Hilux may make Crumpy grumpy today

Toyota HiLux: It has been at the top of the New Zealand ute sales table for 30 years.
Toyota HiLux: It has been at the top of the New Zealand ute sales table for 30 years.
Civilised interior: Barry Crump wouldn't have recognised it.
Civilised interior: Barry Crump wouldn't have recognised it.
The new SR5s feature sat-nav, reversing cameras and climate control.
The new SR5s feature sat-nav, reversing cameras and climate control.

It's hard for me not to think of that late back-country bard, Barry Crump, whenever I drive a Toyota Hilux.

Drivetrain: Longitudinal, front-mounted part-time all-wheel-drive with five-speed automatic transmission.
Output: 3956cc DOHC V6 producing 175kW at 5200rpm, 376Nm at 3800rpm. 
Performance: Maximum speed 180kmh, 0-100kmh N/A, 13.0L/100km, 308g CO2/km. 
Chassis: Front Double wishbone, rear rigid axle located with leaf springs. Electro-mechanical power steering. Vented disc front brakes and rear drums. 17-inch alloy rims with 265/65 tyres. 
Dimensions: L 5260mm, H 1860mm, W 1835mm, W/base 3085mm, Fuel 76L, Weight 1850kg. 
Pricing: $65,290 
For Crumpy and I crossed pool cues with each other in the Canvastown pub after he'd staggered through the hotel's door in the top of the South Island, hung-over from the celebration of finishing a Toyota Hilux TV commercial in Wellington the day before.

For the record, I won all the games that amusing afternoon, but the author of A Good Keen Man didn't part with any fistful of the Toyota NZ funds that he'd just earned. That money would prove to be some of best ute marketing dollars ever spent in this country, for the ensuing TVC propelled the Hilux straight to the top of light commercial vehicle sales charts, where it would remain for more than 30 years.

However, nothing lasts. My once-invincible pool game is currently a faded facsimile of itself, and all isn't exactly rosy in Hilux's world either. For a ute that once held on to its sales crown with a Queen Vic-like staunchness is now dangerously close to losing it.

After finishing 2013 as the second-most popular new vehicle in this country (after Corolla), the Hilux began this year by getting a bit of a preliminary pummelling from the much-acclaimed Ford Ranger in January. Last month, that initial pummelling turned into a bit of a thrashing. The April light commercial sales scoreboard read Ranger: 513; Hilux: 377.

As the ute sector heads into the annual Fieldays sales-fest, the Ford has a decent head-start on the Toyota in the race for 2014 sales supremacy.

Fortunately Toyota's dealers can be comforted by the upgrade finally given to the Hilux range at the start of the year.

Had he lived longer, I suspect Crumpy would have probably become progressively grumpier at Toyota's prolonged reluctance to upgrade the vehicle that he endorsed. Take just the tailgate of the Toyota. It finally gets the more convenient centrally-mounted release latch in 2014 that many rival utes have offered for decades.

Other 2014 upgrades drag the Toyota into the 21st Century, and help it live up to the "lux" part of its name. For the two new SR5 models sampled here feature stuff like sat-nav (complete with real-time traffic recon in our main centres), reversing cameras (every ute should have one), and climate control.

You still don't get Navara's trick multi-adjustable tie-down points for the load tray, nor the Nissan's fold-away rear bench to turn the second cab completely into lockable secure storage space, but it's a start.

The Toyota's ability to survive the apocalypse for future use as transport by giant mutated cockroaches also remains intact. Drive the Hilux down a rough corrugated gravel road at pace and there's nary a squeak nor a rattle to be heard inside the well-muffled cabin. Slamming the doors and tailgate shut with as much testosterone-enhanced muscle as I can muster only results in a muted vault-like sound that mocks my strength and asks "Is that all you've got, mister?" So Crumpy could take Scotty for "a little run up to the hut" in the new Hilux, and a certain BBC motoring personality with colourful language could drive one to the North Pole, and everyone would arrive in more comfort than before, and be just as impressed by the vehicle's resilience as before, but is that enough?

For the Ranger is wrestling sales off the Hilux with its extra muscle in the powertrain department. The carry-over 3.0litre 126kW/343Nm diesel inline four and five-speed manual gearbox of one of the SR5s driven recently represents the Toyota's soft underbelly, the place where the 147kW/470Nm five-cylinder, six-speed diesel Ford's extra punch lands. Hilux's 2014 powertrain upgrades amount to the addition of a 175kW/376Nm 4.0litre petrol V6 to the engine choice in the range, hooked up to an almost obsolete five-speed automatic gearbox, and a new front diff that freewheels when extra traction is not required by 4wd models. While the latter is most welcome, only those looking to offset the cost of running the petrol V6 Hilux automatic in their tax returns will select the former. The manual diesel travels almost twice as far on a tank of fuel, consuming 8.7litres every 100km instead of 13.0.

As for chassis performance, no ute steers with sportscar keenness, but the Hilux is just as much fun as the Ranger to chuck around. I can imagine my former Canvastown pub pool adversary getting a huge kick out of pointing the well-located rigid rear axle of the Toyota in the right direction and firing it up to be amazed by the intervention of the standard-fit stability control.

Maybe Crumpy wouldn't be grumpy after all if alive today - so long as he stayed away from the wheel of the more powerful, more tow-able Ford.

Sunday Star Times