Meet the man who made the Toyota Hilux bakkie so good

  • The Toyota Hilux is one of the world's most influential vehicles, especially in South Africa.
  • Here's how the career journey and vision of a Toyota engineer delivered the best Hilux yet.
  • Today's Hilux is so good because a proper Japanese bakkie enthusiast was the engineering mastermind behind it.
  • For more motoring stories, go to www.Wheels24.co.za.

Is there a vehicle more influential than Toyota's Hilux? There might be more advanced designs with greater performance, but in the South African market the Hilux is unrivalled.

But who is the engineer responsible for this Japanese bakkie? With its crushing success and immensely loyal customers, the human element behind Hilux is often forgotten. 

Followers of the Toyota brand rightfully admire the Hilux's durability and obsess about the merest technical upgrade or design update. But does anybody actually understand the thinking behind it? How did the career journey and vision of a Toyota engineer deliver the best Hilux yet.

A vast engineering team is responsible for the successful outcome of the Hilux, but a core group of experienced Toyota technical experts must guide its development.

Toyota Hilux special edition

2019 Toyota Hilux Special Edition

One person who was deeply influential in Toyota's eighth-generation Hilux project is former chief engineer Masahiko Maeda. Realising the pressure that was being exerted by Ford's T6 Ranger, Toyota's chief engineers were aware Hilux had to evolve into something more advanced, without sacrificing its workhorse legacy.

From Prius to Hilux

Masahiko Maeda is a bakkie guy. As an engineering student, he felt more drawn to the proportions and stance of bakkies, than sports cars.

He joined Toyota in 1994, and by 2000, Maeda was recruited to work on the seventh-generation Hilux R&D project, which was his dream job. After successfully launching the seventh-generation Hilux, a vehicle which would become legendary for its 3.0-litre D-4D engine and durability in South Africa, Maeda was moved to the Prius team.

Although transitioning from working on bakkies to hybrid cars was an unexpected career juncture, it gave Maeda valuable experience in understanding how noise and vibration influence the driver and passenger experience.

When Toyota started assembling its cadre of chief engineers for the eighth-generation Hilux project, Maeda was recalled to the bakkie division after nearly five years on team Prius. By accessing customer experiences, Maeda was able to learn precisely which aspect of the Hilux required improving.

Masahiko Maeda

Masahiko Maeda. Image: Toyota Media

Experiencing the bakkie like a user

For South African Hilux customers, two of the most profound upgrades between the seventh and eighth-generation bakkies regarded drivetrain and power delivery. A six-speed replaced the five-speed manual, and this was not simply an issue of keeping trend with Hilux rivals.

"In New Zealand, the issue of gear ratio was raised. On a certain farm, an old 4.0-litre Hilux was idling at first gear as the harvest was loaded onto the cargo bed, but with the seventh generation, even in the same gear, the speed was greater, and the harvesters couldn't keep up, so they wanted us to address this."

Instead of merely adjusting the five-speed gearbox's ratios, which would have increased overall fuel consumption, Maeda decided Hilux now truly needed a six-speed option.

High-speed cruising was another unexpected customer requirement, which Maeda discovered.

"In Argentina, we were told that the torque was fine, but they wanted more engine power. We had thought that torque was important with a diesel engine, but in the field, to overtake the car ahead, the vehicle needed to accelerate instantaneously, to reach a speed of 130 km/h to overtake in the opposite lane. I realised that instantaneous power was necessary, even at high speed."

From his university days as an admirer of the boxy fourth-generation Hilux, Maeda's dream came true in his position as chief engineer for the current Toyota global bakkie platform.

If you were wondering why your current Hilux is so good, it is because a proper Japanese bakkie enthusiast, in the guise of Masahiko Maeda, was the engineering mindfulness behind it.

Today Maeda is Toyota's chief technology officer, which bodes well for the future of any Hilux development for the ninth-generation bakkie.

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