodore utes and Crewman are good for play.

The Toyota cabin is much more car-like than before, but the size surprised. It looks and feels much more like a four-door sedan than a basic ute stretch. We enjoyed lounging in the back seat.

The downside is that the ute tray is more like a Crewman than a giant workbed, though Toyota says it will hold a motorcycle and do the job for weekday work.

The Hilux SR5 rides surprisingly well – wonder how it would have been without the sand? – and handling is fine. It soaked up bumps and did well on gravel roads, though we didn't have the chance for any serious four-wheel driving.

Based on previous models, the Hilux should be fine in the bush.

But the city SR6 has a perky V6 engine and even comes with a manual-style auto change and cruise control. It is not as sporty as the Crewman, but has far more space and feels tougher.

It will be a winner for Toyota and a winner with a lot of new owners – once they find their way out of the model maze.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It looks like a tougher truck, but the new Hilux drives more like a car. Lined up against the Rodeo and the rest, the new Hilux has reset the benchmark, right down to a turning circle that doesn't feel like a truck.

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