Toyota Hilux (2021) International Launch Review


There’s a lot in store for the SA bakkie market – including an upcoming update to the market-leading Toyota Hilux. What should we expect from the upgrades? Our Australian correspondent drove a refreshed Hilux on-road (and off it) to whet our appetites. Has Toyota done enough to keep its bakkie at the top? 

The Hilux is South Africa’s top-selling bakkie and a legend in its own right. Any time there’s an update in store for the model, consumers eagerly rub their hands together and start looking for excuses to hastily upgrade their bakkies. While the new version looks slightly different, it’s what’s inside – plus under the bonnet and sheet metal – that make this one of the most anticipated changes to the Hilux.

The Australian-market SR5 specification incorporates the addition of running boards and lashings of chrome-look brightwork. 

The model pictured in this article – the Thailand-made Hilux in SR5 specification (comparable or slightly above the SRX trim level in Mzansi) – recently underwent a revision and is now on sale in Australia, which suggests an update to the locally-made bakkie is in the pipeline. Although the local Hilux range received a few revisions as recently as 2019 (when the Legend 50 was launched), we still anticipate that some of the Thai model’s revisions will filter through to our market soon, which is why we’ve asked our mate Matt Campbell to put an example of a revised Hilux through its paces.

Toyota SA has indicated that a number of upgrades are scheduled to be made to the Prospecton-built Hilux in due course, although it’s not yet confirmed when exactly it will happen (possibly around the final quarter of 2020) or how many of the overseas model's upgrades will be carried over. It’s fair to say, however, that with the all-new Isuzu KB and Mazda BT-50 coming soon (they’re among half a dozen new or updated bakkies expected to reach local shores in 2021), plus final updates expected for the ageing Ford Ranger, Toyota will be keen to keep its charge at the front of the field.  

Will the shapelier rear tail-light clusters make it to the South African version of the Hilux? Only time will tell.

What has changed?

Let’s start with the engine. The 2.8-litre 4-cylinder turbodiesel (2.8GD-6) engine is slightly more powerful, as well as torquier, with outputs of 150 kW and 500 Nm – increases of 20 kW and 50 Nm. For buyers who want plenty of overtaking grunt, or at least more effortless cruising ability from their top-spec bakkie, that’s a nice improvement. Read How Toyota got Hilux to 150 kW for more details.

While both manual and automatic versions of the 2.8GD-6 have a peak power output of 150 kW, the torque gain only applies to the self-shifting derivatives, of which the 6-speed transmission's management software's been tweaked. There’s still selectable four-wheel drive, and the top-grade versions retain a rear differential lock.

The updated powerplant features a larger, variable nozzle turbocharger and a redesigned exhaust manifold.

Furthermore, the 2.8GD-6's towing capacity in markets like Australia is now pegged at 750 kilograms for an un-braked trailer, while 4x4 automatics are said to have a braked-trailer towing capacity of 3 500 kg, which represents an improvement of 300 kg. The local arm of Toyota has always calculated its own tow ratings, so we’ll have to wait and see whether these improvements will be carried over.

And the Hilux's suspension and steering has been retuned to better cope with the extra loads on the chassis when towing, but Toyota Australia claims the changes – including longer rear leaf springs – have improved the bakkie's ride quality when unloaded, as well as its general handling ability.

According to Toyota Australia, the updated Hilux can tow braked trailers of up to 3 500 kg.

The steering in turbodiesel derivatives has been tweaked as well, with a new variable flow control pump for the hydraulic system said to offer better feel and ease of operation at lower speeds. 

And, inside the cab, Toyota has fitted a new 8.0-inch touchscreen multimedia system with the smartphone mirroring tech you’d expect in 2021 – Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility are now standard, but it’s not quite as up to date as the new-gen Isuzu D-Max, which has wireless CarPlay (so no more iPhone cable tangles!).

More on the interior…

If you were hoping for a major rework of the cockpit, you’ll be disappointed to learn that there’s not much else in the way of change aside from the new infotainment system.

The interior updates are limited to the updated infotainment system and upgraded multi-info display in the instument cluster.

That new touchscreen is a huge improvement however, with the deletion of the touch-sensitive buttons on the sides of the screen and the introduction of good old-fashioned buttons and knobs, with the latter controlling the tuning and volume. Toyota reckons it made these changes because of broad criticism, including the fact that drivers wearing gloves couldn’t easily interact with the audio controls.

It’s definitely improved, and the cabin has also seen a new instrument cluster with a smarter, clearer 4.2-inch driver information screen. It has more detailed trip computer information, plus it incorporates a digital speedometer, which is extremely handy if the retention of your licence depends on not being fined! 

The central driver information panel in the instrument cluster now incorporates a digital speed readout.

Otherwise, there’s not a whole lot of change. The dashboard is still one of the cleverest out there, with dual gloveboxes, twin outboard pop-out cup holders, another pair of cup holders between the front seats, and high-grade double-cab (Raider) models score a flip-down armrest and cup holders. All 4 doors have bottle holders, and double cabs get map pockets and a pair of shopping bag hooks too.

The quality of cabin materials are falling further behind the best in the class for comfort, though, with the high-grade Hilux still failing to feel special compared with a Ford Ranger Wildtrak or even the new Isuzu D-Max. And the cabin space is still one of the more cramped in the class for back-seat passengers... 

If you're accustomed to driving with gloves on, the infotainment system's side buttons are now of conventional "push-click" design.

What's it like to drive?

If you’re expecting that the changes described above would have a noticeable difference to the "Hilux driving experience" – you’re spot on, but not all of it is good news, however.

Let’s start with the engine and transmission combo, which is considerably more enthused than before. It revs eagerly and freely, with the peak torque band – 1 600-2 800 rpm – more easily accessible.

A lot of that comes down to the revised transmission mapping, which allows you to better exploit the available torque more readily. That means you might find the transmission shuffling between the top 3 gears with greater regularity, which can be a little disconcerting if you’re used to big, torquey turbodiesel engines that shift more leisurely – instead of regularly going on a hunt for more torque. The engine never feels strained, mind you, but you can certainly hear what’s happening under the bonnet, because the Toyota team hasn’t done much – if anything – to quieten down the engine.

The extra torque is certainly welcome, but the transmission does not hesitate to go in search of the engine's sweet spot.

Indeed, during a longer stretch of downhill driving, I noted that the transmission’s control unit had violently plucked a lower gear in an attempt to rely on engine braking. It wasn't quiet about it, either.

But there is no denying that the new retune of the powertrain has been a step forward for the Hilux. At high or low speeds, the responsiveness is solid.

The same can be said for the suspension, which – while tweaked for better comfort – is still rather abrupt. Unladen driving, without towing, is always going to be compromised to a degree, but there are other bakkies that do a much better job of retaining a modicum of ride comfort with matching – or even better – payload capacity. The SR5 double-cab auto 4x4 I drove had a 980-kg load capacity. 

The rear suspension is better than before, but still punches through hard when the tyres contact sharp edges in the road, and there’s notable skittishness in general driving too. It gets worse when the surface isn’t sealed, but we’ll cover that in the next section...

The Hilux's tweaked steering setup is lighter and easier to manage at higher speeds than before.

The steering is also a mixed bag. While it is lighter and easier to manage at higher speeds than before, it now lacks some of the directness and heft that I appreciated in the pre-facelift version. And likewise, Toyota reckons the low-speed response has been improved for better manoeuvrability, but for me, the steering is now less precise and predictable, plus it's too heavy at parking speeds. 

In fact, when I drove the pre-facelift SR5 back to back with the SR5 test unit, the difference was easy to discern. More physical heft is required for low-speed manoeuvres in the new Hilux, and more mental acuity is required at higher speeds (due to the vagueness of the steering around the 'wheel's centre position).

Okay, what about off-road?

Relax, Hilux faithful, Toyota's double cab is still an absolute weapon off-road. That’s something that – I hope – will forever be a trait of the Hilux. Admittedly, you have to contend with its suspension on loose gravel roads, where the ride is decidedly fierce over repetitive bumps. Got teeth fillings? You may need to visit the dentist after an extended stint of driving on a poorly-maintained dirt road. 

But once you reach your off-road destination, you’ll be amazed at the capability of the Hilux just as it is. My testing loop included a long, steep, rutted and craggy hill climb and descent in the Australian bush – a track that many modified off-roaders would struggle with, and given the washed-out slippery surface and the Toyota's stock-standard tyres, I wasn’t sure the updated SR5 would make it.

However, with impressive angles at its disposal – approach: 29 degrees, departure: 27 degrees – plus a ground clearance of 216 mm and wading depth of 700 mm – the Hilux makes short work of hard four-wheel driving. With low-range engaged, the for-better-and-worse variable flow control pump is disengaged and instead, you get the reassuring standard hydraulic steering feel through the tiller.

The Hilux's undiminished off-road prowess will continue to make it a hit in the off-roading fraternity.

What that means is you can place each of the front tyres precisely where you want them, and therefore set the path of ascent or descent with supreme accuracy. You can feel the rocks and tree roots under the tyres – for once, being in touch with the surface below is to your advantage.

The suspension is robust and predictable in hardcore off-roading conditions, and the flex and articulation that is possible from the stock suspension is surprisingly generous. The engine manages to feed the torque to the ground below very well, and if you fear that you might get stuck there’s more torque to play with now, too.

If you’re looking to buy a brand new bakkie and head straight into the bush with it, the Hilux really can’t be beaten. If I were you, though, I’d stop off at a tyre shop on the way and get a new set of more aggressive rubber, as the Bridgestone Dueler H/T 265/60/18 tyres, which the SR5 test unit was shod with, were the only shortcomings of the off-road drive package.

Overall, the upgrade to the Hilux is a collection of incremental improvements.

Does the Hilux keep its crown, then?

If you, like many thousands of South African consumers, know you want a Hilux, and you can’t be shaken from that, thanks for spending your time reading this review. I truly hope it has helped you to know what to expect when you lay down your hard-earned cash on the next iteration of a legendary bakkie...

However, if you’re unsure of whether the Hilux is right for you, then I’d thoroughly recommend you revisit the Ford Ranger or wait for the arrival of the new-generation Isuzu D-Max before signing on the dotted line, as those two bakkies stand out as offering better blends of liveability and technology than the Hilux derivative I sampled. 

Related content: 

Isuzu D-Max (2021) International Launch Review

All-New Isuzu D-Max: More Details

Bakkies Coming To SA in 2021

How Toyota got Hilux to 150 kW

Ford Reveals Ranger Wildtrak X

Ford Ranger Thunder vs Wildtrak: Key Differences

New Mazda BT-50: More details emerge