LIKE it or not, modern 4x4s are often built for show, not go.
Usable lift, grippy tyres and bar work are sometimes put on the back burner for 10-inch-lifted rigs on 20-inch wheels that won’t see terrain tougher than the Bunnings carpark on a Saturday morning. This Toyota Hilux, however, is anything but.
A keen fisho and part-time hunter from Sydney’s northern beaches, Joe Emmerton needed a rig that’d not only lug around a near-two-tonne boat, but would get him beyond the black stump to top secret hunting spots with enough ability left up its sleeve to bounce through gnarly rock-laden tracks on the days in-between.
No small ask, but Joe had a plan. With the new N80 Hilux just released and his older model due for replacement, the choice was a no-brainer. “I saw potential in the new shape,” Joe said. “I know what Hiluxs are like, and I knew I could make mine look different from the rest.”
Joe’s the kind of bloke who likes the nicer things in life, so when it came time to tick the options box on his new ride, he went all out with the top-spec SR5. The fancy badging didn’t just mean colour-coded bumpers and a premium interior, he also picked up the high torque 2.8-litre turbo-diesel donk, a factory rear diff lock, and bundles of articulation out of the rear suspension.
Like all good tourers, Joe’s N80 is built on a solid foundation. Up front, the stock struts have been binned. In their place are a set of four-inch-lifted mono-tube Bilstein struts. Joe had the guys at Heasman Steering and Suspension weave their magic with a set of custom-rate H&R coil springs to dial the ride in for his needs.
More height was gained by shoehorning in a 50mm body lift from VMN for a ride height that sits 150mm higher than stock. Of course, you can’t go pushing an independent front end to those heights without running into a few issues along the way. The first issue was binding CV joints; the extreme angles from the lift were a recipe for disaster when pushed through the terrain Joe calls a ‘quick run in the bush’.
To help correct the CV angle, Joe opted for a complete diff drop arrangement from the guys at Phat Bars. They’ve replaced weak factory mounts, but also bumped CV angles back into an acceptable range. The next issue was getting the whole affair aligned.
With such a large lift, the Hilux simply ran out of adjustment with the stock arms in place. A quick call to CalOffroad had a set of its heavy-duty adjustable arms slotted in place. The arms were a bolt-in replacement, but with geometry re-jigged and an adjustable OEM-style ball joint, they’ve given enough wriggle room to get Joe’s Hilux driving better than stock.
Up the back, Joe had the factory rear springs re-arched and teamed up with a set of Snake Racing extended shackles to dial the rear end up four inches to match the front. A set of matching rear shocks were slotted in, too, with Bilstein’s remote-res 5160 shocks keeping things under control. “The ride is so much more comfortable than stock,” Joe said.
“On dirt roads and corrugations, having the remote res in the rear keeps it consistent and doesn’t fade. It’s much firmer and handles nicer, too.”
The set-up has allowed Joe to shoehorn in a set of 305/65R17 Mickey Thompson Baja MTZ mud terrains with 17-inch Dynamic D-Hole steel wheels in a -30 offset. To make the N80 a more versatile platform, Joe has installed a Locker Anytime module.
The little black box means he can bypass the factory limitations, letting him engage the rear locker at any speed in either high range, low range or 2WD, making it a valuable tool for launching boats on slippery ramps.
All the off-road performance in the world doesn’t help if you beat yourself into a pulp on the first obstacle. With that in mind, Joe’s taken frontal protection very seriously. The focal point is the AFN4x4 hoopless bullbar. It’s a full replacement offering, so no goofy stock bumper cuts were required, and it incorporates built-in recovery points.
Protection extends underneath with a full set of Phat Bars bash plates covering the radiator right back to behind the transfer case. Hidden inside the front bar is a Runva 11XP 11,000lbs 12V winch wrapped in synthetic rope with an aluminium thimble end instead of the usual hook.
Heading down the flanks you’ll find more Phat Bars kit, with a set of angled sliders keeping unmentionables in one piece; while up the back the stock towbar has been kicked up 100mm with lift brackets from Dowtech for an improved departure angle.
Up top is a plethora of Rhino-Rack gear, but don’t expect to find it all on the shelves. Joe’s got a solid working relationship with the team over there, so his N80 is actually the test mule for their new low-profile tray-mounted rack system.
It keeps the Howling Moon roof-top tent below the roof line, so fuel economy doesn’t take a hit and it allows easy access into the tray from all sides. Plus, it provides a handy platform for the side-mounted LED camp lights. There’s another pair of camp lights, too, although this time they’re mounted to a more traditional Rhino-Rack platform system on quick-release mounts.
It sports lockable mounts for a set of four MaxTrax as well as a high-lift jack on the spine. A sunseeker awning also got the nod.
Things look relatively sedate beneath the bonnet but, like most modern diesels, the secret to power comes with a keyboard, not a spanner. The 2.8-litre donk sucks air in through the four-inch stainless steel Fabulous Fabrication snorkel and expels it through a full turbo-back three-inch stainless exhaust from Arclite Engineering.
In between, the guys from Just Autos in Queensland worked their magic. While the new tune boasts a huge 50 per cent increase in torque, Joe’s quick to point out the real improvements are in fuel economy and drivability. “I went from 12.2L/100km on the way to get the tune. On the way home, it was down to 8.5L/100km,” he said.
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“It’s so much nicer to drive, too. I can leave it in sixth gear on the freeway and it just pulls. I’ve got an 1800kg boat I put behind it, and it comfortably does it in fifth gear now.”
If you’re eyeing off the interior for a laundry list of modifications, you’ll be sorely disappointed. There’s just a GME UHF behind the dash and an Engel sitting on the back seat. The reality is modern 4WDs just don’t need that much work inside. They’re comfortable, quiet and provide a great place to lock your foot into the kick panel for hours at a time.
That’s the mentality Joe’s taken to the whole build. Sure, things are done with a little flair, but the basic build isn’t that far removed from the tourers of 20 years ago.
A little kit to make it more capable, a few odds and ends to keep it in one piece, and enough room for a months’ worth of camping gear. 4x4s might look a little different now, but they’re still the adventure machines they’ve always been.