Toyota Hilux GR Sport.
Toyota Hilux GR Sport.
Northern Botswana - You know you’re on to something special when it’s still in huge demand 50 years later. Immortalised on screen as Marty McFly’s black stallion in Back to the Future and most recently stamping its authority on (arguably) the toughest race on earth, the Dakar. I’m talking about the Toyota Hilux, of course.

Introduced more than five decades ago but still able to garner sales like no other new model in South Africa, the Hilux attracted 5000 new owners last month, one of its best months yet.

Toyota has now increased the value proposition by culling its Raider line-up to introduce the new Legend 50 line-up and a new GR Sport derivative. More luxury, more spec and, in the case of the GR Sport, more handling capability.

Ever since the original Ford F1 pick-ups started to gain more luxury items, and the El Camino, we have become more and more obsessed with light commercial vehicles that offer a little bit more than an ability to carry livestock or veggies. Just look at them in the USA and you’ll see pick-ups in all shapes and forms, and with many different applications. Luxury appointments for bakkies have been the most prominent form of upgrade over the past few years, with the odd Chevrolet Ute SS thrown into the mix every now and again.

But of late there’s been a bit of a performance pulse-quickening taking place in the LCV sector. Last month, Ford launched the Ranger Raptor in South Africa, the most hardcore factory-built pick-up you can buy locally. Isuzu Trucks followed suit, launching its AT 35, based on the D-Max. Now we have a Gazoo.

The GR Sport

Gazoo Racing is officially open for business in South Africa, and they’re doing things a little differently by launching a diesel-powered double-cab performance vehicle.

So, the GR Sport Hilux then. It’s the as-you-know-it high-spec 2019 Raider model, with all the bells and whistles you’d expect in a three-quarter of a million rand vehicle, but fettled with by Toyota’s new racing division to provide more sure-footed handling and added responsiveness in the dirt. Also, this is not a Ranger Raptor rival, it’s more BMW 318is, but more on that later.

With a bold, racy body kit and uprated KYB shock absorbers, made specifically for Toyota, stand-out features of the new Hilux GR Sport include a black-out honeycomb nose, with old-school TOYOTA badging. You also get Gazoo Racing decals all over the place. GR Sport branded running boards and unique 17-inch mags, with 265-wide tyres, round off the looks. Only 600 are going to be built and it is priced at R707 400 (around R80 000 less than a Ranger Raptor if you’re still unsure of which is right for you).

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Toyota’s familiar 2.8-litre turbodiesel engine, which produces 130kW and 450Nm comes standard in the GR Sport, which can be poked fun at, as we’d have appreciated a power and torque bump. Nevertheless, the bakkie receives a Drive Mode Select system that is designed to provide sharper throttle responses.

The standard automatic gearbox from the old Raider is carried over as well, which is perfectly fine, but we would have appreciated paddles behind the steering wheel for more hands-on driving in the dirt (as its marketing department showed it off in the pictures).

As we reported last week though, the biggest news on the technical front is that the GR division has given the GR Sport an uprated suspension system, which includes stronger shock absorbers at all four corners, as well as stiffer front springs. This brings me to driving the car last week (over two days) at its launch, between Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. We spent most of the time on gravel and in convoy, so it was quite challenging to really experience the vehicle for its sportiness. We did, however, have ample opportunity to gear down in between dust clouds and chuck it into the corners, which proved that the handling is really sublime.

That nose-pitch feeling you normally get on a double-cab is gone, even on the dirt. It feels sporty and confident in the hands, and even when bombing along at around 100-110km/h on the dirt, you don’t get that drifty feeling.

Of course, you can drift it like Giniel if you want to. All the time while driving it, it reminded me of my friend’s old E36 318is, which never really had the guts to keep up with the modded Golfs from our dorm days, but sure made up for it in the bends. If you’re worried that it’s too sporty and not luxurious enough, you’ll be pleased to know that the GR Sport’s cabin is set apart from the standard models by GR branded headrests, a GR Sport start button and floor mats, as well as red accents throughout the cabin. The instrument cluster also gets a red and glossy black finish and you receive an updated 20.3cm touchscreen infotainment system that supports smartphones through cable and Bluetooth integration.

The Legend 50

One of the journos that I attended the launch of the Legend 50 with asked a very pertinent question of the Toyota team: “Why not apply the GR Sport’s suspension upgrades to the Legend 50 range-toppers as well?”

Toyota spokespersons gave the diplomatic response, “watch this space” - but they also nodded to the fact that this will be the last “Legend”-branded Hilux that goes on sale in South Africa.

Nevertheless, what is the Hilux Legend 50? The special edition celebrates the bakkie’s 50th anniversary in South Africa and it (for now) replaces the Raider models upon which they are based. You can still choose from a wide variety of derivatives, including Single Cab, Xtra Cab and Double Cab body configurations, and 4x2 and 4x4 drivetrains, and between two engines.

We’d opt for the 174kW, 376Nm 4-litre V6 petrol engine version, if free fuel came with it, but the 2.8-litre turbodiesel with 130kW and 420Nm (when mated to a manual transmission) might be the pick of the bunch for work and play.

The 450Nm diesel automatic model could be ideal for the daily, though. To tell the Legend 50 apart from the 2019 Raider that it replaces, look out for black colour treatment for the grille, the side sills and rear roll bar, as well as the unique black and silver two-tone 18-inch mag wheels and, of course, Legend 50 badging spread liberally inside and out. The Legend 50 also gets the GR Sport’s upgraded 20.3cm infotainment system with satnav, DVD player and reverse camera.

Should you buy one?

If bakkies are your thing and you want one that’s oozing character, get a Raptor. If you want a vehicle that’s competent enough to make you feel like a rally driver, but also able to lug around a full ton, get a Hilux GR Sport.

The Legend 50, well it’s just another good Hilux. Prices start at R47200 for single cab Legends.

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