Remember the VW Kombi? Air cooled, rear engine, rear wheel drive? Despite the inability of the VW Kombi to perform decently with aftermarket air-conditioning, it dominated the local passenger van niche from the 60's to the early 70's. The mid seventies saw the arrival of the value for money first generation Toyota Hi-Ace Commuter. Powered by a 65 PS water-cooled pushrod engine, multiple doors and working air conditioning, the toaster styled air-cooled 45 PS VW, the Kombi was toast.
The first Hi-ace's design reflected Japanese designers' fascination with the spaceship-meets-Godzilla styling theme, a time when Toyota Crowns looked like UFOs and Datsun Bluebirds looked like Bluebirds. Through the years, the Hi-ace (now the Hiace, having dropped the dash) saw off all competition - except when the Mitsubishi L300 took over in Toyota's absence in the 80's - from the VW Brazilian Kombi, Mazda Econoline, Nissan Urvan and in the nineties, several Korean imports like the Mercedes MB100, Kia Pregio and Hyundai H100. Until the Hyundai Starex came to town.
Today's Hiace, like all Toyotas, is built not only to last but to dominate. Previously, Toyota supplied highly differentiated versions to different markets, with the Granvia-Regius Hiace versions heading for Europe while the Middle East, Asia, and Africa got the Estima version. Toyota has now homogenized the looks to appeal to global tastes. It's as boxy as they come competing with Chinese branded Japanese derived models in Asia and Africa. It competes with VW T3's, Mercedes Sprinters, IVECO Daily's, Ford Transits and Opel Vivaros in the European Union and the Middle East.
The latest top of line Super Grandia diesel challenges the sales-leading Hyundai Grand Starex. It's got a pearl white finish, a rear spoiler, an Optitron tachometer, Captain's chairs, power everything, remote controlled entertainment, fabric seats, carpet, tilt/adjust 4-spoke steering wheel, console box, sliding doors and wheel covers on steel rims with 255/70 series -15 inch tires, ABS brakes as well as a 4-speed automatic.
The Hyundai Grand Starex's front engine shovel nose and car-like driving demeanor and dynamics made a lot of fans among the super moms and men with part time super mom (dictated) domestic functions. The blunt-nosed Super Grandia, 180mm taller but 40mm narrower and 285mm shorter, offers genuine 4 abreast seating and is deliberately boxy making it easier to punt into close clearance gaps. Though the steering wheel angle is not as bus-like as a Kombi, getting to the driver's seat is quite a climb. Unlike a sedan where the driver sits way aft of the steering axle and engine, vans position the driver's bum right on top of the front axle. Thus the steering sensations are influenced by a bit more pitch over bumps. This commands a more prudent driving temperament; turning radius of 5.0m for the Commuter version is 300mm smaller than the Super Grandia.
Vehicle configurations like the Hi-ace demand more suspension tuning from the ride engineers. Paying attention to this achieves a supple driver's seat ride and rear passenger ride comfort by tuning the rear axle leaf springs of the simple but rugged solid rear axle for gentle long amplitude bounce. Despite its wind resisting slab sides, the Hiace tracks stably even in crosswinds. All these are the benefit of careful calibration of spring and damper rates.
Toyota fits the same EURO IV D-4D 2.5 liter 102 PS crdi turbo across the Hiace range but because of our high sulfur EURO II fuel, it is tuned down 17 PS short of the European market versions. It may have a 72 PS deficit from the class leading Hyundai Grand Starex and has one gear less in the automatic version, but the Hiace is 350kg lighter in tare weight. The smooth shifting 4-speed auto gearbox is as peppy as a Corolla's, although one needs a bit more space for single carriageway trunk road overtaking as 0-100 times are in the 20-second range. Considering its intimidating beam, the Super Grandia automatic drives with surprising verve with mid-range rpm poke in the urban setting. Still, its top speed is nothing to scoff at. Diesel consumption of 11.27 km/liter achieved on a sane cruise on the NLEX using EASY-TRIP is 2.0-liter mid-size car class range. We wonder how much more fun the drive can be if the more powerful and just as thrifty 3.0-liter Fortuner D-4D engine finds its way into the Hiace's under the seat engine bay.
The Hiace trumps the keenly priced UMC Nissan Urvan convincingly in technology, though the Toyota name always commands a price premium. That premium will count for a lot in battling the already pricey but car-like Hyundai Grand Starex CRDI. Besides, if sports sedan-like driving demeanor and even more luxury is required in exchange for a little less bulk and passenger carrying capacity, there is always the sublime Zen-style Toyota Previa, which comes only in VVTi gasoline power.
Still, the Super Grandia is gaining traction, judging by the number of Grandia's on the expressways every weekend. Proof? The Grandia is now becoming more common among tourist mini-bus transport and even the price buying UV-Express/GT shuttle market are paying top dollar for the narrower Commuter. Toyota is gradually and surely working its magic.