Forbidden Fruit: The Toyota Hilux

Sigh . . . 

That’s always my first reaction when I start the three-liter, four-cylinder turbodiesel of a world-market Toyota Hilux pickup. Why, oh why, can’t we have this 27-mpg engine in our Tacomas in the U.S.? For that matter, why can’t we simply have the Hilux? Is our country not deserving of the fully ruggedized version of Toyota’s smaller pickup? The Hilux’s fully boxed chassis seems to sneer at the Tacoma, which makes do with open-channel frame sections under the bed. And that bed—it’s not just got a plastic liner, it is plastic, apparently squeezed from some giant tube rather than stamped and spot-welded as God intended a truck bed should be. One suspects Toyota engineers think the heaviest things Americans carry are flat-screen TVs or pallets of Costco toilet paper, while real working trucks in Africa don’t go anywhere without 15 Zulus in the back, or a pedestal-mounted .50-caliber BMG, or both. 

The question is . . . could they be right? 

I ruminated on the subject while carrying, not 15 Zulus, but 11 Maasai plus a fresh rolled-up cowhide down a murram road deep in the South Rift Valley. A murram (or laterite) road is a brilliant concept invented by . . . someone, and consists essentially of mixed clay and gravel over a bed of large sharp-edged stones. Unfortunately the gravel soon wears away, leaving just clay and sharp-edged stones. When dry it’s like driving on endless corrugations—except there’s no “magic” speed because there’s no symmetry to the ridges—and when wet it turns to grease, spitting piki-piki motorbikes and four-ton trucks into the ditch with equal facility. The only redeeming feature of this torturous base matrix is that it’s durable—like saying, “The food is terrible but the portions are huge.” 

Where was I? Oh, right—as I looked out over the hood scoop of the Hilux (Tacomas get ghastly fake hood scoops; the Hilux gets a real one that feeds the intercooler), I pondered what other differences there were—as well as if and how much those differences really matter. The question is far from academic, since Roseann and I just bought a 2012 Tacoma and are about to mount a lightweight-but-still-800-pound-plus camper in its extruded bed.

Hood scoop on the Hilux feeds the turbodiesel's intercooler.

On an empirical basis there seems little to choose between the two trucks. Wheelbases and overall lengths overlap depending on cab and bed configuration. Width is exactly the same at 72.2 inches. Even curb weights aren’t all that different. But when you start comparing rated capacities, priorities become obvious. The U.S. Tacoma, with its powerful petrol V6, actually boasts the higher towing capacity (6,400 pounds) by almost 1,000 pounds—presumably reflecting the American fondness for powerboats, toy-haulers, etc. But payload—what the truck can actually carry in its bed and cab—is another story. The Tacoma’s highest available 1,415-pound capacity pales before the heaviest-duty Australian Hilux, which can tote over twice that. Even the wimpiest UK-spec Hilux is rated for 1,900 pounds. This is without doubt tied directly to that frame construction. The longest bed option on the Tacoma is 73 inches; on the Hilux it’s 91—over seven and a half feet. 

Yet in other areas there’s less distinction. Toyota retained a solid front axle on its four-wheel-drive Hiluxes for several years after the U.S. truck got independent front suspension, thus generating the first of many howls of outrage from serious truck users in the U.S. regarding the pansification of our model. But now the Hilux is equipped with an independent double-A-arm/coil-spring front end identical to the Tacoma’s, so Toyota must be satisfied that IFS can hold up to developing-world abuse.

Hilux on the left; Tacoma on the right. No more whining about solid axles on Hiluxes. The two share other components as well. They use the same sturdy semi-floating, 30-spline rear axle and an eight-inch differential with reinforced bearing caps and a strengthened pinion shaft. It’s strong enough to handle the 304 horsepower produced by the TRD-supercharged 4.0 petrol V6 without voiding Toyota’s warranty. Transmissions are also shared. I’ve heard there are minor differences in the transfer cases, but I wonder if it might be simply in the gearing (still checking on that one). Our hired Hilux had the same shift-on-the-fly electronic-disconnect front differential as our Tacoma. 

One commonly held assumption is that the suspension on the Tacoma was optimized for ride comfort for us soft, fat Americans, while the Hilux concentrates on load-carrying prowess. Well . . . not necessarily. The ride on our own Tacoma—a V6 SR5 4x4 Access Cab with steel wheels and stock street tires we’ll soon change—is hilariously, maddeningly, absurdly stiff. It’s notably stiffer than the Old Man Emu leaf-spring setup on my FJ40. We’re looking forward to adding the camper and a winch and bumper just to knock some of the stuffing out of it. Meanwhile our hired Kenyan Hilux boasts a compliant, well-controlled ride whether empty or full of spear-toting Morani. What’s up with that? How can the truck rated to carry less weight ride worse than the “work” truck? 

The Kenyan Hilux at rest in the dusty Rift Valley.

Off-pavement ability is almost certainly a wash between the two, although the lack of compliance on our Tacoma definitely hurts it (we’ll be installing new shocks and an ARB rear locker soon, after the camper is on). We had the Hilux up in some of Kenya’s infamous black cotton soil for a few days. Approximately .005 millimeters of rain—it did nothing more than polka-dot the dust on the truck—was enough to turn the tracks into physics-defying surfaces utterly devoid of traction. Articulation, gearing, lockers, traction control—nothing really helps in that stuff. Proper mud tires will get you perhaps ten feet farther down the road than ordinary street tread. With that said, the Hilux’s turbodiesel responded gallantly to bursts of throttle when I had to surf through sections yawing thirty degrees one way and the other off the desired direction of travel. The Tacoma’s V6 would have been no handicap in the same situation (aside from drinking 40 percent more fuel). 

What about lesser differences? Styling is a personal matter, and has scant impact on performance aside from details such as the approach angle. The Hilux—especially the reworked 2012 model—is notably the sleeker of the two, especially in front, where the Tacoma’s in-your-face butchness is hard to miss. However, both trucks sport plastic-coated front bumpers useless for anything but collecting bugs; there’s not a spot on either that would take a Hi-Lift. Another draw.

Butch in appearance, but nowhere for a Hi-Lift to grab. Open the door and climb behind the wheel. If you’re expecting the Hilux to have an interior that can be sloshed out with a bucket of Zambezi River water, you’ll be disappointed—it’s just as posh and plasticky as the Tacoma. Dash styling of the pair is . . . different. Not distinctive, and neither is more logical or legible, just different, in a way that again brings home the question of why Toyota spends millions of dollars producing two vehicles so similar to each other.

Take away the South Rift dust and swap the steering wheel over . . . . . . and there's little to choose between the interiors. So. Besides the major disappointment regarding engine availability, the biggest remaining issues are the differences in the rear frame area and the plastic bed. For an expert opinion I turned to the finest Toyota mechanic I know, Bill Lee. He runs a shop in Silver City, New Mexico, has been into the guts of hundreds of Lands Cruisers and pickups, and has no problem pointing out flaws as well as strengths in Toyota products. He actually laughed when I expressed my doubts. “Quit worrying,” was his reply. “It’s more than strong enough. It’s got eight crossmembers and plenty of steel. And I drilled through a bed some time ago to mount some accessories for a customer—it’s incredibly tough fiber-reinforced material—and it will never, ever rust.” Bill also pointed out that chassis design in U.S.-market vehicles is as oriented toward providing crush zones during a major collision as it is toward outright rigidity—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

There is actually a much bigger question to be asked, and that is how Toyota will address the recent stiff competition in the global mid-size truck category. Given its years-long position at the top of the sales heap, the company’s hesitation to mess with success is understandable, but the Hilux is by any measure no longer the technological leader in the field. The world-market Ford Ranger recently benefitted from an extensive and very stylish redesign, and is available with a 3.2-liter turbodiesel that produces 197 horsepower and 347 foot-pounds of torque (at 1,500 rpm), compared to Toyota’s 3.0 with 160 horsepower and 252 foot-pounds. The Ranger’s braked towing capacity is a superb 3,350 kg—near enough double Toyota’s 1,840 kg rating. The Ranger also boasts an astounding 800mm (31-inch) fording depth, by far the highest I’ve seen on any production vehicle this side of a Unimog. The well-respected Volkswagen Amarok’s tiny 2.0 turbodiesel also outclasses Toyota’s engine, as does the 2.5 in the Nissan Navara. Mazda, Mitsubishi—all these companies are not just nipping at Toyota’s heels, but running alongside snapping at the jugular.

The sleek, powerful, and capable Ford Ranger 3.2. Rumors are floating here and there that Toyota is planning to combine the Hilux and Tacoma into a single platform next redesign (probably 2015). If true, it will be interesting to see if the company sways either direction: developing-world brawn or developed-world sophistication. I’ll be watching closely. In the meantime, I’ve decided to relax and enjoy our new Tacoma when we get home, and see just how well it holds up as a self-contained expedition vehicle. 

But at the moment, I have 11 Maasai to take home back up that murram road. 

I turn the key in the Hilux. 

Sigh . . .

 The Hilux's 3.0 turbodiesel.