What we liked
>> Good model range
>> Nice cab layout
>> Comfortable and quiet
Not so much
>> Instruments look a bit dated
>> SLWB versions could be tough to park
Toyota's venerable HiAce van has been one of the company's most successful models. Introduced in Japan in the 60s and to Australia in 1971, the brick-like HiAce populates the earth in numbers exceeding 4.5 million, a truly global model, ubiquitous as a light delivery vehicle and people mover. Small retailers use them. Express freight companies use them. Private individuals use them. Everyone knows someone with a HiAce.
So how come the old warhorse hasn't been seriously revamped in the past 15 years? Good question. And here's the answer.
The HiAce was last updated in 1989, and although it's exported to 130 countries and has been spectacularly successful as a multi-tasking brick, only in the past three years has it faced worrying opposition from Europe, and in particular, Korea. Until now the HiAce has been a bit like an old colour TV you never throw out; it hasn't the latest high definition screen but always works when you turn it on, and you can usually get a decent picture (even when the programs are godawful).
That's all well and good when you're creaming the opposition, but this is not a static market and never has been. No-one can afford complacency. Toyota's grip on the market started to loosen as KIA introduced advanced light vans, and there was always the threat that someone in Europe would do something unexpectedly clever and catch Toyota with its pant down. And they couldn't let that happen, could they? The HiAce was redesigned because it was falling behind. It was still market leader, but the enemy was howling at the gates.
Toyota's executive chief engineer on the HiAce project, Hideyuki Iwata, told journalists during the launch in March this year that the new models were designed to meet the needs of all markets - government, fleet and private. This is a serious revamp. All up there are 12 models, ranging in price from $31,900 for the LWB petrol van to $52,230 for the automatic, turbo diesel commuter bus.
There are three body styles, two wheelbases, two engines and two transmissions. The body styles are the Long Wheelbase (LWB, 2570mm) van and a wide-body and high-roof Super-Long Wheelbase (SLWB, 3110mm) van and commuter bus. Each body style is offered with either the 2.7 litre petrol engine or the new 2.5 litre common-rail turbo diesel. The latter is an important engine for HiAce. Last year, diesels powered almost half the number of light vans sold in Australia but only 5.3 per cent of those were HiAces.
As for the new super-long wheelbase unit, this is the first time Toyota has run a contender in this category and the move makes sense; demand for LWB and even longer wheelbase variants is growing and presently accounts for 80 per cent of the van market. It's go long or go home.
Traditionally, light vans aren't what you'd call high fallutin' and fashionable. By and large they're purchased by those more interested with practicality than luxury - "How many kids can we get in this one, Dave" - and so they've lagged a little in creature comforts. Toyota has addressed that with the new HiAce but hasn't allowed flamboyance to run rampant.
As the company points out in its press material, features include air-conditioning, with a rear cooler for the commuter bus; power steering; an adjustable steering wheel; larger door openings; and now a dash-mounted gate-type shift lever.
The van has a bucket seat for the driver and a two-passenger bench seat. The bus version has two front buckets and 12 rear seats. Storage space around the driver's seat is better. The audio system is a double DIN size Fujitsu 10-CD tuner, with two speakers in the vans and four in the buses. The fold-down centre seat-back has a storage compartment and can be used as a table - handy if you're the type who eats and runs. Or drives.
Model lineup and prices:
LWB manual petrol van - $31,900
LWB auto petrol van - $34,230
SLWB manual petrol van - $36,400
SLWB auto petrol van - $38,730
LWB manual turbo diesel van - $34,400
LWB auto turbo diesel van - $36,730
SLWB manual turbo diesel van - $39,120
SLWB auto turbo diesel van - $41,450
Commuter manual petrol bus - $47,190
Commuter auto petrol bus - $49,520
Commuter manual turbo diesel bus - $49,900
Commuter auto turbo diesel bus - $52,230
Driving one of these all day is not the endurance test it once was. The latest seats are very comfortable, with good support for the back and legs, and the driving position itself is first class. Power steering is light but positive and the ABS brakes have a nice action with ample stopping power and plenty of feel.
You tend to cop a big dose of UV rays when you drive a forward control vehicle but solid air-conditioning takes care of heat entering the cab through that big windscreen. The dash-mounted shifter looked a bit dodgy but you don't have to stretch for it, and although the brand new shift action was a bit stiff, it's sure to free up with use.
The HiAce is a forward control vehicle - you sit over the front wheels, not behind them - a design that whatever else it might do is primarily intended to maximise payload space. But that puts the passenger in the impact zone. Toyota's answer to this is its energy absorbing, vertical Y-frame chassis. Says Toyota, "The front upper members increase impact absorption ability and help maintain foot space in the event of a frontal collision, while the side members are double-layered to disperse and absorb crash impact." The new HiAce also has a front bumper reinforcement and 'compression countermeasure' beams in the front doors.
ABS brakes are optional across the range and dual SRS airbags are standard. Toyota says cornering stability has been improved with aerodynamic features on the front bumper. These are air dams on each side that control air flow around the front wheels.
More passive safety features:
- Increased front suspension mount rigidity.
- Increased wheel stroke.
- Ball-joint mounted stabiliser bar to minimise body roll.
There are two engines in the line-up, or four, depending on how pro-Toyota you are. The 2.7 litre petrol unit can be specified with or without the factory LPG conversion, so that's two engines, and the 2.5 litre turbo'd diesel can be had with or without intercooling, depending on the model you're buying, so that's four engines.
But really it's two desserts with different toppings. Either way, they're mated to a five-speed overdrive manual or a four-speed overdrive auto transmission. The 2.7 litre WT-i petrol engine replaces the old eight-valve SOHC donk, develops much better power and torque - 111kW at 4800rpm and 241Nm at 3800rpm - and has hardened valves to make it compatible with LPG.
The merely turbo'd diesel produces 75Kw of power at 3600rpm and 260Nm of torque from 1600 to 2400rpm, while the turbo'd and intercooled variant yields another 5Kw. The intercooled version goes in SLWB models, including the commuter bus. Hold on Granny!
There's ample product in this market but some of the contenders occupy niches when you compare their market share with the leaders'.
As of February this year, the Kia Pregio was out in front, followed by the old model HiAce, Mitsubishi's Express, the Mercedes-Benz Vito, and down the back of the queue the Ford Transit and Mazda E-van. The Korean Kia has won sales fairly quickly in this market but Toyota hopes to give the Koreans a kicking when buyer awareness of the new HiAce really kicks in.
ON THE ROAD
You don't expect FA18 performance in a van and you don't get it. But what you do get is a quiet ride, over supple suspension, and enough power to maintain your position in the mayhem around you.
The seating position is very comfortable, as we said, and all the HiAce controls fall to hand nicely. The mirrors are wide enough so you can spot vehicles coming up alongside - a failing in many vehicular mirrors – and overall, visibility is more than adequate.
We didn't get the chance to sample every engine during the very short launch drive so we can't comment on the alleged attributes of anything but petrol models. We do know people who have used and abused diesel-powered HiAces to a criminal degree, over 500,000 kilometres in one case, and with very little downtime caused by mechanical failure. If the new diesel engine is half as good it'll be a beauty.
Would we buy one? You can't ignore what has been the market leader since the demise of the dinosaurs, so yes, we'd have to include the HiAce in any evaluation, and if the price was on the money, the Toyota would have to be in with a big chance. The product is well known, Toyota make brilliant engines, and as time has proved, you can't kill a HiAce with a brick. Sorry, make that a hammer.