ONE LONG BOX

It’s the long-standing success story of the van market, but is it still competitive? Delivery checks out the latest HiAce

Time has almost stood still for the HiAce, and it’s now nearly ten years since the launch of the Fifth Generation model.

Even in its current incarnation it looks remarkably similar to the previous model, and there’s good reason for that. Whereas most vehicle makers benchmark a new design against all the major competitors, when Toyota’s HiAce project team looked to benchmark the current model they looked no further than a comparison with the previous version.

Not surprisingly, while it’s undoubtedly an improvement on the earlier HiAce, the current model is not exactly a close match for the latest Ford, Renault, Volkswagen or Mercedes-Benz. That said, it remains market leader in the van segment, holding a market share through 2013 of 42.6 percent, an increase of 3.7 percent over its performance the previous year.

Toyota-Hiace_9Through the first two months of 2014 HiAce has maintained its sales lead in the 2.5-3.5 tonnes van segment, holding a share of 42.5 percent. In second place is the Hyundai iLoad, which lost momentum the previous year through problems with stock supply resulting from insufficient production levels in South Korea.

Back in 2010, the 3.0-litre turbocharged diesel four-cylinder that had been introduced earlier back in 2006 gained an additional 20 kW of power and 14 Nm of torque. That resulted in a total power output of 100 kW produced at 3,400 rpm and peak torque of 300 Nm rated from 1200 to 2400 rpm. The hand that giveth, also taketh away, and from a performance perspective things changed as the final drive ratio was switched from 3.909:1 to a taller 3.727:1.

Diff ratio changes such as this usually benefit fuel economy as the engine runs at a lower rpm at cruise speed. This also eventuated, and, at the time, Toyota claimed a fuel economy improvement of up to seven percent to produce a combined figure of 8.0 l/100 km. The emissions levels are 210 g/km of CO2.

When this upgrade was released, in October 2010, there had been over a quarter of a million HiAces sold into the Australian market. But times change, and, with an increasing range of competition, the success of the HiAce is dependent on the acknowledged efficiency of the Toyota dealer network able to connect to those looking for maximum cargo space utilisation at the expense of driver comfort, good levels of ride comfort and personal safety.

If that sounds harsh in terms of criticism of a market segment leader, then it pays to look at why the HiAce no longer holds its earlier appeal.

Toyota-Hiace_7Back in 2005, HiAce launched with a total of 12 models in three body styles, two wheelbases and either a 2.7-litre petrol or 2.5-litre diesel engine. The petrol engine featured hardened valves and valve seats to enable it to operate with a factory-supplied multi-port LPG electronic injection system. Access to any of the engines is through a lift-up floor panel under the front passenger seat.

Transmission options remain the same today as they were at the time of introduction, with a five-speed overdrive manual or four-speed overdrive automatic. ABS was standard, together with Brake Assist.

Today the choice is reduced down to either a long-wheelbase or a super-long-wheelbase van, plus the passenger-carrying 14-seat Commuter version.

In the standard-length HiAce the payload is 965 kg, it can tow a 1400 kg braked trailer and it has a cargo area 2930 x 1545 x 1335 mm (l x w x h) that makes up 6.0 cubic metres of volume. The super-long-wheelbase model extends the overall length of the exterior to 5380 mm, with interior dimensions of 3470 x 1730 x 1635 mm (l x w x h) to achieve a volume of 9.8 cubic metres. The payload is increased to 1185 kg.

The engine range today stays with the 3.0-litre turbocharged and intercooled diesel and the 2.7-litre petrol, but the LPG version has slipped off the market. Maximum power from the petrol engine is 111 kW produced at 4,800 rpm, with peak torque of 241 Nm rated at 3,800 rpm. Fuel economy is an unspectacular 11.6 l/100 km.

With rack and pinion steering, the suspension design uses independent double wishbones and an upper torsion bar on the front, with a rigid axle supported on semi-elliptical leaf springs at the rear. The braking system is disc/front and drum/rear.

What this gives the buyer is a basic, one-box cargo carrier with a drivetrain that is no longer able to compete with the European alternatives. Without vehicle stability control or traction control, and with a rear suspension system reminiscent of the horse and cart era, the handling can only be judged these days as unacceptable. Getting and maintaining traction on roads with poor frictional surfaces emphasises the limitations of the current design, as the available power simply doesn’t get to the bitumen through a propensity for wheelspin.Toyota-Hiace_4

The van world has moved on since HiAce was developed, and, once a driver has sampled the vastly superior ride and handling of alternative products, the appeal of the HiAce is no longer there.

From a driver’s perspective, the seating position over the wheel arch means that access into and out of the cab is at best awkward, and at worst tedious. The long-legged members of society have an advantage over shorter members of the population as they can at least slide in over the seat. Without a height advantage, access is only gained through a small and nasty step at the very front of the doorframe.

The diesel version, as tested, was particularly noisy in the cabin, with sound transfer that echoed around the van interior. The four-speed automatic is definitely old school by comparison with the six-speeders available with competitive products, and warranty cover remains at a very basic 100,000 km or three years.

The latest updates include a slight front-end redesign and the addition of cruise control. A reverse warning camera that displays in the corner of the rear-vision mirror has been included since 2012. There’s also a digital display readout of external temperature, time and odometer.

With its driver and passenger SRS airbags and ABS with Brake Assist, the HiAce from 2011 onwards has an ANCAP rating of four stars. For models built between 2005 and 2011 the classification drops back to three stars. Pricing for the LWB van with petrol engine is $32,990, rising to $40,990 for the SLWB, and $53,490 for the Commuter Bus version. Automatic transmission adds a further $2,500, the diesel engine a further $4,000, and premium paint tops it off for another $550.

With a new model under development, and due for release within two years, it will be interesting to see if Toyota stays with a basic design suited more for the less developed countries in Asia where ergonomics, high levels of ride and handling, plus driver safety have less importance. To compete against some of the very superior models from Europe now available in this segment will require a quantum shift in attitude and ability.

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