A sidecar-driving, rocket-launching warthog with a chimpanzee as his mentor has Toyota back on form with its advertising. In recent years the market-leaders' television ads have been just a little wholesome, with dad making his son a flying fox to beat the neighbours whose bach is on the shoreline, while another father replaces a daughter's storm-ravaged tree with an all-new one overnight.
The new campaign and its hokey-pokey addicted primate place Toyota's ads back in the fun category, along with classics like the Crumpy and Scotty ads, the slightly controversial Bugger! series and the more recent HiLux- driving bulls.
The new ads are designed to draw attention to a facelifted HiLux ute model, which, six years into its life-cycle has just undergone its first major changes. They include a new grille and headlamp design to link it to Toyota's Land Cruiser and Highlander models, which is in keeping with research that shows that the HiLux is as much a city ute as a rural one, just like those fore-mentioned SUVs.
As well as external cosmetic changes, like more thrusting front body panels and revamped rear lamp clusters, the HiLux range gets a much more car-like dash design, and a four-spoke steering wheel with sound system controls on some models and a metallised decorative finish. The heater/ airconditioning controls are now by way of large fumble-free knobs which are easier to use when wearing gloves than the inset switches used previously, while new locally fitted stereo heads are also included in the HiLux, with the over all effect being one of a well-organised car cockpit rather than that of a workaday farm tool.
It has been a while since I tried the HiLux in serious dirt, and well above Queenstown last week I was able to trickle the 126kW/343Nm 3.0-litre D4-D turbodiesel around some impressive obstacles. Trickle was the operative word, for the D4-D is a cracking low-rev lugger which can almost idle itself over most that you throw it at with the transmission in first gear, low range selected, your foot off the throttle and just your hands on the wheel, allowing the truck's suspension to grope deep into and out of holes you'd probably not take your own vehicle anywhere near.
The HiLux range now has an extra model in the form of a standard-grade 4WD extra-cab ute, with the 3.0 litre turbo diesel engine and a five-speed manual transmission. This brings the range up to 13 models, consisting of five 2WDs and eight 4WDs. The 2WD line-up has five-speed manual gearboxes and offers single-cab, cab-chassis, extra-cab, and double-cab models with the D4-D engine. Single and double- cab models can be optioned with a 116kW/240Nm 2.7-litre petrol unit.
HiLux 4WDs offer single-cab cab-chassis, extra-cab cab-chassis and ute, and double-cab versions, again with 3.0 litre turbo-diesel engine and standard 5-speed manual though double cab models offer a 4-speed automatic option.
All models come with an Anti- lock Braking System as standard, and all 4WD double cabs have Vehicle Stability Control.
Side and curtain shield airbags are standard for all 4WD models, as well as upgraded audio units with a single disc CD player offering MP3/WMA compatibility and access to Bluetooth connectivity. SR5 models add a 6.1 inch touch screen, an SD card slot for images, album cover art display, and reverse camera compatibility, SMS message read out, and two extra speakers, taking the total to six. SR5s also get climate control air conditioning.
On the service front, all diesel HiLux models now eschew the six- month or 7500km oil and filter changes and owners now only need to visit the dealership every 12 months or 15,000km.
Toyota New Zealand's chief executive Alistair Davis says of the HiLux: "This year we are aiming for 30 years in front. Cumulatively we have sold 85,602 HiLux in New Zealand. This makes it our second best-selling vehicle in NZ, still less than half Corolla numbers."
HiLux 2WD models start at $35,790 for the single cab chassis version and top-out at $43,990 for the double cab ute. In 4WD form, the single cab chassis HiLux asks $43,990 with the range-topping SR5 automatic double-cab ute stickered at $61,890. It's worth noting that despite the increase in specification, Hilux 4WD prices are reduced for selected models by up to $2600.
With a lot more competition in the light truck segment than it had when its HiLux first came upon the scene, it's going to be a lot harder for Toyota than before.
At the bottom end of the market, Chinese Great Wall trucks are making a bit of a name for themselves, while Volkswagen's Amarok has also started to stir things up and news that its offering now has an eight- speed automatic on offer will have potential customers counting the boxes they need to tick on their shopping lists.
It has to be said that with its mid-term facelift, the HiLux's weak points have been largely addressed. The new styling treatment and the use of more substantial wheel diameters even on base models means that the truck looks much less of a caricature of itself, previous base models looked fairly plain without a decent set of wheels on them.
The new dash works nicely, with its big fumble-free buttons being a sensible change, while mounting everything horizontally at wheel level means that nothing important is more than a hand- span away.
The new model extra cab diesel all-wheel-drive that I tested also had good seating considering its fairly low placement in the HiLux pecking order and at $53,990, it's a handy $5300 less than its SR5 sibling. While it was tough, rather than stylish, it wouldn't need any immediate add-ons to give it on and off-street credibility.
Has Toyota done enough to reinforce the HiLux's top of the tree positioning? Well of course it has. However, it will need to look at more automatic ratios in the not too distant future and perhaps a smaller-sized diesel option to go with the 3.0-litre D4-D unit. But once you see the new ad, you might forget all about that.
* Drivetrain: In-line-mounted AWD and RWD turbodiesel and petrol fours with five-speed manual or four speed automatic.
* Performance: 2.7L petrol - 2694cc fuel- injected four. 116kW at 5200rpm, 240Nm at 3800rpm. 11L/100km, 262g/km CO2. 3.0L D4-D - 2982cc turbodiesel four. 126kW at 3600rpm, 343 at 1400 to 3400rpm. 8.1L/100km, 214g/km CO2.
* Chassis: Independent double- wishbones at front. Leaf-sprung rigid axle at rear. Engine-speed sensitive power steering.
* Dimensions: L 4980-5260mm, W 1760mm, H 1680-1735mm, W/base 3085mm. Fuel 76L. Weight 1450-1835kg.
* Pricing: HiLux 2WD from $35,790 to $43,990. 4WD from $47,490 to $61,890.
* Hot: Tough as nails; now stylish too, with clever revamp; AWD extra-cab option sensible.
* Not: Still awkward from some angles; increased competition; some models pricey.
* Verdict: Familiarity breeds contentment, rock-on HiLux!