Staple Food: Toyota Hi-Ace Super Grandia (2002)
Toyota Papua New Guinea does things more frankly than the folks over at Toyota Motors Philippines. You should have seen how the former treats the HiAce in a television commercial. If you’ve seen the ad, you would have seen my point and reading this entire review becomes totally moot. For those of you who haven’t seen it, here’s the gist: a red metal tool box is placed on a set of four wheels and then the assembly morphs into the HiAce. Simple, direct, frank and best of all…it came from Toyota. Jeremy Clarkson couldn’t have done any better.
In this era of sleek people carriers such as the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Previa or even the Chevrolet Venture or Kia Carnival Sedona, the HiAce sticks out like a sore thumb. It's as modern as Lionel Riche is hip. Remember, a surprising fact is that this unit is fully imported, straight from Japan—but that doesn’t stop it from being labeled as a bread van.
From the outside, the HiAce is similar in proportion to a loaf of Gardenia. Even though Toyota slapped on some body stickers and a little shiny piece of chrome here and there, it doesn’t disguise the fact that this is a Frigidaire. With this shape, some things are obvious even without a minute of driving: strong cross winds during high-speed travel and awkward driving position are the negatives and loads of space is the sole positive.
Compared with the rest of the HiAce range, the Super Grandia 3.0 DSL is differentiated by the fact that it carries a different set of body stickers, a two-tone paint job and a different set of steel wheel covers shod with 15-inch rubber. Yes…you read it right the first time, this one million plus van doesn’t even come with real alloys.
Despite not being too spectacular outside, you have to give Toyota the benefit of the doubt in setting the trend for this niche segment. The HiAce’s only Philippine rival, the Nissan Urvan gained exterior elements similar to the HiAce and has been re-dubbed the Urvan Estate. So, it seems that Toyota is doing something right.
Because of the box-like proportions and the towering height, ingress and egress in the HiAce isn’t as good as the Chevrolet Venture's—which has an almost car-like ride height. The Super Grandia requires a hand grip on the A-pillar and a quick step up to gain entry. A false move and you will end up with a bump on the head. For the rear passengers, the Super Grandia doesn’t have a second sliding door—a feature already made standard in some cheaper models such as the Mitsubishi L300 Exceed.
Inside, the cabin is like a time warp back into the late 80s. Despite having the same switch gear as any modern Toyota (e.g. Camry, Echo, RAV4, etcetera), the HiAce’s center console is a living museum piece that deserves a place in the Smithsonian. Every single mechanism uses a sliding motion from the ventilation system to the vent controls to the temperature. It is nostalgic Toyota in here!
Besides the need for carbon dating, the plastics are hard and cheesy, in the league of the Revo or Adventure, but put together in a manner that’s above average for a van of this kind. The odometers still run on mechanical systems rather than the usual LCD, the hand brake is still actuated by a twist-and-pull type lever and accessing the radio requires arms as long as Mr. Fantastic to reach.
Ergonomically, the HiAce is a dinosaur, as it’s no match for its modern rivals. Besides having the switchgear in the most illogical of places, the driving position would make you want to scream for the E150 Ford Chateau Wagon. Though the steering wheel isn’t as tough to hold as the nearly horizontal Mercedes-Benz MB100, the HiAce’s pedals are the ones angled nearly parallel to the floor. Depressing them requires some training, whist the gear lever requires some skillful Jedi tricks to operate without forcing the wrong gear in.
It takes time to learning to drive the Super Grandia properly. Though the 3.0-liter SOHC diesel engine doesn’t look that promising on the brochure, the motor works well in propelling this 1890 kilogram vehicle. Though it can’t win any street duel (the MB100 accelerates even faster), the interior noise level remains at a relatively comfortable level even when on full throttle. However, there is a constant need to shift and use the entire five forward gears to assure adequate acceleration.
Braking is just as vague as the acceleration. This car does stop, but because of the spongy feel of the pedal, it makes you wonder if Sir Isaac Newton formulated the law of inertia when he rode the vehicle. It doesn’t help either that the extremely rectangular proportions hamper visibility. However, thanks to the oversized side view mirrors and standard rear back-up mirror, the HiAce does pretty well, slicing through Manila traffic without taking a scratch.
Much like the Ford E150 Chateau Wagon, although reduced by a factor of 10 percent, the 4950 mm HiAce requires a lot of space to maneuver. During our test run, we almost hit an Isuzu Fuego pick-up when we tried to negotiate a typical 90-degree corner. Scary moment. Other than that, the cornering is perfectly safe and predictable as the body roll is kept in check thanks to the stiff Double Wishbone and 4-Link Type Rigid Axle set-up.
Ride is so-so. Thanks to the long wheelbase of this car and the fact that it runs on tall 195 / 70 R 15C tires it is more comfortable than any AUV. Though the Super Grandia 3.0 DSL doesn’t have enough seats to fit the entire village, it does seat ten people (the Commuter 2.4 DSL variant seats twelve). The full Moquette seats offer better support and materials than any AUV (including the new Honda CR-V). The two standard captain’s chairs are the best place to be thanks to king-sized knee space and the fact that it sits right in the middle of the vehicle. The sheer length of the Super Grandia makes it absorb all the bumps with poise, however people in the useable last row may experience a nauseating ride since they’re placed right on top of the rear axle.
The HiAce does have a dual air conditioning system. However, vents are only located on the dashboard and in front of the second-row captain's chairs. To avoid experiencing a free sauna bath for the third and fourth-row people, just engage the powerful blower at full blast.
Since the HiAce uses all available space to fit the ten passengers, it doesn’t have the luxury to brag about luggage space. The seats aren’t removable and only the third row is foldable on the Super Grandia to form a table, suitable for poker or mah-jongg. The second and third rows can be folded in the lower variants. The fourth row can slide forward to increase luggage space, at the expense of already-limited leg room.
At the end of the day, the Toyota HiAce Super Grandia 3.0 DSL is still a good performer, especially for those who require 10 seats without compromise. However, there’s nothing to change the fact that this car is at least a decade behind when it comes to driving dynamics and design. If you like to drive cars yourself, the HiAce is definitely not for you. You'd be better off looking at smaller and more modern vans such as the Kia Carnival Sedona, Hyundai Starex or the Chevrolet Venture.
If you don’t drive yourself or would want to use this to shuttle Japanese tourists around, the Super Grandia is a compelling choice because of its no-nonsense approach to vans. Just don’t forget that the driver’s seat should come with wicker seats as standard.
By Ulysses Ang | Photos By Ulysses Ang and Jason Ang
Originally Published in the June 2002 Issue