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Toyota Hilux 2016

Desert destroyer

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Body shake when driving on extreme road surfaces

Driving on sand and getting stuck

A huge dust cloud hangs in the air. The desert air is hot and uncomfortable, thick with particles from the dirt track road. One of the world’s greatest sights has caused this disruption, a remarkable man made phenomenon.

A pride of lions or buffalo on the charge, it is not, but an even more spectacular convoy of Hilux, roaring their way through the Namibian countryside. The world’s most indestructible pick-up truck has been given a new lease of life and promises to be even more resilient than the last.

Our 350km road trip in 35 degree heat will certainly test the new Toyota, but a machine of this calibre with a reputation such as this laughs in the face of heat and choking dust clouds. Thousands of kilometers away in all directions, its seven generations of predecessors are being used in cities and on farms, up mountains and among rainforests, to fight wars and provide aid, used by governments, the military, NGOs, terrorists and ordinary folk alike. 

Throughout Africa there are few other vehicles but pick-up trucks, and the most prevalent among them is of course the Hilux. It is no exception in this sparsely populated country, the second least inhabited kingdom on the planet with one of the largest and the oldest deserts. Here you need a credible vehicle, one that can survive and be fixed.

Toyota Hilux 2016

Passing anything in this seemingly limitless wilderness is rare, but old Hilux models are definitely the most regular sighting, far more so than the baboons or oryx that occasionally break cover from the bush, scattering in all directions away from our procession and the thrumming din of rubber pounding the loose gravel roads. Any older model Hilux trucks that you sometimes pass here are usually white, and now, on paper, seem hopelessly out of date. That’s because Toyota has added a new 2.4-litre diesel engine that not only produces more power than the outgoing 2.5-litre unit but also more torque than the 3-litre lump that is also to be retired and ultimately replaced by a smaller unit producing more power. The chassis strength has been improved, bolstering the manufacturer’s claim that the toughest truck on the market has got even tougher, with a 20% increase in torsional rigidity.

With the last generation of Hilux arriving 12 years ago, competitors may like to think that their vehicles are superior and in many ways they are right, but the Hilux isn’t one to go in for all the frills of the lifestyle market. There will of course be high-spec Invincible and Invincible X models to cater for the demand, but the Hilux is upping the game in ways it knows how, increasing wheel articulation by 20% and improving its carrying capacity to give a maximum payload of 1,235kg.

Like the Land Rover Defender, the Toyota Hilux has always been the vehicle that will go where others won’t, and with production of the iconic British workhorse now at an end, Toyota has an open goal to aim at for its new pick-up. From sub-zero glaciers in Iceland, to muddy farms in Wiltshire, you’ll inevitably find Hilux trucks rescuing others vehicles that are not man enough for the task. It’s a story repeated time and time again throughout the world, and it is no exception in Namibia.

Departing Swakopmund, a coastal city with a distinctly Germanic colonial feel about it, our test drive will take us south on paved roads at first, but then as we head east and inland we’ll not only experience the Hilux on some rough gravel roads, but also over more than 20 miles of serious off-road mountain driving and sand.

Of course after more than a decade since the last model, it is immediately apparent what a huge update Toyota has made to the Hilux. The new engine has enormously improved the overall refinement of the truck, as well as giving it noticeably more grunt, while the interior is more comfortable, smarter and will allow it to compete with other SUVs in the ever popular 4x4 segment of the passenger car market.  The Hilux’s suspension rides even the roughest roads with a calmness not usually found in pick-up trucks but unsurprisingly the body shudders uncomfortably in these conditions. In the previous model this would soon become a problem, but the new steering setup transmits less vibration with improved handling, the 100mm larger leaf springs give a smoother ride and the more supportive seats and ergonomic interior insulates you from the worst of it.

All the signs are good as these conditions are far beyond most applications the Hilux will find itself in when driven in the UK.

Toyota Hilux 2016Our first destination is some sand dunes on the western side of the country, not far from the large natural deepwater port of Walvis Bay and right on the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, which we will later drive though – a place where acres of sand loom endlessly in to the distance and people, houses and even animals are scarce. Rear-wheel-drive has so far been sufficient to deal with the paved roads and increasingly dusty gravel tracks we encounter as we leave the city, but the firm sand approach roads to the dunes require an on-the-move switch to 4-wheel-drive. Sand is an absurdly tricky surface to drive on and because it is so easy to get stuck we spend a full minute deflating each of the tyres to increases the surface area of the rubber. This should reduce our chances of getting stuck as we gingerly proceed off the harder ground and on to the dunes.

Strong winds from the Atlantic have sculpted these huge mountains that are made from sand which is more than five millions years old, but these are small time compared to the more serious dunes further in land which reach as high as 350m. Nevertheless their size still warrants us bringing the truck to a complete stop to engage low range. The new 6-speed manual transmission would be ideal for such challenging driving, but instead we’ve got the capable and more relaxing 6-speed automatic with new smart shifting systems to increase downshift response when the throttle is either thumped suddenly or maintain engine braking when released altogether, both of which we’ll need in these conditions.

Our journey through the dunes starts off easily enough with some banked bends and a few steep but relatively-speaking minor hills that require a good chunk of the 148hp available to make the summit.  We meander along tracks in between piles of sand hundreds of feet high, occasionally turning a corner or passing a small gap in the banks that provide a mind-blowing view of the complete and utter nothingness that Nambia has in abundance. Throughout we’ve been gradually climbing, but now we must climb the first real test for the Hilux a gradual slope about the height of three double decker buses, of deep, soft sand. Immediately some members of the convoy hit trouble, failing to carry enough momentum in to the hill. But this is just the warm up, the base camp before the Everest ascent, as around the corner an enormous wall of red-tinged sand rises towards the sky.

Toyota Hilux 2016Photography can’t quite convey the scale or range of colours of the Namibian desert that is both paradoxically beautiful and boring in its size and uniformity. Many places on earth can boast otherworldly landscapes, but the dry and rocky Namib must surely take the prize as the most threatening with an endless view of oxidised iron sand, searing heat and next to no vegetation. The fact that elsewhere in the Namib tree stumps have become petrified, essentially becoming stone due to a lack of oxygen, underlines just how bizarre and uncompromising this habitat is.

Of course the Hilux doesn’t know or care about that. It has a reputation as the toughest pick-up to maintain and when pointed towards the top of this infeasibly large dune its raison d’etre is to conquer natural obstacles such as this.

Skipping the short first gear, we start in second by selecting manual mode on the auto gearbox, then race along the flat towards the peak jabbing up on the lever for third just before the hill begins. Still accelerating hard as the gradient really begins to bite, the Toyota shows no sign of wilting. The engine is nearly at the top of its rev range as we begin to feel the sand breaking away at the rear wheels and tumbling sideways down the slope. It causes the truck to veer slightly as we hit the steepest section, foot still firmly planted and now nothing but the heavens visible in the windscreen.

The Hilux powers over the apex and in an instant the cloudless blue sky is replaced by the black shadowed sands at the foot of the dune. We jump on the brakes and then proceed cautiously down the slope with both feet off the pedals using the Downhill Assist Control. As the ground levels out its straight back hard on the gas and around a beautiful long sweeping left-hand bend as we can breathe once again. The Hilux has conquered an enormous wall of sand and as we power through the corner and on to the next big obstacle there’s a sense of relief at not being one of the ones to get stuck. Then we stop. Abruptly.

In our preparation for the next big dune climb, 400Nm of torque is ripping through the soft deep sand, but in an instant the Hilux is buried nearly up to the wheel hub.

From the physical highest high to the new emotional lowest low, the Hilux has mastered the Namib Desert, only coming undone by a gung-ho attitude and over confidence. Through no fault of the trucks, we have to get towed out by the only thing man-enough for the job. A sensible Namibian guy with another Hilux, of course.

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