“White van man” is a British stereotype of white commercial van drivers, commonly regarded as inconsiderate drivers. Fortunately, my time behind the wheel of a white van didn’t make me a ruder and more aggressive driver. Perhaps that was because the rainy weather made me feel a little nervous behind the wheel of a rear-wheel-drive, forward-control van. The next day, however, I had unexpectedly become quite comfortable behind the wheel (and on top of the front wheel) of this Toyota HiAce.
I had never driven a van before but I needed to rent one as I was moving apartments. I’ll be honest: I didn’t rent it because I’m a hardy, do-it-yourself kinda guy. (Hear that? That’s the sound of my friends and family laughing at the mere notion that I am.)
Really, it came down to the almighty dollar. I was reluctant to spend money on removalists as I was skeptical they wouldn’t just drag out a relatively small moving job to get more money. Maybe my fears were unfounded as I’ve never actually employed movers before. Nevertheless, when I was offered help by my brother-in-law, I happily took it and rented a van.
I could have gotten an Isuzu N-Series (Chevrolet Low Cab Forward) box truck but it was twice the price, wouldn’t have fit in my new parking spot, and I probably would’ve been damn near terrified to drive it. I rented a van from Avis and I was expecting a Hyundai iLoad (the second most popular delivery van in Australia) but was instead greeted with the ubiquitous HiAce, Australia’s most popular delivery van. Mine was the standard “LWB” model, the HiAce with the shortest wheelbase (101 inches, with a total length of 184 inches). An elongated “Super Long Wheelbase” model has an extra 21 inches in wheelbase.
HiAces are widely used as delivery vans and the Commuter version is commonly used for airport and courtesy shuttles and, more visibly, as “Maxi Taxis” (the most capacious taxi you can book). I’ve been in plenty of these, mostly when I used to regularly go out to bars with friends, but I’ve never driven one.
First impressions were mixed. I’ve always found these to be quite handsome vans but they’re very much old-school Japanese forward-control vans. Getting into one is an awkward, side-saddle affair as the driver’s seat is directly on top of the wheel. Once you’re inside, you sit awkwardly high – I felt like somewhat of a giant, and I’m only 5’11’’ – and peer out over, well, nothing. You’re basically on top of the front axle and you have no concept of where the vehicle ends (spoiler alert: it’s not far from you!
The interior is truck-grade, with plenty of hard, mismatched plastics. A trap some automotive journalists fall into is judging a workhorse vehicle by passenger car standards, and I shan’t make that mistake. Who cares about the quality of plastics? It’s a delivery van! Things are well screwed together, and that’s all that matters. The only real mishap in the interior is the awkward positioning of the cupholders at the back of the center console, forcing another awkward movement.
There were actually a couple of things in this commercial van that I don’t have in my nine-year-old, top-of-the-line Aussie sedan, which stung a little. The driver’s side window has an auto-up function – so simple, yet so user-friendly – and the HiAce has Bluetooth audio streaming, which worked splendidly and made me realize even more how much I want it in my own car. The HiAce uses the same 6.1-inch infotainment unit as the Corolla. It’s simple and user-friendly as it’s basically just for the audio system and satellite navigation. Ah, remember when sat nav was only available in the finest of luxury sedans? Although the dash has a screen, the HiAce’s reversing camera display is in the rear-view mirror.
Driving the HiAce, you do feel every bump in the road and the van occasionally emits an odd groan in the structure and plenty of noise from the engine underneath you. Despite this, it’s more pleasant to drive than you’d think. A large part of that is the four-speed automatic, which shifts smoothly. The shifter is mounted on the dash, which I find preferable to a column-shifter.
The steering was light but not unbearably so, but the wheel was at a very unfamiliar angle to me—think more bus than passenger car. It does allow you to rest your torso against it, which sometimes you have to do when you’re trying to look up at something and your upwards visibility is hampered by the high seating position.
While the HiAce also comes with a 2.7 VVT-i four-cylinder petrol engine, producing 158 hp and 179 ft-lbs, mine was the diesel model. The 3.0 four-cylinder produces 134 hp and a stout 221 ft-lbs. While I wasn’t exactly hauling around bags of cement, it felt sufficiently powerful hauling around two adults, two couches, and various other pieces of furniture. The 211 cubic-foot load bay swallowed plenty of my furniture and was easily accessed via the tailgate and a sliding passenger-side door. The only problem we encountered loading up the van was the intrusion of the wheels into the cargo bay but that’s understandable.
You don’t drive a van like the HiAce to its limits and instead you keep a safe distance from them. Even driving sedately, the traction control light came on a few times in the wet, reminding you things could go pear-shaped if you’re not careful. If things do go horribly wrong, the HiAce has a four-star ANCAP safety rating. The cabin held up well in crash testing although the crash safety organisation found a significant risk of injury to occupants’ feet, which I can absolutely see happening. The HiAce fortunately has stability control, anti-lock brakes and emergency brake assist.
It’s always baffled me why American vans have had available V8 engines for decades, something that’s only recently abating with the arrival of domestic offerings like the Ford Transit and Ram ProMaster. Even the antediluvian Chevrolet Express, as of last year, has an optional Duramax four-cylinder diesel. I understand gas prices have historically been much cheaper in the US than almost anywhere else, but it always struck me as extravagantly wasteful to have millions of taxi cabs, delivery vans, limousines and police cars powered by thirsty V8 engines. An Express V8 would certainly blow the doors off of a HiAce but is that much power really necessary for a mere delivery van? Not to mention, the HiAce diesel is rated at 27mpg combined, (22 for the petrol) and the regular wheelbase HiAce sacrifices only 28 cubic feet compared to a regular Express.
Toyota’s delivery van may be over a decade old now but it’s still fending off rivals and maintaining its number-one spot in the segment. While its ungainly to access, it’s reliable, well-built and painless to drive. What else do you need in a delivery van?