UK RHD Hilux is made in South Africa. This is high-spec Invincible model

UK RHD Hilux is made in South Africa. This is high-spec Invincible model

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I recall my first drive in a Toyota Hilux pickup truck, 40 years (ye gods) ago. I was working for a Toyota dealership, in the service department, and a couple of electricians I knew were setting up their own business and needed a pickup, each. With visions of a decent 'finders fee', times two, I persuaded the commercial vehicle sales chief to let me take a demo home to show the boys. The outcome was not good.

What we forget, four decades on, is that Japanese automakers back then sized their vehicles - even export models - for 95th percentile Japanese people, not hulking great westerners. I fitted happily enough in the bench seat of that single cab, four-speed column shift, 1.6-litre OHV petrol-powered 2WD 1976 Hilux, with such standard luxuries as tinted glass, a cigarette lighter, and heater/demister, but the potential buyers, the two electricians, were the size of the blokes that make up the front row of an All Black scrum. They looked at the diminutive Toyota, and at me, and attempted to get in. To humour me, each did a trip round the block, with knees almost up to their ears, there was so little legroom, and then came the verdict: no way; too small inside and underpowered. Next day, I slunk back to the dealership with the demo and they headed to the Ford dealer for a 'man-size', 4.1-litre Falcon 'ute' each.

These days, the Falcon, a model almost unknown outside the Asia-Pacific region, is toast after Ford pulled the plug on Australian vehicle manufacturing and the Hilux - outside North America, where Toyota makes pickups specifically for that market - is one of the world's best-known light truck nameplates. In Australia and New Zealand, it monthly tussles with Ford's Ranger, successor of the Courier rebadge of Mazda's B-series, another early Japanese export market small truck pioneer, as not only top-selling light commercial model but also overall top selling vehicle model. Much like Ford's F-150 is king of the US market.

Growth

I hadn't driven a Hilux since moving to England two decades ago and was amazed at just how big the latest model - on sale in the UK since July - has become. Wheelbase: 3,085mm, overall length: 5,330mm, width: 1,855mm and height: 1,815mm. A bit of digging located comparable dimensions for the 1976 Longbed model sold in the US (with 2.2-litre OHC engine): 4,700mm long on a 2,800mm wheelbase, 1,590mm wide and 1,580mm high. Quite a difference. Here in Europe, very few markets want petrol so the sole UK engine offering is a 2.4-litre turbodiesel hooked to floor shift six-speed manual or automatic transmissions (column shift is long gone), many buyers choose a five seat, four-door double cab (single cab or a four-seat 'extra cab' are also on offer) and trim and equipment can be to luxury car levels, as is the price, GBP35,810 on the road with automatic and metallic paint if you rise to the level of the Invincible I sampled.

The Hilux nameplate dates back nearly 50 years to a global launch in 1968 and arrived in Europe a year later. Global sales have now topped 18m and around 34,000 were sold in Europe in 2015, for a 23.1% segment share and claimed regional best seller.

Another thing that has changed is sourcing - Japanese pickups were once actually made in Japan and shipped abroad either on wheels or as SKD/CKD kits for local assembly. A move to foreign production hubs started in the 1990s and today Thailand and South Africa are the main countries building non-NAFTA models along with smaller plants in the likes of Argentina. The UK's Hilux comes from South Africa and the local content we noted on a tour of the test truck - radiator and hoses from Smiths, First National Battery battery, Bridgestone Dueler tyres and many other bits - reflects the comprehensive local components industry developed during years of CKD assembly where a high proportion, by weight, was mandatory. The Koito headlamps were made in Thailand, however.

Redesign

The full redesign includes a new, tougher, ladder chassis and reinforced deck structure while Active Traction Control, Downhill Assist Control and Hill-start Assist Control raise, Toyota claims, 4x4 capabilities "to Land Cruiser levels". Safety is improved with a high-strength, impact-absorbing structure and the availability, on some models, of Safety Sense, with a Pre-Collision System with pedestrian detection function, Lane Departure Warning and Road Sign Assist. Braking and control systems include ABS, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Vehicle Stability Control and Trailer Sway Control. This latest Hilux also has a larger, stronger and more practical cargo deck and an improved towing capacity of up to 3.5 tonnes while the new 2.4-litre D-4D engine delivers improved fuel economy and reduces cost of ownership.

Hilux chief engineer Hiroki Nakajima visited 110 of the 172 markets where the Hilux is sold and discoivered that many owners thought the model had lost some of its toughness. "I knew this had nothing to do with the vehicle's road-going capabilities. I then realised that, while we had related toughness with technical durability, the users' idea of toughness had far exceeded durability alone, and that they had come to expect similarly high levels of on-board comfort and safety to enhance the vehicle's day to day use. Based on a thorough re-evaluation of the previous model, the entire development team became passionate about creating a pick-up that would greatly surpass it in every sense, but especially in terms of toughness, which stands out as the core benchmark for Hilux over the years.

"The market is continually evolving and we are seeing consumers place more importance on values such as comfort, drivability and compelling design. Meanwhile the vehicle's use continues to grow from a traditional base in commercial fleets to include more recreational use, as well as popularity with families who want an SUV-style cabin, so that Hilux can serve their daily transport needs. All these demands presented a massive challenge, because to me, Hilux felt like a commercial vehicle. It didn't give me a sense of passion. This is why I demanded that the next generation Hilux had to offer a strong emotional value as well. Noise levels could be lower, acceleration could be smoother and the interior could be more luxurious. In the end we broke away from conventional thinking regarding commercial vehicles and created an entirely new standard for pick-ups."

Hence a new Hilux with a fancy LED running lamp 'signature' and LED headlights on top models, a greater emphasis on sleek styling (it's still a workhorse truck after all) and a much more inviting cabin with integrated, seven-inch multimedia touch screen system and a new instrument binnacle including a 4.2-inch TFT multi-information display that gets fancier as you go up the trim levels.

The steering is now adjustable for both reach and rake (electrically on top models) and can be leather-trimmed with audio and multi-information display switches. The gear lever has been shortened to give a slicker, more passenger car-like shift action and drive mode selection, including all-wheel drive, is now via switches adjacent to the gear lever. The premium appearance of the cabin is reinforced by metallic-effect details on the dashboard, door trim, instrument binnacle, steering wheel and gear lever bezel. Instrument lighting is blue. There is more interior space, more comfortable seats and more practical storage spaces. The driver's seat hip point has been raised by 10mm, and 15mm have been added to the seat's height adjustment range. The front seats provide 8mm more headroom and 19mm more shoulder room and have a new frame structure with a long, well-padded cushion for more support and comfort when travelling long distances. Seat back bolster dimensions have been increased to give better lateral holding. In Extra Cab and Double Cab models, the rear seats also have an improved structure and cushioning, increasing the support for both legs and body. The front seat back has been made thinner, which frees up more foot space and 10mm extra knee room for rear seat passengers. A 60:40-split tip-up rear seat for the Double Cab increases the flexibility of the interior and its lightweight structure means less effort is needed to fold the seats. The centre armrest is wide enough for two people to use it at the same time. The black seat upholstery is in three finishes, according to model grade with leather on top versions. Storage includes a split-level glove box with a lockable lower compartment and an upper section that is cooled by the air conditioning system and can hold two half-litre bottles. The centre console box has a padded arm rest lid and can be fitted with an optional AC 220V power outlet.

With a good infotainment system and numerous driving aids like lane keep assist, it's very like driving a well-equipped SUV, exactly as the designers intended. It also has SUV-like bulk, extending beyond some supermarket parking spaces by getting on for a metre. Felt-lined gloveboxes would stop items rattling and the bonnet is heavy to lift - how about some gas struts instead of a manual prop?

Refinement

Engineers also put a lot of work into refinement, claiming intrusion of engine, wind and road noise into the cabin has been reduced to class-leading levels. Expansion foam is injected throughout the body shell and foam is used in all seal points to prevent the transmission of noise. A fender separator and upper and lower protectors seal the junctions of the cowl louvre and front pillar with the front wing, helping to soundproof the engine bay and limit the transmission of sound from the engine and the air intake. Spot welding between the cover on top of the cowl panel and the flange creates a noise and vibration seal and further soundproofs the engine compartment. The dash outer silencer has been made 1.5 times larger, reducing idling noise. In conjunction with the measures deployed in the engine bay, the new 2.4-litre D-4D engine itself has been engineered to suppress noise and vibration.

Combustion noise has been reduced by optimising the shape of the intake and exhaust gas recirculation ports and the intake manifold, suppressing intake variations in each cylinder. The front drive has been changed from a gear to a chain mechanism, reducing mechanical noise caused by speed fluctuations when idling. The form of the intake manifold has been optimised to reduce engine noise. The exhaust manifold maximises the retention capacity of the catalytic converter, lowering the noise characteristics of the turbo engine. To improve vibration management of the turbocharger itself, the rigidity of the unit's support has been improved. In addition, an oil pan insulation cover, a polyamide cylinder head cover and a resin engine cover have been adopted, all of which further help reduce noise from the engine. To address wind and road noise, lips have been added to the side glass lining and seals have been added between the front and rear doors. The range of weather strip application has been extended to the rocker area and the door drainage plug holes have been made larger.

The new engine is around 600cc smaller than its predecessor and brings improved torque and better fuel economy. This 16-valve DOHC four-cylinder 2,393cc unit has a variable nozzle turbocharger and intercooler and generates 148bhp (110kW) at 3,400rpm and 400Nm maximum torque between 1,600 and 2,000rpm. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard with six-speed automatic optional on most models. Fuel economy is from 40.4mpg (official combined cycle) and CO2 emissions from 178g/km.

The turbocharger is 30% smaller than its predecessor and has a new, more efficient turbine design and a new impeller improves acceleration response and produces maximum torque across a wide rev range. The engine has a water-cooled exhaust gas recirculation system with an EGR cooler bypass function. The catalyst is positioned adjacent to the engine, securing cleaner performance and allowing for a reduction in size of around 30 per cent and the number of exhaust components reduced from 18 to just three. Urea selective catalytic reduction helps meet the strict new Euro 6 regulations. The drivetrain has been upgraded to support high engine torque and there is now a drive mode switch. Eco reduces power consumption related to acceleration and heating and cooling to improve fuel economy while Power mode sets a sharper response to throttle inputs.

Toyota GB has specified a range to appeal to both commercial and recreational buyers. Single and Extra Cab versions are offered only in entry-level Active specification while Double Cab models - tradesperson's transport during the week, family recreationmobile at weekends - are available in all grades. Even the entry models have Bluetooth, seven airbags, Hill-start Assist Control, Downhill Assist Control, and follow-me-home headlights. Icons gain the 4.2-inch multi-information display, cruise control, DAB digital radio, retracting door mirrors, alloy wheels, front fog lights, headlamp cleaners, side steps, chrome front grille, rear privacy glass, leather steering wheel, handbrake and gearshift trim and Toyota Touch 2 multimedia. The Invincible we tried adds Safety Sense, a colour information display, 18-inch alloys, Smart Entry and Start, LED headlights, automatic headlamp levelling and electric steering wheel adjustment plus automatic air conditioning, dusk sensing headlights and chrome side bars with steps. The newly added Invincible X has exclusive 18-inch wheels, a chrome pack, leather upholstery, heated front seats, satellite navigation, connectivity functions and front and rear parking sensors.

Toyota is targeting more than 40,000 European sales of the redesigned Hilux annually and has boosted warranty coverage to five years/100,000 miles, bringing it into line with the brand's passenger vehicles.

Hilux sure has changed in 40 years.