last updated 13/06/2018
I started my offroading and camping career in a soft top Suzuki Sierra worth less than my wife’s Thermomix. What a fun, cheap, durable and capable vehicle! For the trip around oz it was decided that a 90km/h top speed and headache inducing cabin noise level would not be acceptable so a vehicle upgrade was required. My vehicle of choice – Toyota Hilux. The model I ended up getting was a 2007 SR5 dual cab manual 3L turbo diesel D4D. There are many reasons why I chose to generally get a 4 cylinder diesel manual ute, and reasons why I wanted it to be a Hilux. Keep reading to see.
Ute vs Wagon
I wanted a ute. They are built to carry loads with a strong chassis and a tray that can hold a heap of gear. They afford more space than a wagon, which is critical if not towing. Removing the rear row of seats from a Landcruiser or Prado gives you maybe 1200mm of length from the back of the middle row of seats to the tailgate. The length of the dual cab Hilux tray is 1600mm. This meant I could fit one of the longest drawer systems and still have room for a water tank. The Hilux with a canopy on it looks like an extremely long wagon. The cabin and tray area combined are very long. For details on my drawers, click here.
Utes are made to carry a load and therefore usually have pretty good payload capacities – another reason I chose a ute. See table below comparing payload capacities of various vehicles, sorted from highest to lowest payload. Specifications are for 2014 year models. Note for any cab-chassis models I’ve added 200kg for the tray.
|vehicle||kerb mass||kerb mass with tray||gross mass||payload|
|hilux 2wd cab chassis petrol||1375||1575||2780||1205|
|landcruiser 70 series single cab chassis||2065||2265||3300||1035|
|hilux 4WD dual cab petrol||1840||1840||2810||970|
|hilux 4wd cab chassis diesel||1680||1880||2835||955|
|landcruiser 70 dual cab chassis||2205||2405||3300||895|
|hilux 4WD dual cab diesel||1920||1920||2780||860|
|landcruiser 70 wagon||2295||2295||3060||765|
|landcruiser 200 petrol||2660||2660||3350||690|
|landcruiser 200 diesel||2730||2730||3350||620|
|rav 4 diesel||1640||1640||2190||550|
|rav 4 petrol||1630||1630||2130||500|
|suzuki alto auto||905||905||1250||345|
A two wheel drive hilux has the highest payload out of anything Toyota Australia sells! The 4WD hilux is up towards the top too. Pretty good option if you want to carry lots of gear reliably and do it within the operating limits of the vehicle. You don’t get much extra payload capacity with the big wagons, and often you get less. Most of the vehicle’s extra strength goes into carrying its own bloated bulk! With a dual cab ute you get the load carrying ability whilst having the flexibility of a 5 seater.
A ute is also lighter than a bulky luxury wagon. The difference between a Hilux and a Landcruiser is a good several hundred kgs depending on model which saves fuel and unnecessary wear (the difference is 810kg between my dual cab diesel hilux and a 200 series diesel landcruiser). If bogged, a lighter car could be the difference between being able to extract yourself or requiring external help. Unable to self extract from being bogged on a remote beach on a rising tide? You better call your insurance company. Reduced weight minimizes that risk. Light weight also reduces load on everything related to touring and offroading – drivetrain, tyres, track surface and the environment.
I’m not some whingy modern consumer who demands a “more comfortable ride.” Instead, I demand less time in the rat race and more time exploring the world. My car is for reliably transporting me and my stuff to places where I want to go. For this application, leaf springs are best.
Despite claims of leaf springs being an outdated design, the design is inherently strong and will always be stronger than other arrangements given the same design constraints and costs. Leaf springs have two fixing points to the chassis, instantly halving stress per suspension mounting whilst simultaneously distributing the load more widely across the chassis. This is particularly good for the chassis when carrying heavy stuff, since there is not a single point above the axle acting like a fulcrum where the chassis may become fatigued. Instead the load is distributed both in front of and behind the rear axle. In dynamic conditions load is spread over 3 points since the shock absorber takes some load. This means three fixing points compared to the one for coil-over-strut suspension, which means roughly 1/3 the load per mount. The suspension mounts for leaf springs are directly under the chassis rails, so load is directed straight into the mount. Other arrangements have brackets / strut towers on the side of the chassis rail, where the load is directed in a way that tries to twist off the mount which leads to a higher risk of failure. Leaf springs also serve to locate the axle, negating the need for locating arms or rods and providing a simpler, stronger design. Another disadvantage with coil springs is that for heavy loads they end up being too long, potentially interfering with deck space. If you try to keep them within the space constraints of a typical ute or truck with a tray then coil springs are probably going to be too soft to support much of a load.
So, for me, for an outback tourer heavily loaded in remote areas, leaf springs are a must. Not only do they have all the advantages described above, but I’m also perfectly comfortable driving around in my leaf sprung vehicle. I’ve never felt discomfort from a stiff ride. People pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for that stiff ride feeling in exotic sports cars. Why are leaf springs uncomfortable? Because sophisticated middle class people should have bulky four wheel drives with a soft ride? Do you get bruises on your ass? I go camping in the bush, voluntarily exposing every inch of my body to dirt, dust and biting insects and going without showers for weeks. I do this for fun. I’m not going to care about some bumps in the road or some marketing rubbish that tells me softer is better! If you want to maximise comfort stay home on the couch.
Some people suggest the reason that leaf springs remain in new designs is due to some sort of tax incentive in Thailand, where the Hilux and many other utes are made. How do you explain every other ute with leaf springs? What about all the American built pick-up trucks with leaf springs?
More Truck-like Handling
Apparently some of the later models of utes have “more car-like handling.” This has completely no appeal to me in the same way that softer suspension has no appeal to me. I have adequate driving skills and perfectly good arms and legs to be able to easily control my hilux. Why is more car-like handling better? How does that help me with my goal to carry me and my stuff to remote areas? Why do I need to make something that is already incredibly easy, even more easy, just because marketing tells me it’s better?
If competitors and newer models have more car-like handling this implies that my Hilux has more truck-like handling. A vehicle that has more truck-like handling means it has other truck-like attributes. For example the ability to carry heavy stuff reliably in heavy duty environments. This is exactly what I want.
To have more car-like handling means making compromises such as increased complexity, reduced strength, increased cost and sacrificing overall quality in order to maintain total cost within market expectations. These compromises are ok for going to the shops and dropping the kids to school but not for carrying hundreds of kilos of gear on rough tracks into remote areas. Forget about the bullcrap marketing and bring on the truck-like handling I say!
Rear Drum Brakes
A Hilux has rear drum brakes. Like leaf springs, many people believe drum brakes are an outdated design and should be immediately discontinued across the board.
Let’s first rule out the Thailand tax rules again. Many vehicles, including the Amarok and Mahindra, that aren’t built in Thailand, also have rear drum brakes. Even some American designed small cars have rear drum brakes (you’ll see why American pickups have rear disc brakes further down in the article).
Drum brakes can lock up the wheels. So, in terms of stopping your car, you can’t get any better. The maximum friction of the tyres can be exceeded by drum brakes. Disc brakes are better at staying cool and resisting fade. Up front the Hilux utilises disc brakes which makes sense since the front brakes suffer 2 to 3 times the heat loading of the rear brakes due to front brake bias. Since the rear brakes have a much lower heat loading it is extremely rare that they would suffer from brake fade. Actually I’d have a guess that Toyota have designed the system so that both front and rear approach brake fade at roughly the same time. This design criteria means fully utilising each component without wasting resources incorporating excess capacity that can’t fully be used.
So rear disc brakes offer practically no advantage. The disadvantage of disc brakes – a more complicated and less reliable hand brake. Plus greater overall cost. You want more cost for a less reliable, more complicated hand brake with no performance benefits for the intended application? No. The best solution for this case are rear drum brakes.
Why do many cars have four wheel disc brakes? Why do American pickups have rear disc brakes? Mainly it’s marketing and fashion. It appeals to fashionable people. Rear drum brakes are not trendy – they don’t look as nice through your 19 inch mag wheels. Four wheel discs are also useful in circumstances that require repeated high speed application of brakes – for example racing. So if you are fashionable and / or racing then 4 wheel disc brakes are the right tools for the job. For carrying you and your stuff reliably and economically in remote areas – front discs and rear drums are perfect. Forget about the marketing bullcrap.
You might argue that, for the small extra cost, manufacturers should just bite the bullet and go with four wheel discs across the board. In isolation this seems like a reasonable thing to do. But apply this philosophy consistently throughout the entire design of a vehicle, whilst simultaneously maintaining costs to meet the target market, and you end up with a very fashionable pile of crap. Like a Jeep.
My model hilux , with the D4D 1KD-FTV diesel engine, is quiet enough at all speeds to be able to chill out to some tunes and easily hold a conversation. But the engine is still easily recognisable as being diesel. Heavy duty, truck-like diesel. Yeah, that’s the sound of getting shit done. That’s the sound of heading off to the bush. It reminds me of childhood camping missions with my old man in his old 60 series diesel landcruiser.
Apparently some newer diesels are quieter and sound less diesel like. This has exactly zero appeal to me. My car is already quiet enough to listen to music and comfortably have a conversation. Why does it need to be quieter? Because of marketing? I find it amusing that, in some forums, I see people discussing how a certain engine is much noisier than another, with the quieter one of course assumed to be better. Then in another part of the forum they’re talking about putting in a bigger exhaust and removing the muffler and then reporting how good it sounds. So both quieter and louder are simultaneously better! Spend money upgrading to the quieter new model. Spend more money on after market parts to make it louder.
Manual vs Auto
All of the vehicles I’ve owned have been manual transmissions and will continue to be. Manuals are more fun to drive, are able to be push started and use less fuel which can lead to a substantial saving over the life of a vehicle. Manuals fail more gradually in my opinion so there’s time to do something before you’re stranded which is handy if you’re out bush. You can also move the vehicle with the starter motor in an emergency, say if you stall during a water crossing. Or you can start the vehicle in gear if you want to prevent any chance of rollback, for example when starting on a steep hill. Also, if planning to keep a vehicle for a long time, complicated modern automatic gearboxes might be no good. When they eventually fail you might end up with a hefty repair bill replacing solenoids, sensors, actuators, servo motors and clutch packs, which on a heavily depreciated older car, might mean a trip to car heaven.
Autos sap motors of their life, making them feel dull, sloppy and boring. I experienced many times where a person, accustomed to automatics, has driven a 4 cylinder manual and stating something along the lines of “perky little car you got there.” Actually it’s just a standard crappy old 4 cylinder, it just hasn’t had its life sucked out of it by a lumbering auto gearbox.
Manuals give better control. The gear it’s in is always the gear you want it to be in. Offroad, they provide better engine braking and more responsive power which makes them safer on steep terrain. In a manual you can chug along smoothly and slowly on very steep terrain, ascending or descending at basically idle rpm, without having to touch the brake pedal or accelerator pedal. The direct drive means stepping up over a rock or ledge is smooth and requires no extra throttle input as the drivetrain immediately loads up and pushes the vehicle up the obstacle. Dropping down a rock or step results in immediate engine braking and a safe and slow descent, again with no adjustment required to throttle or any requirement to touch the brakes. Going slowly on the steep stuff in an auto requires constant adjustments to the throttle to make it up over obstacles and then immediate backing off of the throttle and application of brakes when dropping down obstacles. The throttle and braking cannot be done with perfect anticipation which often results in failure to advance up obstacles and dropping down obstacles too quickly.
In sand autos can suffer from overheating issues, especially up very long sand dunes or when bogged churning through very deep sand. Some people prefer autos in sand because of their quick gear change. It’s a valid point, but I think the disadvantage of a manual mostly comes down to poor gear selection and not airing down tyres enough. With experience you chose the right gear for the job. With correct air pressure you should be floating on top so changing gears in a manual is easy. Engaging the clutch won’t suddenly stop your vehicle if your tyre pressures are good. Still it’s not possible to always pick the perfect gear and autos do have their advantages in sand.
Automatic gearboxes also promote unhealthy driving behaviour, such as accelerating hard towards a red light, or accelerating hard towards a stopped vehicle in slow traffic. It is crazy to burn fuel and wear out your car in that manner and an automatic gearbox makes it too easy to do. Just squeeze the throttle slightly and it will keep accelerating, keep up changing gears, right up until you need to slam on the brakes. I’ve noticed myself doing it when driving an auto even though I easily avoid doing it in a manual. A manual means you are more conscious of your speed. Speed is directly correlated with throttle position so it’s more intuitive to regulate, rather than in an auto where a fixed throttle position can yield a forever accelerating car as it changes gears. It takes more effort to constantly accelerate and slow down in a manual. You are more likely to try to pick a more reasonable speed to suit the traffic or approaching red light. In doing so you save fuel, reduce wear, save resources, reduce driver stress, reduce the risk of an accident and reduce your impact on the environment.
Another reason I prefer manuals – I have perfectly functional arms and legs and I enjoy using them! If I didn’t want to use them I’d stay home. I don’t want to make driving more boring than it already is. It’s not like I’ve got other stuff to do whilst driving. Might as well make it a more engaging experience.
Auto’s do have advantages which may be handy for some people, these are just my reasons for wanting a manual.
I want to use as least fuel as possible on my touring. This improves my touring capability since it means I have more resources to fund it. In my opinion more than four cylinders are unnecessary – rarely there might be a good reason for it but usually not. Lot’s of cylinders is an old fashioned way of building cars. Modern four cylinders will tow just about anything and have plenty of power. Many people are towing large caravans with four cylinder vehicles without a problem. They have as much power as larger engines of a few years ago. Regardless of your views on global warming, we are using energy at an unsustainable rate. With everything we do we should be optimising our energy usage so that we conserve the environment. Unless you’re towing the biggest fifth wheeler and will be exceeding the rated tow capacity of four cylinder vehicles, there’s no need for it. If you do want to tow a fifth wheeler then perhaps you need to have a think about what you are trying to achieve when traveling the outback. Replicating your house is not what you are trying to achieve. If that’s your goal then stay home. If traveling then scale down, simplify and enjoy nature. Save some energy for future generations and free up some beer funds. Experience the wilderness rather than isolating yourself from it in a fancy box. If you really need more power consider fitting a diesel performance chip.
I don’t want gimmicky electronic engagement of 4WD or hill descent control or traction aids. What does it provide that simple mechanical 4WD engagement and a low range manual gearbox doesn’t? Nothing, except complexity and points of failure. Sounds good to fashionable people but not for me. Hill descent control is ridiculous in my opinion. Vehicles 60 years old can do the same thing with a low range gearbox and without the complexity of sensors, actuators, computerised processors, hundreds of lines of programming code and all the added wear associated with rapidly pulsing the brakes. Actually vehicles 60 years old could do it better, since a low range box will not only control descent speed, prevent locking up wheels and negate the need to touch any pedals, it also provides motive force to smoothly mount any steps, ledges or rocks encountered during the descent. Better performance, simpler, more reliable and 60 years old. Hill descent control is a joke!
I don’t want constant 4WD either. Carting around an extra differential, turning all those extra shafts and gears, and doing it whilst on a high traction surface and cruising on a highway? Seems wasteful to me. Save weight and fuel with selectable 4WD. It may be fun in a full time 4WD to be able to plant your foot around a corner in wet conditions but it’s a big price to pay. I’d rather not plant my foot, save the environment and buy more beer.
Commercial utes are generally simpler than other 4WDs. The focus is more on reliability and functionality rather than keeping up with technology for its own sake. The Hilux also has fewer gimmicks than other brands of ute. My experience suggests Toyota have sacrificed gimmicks to allow more investment in strength and durability. Sadly more gimmicks are creeping in – it’s a law of nature. People are (falsely) convinced that gizmos buy them happiness and so motor companies put them in.
Reputation for Strength and Reliability
Hilux has a reputation for strength and reliability. In mining they are used almost universally – there must be some history as to why this has come about. I’ve been on mines that experimented with some other brands. They suffered from problems such as interior panels falling off, electric window buttons failing, stereo failing, electronic 4WD engagement system failing, limp mode being randomly activated, catching fire, gears crunching and general development of rattles around the cabin and strange noises from under the hood. They don’t like constant exposure to corrugations and dust. The Hiluxes suffer no such problems. I’ve also noticed, when driving down rough dirt tracks at high speeds, that other utes feel tinny and unstable. I’ve experienced the vehicle stability control being activated as the vehicle nervously squirms around after hitting a big bump at speed. The Hilux on the other hand feels solid and stable. The money you hand over for a Hilux goes into good quality components, durable finishings and a strong, reliable drivetrain.
As a whole Toyota is a pretty reliable brand. In vehicle reliability surveys across all major brands, Toyota regularly comes in first or second. When Toyota comes second, usually Lexus is first (another Toyota brand).
With the Hilux you are getting a model with a great reputation for reliability within one of the most reliable vehicle brands. A double win for reliability.
My frugal nature, desire to maximise my time in the outback, fully functioning arms and legs, bruise resistant ass, desire to not tow, experience on the mines and requirement for robust reliable transport meant it was an easy decision for me to choose a manual Hilux as my outback touring truck. So far it has performed without a glitch. It’s also comfortable and drives surprising well. Despite the truck like handling, it’s the best handling vehicle I’ve ever owned. Wind and road noise at cruising speed is low (remember I used to have a soft top Suzuki Sierra). I’d love to use less fuel. I average around 10.5L/100km on the trip whilst touring – well above the 8.5L/100km calculated according to ADR testing. Mind you when you’re carrying a ton of gear and have stuff on the roof and throw in a bit of offroading as well you can expect to consume extra fuel. Overall I’m very satisfied with the car. I hope I get to enjoy it for many years to come.
A ute is not a perfect tourer. They will always have less mod cons, a less comfortable interior, less powerful engine and a less refined ride than a luxury 4WD. You also can’t (legally) carry 8 people. These are the things to weigh up when deciding the best tourer for you.