Toyota Hilux AT38 Review
Rough and tough or not good enough?
By Imthishan Giado
Can a fish survive out of water?
No, obviously as any amateur sadist will tell you: it’ll flop about and expire in a matter of moments, probably cursing your name to its last gasping breath. Take a fish out of its natural environment and it will not, cannot survive.
I had a similar sort of reaction when the call came through from Al Futtaim Motors, asking if I’d like to try their superstar Top Gear Hilux AT38 out in the desert. In 50 degree weather. Gulp.
After all, what’s left to prove with this thing? It’s been to the North Pole then the Volcano-With-The-Unpronounceable-Name and finally was a massive hit at MME Meet 11. Surely it’s now time for the lecture circuit, where it can regale listeners with tales of how frightened James May was behind the wheel while Clarkson stubbornly refused to listen to instructions?
Nope, Al Futtaim were serious. They’re launching a new Xtreme range of modified FJs, Land Cruisers and Prados and they think this will be a good way to drive the forebear of the range. Truth be told, it didn’t seem like a good idea because the AT38 was designed for snow, not sand. Those massive 38-inch tyres look good but they’re designed to cut through the soft stuff and bite into the ice when in sand you want to do the exact opposite; float on top like a soufflé.
And then there’s the power or rather, the lack of it. There’s just 160bhp on tap from the four-cylinder turbo diesel and every drop of it will be needed just to get those balloon feet moving. Yes, yes diesel provides lots of nice torque to get you off the line but if you’re planning on climbing the really big dunes you’re going to need high –rev power – lots of it. What about the long-travel suspension? Would it be stiff enough? Would the double-cab wheelbase be too long and end up seesawing on dunes everywhere?
With good reason, I was a worried man. Some of those worries melted away (pun intended) when I met my guide for the day, burly Icelander Hjalti Hjaltason from Artic Trucks. His company builds and sells these modified Toyotas worldwide and he’s now permanently based in Dubai as production manager where he helps craft these amazing machines for UAE customers. Hjalti also happened to be on the original North Pole expedition as one of the (poorly) paid drivers so he’s a fount of wonderful stories about life behind the scenes with the three most famous motoring journalists in the world – none of which I can repeat, sadly.
We meet the truck in Hatta where it’s incongruously parked outside the giant Big Red dune. Naturally like all TV stars it sat in its own trailer – or should I say, ‘on’. But there were no temper tantrums when Hjalti twisted the key, the diesel engine clattering to life instantly. Gently he eased it off the ramp (although he could have floored it, such is the ground clearance on this thing) and placed it on the soft sand. Five minutes with an Irani-style valve screwdriver and the big tyres are aired down to 20psi, sufficient for today’s conditions. The Icelandic giant disappears into the back of his FJ to fetch a cooler box filled with water bottles, while I survey the scene and wonder just what I’d gotten myself into.
Big Red is normally teeming with offroaders and quad bikes charging into the dunes trying to break bits of themselves but today, at 10:30AM there’s not a soul in sight for miles. There’s a very good reason for that – the thermostat in Hjalti’s FJ reads 50 degress, burning sand is flying into my eyes with every gust of wind and to top it all, the sand is so soft it feels the truck is sinking just being stationary. This is madness. Or Sparta, depending on your interpretation.
The madness then escalates. I thought Hjalti would be following me in the FJ but instead, he locks his car then climbs into the passenger seat and jollily throws me the keys. So I’m going to be driving solo into the dunes on the hottest day of the year with no backup in a priceless museum exhibit with celebrity provenance. What could possibly go wrong?
Immediately, almost everything. I clambered into the high, high driver’s seat which is on the wrong side, as this is a UK-spec truck. Instantly my keenly powers of observation deduce that it isn’t particularly pleasant in here, with the A/C just blowing hot air at me.
‘Hjalti, what’s wrong with the A/C?’
‘That should be fixed,’ he grunts. You don’t need much cold air in temps below 0 degrees, so the A/C has never been switched on since the truck was made. Six years later, it’s given up the ghost completely. Peachy. Just peachy.
Determined to not look like a complete wimp in the presence of Hjalti, I yank the gearstick into first gear and charge ahead….very slowly, like a driving school student. There just isn’t enough torque in high range so we’ll have to stick the transfer case in Low Range which doubles the available torque but also cuts the speed down to nothing. Somehow, speed is not something I think we’ll be worried about today.
Third gear seems to be a good starting point when you’re going to spend a lot of time in low range and it works well in the Hilux, which is doing surprisingly well and refusing to bog down in the super-soft sand. Most sane people would turn right and head gently over the smaller dunes, but sod it, it’s not my truck, right? Down another gear into second and let’s see if she’ll make it up Big Red. Baptism of fire? Oh yeah.
I needn’t have worried. Once she got some speed going, the big Hilux floated effortlessly on the sand the big (and old) tyres doing their job well. You can do a straight run up the flat ‘centre’ of Big Red or surf your way up the crests on the side to the top, and the Hilux dismissed both with ease. Going up the last few feet towards the summit, it seemed like the little engine was running out of breath so it was time for an emergency change down to first., easy on the tipshift automatic. Clamping the steering wheel, I practically willed the slowing beast to climb, the revs straining towards the limiter. It seemed certain that we would not make it….but the gobs of torque just kept coming and gently, assuredly, almost imperceptibly, the tonka truck made it to the top.
No rest for the wicked though; it was straight on to the other side, where the Hilux tracked impressively straight down the steep first gear drop. Normally when you put massive knobbly tyres on a truck it plays hell with the steering as the big rubber tends to pull the truck rather than vice versa, but the rack on this car showed no such signs.
Once we had made our way safely down, it was time to test the Hilux’s agility amongst the smaller dunes. This is normally where big trucks suffer and smaller rigs like the Wrangler excel. Driving over a constant stream of tiny hills requires a very technical approach, riding over the tops of ridges and using the natural curves to maintain momentum. Get it ride and it’s close to automotive surfing as you’re going to get. Get it wrong, and you’ll be forced into a tiny bowl of soft sand no bigger than your vehicle with very few options for getting out.
Here the Hilux really excelled – with its epic ground clearance and huge approach and departure angles, I could easily drove up and over dunes if I chose, or ride the ridges, with the wide wheelbase providing perfect stability. No need to worry about hitting the bumper on fast approaches as well, thanks to that big bull bar up front – but interestingly, it is still possible to crest the tops of dunes if you don’t build enough speed on your approach.
Both of us were sweating profusely now, the feeble A/C blowing puffs of hot air onto our moist cheekbones. The decision was unanimously taken to switch it off and roll down the windows risking third degree burns instead of slowly broiling to death inside this hothouse. As for the truck, the temperature gauge remained superglue to the middle – although one hopes it was still working.
For the novice, this is a remarkably easy truck to drive. The huge glass area means you have great visibility in every direction (I’m looking at you, FJ) and even with all the mods, it’s still a manageable size in all but the tightest dunes. With the extra inches, rarely do you worry about any part of the body touching sand, although I did manage to crest it a few times. The engine performed beautifully – I can’t imagine how much the small turbo must have been suffering in the weltering heat yet it showed no signs of distress, pulling us up and over any obstacle.
Except for the human kind, though. After about an hour in the impossible heat, my brain felt like the proverbial egg in the pan and I was starting to have difficulty plotting my course. In one such moment, I ended up on the wrong side in a hill in super soft sand, the car rapidly sinking up to its axles. With no back up car to tow us out and no other vehicles in sight, this was a real problem.
It was then that Hjalti revealed one more ace up the Hilux’s sleeve. Flicking three switches on the lower console, he activated the onboard air compressor which then locked the front and centre differentials (in addition to the centre one). What that means in layman’s terms is that the engine can direct power to the wheel with traction, instead of spinning it way at the wheel that doesn’t.
And it really, really works. Like magic, the big truck gently pulled itself out of the hole it had dug for itself, the huge wheels miraculously finding purchase where before there had been none. We literally drove ourselves out. These diffs cost about AED5,000 per differential which ain’t cheap in the slightest, but that moment, in that heat, they paid for themselves.
The truck was still in fine form but the human beings were not. Rather than risking heatstroke we decided to call it a day and head back to the main road. But really, we could have carried on for hours more. Apart from the malfunctioning A/C, the Hilux had been a fine steed throughout the day and one of the most satisfying vehicles I’ve ever driven offroad.
Is the Top Gear Hilux the perfect desert warrior? No, not quite. This truck was designed for expedition use, so it’s meant to carry huge loads and a crew over any terrain in impossible weather conditions. That’s not the same as hooning about in the desert, so the Hilux lacks the power you need for the really big dunes or soft sand in places like Liwa unless you swap the engine for a 4-litre Prado unit.
Similarly, the big heavy tyres coped well but they’re hideously expensive to replace at AED6,000 each when honestly, a decent set of Michelin Latitude HPs would do just as well. Similarly, I’d want to beef up the steering rack – the truck suffered injuries in subsequent trips to the desert.
Strengths? The basic design of the suspension is very solid, soaking up the worst bumps but stiff enough to still give you feedback about the surface. The trick diffs are helpful (but not essential) and the four-speed auto is an able companion, able to keep the power flowing in the tightest of spots. Comfort levels are very high from the squishy seats, the instrumentation is idiot-proof and the entire cabin is wipe-clean easy.
Will the production Xtreme trucks resemble this car? Unlikely unless you throw a lot of money Hjalti’s way, but they will have the same tough look. For most who never venture into the desert, that’s enough.
But this one did, and it didn’t do too bad at all. Maybe some fish don’t need water after all.