After hearing all the stories, legends, and Top Gear specials on the fabled Toyota Hilux, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one. While I was in Afghanistan, I heard that a Hilux dragged itself and four American soldiers over forty miles to safety while only able to drive its front wheels when its rear drive shaft was blown off. Another ran for over 100 miles with no oil and a leaking head gasket after being shot by an AK-47 in the mountainous highlands. Talk about a letdown. Driving the Hilux sucks.
On initial inspection, the Hilux looks like the related and beloved Tacoma, only more basic. We’re talking steel wheels, no fender flares, and a really, really garish swath of red and beige graphics down the side proclaiming you’re driving a Hilux, it has four-wheel drive and our graphic artist still listens to REO Speedwagon. The Hilux’s front fascia demonstrates the classic Japanese caught-in-a-explosion surprise look, with the rest of the four-door bodied version showing classic proportions, complete with rustic latch-closed tailgate. Boring, yet functional.
You don’t buy a Hilux for how it looks. You buy a Hilux for how it operates. After searching around the floorboards for my dropped Motorola radio, I got a good feel for the Hilux’s brick shit house construction quality. The fit and finish of the dashboard, all the way down to the transmission tunnel, would make a Lexus owner, uh, happy. The panels fit perfectly– to the point where I began to second-guess whether certain portions were molded-in rather than screwed together. Don’t let the pleasing textures fool you; that durability arrives from some of the worst plastics to ever melt out of the Land of the Rising Sun. Everything in the Hilux derives from gray polymers that will only bio-degrade when our sun goes super nova.
The rest of the Hilux’s interior setup comes straight from the Yaris. It’s functional enough for children yet to graduate from beginner’s Lego, complete with giant rotary HVAC knobs, a CD/cassette radio, and a digital clock from Tron. Manual windows, locks, mirrors, seats, and well, everything else remind you of the Hilux’s higher calling: work. Power packages are available, replete with machismo elevating fender flares.
Rounding the roundabout in an “unnamed” Middle Eastern nation, I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I really didn’t like the blazing white four-door truck. I’ve heard the stories, seent he Top Gear episode, talked Toyota with the Mullahs. Yet the pickup truck’s killer rep (machine gun mount and all) does not alleviate the simple fact: the Hilux really makes for an thoroughly unpleasant drive.
The Hilux sampled was powered by a 2.7L VVT-I four-cylinder engine, pumping out 160bhp. For reasons I can’t quite grasp, Toyota has paired one of the most robust engines ever built to the most stupid transmission in existence. The four-speed automatic refuses to shift, even when the tippy throttle has been mashed to the carpet. Kick downs come at random and unwelcome times. Merging on the motorway at a heady 120kph provided entirely unwelcome thrills, as I didn’t know if I was going to get a surge of torque, or languish in the median with the engine moaning in the sub-3k rpm band.
Instead of a manu-matic function found on North American Toyotas, the company’s fitted a zigzag transmission pattern reminiscent of an old Mercedes-Benzes– with a mental disability. This setup allows you to drop down into, and hold onto, any gear (as long as its one of four). Yet when I selected a lower gear, I had to wait, wait, then wait, before a massive surge and a clunk. At which point, the truck FINALLY lurches down a cog, with the engine note moaning out like a Saharan Banshee. Leave it in “Drive” and deal with the slow and power-sapping shifts.
The problem now lies in the questionable robustness of the gearbox from Hell. In the searing heat and humidity of my undisclosed location, the transmission staredt to slip, and rev when pressed hard. The inability of the automatic to deal with extreme temperatures closely associated with its birth place (Hades) raises serious concern about the Hilux’s legendary reliability. That said, the five-speed manuals are a joy to shift, with their long-throw, precise bolt action feel. Reports from the front reports that they’re impossible to kill, no matter how badly you shift.
The roman chariot style rear suspension and front struts cause the Hilux to buck and snap as if it were trying to throw its occupants into the dunes. Yet within this bouncy calamity, I discovered a structure as stiff and rattle free as a Porsche Cayman; perfect for off-roading in a war zone. Around corners, the Hilux steers limply, and understeers badly, just like every other pickup on the market.
The mediocre steering, really bad transmission, throaty yet moany engine all come together to create a distinctly sub-par on-road experience. In normal conditions, I would pass over the Hilux as a throwback to brush-war engineering, a Neanderthal amongst MENSA members. However, next time I’m shot at or mortared, make mine a manual, and a diesel, and it will save me, you, and possibly the free-world.