Toyota adds new armour to Hilux fleet with Gladiator

The Toyota Hilux Gladiator, the new hero model of the ute range. This is actually the concept, but will essentially be the fully-loaded Stage Three package.

Are Toyota Hiluxes a bit boring? Do the best of the Hilux fleet match up against the sexiest utes from Ford, Holden and Mitsubishi?

Toyota New Zealand has decided they don't. So the company has dumped its most luxurious Hilux, the SR5 Limited, and is replacing it with new hero models called Cruiser and Gladiator.

All has just been revealed at a media event in the South Island, held to detail an upgrade to the entire Hilux lineup.

"The SR5 Limited hasn't been the hero variant we would have liked," admitted TNZ's general manager of product Spencer Morris during the event.

"With some competitors, the hero models currently make up 30 per cent of their ute sales volume," he added, obviously referring to the likes of the Ford Ranger Wildtrak and the Holden Colorado Z71. "But our SR5 Limited takes up only 10 per cent of our volume."

All Gladiators will feature this special badge on the ute's nose.

So from next month the company will seek to change that, by beginning production of a new flagship Hilux called SR5 Cruiser, which will be available in 2WD PreRunner and 4WD forms. These utes will feature more masculine styling via a more upright front end with chunkier front bumpers. They will also have different black alloy wheels, and black door handles.

TNZ is confident the SR5 Cruiser will be well accepted - so much in fact that from early next year the entire Hilux range will get the chunkier nose.

But that's not all. Back in the middle of year the company displayed what it called the Hilux Gladiator Concept at the National Fieldays, a ute that boasted such extras as a suspension lift kit, 20-inch alloys with mud terrain tyres, bull bar and winch, sump guard, and special graphics.

All Hilux Warrior and Gladiator models will be fully-capable utes.

Customers were so impressed with the concept that TNZ has now decided to develop a series of Gladiator packages that will personalise individual Hiluxes into a statement of style.

A Stage One package will give the Gladiator such extras as a different front grille with a bonnet lip, 20-inch wheels and all-terrain tyres, an exterior decal kit, and special seats with Gladiator embossing. A Stage Two package will add even more including  flared guards, while a Stage Three package will throw in the works - 20 inch wheels with mud-terrain tyres, steel front and rear bumpers, Gladiator scuff plates, and a leather and sports seat upgrade.

These packages will add between $8090 and $19,298 to the cost of a Hilux. But Spencer Morris is confident the special utes will sell well, because most utes are heavily accessorised anyway.

The entire Hilux range has benefited from an early facelift.

"We already have more than 300 accessory items on offer, and we do more than $30 million in accessories business each year. The average spend on accessories - which may include towbars, canopies and deck liners - is $2500, and the record at the moment for accessorisation of a single ute is $31,000," he said.

Meanwhile, Toyota NZ has made some important changes to the standard Hilux fleet as it seeks to grow sales of the ute. Not that the Hilux isn't already very popular - it's the second biggest-selling vehicle in New Zealand, just behind fellow ute the Ford Ranger, and is aiming for 8200 sales this year, growing to 9000 units next year.

But there are always ways to improve any vehicle range, and in the case of the Hilux the biggest is the addition of more variants with automatic transmissions. Four of the nine 2WD variants in the Hilux fleet, and seven of the 12 4WD models, now have auto.

A Hilux SR moves through a water hazard during the media launch event.

"Going forward we expect we will no longer offer a manual option for all variants as customer preferences shift towards automatics," said Morris, noting that whereas in 2010 more than 70 per cent of Hilux sales were manuals, this year 69 per cent of sales have been automatics.

"In a market once dominated by manuals, if you now don't have a wide range of automatics on offer, then you're not going to be competitive," he said.

There's been a similar shift to diesel engine power, and as a result TNZ has dumped all three 4.0-litre V6-engined petrol variants from the range. This is the result of Toyota Motor Corporation discontinuing building petrol Hiluxes due to low demand and potential future exhaust emission requirements.

Other key changes to the Hilux as part of the upgrade include introduction of a common 3.5-tonne tow rating across all PreRunner and 4WD powertrains, and a differential lock added to the 2WD PreRunner range.

These changes are all in response to market feedback, said general manager of product Steve Prangnell.

"We've also spent a considerable amount of time working with the factory to ensure the ride quality delivers greater levels of comfort."

This generation Hilux was launched only two years ago, which means this latest facelift comes a lot earlier than is usual for a ute. But Prangnell told journalists that at launch in 2015 there were a number of models and specification features that TNZ wanted but were not available.

"But now they are - which is why we have this early facelift," he added. The facelift adds between $200 to $600 to the cost of individual Hilux models.