Try as one might, it’s hard to ignore the Toyota HiAce when dipping one’s toe into the now highly competitive light commercial van segment. This is made all the more impressive when considering that this fifth-generation version has existed, though somewhat less evolved, for well over 10 years.
How has the Japanese automaker fielded such a strong competitor, fending off increasingly agile and youthful rivals, for nearly a decade and a half? For one thing, the HiAce of today is a much more rounded product that it was when it first appeared, owed much to Toyota’s commitment to frequent and substantial improvement in areas that effect the end user the most. The other, of course, and somewhat bluntly, is the sheer global force of their service, dealer, and after sales network.
Plain as paper and just about as ubiquitous, the HiAce’s advantage always has been virtuous cycle of being in the uppermost of buyer’s minds when considering a vehicle such as this. Success breeds more success, though now its high rank is being called into question by contenders such as the Hyundai iLoad, Ford Transit Custom, and Volkswagen Transporter.
On most roads, it stands out not so much because of its exterior details but rather as the only one boasting a forward control layout, that is with its passenger cell placed right at the nose with the engine mounted just behind the front axle, underneath the front seats. Specifically, a single diesel and petrol unit are on offer, both with four-cylinders.
The oil burner displaces 3.0-litres and generates 100kW at 3,400rpm and 300Nm at 1,200rpm while the petrol alternative is a naturally aspirated 2.7-litre with 118kW and 243Nm, both previously seen powering the HiLux and Fortuner in some forms, albeit in their previous iterations. Hardly class leading numbers, but they do offer commendable fuel economy, power, and refinement for their respective classes - especially the diesel.
With the engine situated further back than usual, the rear-wheel drive layout comes as lesser expense - both engineering and therefore cost - compared to its mostly front-engine rivals, aiding in laden grip and, to a smaller degree, roadholding. Toyota offers the HiAce in two basic sizes, LWB and SWLB (with a higher roof), with the former’s measuring 2,570mm between axles and the latter at 3,110mm.
Their pairing with either a 5-speed automatic or a 4-speed torque converter automatic seem quite quaint as well, but get the job done nonetheless, to cope ably with its respective 980-1,335kg payload capacities.
Depending on space needed, there really isn’t much the Toyota cannot be tasked with hauling, provided the correct specification is selected, from a bare cargo area to seating for as many as 12 in Commuter guise, the HiAce is nothing if not flexible.
While it maintains a relatively compact footprint and great forward visibility thanks to its cab-forward design, the downside is that front access is made that little bit more difficult. Once feet have negotiated past the footplate, sliding into place is then very easy.
From behind the wheel, the abundance of older Toyota switchgear and general aesthetic betray the HiAce’s age. That said, for its purpose and general hardiness to quality ratio, there’s little to complain about. The materials themselves feel of good quality and there’s a good amount of comfort to be enjoyed thanks to supportive seats and well thought-out ergonomics.
The high driving position may fly in the face of any attempt to make the HiAce feel familiar to typical car drivers. Luckily, it’s lack of meaningful height adjustment doesn’t really impact the experience too much because of this. But Toyota does sorely need to improve their situation if they are to adapt to renewed - and higher - expectations by their rivals. There are glove boxes and little nooks to keep various things, cupholders and such, but that’s about as far as it goes, and this is where having its engine hiding beneath the seats has its downsides.
To keep up with the times, there’s now some tech features added with the latest update such as Bluetooth audio streaming and a rear view camera. Granted, the engine noise does fill the cabin to the point of drowning out any audio enjoyment, and balancing throttle input to better hear the speakers can become an art in itself.
On the road, Toyota has done a good job with making the HiAce rather refined, even when pottering about with no cargo to haul. With the weight of motor sitting directly on the front axle, it’s independent front wishbones are crucial to absorbing the blow quickly and dispersing it away from passengers. Leaf springs are, unsurprisingly, fitted at the rear. In all, the square design does also mean that there’s nothing much to concern yourself with when pushing the HiAce a little further past slow; traction and body roll always seem to be well managed with an assuredly neutral feel.
There’s are a number of basic but essential ingredients that make an exceptional workhorse, and the continued success of the HiAce can be attributed to how exacting Toyota has distilled this formula. As a cargo-carrying box that will probably last longer than you will have cognitive function, this comes about as close as money can buy right now.
It’s of little surprise that many examples, even those of its previous generations, are pushing the limits of its odometers, often with little incident to its name along the way. Toyota provides the HiAce with a 3-year 100,000km warranty, and capped-price service intervals set at 10,000km. While it may not offer the best proposition on paper, there’s no denying also has the most distinguished resume.
Motoring.com.au - 63/100 - “Viewed purely as a tool to get a job done, it’s difficult to argue with the HiAce’s credentials, but from behind the wheel we’d certainly welcome a few more creature comforts.”
CarAdvice - 6/10 -While it’s not the best option in a commercial van segment that is more competitive than ever, its credentials remain strong. Buy the auto, prepare yourself for a lack of refinement and you won’t be disappointed.”
CarsGuide - 6/10 - “…a long day behind the wheel of the Crew Van felt like hard work compared to more modern competitors that offer superior refinement, performance, safety, features and driver comfort. We hope industry rumours of an all-new HiAce replacement are true, because it is now overdue.”
WhichCar - Small businesses continue to buy HiAces based on Toyota’s reputation for not breaking or falling to bits. It’s a rough and tumble workhorse and this Crew version only expands its appeal to those who need a versatile business appliance on wheels.”