Text: Danie Botha and GG van Rooyen
Photography: Jannie Herbst
In the beginning?
“Rhallee”, said the big and brawny Icelander, with his distinctive Icelandic accent. “The AT35 will make for good rhallee car.”
He was referring to the Arctic Trucks Toyota Hilux AT35 we were driving in Iceland in July, 2010. We were going Harry Flatters on a sandy “rally track”, on the coast of this land of extremes.
He was absolutely right. With another 200 kW under the bonnet? well, it could probably win the Dakar rally!
The AT35 3.0D4-D handled the pedal-to-the-metal conditions and the tight turns much better than the bigger-wheeled Arctic bakkies that were also there.
Talking about big?
The Hilux AT44 is specifically designed for Arctic conditions, and not handling on a tight track. In the Arctic regions it famously serves as back-up and support vehicle for major scientific, climbing, skiing, hiking and rescue missions.
The Hilux AT38 is also designed to conquer extreme Arctic conditions, but is ultimately not as capable in the bad stuff as the AT44. The latter was made famous on BBC Top Gear’s Polar Special programme, when it became the first vehicle to drive under its own steam to the magnetic North Pole.
After getting a taste of both the AT44 and AT38, we found that the 35 provided the most Hilux-like ride of the lot. While the bigger-wheeled bakkies, designed primarily for snow and ice, boasted a ride that is slightly wallowy, the AT35 – with its lower centre of gravity – was highly impressive on all surfaces. These included a glacier, snow and deep water crossings. Against all expectations, the AT35 went everywhere the bigger-wheeled Hilux bakkies did.
So it handles well and is as comfortable as a standard Hilux, but it can most certainly go the whole nine yards in an extreme 4×4 environment, too.
The (big) wheels start turning
In August 2010 Toyota Motors South Africa (TMSA) announced that it had entered an agreement to convert six South African-built Hilux bakkies – in conjunction with Arctic Trucks – into super Hilux AT bakkies.
Two vehicles would undergo full AT44 conversions, while two AT44s in 6×6 heavy-duty configuration would also be assembled by Arctic’s technicians in a Toyota workshop, based in Sandton.
The four AT44s would do duty as back-up support for the gruelling Antarctic Ski Challenge to the South Pole, which forms part of the Extreme World Races series.
A fifth AT44 would be built for the Indian National Centre Antarctic and Ocean Research, while Hilux number six would be converted to AT38 specifications. The AT38 would be donated to the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP) to serve as high-mobility personnel transporter and light duty workhorse at SANAE IV, SA’s Antarctica base station.
Local company 4×4 Mega World was also involved, supporting the building process.
What the official TMSA press release did not state, though, was that two more Hilux bakkies were on the menu – a 3.0D-4D 4×4 double cab and a 3.0D4-D XtraCab. Both would be built to AT35 specifications. These bakkies have since been completed.
But before we tell you more about the AT35 and its SA application, let’s first talk about the other special bakkies built in SA – the ones used in the extreme conditions they were designed for.
On 6 December 2010, a brand-new AT38 was loaded onto the supply ship SA Agulhas, on its way to the SANAE base.
The AT44 built for India’s Antarctic research station has successfully completed its first Arctic mission.
Says Arctic Trucks’ Emil Grimsson: “The trip to the South Pole with Indian scientists went very well. We experienced temperatures of minus 56 degrees Celcius, but the team made it to the pole in eight days, covering 2300km. The return trip took just seven days.”
And, in December 2010, the four AT44s (including the two 6×6 bakkies) were on duty on the Antarctic Ski Challenge, filmed for an Austrian and German television network.
So it was clearly a very successful partnership between TMSA, Arctic Trucks and 4×4 Mega World.
The AT35 choice
The big-wheeled AT35 will be on sale by May this year. In December, the two AT35s (one with standard suspension and one with aftermarket Old Man Emu suspension) were due to head to Toyota’s technical development centre in KwaZulu-Natal for durability testing.
Designed to push vehicles to the point of breaking, the test covers 10 000km of non-stop driving on a purpose-designed track. The 10 000km on this track compares to Joe Public driving about 70 000km.
The final deal to build the AT35 here was due to be signed in January 2011. But it seems to be a simple matter of administration between 4×4 Mega World and Arctic Trucks. TMSA says it will not be part of the building of the AT bakkies – and the company’s final position on the sale of the bakkie (with a standard warranty) remains uncertain. More on that later.
“The two AT35s will be tested and a decision made on final specification, and optional extras, in conjunction with 4×4 Mega World. In Iceland, the AT35 is very close to the standard Hilux. For instance, we don’t change suspension parts such as springs, shocks and the rear blades.
Also, few of our customers in Iceland fit additional off-road accessories. The salt used in the contruction of our roads destroys a winch very quickly, and the extra weight of the winch is in any case not ideal for the standard front springs,” says Arctic’s Emil Grimsson.
The South African version will be built much along the same lines – basic but very effective upgrades. However, the AT35 sold here will probably be fitted with Old Man Emu suspension, to handle the rougher off-road conditions encountered in Africa.
“Customers will be able to specify their own tyre choice,” says 4×4 Mega World’s Deon Venter. “Some customers may want to fit mud terrain tyres for more extreme off-road conditions, while others may plan on driving 90% of the time on tar, and 10% on gravel, so an all-terrain tyre would be more suitable.”
The conversion itself is one that Arctic Trucks’ technicians routinely perform in one working day. The suspension receives a 40mm lift, some suspension mounting points are relocated, flared fibreglass wheel arches and side panels are added, the speedometer is recalibrated, and the 35-inch wheels are fitted.
The engine and drivetrain remain 100% standard.
In Iceland, the AT35 is fitted with 35×12.5 R15 tyres and 15×10 rims. That’s a whole lot of tyre and not so much rim, which means better flotation on – for instance – sand. It also allows the driver to deflate the tyres more than a standard off-road tyre, providing a softer ride on rough terrain as well as better traction – while still offering plenty of ground clearance.
But this tyre configuration may not be a practical option for SA.
“Due to the higher cruising speeds in South Africa, and the limited availability of 35×12.5 R15 tyres, even in major centres, a more realistic option would be 17-inch rims and suitable tyres,” says Grimsson.
The burning question that remains is whether TMSA will offer the AT35 conversion on a brand-new Hilux – and still offer the standard warranty on the new vehicle, as is the case in Iceland.
Only time will tell if you will be able to buy the AT35 from your local Toyota dealer, or if you will have to buy the Hilux from the dealer and take it to 4×4 Mega World for the modifications.
“The AT35 is not a major modification, and I have no doubts about the durability of the upgrades,” says Venter.
“Whatever Toyota decides to do, we will be able to offer the customer whatever he or she wants. Since we also stock a vast range of off-road accessories, we can obviously offer the option of a winch, roof-rack, fridge, bull bar… you name it,” says Venter.
But maybe the best news is the price of the basic AT35 conversion, including the Old Man Emu suspension.
“We are looking at about R70 000 for the AT35 package, but this still has to be confirmed.”
In the end?
The introduction of the Arctic Trucks option in South Africa was clearly designed to counter the arrival of a certain German bakkie on the local market, what with the new Hilux only due here towards the end of 2011.
Although we don’t believe the Hilux’s position as the top-selling bakkie in SA was ever under threat, it’s all about marketing hype? and in the end the winner is the consumer, as the industry’s Big Guns compete for sales numbers.
And if TMSA decides to throw its full weight behind the project and back up a new AT35 with a full factory warranty? well, then there will probably be no stopping the influx of big-wheeled AT bakkies onto our roads.
To be sure, the AT38 and AT44, with their massive tyres, wouldn’t be suited to local conditions. And that’s hardly surprising, because they were built for a very specific application: travelling in icy, sub-zero environments.
But the AT35 is a different animal. It offers larger tyres and better ground clearance for off-road conditions, but on road it still handles like a Hilux. There’s no hint of wallowing with the AT35. It handles corners with ease and the D-4D engine has no trouble setting the big tyres in motion.
In short, the AT35 really does handle like a “rhallee” car. And of course, it looks cool. Very cool.
The Arctic Trucks Hilux AT35 may just be the must-have bakkie of 2011.
ARCTIC TRUCKS TOYOTA HILUX AT35
Engine: 3,0-litre D-4D, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Power: 120 kW @ 3400 r/min
Torque: 343 Nm @ 1400 r/min
Gearbox: Four-speed automatic