Here's why the Toyota HiLux Workmate is still a tradie-favourite
Cracking the code on what makes the HiLux so popular with Aussies, even in its most basic form, is surprisingly easy.
During 2019, the Toyota HiLux was not only the best-selling light commercial vehicle in Australia, but the top-selling vehicle overall, chalking up 47,649 sales, seeing it beat out not only its arch-rival, the Ford Ranger, but also easily outselling the best-selling passenger car (Toyota's own Corolla) and SUV (Mazda CX-5) as well.
While this immense popularity may come as a surprise to some reading from overseas, although Australians' love of utes is far from undocumented, one big reason for the HiLux's popularity is due to many businesses leasing or buying fleets of models much like the Workmate model you see here, rather than the squeaky-clean dual-cab style-body models more often seen posing by the high street shops, rather than on worksites.
To see if I can figure out why businesses operating in areas such as construction, mining, and so on, along with many smaller businesses, love this tradie-spec HiLux so much, I grabbed the keys to this one for a couple of weeks when I had some big gardening jobs and tip-runs to do to see just what makes it so popular.
The variant on test here is the priciest single-cab Workmate model, with this 4x4 Hi-Rider model commanding a near $11k premium over the equivalent rear-wheel drive-only variant. While extra-cab and dual-cab Workmate variants are also available, the single-cab is probably the one you'll most want to go for if you're hauling some properly big loads, as it will accomodate the largest tray possible on the back.
Sold simply as a cab-chassis for $37,865, while many will opt to fit trays made by specialist companies, whether off-the shelf or bespoke units, my tester was fitted with one of the Toyota Genuine Body alloy trays that can be optioned on from the factory, with this one measuring in at around 2600mm x 1800mm and costing an extra $1904 on top of the starting price. Add on some pointless Nebula Blue metallic paintwork, as every single other one of these ever will be purchased in white, and it brings the as-tested price up to a hefty $40,369 before on-roads.
It should also be noted that all Hi-Rider single-cab Workmate variants are only available with a six-speed manual gearbox, as was fitted to my tester, although the low-ride single cab is available with both manual and automatic options, as is the dual-cab style-body variant, while both dual-cab and extra-cab cab-chassis variants are automatic-only. There's also a petrol engine option for the low-ride Workmate to complicate matters more, in addition to these manual-only variants presenting a problem for fleets that may have to account for some employees using vehicles that don't know how to deal with a third pedal.
Visually, Workmate models all still sport the pre-facelift HiLux nose which has been phased out on models from the SR upwards in favour of a new Australian-designed front-end first seen on the Rogue. With a grey plastic bumper and steel wheels wrapped in all-terrain Bridgestone tyres, it's clearly been designed to look the part on the worksite.
On the inside, while far from luxurious, it's a huge step up compared to what those used to work utes of old would be accustomed to. It's an interior that does present well with its tablet-style centre screen, attractive blue dials and 4.2-inch colour screen in the gauge cluster, durable cloth seats, fake stitching on the dashboard and door cards, and low centre console that helps the cabin feel more open.
Importantly, there's plenty of places to put things inside it as well – there are two big gloveboxes, the door pockets are more than large enough to fit a laptop or tablet in with room to spare, the cut-out in the centre console is large enough to sit enough pies and pasties in to feed the whole team, and there are no less than six places to put a drink, with two cupholders on the centre console, a bottle holder in each of the doors, and two pull-out cupholders on the dashboard in which the circular cutout can be folded away to accomodate a carton of iced coffee or chocolate milk.
While I do wish there were perhaps pockets behind each of the seats for some extra storage space, it's a fairly-well thought out interior. Although the whole cab section of the ute is small, the space inside it has clearly been maximised well as even at 6'2" I still had room to put the seat back even further.
It's hardly equipped like work utes of old as well, especially since the addition of the Toyota Safety Sense suite of active safety technology, which adds lane-departure warning, autonomous emergency braking, road sign assist, and even radar cruise control despite the manual gearbox – I've only seen that before here on the Suzuki Swift Sport. Automatic headlights, Bluetooth phone connectivity, power windows, and amazingly good manual air conditioning with a satisfying recirculation vent slider also round out the standard feature list.
There are a few glaring omissions, however, chief among which is a reversing camera. Come on, really? You're going to give me radar cruise but not a rear camera? Also, the infotainment system not only has a small screen at 6.1-inches, but it lacks features such as digital radio and satellite navigation, along with also lacking Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to make up for it. Given the stuck-on design of it, it's not like you can simply yank it out and replace it with a fully-equipped aftermarket double-din head unit like in many other utes, either.
While most will associate the HiLux with sporting a 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine, there is a less-well-known engine in the range which is what comes fitted to diesel Workmate models – a closely-related but smaller and less-powerful 2.4-litre unit.
With outputs of 110kW at 3400rpm and 400Nm from 1600-2000rpm, the 30kW and 20-50Nm power deficit is accounted for by way of it sporting a shorter final drive ratio which, both in theory and in practice, makes it feel almost identical to the larger engine the vast majority of the time.
Although I haven't been the biggest fan of the six-speed manual 'box used in the HiLux due to the poor ratio spacing from first to second gear, with first feeling too short and second too tall, the shorter final drive actually makes the affects of this far less apparent here, meaning it wasn't quite as bothersome to use as some other manual HiLuxes. The shift action feels fairly solid, too, if unsurprisingly long, although while the long travel of the clutch pedal did allow for a good amount of feedback, it had become a bit tiresome by the end of my fortnight with this thing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, without anything in the tray, it doesn't have what you'd call even close to a smooth ride as the leaf-sprung live rear axle is particularly rigid, skipping over bumps rather than ironing them out, but as soon as you get a few hundred kilos back there – such as the half a tonne of gravel I opted for – it does settle down a lot.
The downside to having such a load back there, however, is that it highlights how much the smaller engine in the Workmate is down on power compared to the larger diesel donk of the higher-spec'd models. While the shorter overall gearing does make the two feel similar when unladen, the 2.4 does feel to struggle more under load, although there's no doubt it'll still get the job done.
From as much as I've seen though, the smaller engine at least doesn't appear to be affected as much by the highly-publicised DPF issues that have plagued 2.8-litre models, although regardless, Toyota has still fitted a manual regeneration button to alleviate any potential problems as well.
Given this is a work vehicle and no one is likely to be hustling one up a backroad, it feels fairly pointless commenting on the handling and performance in that regard, but in the interest of thoroughness I did take it for a squirt up one of my local twisty roads and it handles totally acceptably for what it is. The narrow all-terrain tyres are what lets it down most – a combination of the flex in the sidewall and lack of grip on tarmac turning in sharply at higher speeds – and the steering rack is far from the fastest, but since it would be unreasonable to expect it to be, I won't hold it against it.
As a work ute, then, it's not a bad bet overall, the HiLux Workmate, even if I do have my gripes with it, although it is fair to say I'm far from the target demographic here. While it could do with more power and the fact desirable variants such as this being manual-only may put some off, it's hard to deny that it's a vehicle that does exactly what it says on the tin.
While given the high price-point of the 4x4 variant, I doubt many private buyers will be inclined to step up to it from the much cheaper 4x2, but for companies leasing these things, if the manual-only proposition of the 4x4 variant isn't a problem, it's easy to see why many would opt for it.
This article originally appeared on drivesection.com on January 15, 2020. The vehicle tested here was provided by Toyota Australia for two weeks.