The new Toyota HiAce might look like a van, but it drives more like an SUV

While when it comes to road-testing cars, it’s always most important to point out what they’re like to live with as even in the most focused of sports cars you’ll need to drive through towns to get to your favourite backroad, it’s a surprise that when it comes to vans, which see far more mileage each year than wafty luxo-barges, comfort and conveniences have long been overlooked.

When it comes to the all-new Toyota HiAce, however, everything has changed more drastically than a mid-life crisis sufferer’s wardrobe. The move from the shockingly cramped and uncomfortable toaster-shaped box the HiAce used to be that many will be all too familiar with, given it had been in production since 2004, is thankfully now gone, with an infinitely bigger and more feature-rich van than many may have seen coming.

Starting at $38,640 and stretching to a hair over $70,000 right at the top, the new HiAce range is a diverse one, with two body-styles – long wheelbase and super long wheelbase – and two-seat, five-seat, and 12-seat cabins, there appears to be a HiAce on offer for everyone, especially when you consider the closely-related Granvia is now on offer as well.

On test here is the entry-level long wheelbase petrol optioned up with the six-speed automatic transmission, which comes in at $40,640 before on-road costs. On this particular variant, the standard ‘French Vanilla’ paintwork with black plastic bumpers is the only choice you have, but body-coloured bumpers and a small selection of other finishes are available on other variants.

I should also note that while practically all new cars I review are lent to me by manufacturers – and I certainly hope to be able to try some other HiAce variants from Toyota Australia in time – this example you see here was leant to me by a private owner I know who runs a cleaning business and was keen for me to take it for a spin before it had sign-writing for his business applied just a couple of hours after I handed back the keys.

This did provide the unique opportunity to gain the perspective of someone who not only actually lives with and works out of one of these every day, but lived with the old HiAce before it, too, and after just a couple of months with this new one had practically nothing but good things to say about it to me.

And from the moment you start poking around this all-new HiAce, it’s easy to see why he, like I’m sure many other new owners also do, loves it. Although the nose on it may not look the prettiest, the more conventional van shape it takes on with an actual bonnet and the placement of the engine in front of the cabin to drastically open up the cabin space.

In this regular two-seat model, there’s seemingly boundless room with a long dashboard and the windscreen being further away from you to open the space up, feet of headroom above you, and more than enough lengthways adjustment to the seats to allow the tallest of folks to get behind the wheel.

The less imposing dashboard is a welcome relief, with plenty of places to put drinks and charge devices, although the solitary glovebox is tiny so some above-dash storage would have been useful and easy to fit, as would a centre console. The door pockets are perfectly sized for clipboards and notepads, however, and while you’d fit a street directory with ease, standard satellite navigation means you won’t have to. Speaking of infotainment, digital radio is standard as well, and Apple CarPlay able to be retrofitted, which this van is due to have done at its next service.

Also on the technology front, it offers an almost unprecedented amount of safety equipment as standard – something which has long been overdue in commercial vehicles such as this. AEB, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, traffic sign assist, automatic high beam, front and rear parking sensors, and seven airbags all feature as standard which is a very impressive feat, even if it is a big factor in the high starting price. However, it does help it ascertain an all-important 5-star ANCAP safety rating, which is remarkably impressive for a van.

While a couple of ergonomic challenges do remain – for myself, at least, at 6’2″, my left knee did knock against the base of the shifter which juts out from the bottom of the dash, and you really do have to reach down to the floor to get to the handbrake – it’s truly a more-than-pleasant place to spend time. The use of lighter colour plastics means it doesn’t feel too drab, there’s a lovely leather-wrapped steering wheel, clear displays in the instrument cluster and centre stack, and even the seats are fairly comfortable with decent side bolstering. Really, it just feels like sitting in an SUV and not a work van.

But with this HiAce LWB measuring in much larger than the old one in every dimension at 5265mm in length, 1990mm in height, 1950mm in width, and sat on a 3210mm wheelbase, the cargo area is absolutely massive in it with 6200 litres capacity with a 1075kg payload in the LWB, and as much as 9300 litres of room in the SLWB model.

What’s more, the rear wheel arches have been designed to accomodate a pallet between them, and you should be able to fit a forklift there easily enough to load it as I can stand totally upright beneath the rear hatch, although it should be noted that barn-doors aren’t available just yet but are on the cards. Also making life easier is the fitment of sliding doors on both sides with glass on the rear passenger side as standard, with handy steps to get up into the rear on both sides as well.

Two engines are available in the HiAce, one petrol and one diesel, with the owner of this van opting for the former due to it spending practically all of its life in the city, along with due to the questionable DPF issues surrounding the 2.8-litre diesel borrowed from the HiLux.

If you’re wanting a van with surprisingly good performance, the petrol here is definitely the one to go for though, as it packs a 3.5-litre naturally aspirated V6 under the bonnet borrowed directly from the Chinese-market Prado. Codenamed the 7GR-FKS, it makes a very solid 207kW at 6000rpm and 351Nm at 4600rpm, which is sent to the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic or manual transmission, the former being fitted here to make it even more city-friendly.

Although it’s a thirsty thing, claiming fuel economy of 12.4L/100km on the spec sheet and 14.4L/100km on the trip computer of this particular van after a few thousand clicks, it’s a small price to pay for the extra power you’re getting over the wheezier four-pot petrol in the old model which, realistically, used nearly as much.

With this big donk under the bonnet, it makes the HiAce a van that gets out of its own way a lot quicker than you’d expect. Sure, it’s nothing crazy, but you’ll leave a few unsuspecting people surprised at the lights as you tear off, the V6 letting out a big roar as you do.

It’s a very smooth engine though, and paired with an automatic that, for the most part, shifts pretty seamlessly, it feels far more refined than you may expect.

What’s more, it feels fairly comfortable for the most part, too, and although there is some rear-end firmness to be felt with it unladen, it should settle down significantly with some weight back there.

If anything lets the overall comfort of it down, it's the fairly noticeable road and wind noise, particularly at freeway speeds, but that’s hardly surprising given this is a slab-sided van, after all.

But aside from that and when you look back and see the massive cargo area behind you, it honestly just feels like driving a big SUV. The vast majority of the time, you simply aren’t conscious from behind the wheel that it’s… well, a big white van.

There’s no doubt, then, that the new HiAce sets the new benchmark for vans as its impressive level of standard safety equipment, impressive performance and driving dynamics, and massive cargo capacity even in its smallest form makes it one absolutely brilliant work vehicle. While the popularity of the old HiAce may have been a head-scratcher at times given it just wasn’t that great all things considered, the immense popularity you can expect this new model to see will be entirely justified.

This article originally appeared on drivesection.com on February 13, 2020. My thanks to Paul from clini-clean in Adelaide for loaning me this van to test, and his insight as an owner.

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