Whether you’ve owned one, or simply remember the advertising campaigns of a dog saying “bugger”, the Toyota Hilux is arguably New Zealand’s strongest contender for a national vehicular mascot.

Since being introduced in 1968, generations of Hilux’s have come and gone, each demonstrating unrivalled capability and general indestructibility which earned the Hilux household name status within New Zealand. This reputation has undoubtedly served Toyota well, with 142,000 Hilux’s having been sold in New Zealand alone.

So, when Toyota announces a new Hilux, we know that’s going to be a pretty big deal for Toyota and the ute market.

DriveLife was privileged to attend the launch of the new 2021 Toyota Hilux, joining Toyota New Zealand on an epic 2-day adventure across the Manawatu to New Plymouth, showcasing all the new range has to offer.

Day 1 – The introduction

After arriving in Palmerston North, we were directed to Orlando Country Club for a dinner presentation. Upon arriving, I knew I had made it to the right place – at what other venue was I going to find three new Toyota Supras in the parking lot?

Walking inside, on-stage was a brand-new 2021 Toyota Hilux SR5 Cruiser flanked by a well-loved ‘82 Hilux, plus motifs from previous advertising campaigns surrounding the room. The presentation began with Toyota discussing the impacts of Covid-19, global megatrends and those impacting the automotive industry. Toyota New Zealand CEO Neeraj Lala stated that while vehicle sales are down globally, Toyota was experiencing high demand for the 3rd quarter, citing a 17.5% increase in store retail sales compared with 2019.

The ute market is big-business in New Zealand, therefore it’s no surprise that the Hilux represents 28% of Toyota’s total distributor sales. The 2021 Toyota Hilux will undoubtedly be a key cornerstone in delivering Toyota’s future financial performance in a post-pandemic world.

With that said, the new Hilux range offers 19 model variants, seemingly catering for every possible ute niche, from paddock bashing work-horses to well-mannered haulers. Toyota stated that the majority of the improvements to the 2021 Hilux were directed from customer feedback, resulting in a new range offering a refreshed design, better engine performance, improved fuel economy, plus comfort and handling improvements across the new range.

The new Hilux design borrows cues from Toyota North America’s truck line-up, with the most noticeable amendment being to the front-end. The new large grille design and horizontal body elements contribute to the more muscular front-end on the new Hilux relative to the softer jawline of the out-going model.

The majority of the new range is powered by Toyota’s 2.8L turbodiesel 1GD engine. Toyota’s engineers have been tinkering away underneath for 2021 models, with the powertrain now producing 15% more power and 11% more torque. This means a total of 150kW of power and 500Nm of torque. However, there is a slight catch to these numbers; Hilux’s with the 6-speed manual transmission miss out on the torque boost, which remains at 420Nm.  

Toyota’s engineers have managed to deliver these performance improvements by strengthening the cylinder block, redesigning the cooling system and cylinder-head gasket, adding new pistons, a new exhaust manifold, a larger ball-bearing turbo and a new common-rail injection system.

These performance updates appear to pay dividends when overtaking and towing. Toyota says that maximum torque is offered across a wider rev range, being 1600-2800rpm for the auto and 1400-3400rpm for manual. Towing capability across the diesel range is a healthy 3500kg braked, 750kg unbraked. Fuel economy has also improved, with new diesel Hilux offering up to a 11% improvement in fuel economy and a 5% reduction in emissions.

On top of all the engine revisions, a key improvement to support the diesel engine range was development of a newly designed Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF). Although Toyota was cagey on the technical details, the new system utilises a number of hardware and software revisions to be considerably more reliable than the systems of old. Toyota also said they will retrofit the new system to older Hilux’s for free to address potential reliability issues from older DPF systems. Those familiar with diesels will know of the challenges DPF systems have caused for many manufacturers, hence I reckon this is a great gesture by Toyota.

Of course, with all the discussion of the new diesels, Toyota still offers two petrol-powered Hilux’s in the form of the sub-$30,000 Hilux WorkMate. The WorkMate uses a 2.7L four-cylinder petrol engine, producing 122kW of power and 245Nm of torque, paired with an automatic transmission in 2WD configuration only.  

Toyota has also been working underneath the new Hilux to address the sub-par ride quality which the previous generation Hilux’s had gained a reputation for, particularly with an unladen rear tray. To address this, the 2021 Hilux has retuned spring rates, shock absorbers and suspension bushes as well as revised cabin mounts. The rear suspension has also undergone improvements with the addition of an extra leaf spring with wider spacing and revised attachment points. Despite being made softer for the road, Toyota claims there’s no compromise to the Hilux’s legendary off-road ability.

It’s not only mechanical upgrades with the new range either. Inside, all models gain a new 8-inch touchscreen infotainment, offering Android Auto and Apple Carplay as standard. There are new instrument cluster designs, with a revised 4.2-inch cluster display that offers all the economy displays, plus a fuel cost calculator. In higher trims, heated leather seats are available, plus new projector and LED headlight designs as you graduate up the model range. Opt for the 4WD SR5 models, you’ll gain 17-inch alloys, front and rear parking sensors, LED front and rear lights and heated door mirrors. Go for the top-spec SR5-cruiser, you’ll upgrade to 18-inch alloys, a 9-speaker JBL audio system, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and premium interior trimmings to differentiate it from the range. 

On the subject of tech, all Hilux’s models come with Toyota’s Safety Sense package, which offers all the usual driver’s assistance gubbins common on new vehicles. Trailer Sway Control also comes as standard on all variants, while Active Traction Control is standard on all 4WDs. Each new Hilux model has a 5-star ANCAP safety rating, achieved under the latest testing methodologies.

After the comprehensive introduction to the new range and an excellent dinner at Orlando, it was time to depart. Meanwhile, a thunderstorm had been passing through during the presentation. Tomorrow was going to be mucky. Good thing I had brought my gummies, and the good folk at Toyota New Zealand brought out the Swanndri.

Day 2 – The adventure

At 7:30am, we convened at Toyota HQ for a briefing. The sun had come-out, though the rainstorm from the night before left the ground wet underfoot. Shortly after, we departed in a convoy of 9 different spec Hilux’s.    

First stop was 123kms away at a farming station in Waverly, where Toyota had concocted an off-road course to showcase the new Hilux range. Upon arrival at Waverly, we were ushered into an ordinary-looking shed, to be greeted with some ultra-powerful hyper boats. 

We find out that the Waverley station and the boats are owned by the Lupton family, the same folk who formerly owned the 1983 Melbourne Cup winning race horse, Kiwi. The Luptons have clearly continued their pursuit of horsepower, albeit on water this time. 

Some of these are near the 2000hp mark. Only a smidge more than before, right?

After a short stint of ogling, it was time to drive across the station to take the Hiluxes out to Toyota’s off-road course. After the spate of wild weather from the night before, simply getting to the off-road course could have easily embarrassed some vehicles which claim off-road ability.

The course we arrived at was set-up to showcase and flatter the abilities of the Hilux, including steep climbs, undulating hills and some sharp descents. Of course, it can’t be too easy – did I say it was muddy?

In classic novice fashion, I managed to make a hash of it on my first outing. I did the entire off-road course without switching the Hilux into low-range mode. Despite this, the Hilux managed to claw through it with little drama.

Lucky for me, I was able to have a second go where I got to utilise the low-range gearing, and apply a bunch of the Hilux’s other off-road tricks, such as hill descent control and the auto-hold function, which will keep the Hilux in place for roughly 4 seconds on a steep incline. 

Each Hilux dispensed with the entire course without breaking a sweat, even with a muppet like me behind the wheel. There’s a reason the Hilux has a reputation for their arguably class-leading off-road ability. The new 2021 range makes no compromise despite being made friendlier on the tarmac.

After the off-roading, we returned to the boatshed for a vehicle swap before moving onto the next location. Of course, before we left, we had to hear those boats fire up. After a brief demonstration, I think I struggled to hear anything for the rest of the day – I wouldn’t have changed that though.

And a bonus 700hp Mustang

With a new destination set, we briefly detoured to the where the $277M Waipipi Wind Farm is being constructed. Departing the wind farm, we continued along the state highway up to Manaia. From here, we tracked off the main highways, passing Kapuni before reaching our next destination, Dawson Falls.

Our journey off the main highways allowed us to experience the Hilux on a series of tighter and lesser graded backroads. One key difference between the SR we had started in, and the higher spec SR5 we were now travelling in, was road noise. The SR5 was quieter by comparison, and we’d later find out that the top-spec SR5 Cruiser takes that to the next level, being considerably quieter relative to those lower in the range.

Utes have a tendency to be a bit harsh on tarmac, especially with such a light and stiffly sprung rear when unladen. The first Hilux’s back in the 80s earned their reputation for its off-road ability and hardiness with owners, yet mention ride comfort and you may hear a murmur at best. However, Toyota’s work on the suspension appears to have paid dividends, with the new Hilux demonstrating a compliant ride along on the backroads through to Dawson Falls. Although it’s still a step down from being car-like, it definitely felt good for a ute. I also understand that it’s a great improvement over the out-going Hilux.

After an excellent lunch at Dawson Falls lodge and another vehicle swap later, we departed for a location where former All-Black Marc Ellis (who had been accompanying us on the journey) said he had a mate waiting for us with a surprise. Hearing this from the man himself, we could guarantee that it was going to be fun. I’m sure Toyota ensured that it was going to be legal too. 

We continued along more backroads before arriving at the Cape Egmont Boat Club, where Matt Watson – The Fishing Guy, was waiting for us. The good bugger also surprised us with some of his signature pork and paua sausages. 

However, this wasn’t the surprise Toyota had stored up its sleeve. While many of us could have guessed that Toyota would roll-out a competitor worthy of taking the fight to the Ford Ranger Raptor and Nissan Navara Warrior, I don’t think any of us could have foreseen the grand entrance Toyota had coordinated to introduce its contender. 

Flying across the Taranaki coastline, slung under the only UH-90 Blackhawk helicopter in New Zealand, arrived the new Toyota Hilux Mako.

Deriving its name from the Maori-named shark, the Hilux Mako is a kiwi-modified, built-to-order ute exclusive for the New Zealand market. Toyota New Zealand takes a top-spec SR5 Cruiser and sends it directly to Toyota’s Thames Vehicle Operations, where the humble SR5 Cruiser undergoes an extensive four-day transformation before becoming a Mako. 

The Mako gains a number of exterior and interior upgrades, including 18-inch Black Rhino wheels wrapped with Maxxis Razr off-road tyres; a custom bumper with integrated lightbar; unique tow hooks, fender flares and deck liners; custom leather bucket seats; and a sports steering wheel.

Don’t get the impression that it’s just an aesthetic dress-up either. Underneath, the Mako gains heavy duty suspension from ARB, being the range topping Old Man Emu (OME) set-up, with BP-51 bypass shocks with adjustable compression and rebound control. The Mako also gets larger diameter front discs and braided brake lines. 

The Mako also undercuts the Ford Ranger Raptor on price, with the Mako coming in at $79,990. Not bad for a ute that’s potentially the closest thing to a zombie-apocalypse ready vehicle you can buy from a dealership.

To sign off the modifications, the Thames crew leaves their mark with an engine-bay build plate, signed “Handcrafted by the good buggers at Toyota”.  “Enjoy your unbreakable bond with Hilux Mako.” You can check out more details on the Hilux Mako here

After the spectacular introduction to the new flagship Hilux, it was time to embark on the final leg of our journey into New Plymouth. Fortunately, Toyota took us the long route, via some twister roads at the base of Mt Taranaki.  

For this section, I was behind the wheel of the formerly top-spec Hilux SR5 Cruiser, having just been unseated by the Mako. Hilux and luxury are terms which fit together like two magnets of the same pole. They’ve never really belonged in the same sentence. However, this Cruiser had many of the modern toys, whilst retaining its blue-collar hardiness. It was also considerably quieter than any other Hilux we’d experienced that day. The SR5 Cruiser gave you the impression that you could do many miles comfortably. 

The part I wasn’t expecting was how well this Hilux performed on the twisty roads. Point the nose into the corner, the front-end manages to make everything else behave behind you. Behind the wheel, the Hilux kept good composure, giving you the confidence to carry a bit of extra speed into the sharper corners. The roads we were travelling were excellent, and even in the wet conditions, the Hilux’s road manners allowed us to even have a bit of fun behind the wheel without feeling like we were endangering ourselves.    

By the time we’d reached New Plymouth, we had travelled well over 300kms across the western North Island.  We’d driven numerous models of Hilux, and thanks to Toyota, experienced some gems of the western north island. 

Day 3 – The shark

Although formally in wrap-up mode for the final day, we were lucky enough to spend a short period driving around New Plymouth in the new Hilux Mako. 

First impressions of the Mako were good. The ride quality felt improved from the OME shock absorbers, and there was less tyre roar than expected, despite having those knobbly Maxxis tyres attached. The Mako’s new leather bucket seats made a good first impression, fitting wide and comfortably, but the sports steering wheel didn’t do the same for me. Personally, I thought the wheel was too thick. Maybe I have small hands?

Either way, we’d be keen to get our hands on a Mako for a more comprehensive test, Toyota.

Many of the other journalists had already packed their bags and were off to the airport, Toyota needed some drivers to relocate a few of their Hilux’s back to their headquarters in Palmerston North. We were happy to oblige.

This was also our opportunity to have unstructured time with the Hilux. We had the keys to an SR 4WD Doublecab for the journey. 

When not traversing the worksite, many Hilux’ will likely spend the majority of their on-road miles roaming the state highways. Passing lanes are therefore an important topic.

The uprated power and torque of the new 2.8L turbo diesel doesn’t demonstrate itself off-the-line, instead there’s greater performance available under the curve, for when you demand the get-up and go while driving. Passing can therefore be performed with relative ease in the new diesels. You certainly have enough to get the job done, without overexerting the engine.    

Travelling back to Palmerston North reasserted earlier thoughts on the ride and handling, which has improved the on-road manners of the Hilux. Inside the SR 4WD DoubleCab, road-noise isn’t as well managed as the higher spec SR5 or SR5 Cruiser model, but it was never at a level that troubled me on the journey.

Inside, the interior ergonomics are mostly pleasant, even though little has changed from a design perspective over the previous generation. All the tech works as expected, although I did come across one small flaw with the Road Sign Assist. The software told me the speed-limit on the State Highway outside of Wanganui was 110kph. Suffice to say, I’m not sure the local constable will be so understanding of the error. 


Arriving back in Palmerston North on the Wednesday afternoon concluded our 2-day experience of the new Hilux range, which covered more than 500Km touring the Western North Island.  

Toyota’s mantra for the Hilux is “an unbreakable bond”. Over the 2-days, Toyota New Zealand had hosted us on an epic journey, providing memories that I will not soon forget.

As for the new Hilux, it achieves facelifted styling, enhanced performance and improved ride, without compromising on its off-road ability or tow ratings. Toyota has managed to retain the paddock-bashing utility that Kiwis love, whilst not requiring you to keep the card of your chiropractor in your back-pocket.

Either way, Hilux hardliners should appreciate all the changes, plus the breadth of models and options available will allow Toyota to cater for every ute buyer. 

The new Hilux range therefore appears to be a winning formula. However, with the arrival of the new Ford Ranger imminent, plus the introduction of the new Mazda BT-50 and Isuzu D-Max this year, it will be interesting to see whether it can keep the competition at bay.

DriveLife looks forward to conducting an in-depth review of the new 2020 Toyota Hilux later this year. In the meantime, thank you to all our hosts; Orlando Country Club, Dawson Falls Lodge, Cape Egmont Boat Club, Matt Watson, Waverly Farms and the good buggers at Toyota New Zealand.

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Alistair Weekes
A millennial who prefers driving cars to having avocado on toast.


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