Hino 300-Series test

Whether Hino’s new 300-series range of light-duty trucks is the best in the business remains to be seen. Ultimately, buyers will decide. What can be concluded without any doubt though is that Hino’s new ‘little league’ perfectly reflects the astonishing advances made in light-duty trucks over the last few years. STEVE BROOKS takes a close look at just one automatic example.

Better than ever

Japanese domination of the light and medium-duty truck markets is no fluke. They dominate because they continue to be the best in the business and more to the point, their trucks today are the best they’ve ever been.
But that said, there was a time when the prospect of road testing a new Japanese light-duty truck had all the appeal of a three inch nail through your best Blundstones. Seriously, they were once that bad, and the decades have not diminished the memory of some severe inadequacies.
Like, it’s not easy to forget – as much as some of us might wish we could – those cramped, noisy, hot cabs with seats as hard as floorboards and obviously designed for bums of far smaller dimension.

Likewise, packs of short leaf springs designed to carry loads far greater than the truck’s rated capacity were unforgiving and on anything other than a super-smooth road surface, delivered a ride entirely capable of bashing the braces off your kids’ teeth. Well, almost!
Then there were the engines and gearboxes, the former with all the responsiveness and pulling power of a three-toed sloth, and the latter with ratios so far apart that it was common practice to wring the engine out to ‘flight’ revs in one gear before changing up to the next. Meanwhile, a downshift made too early – that is, without letting revs fall to the point where the engine was about to choke to death – could send the tacho needle into orbit.

And in an era when some minds thought an emission was something done by missionaries, Japanese light trucks weren’t bashful about belching black smoke by the bucketful. To be fair though, back then the Japanese certainly weren’t alone in this department.

Simply put, it’s not exaggerating to state that by today’s standards those early Japanese light-duty trucks were bloody awful things. But despite everything, they lived, and lived and lived. Indeed, if one word defined the reason for Japan’s absolute and still unchallenged ascendancy in Australia’s light truck business (and for that matter, the medium truck business as well) it would be most certainly ‘durability’. They were as tough as teak and coupled with a price then reflecting a highly attractive and largely under-valued Japanese Yen, they contributed hugely to the demise of once iconic brands such as Bedford and International Harvester.
Thus, with the established competition evicted to oblivion, the Japanese for a long time didn’t need to do much else other than reap the rewards of market domination. In short, glaciers moved faster than Japanese product development.

Fortunately though, competition between Japanese brands steadily intensified as each maker vied for a bigger slice of the slab, with engineering evolution over many years eventually leading to slow, subtle and sometimes almost insignificant improvements. Sure, some new models would exhibit an occasional burst of development bravado but overall, mediocrity ruled. Still, they were better than before and that was something to be grateful for, no matter how marginal the improvement.
Then in what still seems a heartbeat, a few years back evolution turned into revolution with a sudden barrage of bold new initiatives and smart designs.

It’s perhaps appropriate that market leader Isuzu fired the first highly charged salvo in what has quickly become an entirely new age in Japanese truck design. With its new light-duty N-series and medium-duty F-series models, and with a substantially tougher emissions regime as a motivating factor, Isuzu effectively rewrote the book on Japanese light truck development by delivering a swathe of performance, driver, safety and environmental features which surprised everyone, not least its major competitors.

But in the interim, and in the light-duty arena particularly, the competition has hit back, and hit back hard with Fuso and Hino last year unveiling a range of new models containing the type of technology and operational features more commonly found in a modern passenger car than a light truck. In fact, it’s not fanciful to suggest that in several examples, the latest light-duty trucks drive more like cars than freight vehicles.

In Hino’s case, the 300-series represents an entirely new generation and to be blunt, its launch in September last year could not have come at a better time. Without dwelling on the point, Hino’s relegation to third place on the light truck sales ladder behind arch rivals Isuzu and Fuso does not sit well in an outfit which openly views itself as the only true challenger to Isuzu’s seemingly indomitable market leadership.

Consequently, Hino isn’t shy about promoting the virtues of its newcomers and while the expanse and features of the 300-series line-up were well covered in Paul Matthei’s report in our last issue of 2011, it’s worth recapping at least some of the broader details. Hino states, for instance, that the four key areas of safety, performance, efficiency and comfort were the focus of the design and importantly, the new range was created with record levels of Australian development input.

On the safety front, the 300-series sets a new benchmark with Hino Australia divisional manager Alex Stewart explaining, “All models have four-wheel ventilated disc brakes incorporating ABS, electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and, in an Australia first for a light-duty truck, vehicle stability control (VSC).”

What’s more, it came as no surprise to find Hino had expanded its hybrid offerings in the new range. Yet while there are now eight dedicated and substantially refined hybrid models, all stirring through an advanced five-speed automated manual transmission and catering for what Hino asserts is increasing interest in hybrid fuel and environmental efficiencies, the diesel-only versions with Euro 5 emissions compliance are obviously the foundation of Hino’s renewed assault. What’s more, wide cab derivatives of the diesel group are now available with a six-speed transmission in either manual or automatic form, the latter ‘making Hino the only Japanese truck manufacturer to offer a full automatic transmission in the light-duty market.’

So, with a new diesel engine, a new auto shifter, a completely new cab inside and out, and a range of features that would’ve once been inconceivable in a Japanese light-duty truck, the thought of actually sticking the Blundstones into at least one example of Hino’s latest lightweight didn’t hold quite the trepidation of times past. In fact, it’s fair to suggest the 616 Auto tray-top chosen for this exercise from a number of models on offer was just the right option to confirm once and for all that the only similarity between Japanese light trucks of yesteryear and those of today is the name badge.

Slick shifter

While all 45 derivatives in the 300 line-up are undoubtedly important to Hino, it’s perhaps fair to suggest that the 616 Auto has the potential to be a particularly popular model due to its somewhat obvious appeal to rental companies. For starters, it’s a truck available at gross vehicle weights (GVW) of either 4495 kg or 5500 kg, allowing the lighter of the two to be driven on a car licence. Second, the auto option is sure to appeal to the quickly increasing number of car drivers whose skill or liking for stick-shifts is negligible.

Additionally, safety factors are typically strong with dual SRS airbags, ABS disc brakes, traction control and vehicle stability control heading the list of standard items while on the inside, the 300-series provides a notably improved environment. For instance, wide cab models such as the 616 Auto have a suspension seat and while it’s a basic mechanical affair, considerably less effective than its air-sprung contemporaries, it’s at least a bigger and far better arrangement than the fixed seat of before. Still, given the advances in so many other areas, it’s somewhat surprising that Hino didn’t go all out with an air seat for the new range.

But the seat is just the start and in terms of driver convenience and overall practicality, there’s a lot to commend the new Hino. The dash layout is well designed and includes a digital ‘accumulation’ gauge highlighting the level of contaminants in the diesel particulate filter and more importantly, displaying the system’s self-cleaning (regenerative) ability once particulates have reached a certain level. Indeed, during the five or six hours behind the wheel in this exercise, watching the build-up of contaminants in the diesel particulate filter and the system’s subsequent ability to return the gauge to zero after automatically burning off the accumulated soot was as intriguing as it was impressive.

All-round vision is another strong point and according to Hino product planner Daniel Petrovski, a great deal of design effort and development expense went into the creation of a thin A-pillar to greatly enhance driver vision. Add a deep windscreen along with amply sized and electrically adjustable side and spotter mirrors, the 300-series rates well in the sight stakes. At this point it’s also worth mentioning the turning circle of the 616 Auto is exceptionally tight and rates as another highly favourable feature of the new range.

However, it’s perhaps a sign of the times that when it came to explaining the various features of the test truck, Petrovski spent most time demonstrating the extraordinary capabilities of the standard multimedia system. Yet even though he was dealing with a dinosaur in the understanding of these hi-tech information and entertainment systems, even I could comprehend and be amazed at their immense potential to improve a driver’s daily routine. The optional inclusion of up to three reversing cameras is just one example but as Daniel Petrovski explained, there are many elements to be considered.

“The customer benefits from the introduction of multimedia systems are many,” he remarked. “Not only are we providing a comfortable environment for the driver but we are making their observation of the road, the conditions and the surrounding environment an easier and less stressful task, all of which allows them to concentrate more on driving the vehicle. In my view that puts multimedia systems under the umbrellas of both comfort and safety.”

There will, of course, be some truck owners and fleet managers who will view such features as an expensive and unnecessary luxury and in some instances, they may well be right. On balance though, ignoring the inherent assets of this technology would be a mistake and perhaps even a case of fighting the inevitable. Remember, there was a time when air conditioning was considered an expensive and unwarranted luxury in light trucks.

On more routine matters, the 300-series sits on a typical ladder-frame chassis with the wide cab 616 Auto riding on packs of tapered leaf springs front and rear, and shod with 195/85R 16 inch radial tyres mounted on five-stud wheels. Overall, ride quality was good on a route that ran south from Hino headquarters in Sydney’s far southern suburbs to Wollongong via the long descent of Mt Ousley, returning along the wildly undulating coastal road before again hitting the suburbs.

Under the all-steel tilt cab sits Hino’s new four cylinder, four litre, turbocharged and intercooled engine with all the typical features of an environmentally compliant light-duty power plant, namely an electronically managed common-rail fuel system working in concert with exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) and a diesel particulate filter for emissions compliance.

In the 616 Auto, peak outputs are relatively modest at 110 kW (148 hp) at 2500 rpm and 420 Nm (310 lb ft) at 1400 rpm. However, when feeding through the remarkably smooth and progressive steps of the six-speed, double overdrive automatic transmission, it’s a combination which continued to surprise almost from the moment of driving out of Hino’s yard.

Built on the shorter of the model’s two available wheelbase lengths – 2810 and 3430 mm – and fitted with a quality 3.3 metre Transalloy tray with a four tonne floor rating, the truck was loaded to within a tad of its 4495 kg rating and quite simply, did the job with calm, smooth efficiency. In driving terms, whether in the clutter of traffic or the fervour of freeway cruising, there was nothing not to like. Here is a light truck that truly drives like a car, responsive and quick in the ‘burbs and strolling along open roads at 100 km/h with the engine ticking over at a tad over 2000 rpm. And not to be forgotten or under-estimated is the modern auto shifter’s inherent ability to work in sync with the exhaust brake on long descents such as Mt Ousley.

So is the full automatic better than an automated manual transmission (AMT) in a truck of this size? Well, given a performance which included a frugal fuel return, measured at the bowser as 6.1 km/litre (17 mpg) and at 6.4 km/litre (18 mpg) through the vehicle’s on-board computer system, it’s certainly no less appealing and in all probability, sets a standard for others to equal.

May the revolution continue!