The Toyota Hilux is a motoring icon that gained notoriety in a pretty unique manner. It embodied the toughness for which it became famous long before its popularity ballooned, and it has continued to do so ever since. If you were one of those who saw it prove itself indestructible on the telly in 2003 and was prompted to run to your nearest Toyota dealership, the 270 Hilux is the one you’d have bought. It came out in the UK two years prior to that, and the one that survived the savaging was in fact a model from the 1980s. Nevertheless, the 270 Hilux was as credible and well-built as every generation that came before and has come since. This generation held appeal in the one-tonne market as it remained much stricter to the workhorse brief of a true pick-up DNA, in a time when everything else on the market had the lifestyle customers in their crosshairs.
When it was updated in 2004, the double-cab version became known as the 280 version and, to ride on the wave of indestructible popularity, a new range-topping trim was released – Invincible. This added a bit more kit to the Hilux and gave it a dose more appeal for the lifestyle market. But it still wasn’t a massive dose by any means.
The 270 Hilux laced its boots strait. As a result, this means that the interior in utilitarian EX and mid-range GX models were fairly sparse. EX models came with vinyl floor matting and air conditioning, front electric windows, a Sony radio with cassette player as standard and a cloth interior. There was also a centre armrest with storage, a lockable glovebox and the side mirrors were electronically adjustable. To this, the GX added the luxury of actual carpets and a cloth cloaked door card, sports seats for the driver and front passenger, a tachometer and a more modern Sony radio with a CD player installed. The mid-level truck also added a remote controlled full alarm system with remote central locking, too.
The model that was bought into more than the other two was the VX. This was the same as GX models inside, but gaining 15-inch alloys and 15mm wider wheel arches. When the Invincible came along it added a full-leather interior and steering wheel, a CD autochanger, yet more exterior bling, tinted rear windows, a chromed tubular rear bumper and the added cache of being even tougher on account of its name. But even still, the Invincible was not as plush as many of its rivals, which given the hype, didn’t kerb appeal one bit. There still wasn’t too much to choose between the top and bottom of the range, however.
Toyota’s D-4D 2.5-litre diesel unit, new for the 270 Hilux, was a solid engine. It kicked out 102bhp paired with 188lbf.ft, however it may be worth looking for one with a factory-approved chip that boosted power to 128bhp and 221lbf.ft. This will be particularly of worth to drivers with longer journeys on the agenda, as the standard 102bhp version is much better suited to a hard day’s graft than it is a multi-hour round trip for whatever occasion.
As part of the workhorse character, this generation of Hilux is low geared to favour driving with a loaded bed and towing, making it much more ideal for a working life.
Despite the changes in spec being fairly minimal from farmyard wagon to lifestyle truck, the three original specs of the Hilux had a variation in their technical specs. Whilst the top-spec EX received no interior changes to the model below, it did gain ABS which will obviously give you more confidence behind the wheel.
The three initial trims also had different payload capacities, despite posing the same towing capacity – which is 2,250kg braked. The entry EX boasted a 1,075kg payload, whereas the GX could cope with 20kg less and the VX ten less than that. The VX also sat on a track 45mm wider both front and back than its underlings and stood all of 5mm taller, too. Add these factors into play and the VX and VX-derived Invincible models shouldn’t ride much different to the other specs, actually, as the wider track and added height shouldn’t make much difference in isolation, but any effect either has will be cancelled out by the other. The ABS is really where the VX makes a claim for itself, the Invincible too, of course. Top-spec VX alloys were actually an inch SMALLER than the steelies of the EX, so you got more bling and more tyre, which will help with comfort on the road.
All iterations left the factory fitted with an auto disconnect differential. They also had a locking function, which if you’re likely to be in the thick of it will always be handy. With a double wishbone and upper torsion bar suspension at the front, and a leaf sprung situation at the back, the Hilux isn’t overly complex, but it will certainly be able to look after itself in the tough stuff.
The focal point of the Hilux’s fame, whilst being accurate, may well have done it a disservice – in terms of second-hand versions that is. It’s entirely possible that, because it was publicly declared indestructible, owners misread that ‘information’ and neglected to take proper care of their trucks. This means that there are a few chinks in the Hilux chainmail that could become issues if the truck has put in the work and not seen any in return. If they are taken care of, then it is entirely feasible that these trucks could drive into eternity.
First on the list of things to look out for is clutch judder. This will more likely than not happen when pulling away in first gear, and it’s caused by worn UJs in the rear propshaft. If you’re test driving a truck they’re worth checking to see if there’s any play in them. In a situation where there is, it’ll cost around £100 to rectify, so it’s worth either negotiating down the price or ask them to sort it before the sale goes through.
Next up, there are some reports of wheel alignment issues, which leave the Hilux pulling to the left under acceleration. This is more than likely due to the tracking being out – something that is rather easily rectified. But it could indicate a past of less than careful ownership, especially on a former utilities truck. If this is the case, it’s probably worth checking the vehicle’s history, plus weighing up the condition of the interior, load bed and the underside of the truck.
It is essential that the timing belt on the Hilux is changed on schedule – every 90,000 miles is recommended by Toyota. If you’ve found a truck that you’re considering at a main dealer, or even an independent specialist, it would certainly be wise to add a new timing belt into negotiations. Even if it’s not quite due yet, it will still delay the large labour bill that comes with the work.
The RNLI used a fleet of this generation Hilux, as did other similar organisations and countless fleets across agriculture, building contractors and forestry – they were also used in the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link between London and the tunnel itself in 2002. It’s worth looking out for bodywork dents, premature corrosion on the chassis and overly weathered interiors – all could be signs of not-so-careful fleet use.
The Hilux, of all generations, is always a safe bet if you’re looking for a workhorse. The 270 double-cab, which became known as the 280 after its 2004 update, is no different. At the time of writing, there are far fewer of these listed online than any other truck we’ve written a buying guide for. We’d take this to mean that they’re still out there working – with their retirement a long, long way in the future.
We’d say the smart money – regardless of your circumstances or line of work – goes into a VX or Invincible Hilux. You may be able to get some higher-spec versions with more extras on 06 plates, as when the all-new truck came to replace it, Toyota sold off the old stock with more gizmos and more savings.
Having looked, you could get a well-weathered EX version for as little as £1,500, but a higher mileage, well-kept example would realistically be £3,500 – and that’s definitely the better option.
Be sure to look into the history of any truck, too. We found a number of examples that were part of the coastguard’s fleet. These were all low mileage (40k miles or so), and certainly well maintained, but spending large amounts of time axle-deep in salty water is sure to diminish a truck’s lifespan.
Many models on the market came fitted with the factory-optioned Truckman canopy and some advertised had already had the cambelt changed, too. For trucks with a higher mileage, we didn’t spot too much of a difference in price between EX and VX models, nor VX and Invincible. A well-maintained Invincible model with around 140,000-miles could be snapped up for between four and five grand. Lower mileage examples did cost more, but if it’s a Hilux that’s been looked after, that sort of mileage will be nothing.