Back to the future
The all-new Toyota HiAce with its larger semi-bonneted van (SBV) architecture represents by far the most comprehensive update this model has received since it was originally launched way back in 1967. Prime Mover saddled up a long-wheelbase manual diesel version for this exclusive evaluation.
Toyota, perhaps more than most other commercial vehicle manufacturers, traditionally tends to stick with tried and tested formulae when it comes to updating and refreshing its various light commercial offerings over the course of time.
As such, incremental improvements rather than radical reformation is typically the modus operandi.
It’s a principle that has worked well for the company, with its vehicles gaining an enviable reputation for being robust and reliable, if somewhat conservative.
However, conservatism is fine by most of the people who buy light commercial vans; their main criterion is that these vehicles keep doing the hard yards day in, day out, for a very long time.
Ironically, it was back in the mid-1990s that Toyota introduced its first semi-bonneted HiAce – branded logically enough as HiAce SBV – to supplement the garden variety HiAce, but it didn’t have much of an impact on the market.
Arguably it was ahead of its time, which is to say the market simply wasn’t ready for such a radical departure from the quintessential one-box Toyota van that had dominated the scene for decades.
Some years later Toyota quietly discontinued the SBV and kept turning out the market staple HiAce in its traditional form until earlier this year.
The safety-conscious European manufacturers pioneered the SBV concept with its well-proven benefits of superior crash protection and driving dynamics decades ago; and with the steadily increasing emphasis on work health and safety, it’s not surprising that Toyota has finally followed suit with its latest HiAce.
The subsequent transformation is truly remarkable and puts HiAce, for the first time, on level pegging with its European rivals.
In fact, the driving experience of the new HiAce feels very similar to that of its Euro counterparts, with features like a commanding driving position, nifty dash-mounted shifter, excellent all-round visibility and a torquey diesel engine that delivers in spades.
The New HiAce comes in two basic sizes – long wheelbase medium roof (LWB) and super long wheelbase high roof (SLWB) with wheelbases measuring 3,210mm and 3,860mm respectively.
Combine these with a generous wheel track measurement of 1,670mm and overall body width (excluding mirrors) of 1,950mm and it’s easy to understand why the newcomers are superior in load carrying and general driving dynamics compared with their predecessors.
In terms of load carrying, the LWB manual diesel has a kerb mass of 2,220kg along with respective gross vehicle and gross combination mass ratings of 3,300 and 5,200kg respectively.
This allows a payload capacity of 1,080kg and towing of a braked trailer with a maximum all-up weight of 1,900kg.
An overall height of 1,990mm means the LWB version can sneak into most underground car parks, an imperative for some buyers, while the SLWB has an overall height of 2,280mm.
Other variations include the choice between diesel and V6 petrol power, automatic or manual transmissions, along with a crew seating option in the LWB and two Commuter (people mover) variants in SLWB guise.
The 2.8-litre four-cylinder diesel engine produces 130kW at 3,400rpm and a healthy 420Nm of torque between 1,400 and 2,600rpm in the manual version.
Meanwhile, the diesel automatic version sports an identical power output along with a beefier torque rating of 450Nm between 1,600 and 2,400rpm.
The manual transmission is a six-speed overdrive unit with a stubby dash-mounted lever that provides a pleasant sports-car like shift action.
It incorporates a well thought out spread of gear ratios including a first low enough for smooth hill starts when loaded through to sixth which enables relaxed 100km/h cruising with the engine ticking over at 1,500rpm.
The new HiAce also steps into a new stratosphere in the safety stakes, boasting an utterly comprehensive array of passive and active safety features as standard.
The list includes seven airbags, a pre-collision safety system with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane departure alert, brake assist, auto high beam, road sign assist, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, blind spot monitor, rear cross traffic alert and front passenger occupant detection.
An overarching feeling of spaciousness greets the driver upon entering the cab, with a panoramic view through the deep and wide windscreen and side windows and minimal blind spots.
In a first for HiAce, the twin bucket seat arrangement allows walk through access to the load compartment, although some might lament the lack of a three-seat option for carrying an extra passenger.
Our 250kg payload didn’t put a dent in the lively performance, with the HiAce blasting up hills like they weren’t even there.
Despite its significant overall size, the LWB version is remarkably manoeuvrable and seems to shrink around the driver, giving the impression that it is smaller than it actually is.
Toyota claims a combined fuel figure for the LWB manual diesel of 13.3km/l (37.5mpg), but in our experience a more realistic average figure is likely to be around the 11.7km/l (33mpg) mark.
Overall, the new HiAce provides a package that comfortably eclipses its predecessor in virtually every respect.
Given the inherent Toyota virtues of quality and reliability, it definitely has the potential to reclaim some of the sales lost to European competitors in recent times.