An extravagant ceremony at Bangkok’s Impact Arena has seen the launch of Toyota’s new Hilux and Fortuner – key models in its developing market portfolio. The pair are products with big, tough reputations, and importantly, the profit-generating ability to match.
The Hilux has unrivalled street cred as one of the workhorses of Asia, Africa and Latin America – its reputation for rock-solid reliability goes hand-in-hand with the hard-working image Toyota has painstakingly built up over decades. The Fortuner is its mid-size SUV spin-off – a developing-world successor to the old Hilux Surf/4Runner [Ed: please note, the Fortuner is not related to the 4Runner]. A focus on giving the Fortuner an integrated form means it looks, feels and acts like an SUV, with customers thus more inclined to overlook its less-refined underpinnings and a cab that feels almost exactly like its pick-up sister. With Toyota charging a good sized premium for the Fortuner over a Hilux, churning them out means churning out profits.
The new models come at a sensitive time for the Japanese giant, which finds itself under pressure from all flanks. Mass recalls over the last couple of years have dented its reputation for safety and reliability, while March’s tsunami swept the rug from under its domestic base, with ensuing knock-on effects across the globe. Meanwhile, Hyundai and Kia are looking to do to Toyota what it did to the American domestics some thirty years ago, and the Chinese remain a distant menace on the horizon.
Toyota was the first manufacturer to establish a presence in Thailand, almost fifty years ago, and has dominated the industry since, currently sitting atop a 40 percent market share (the market share of Japanese brands in total is 90 percent). It is worth noting that Thailand is the world’s largest 1-ton pick-up market and the second-biggest for all sizes of these utilitarian vehicles. And naturally, the Hilux sits right at the top of the tree. Last year 165,000 units were sold in Thailand alone with its only serious challenger Isuzu’s D-Max, a little under 25,000 units adrift. (The third best-seller, Mitsubishi’s Triton, is the best of the also-rans, only just managing to break the 30,000 barrier.) Worldwide, the Hilux is sold on 113 countries, selling more than 2.3 million since 2004, when the current Hilux and its Fortuner offspring were released.
Predictably, the story of the new Hilux is one of evolution, with Toyota’s R&D operations in Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and Australia all pitching into the program. The Hilux has always had to be many things to many people, and with the new model an emphasis has been placed on tweaking the pick-up for different markets, with ‘one-size-fits-all’ no longer fitting the bill. Indeed, during the launch presentation, the slides made the point that in Thailand, the Hilux will rarely see a hill worthy of the name, while in Latin America it is forced to pound never-ending constant gradient inclines. In Thailand the Hilux is a daily driver – the supermarket car parks are full of its ubiquitous shape – while in South America, it is more likely to be a recreational toy. Sardonically, the slides noted a Thai propensity for ‘overload’, with a clutch of images that would not out of place in a typical ‘crazy loads’ PowerPoint email circular. And that’s without even getting onto ‘technicals’ – notwithstanding the impact of the Chinese in this segment, the Hilux remains the vehicle of choice amongst any self-respecting freedom fighter or terrorist with sufficient folding.
‘Radical’ an is not a word that immediately springs to mind when playing word association with ‘Toyota’ – ‘improving the box’ is, as ever, the name of the game. Cosmetically, the Hilux gets a new front clip, evolved from the design language of the outgoing model. Mr. Kaoru Hosokawa, Chief Engineer of Toyota, is in town for the launch, said that they have aimed for a “tough” and “modern” appearance, while the new headlights apparently imbue a “sporty” feel. The side-on changes seek a “more powerful” look and a sensation of “forward motion”, while at the rear, sharper, more fashionable tail lights are slotted in. In the cab it’s still a sea of hard plastics, but effort has been made with the detailing and there is a new instrument cluster. Half of all Hiluxes in Thailand are bought as private cars, so there has also been a focus on improving comfort. For this market, the new model gets softer springs, aimed at improving the ride.
Under the bonnet the powerplants and transmissions are essentially the same as before, the key innovation being the incorporation of Toyota’s “Diamond Tech” system. Not, in fact, a ’70s disco band, Diamond Tech denotes a new system that allows the 32-bit ECU to more precisely detect operating conditions within the injection system, improving fuel efficiency. New injectors feature a new “diamond-like” carbon coating that makes the process more efficient, as well as lengthening the life of the injectors and related combustion process components. The variable-geometry turbo also sees its relationship with the ECU improved, for a faster flow of more detailed information.
The Fortuner, meanwhile, arrived in 2004 and raised the low-cost SUV game significantly with a much more integrated SUV design language compared to the preceding 4Runner, which always retained a look of the ‘backyard conversion’ about it. Developed in large part by Toyota’s Thai operations, the Fortuner has piggybacked the success of the Hilux and is now built in a number of countries including India, Argentina and Indonesia, although outside Thailand its success has been mixed.
Over the last half-decade, the Fortuner’s customers have grown more affluent and the focus of the new model was to “reflect the higher standing of customers in society,” said Hosokawa. So ‘luxury’ is the keyword. The new front clip has a bigger (and curiously Chrysler-alike) chromed grille, sharper headlights and a Toyota ‘family’ feel, although observers at the launch felt some of the SUV macho-feel had been taken out of the front end. The side is visually beefed up with bigger wheelarch guards, while the rear view receives uber-‘fashionable’ chrome-effect tail-lights. According to Toyota, focus has also been placed on improving the car’s ride, handling and high-speed stability.
The new models have mark-ups of around USD$300-600 across the ranges. The entry-level Hilux, which is now dubbed the Hilux Vigo Champ, kicks off at $16,187 and rises through single, extended and double cab versions – as well as high/lower rider, 2WD/4WD and manual/auto combinations – to a range-topping $32,600. The Fortuner starts at $35,200 for the 2.5 2WD, rising to $49,493 for the 3.0 4WD.
Both models face tough competition. Ford and GM will start producing their new Ranger and Colorado respectively later this year, and both raise the bar, offering big, tough, attractively-styled and well-specified alternatives to the swathe of Japanese brands which currently dominate Asia. Tempting Thais out of the Hilux will be a big task, but this pair should start the ball rolling. At the other end of the food chain, meanwhile, the Chinese are building low-cost pickups, and finding a ready market amongst those shopping for basic, abuse-ready transportation.
The now well travelled Fortuner also faces plenty of competition in the mid-size SUV segment from cars such as the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento and Ford Everest. Although Toyota still dominates its market, especially in Thailand, where the low depreciation of the Toyota is a source of reassurance for buyers, time will tell if the new one is good enough to keep its manufacturer in front.
Cristiano Ronaldo is to be the face of the new Hilux in Thailand, an entirely appropriate choice in a country that is soccer crazy, injecting a bit of international glamour into Toyota’s staid image. However, the Real Madrid star won’t be endorsing the new pick-up in any of the other 112 markets it’s sold in, since, as Toyota honchos admitted, the multimillionaire was simply “too expensive”. Production capacity for both models will be raised in Thailand ahead of an expected spike in sales.
Edd Ellison is a Thailand-based auto journalist, covering the ASEAN markets and beyond. He can be contacted at [email protected]