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You’ve come a long way, Hino

TORONTO, Ont. - I drove one of the first Hino medium duty trucks imported from Japan in 1976. It was an odd-looking bird with an airfoil wing mounted on the cabover roof....

TOP MARKS: A 55 per cent wheel cut makes for excellent handling.

TOP MARKS: A 55 per cent wheel cut makes for excellent handling.

TORONTO, Ont. – I drove one of the first Hino medium duty trucks imported from Japan in 1976. It was an odd-looking bird with an airfoil wing mounted on the cabover roof.

The eight-foot box seriously overhung the six-foot wheelbase making it look like a squat duck coming down the road. The engine ran hot year-round, and like the first imports of Japanese cars, acceleration was flat and the truck seemed insecure at highway speeds.

My colleagues at Taylor Brothers Transport in Markham, Ont. teased me mercilessly. One driver even wrote up a work order claiming the “rubber band” had broken.

But Hino has come a long way in 30 years. The Toyota subsidiary currently has 32 dealerships stretching from coast to coast and last year sold 1,227 Class 4-7 trucks, capturing 13.5 per cent of the medium duty truck market in Canada.

And there is little comparison between the early model I drove and the modern day Hino fresh off the line from Long Beach, Calif. that I got the opportunity to try out last month.

That’s when Hino unveiled its 2006 models at a test track in Waterloo, Ont. and I took a 308 model (30,000 GVW) through its paces. I found the spunky 220-horse engine accelerated quickly and surely to highway ramp speeds with a top end around 120 km-h (empty).

Manoeuverability was excellent. The little Hino whipped confidently through a tight slalom course, thanks in part to the 55 per cent wheel cut, which allows for radical moves in cramped city conditions.

The optional Pak Brake exhaust brake is a nice option and probably a must if you’re going to be running through the mountains. Synchronized with the Allison automatic transmission, the exhaust brake purrs gently as you lift your foot of the throttle and feels like a giant hand is holding the truck back. New this year is a low profile 258 model (25,500 GVW) that sits three inches lower than the standard Class 6 unit – ideal for adaptation as a car carrier. The 258 also comes with the rugged 220 horse motor.

As well, Hino has added a 271-inch wheelbase to its repertoire. The longer wheelbase is available on its Class 7 models 308 and 338, allowing for the installation of a 27.5-foot box without modification.

Driver comfort figures strongly in Hino trucks. Power windows, tilt steering A/C and CD stereo and cruise control are standard features. And even more importantly, the headlamp lighting system has improved by 100 per cent.

Chrome grilles are now standard on all Hino trucks, and the Class 6 and 7 models come with three piece bumpers. Mechanically speaking, all Class 6 and 7 Hinos now have self-adjusting clutches and oil-lubricated wheel bearings.

The company made a radical shift two years ago when it abandoned its cabover style and introduced a lineup of short-nosed conventionals. Hino came to the conclusion that North Americans don’t like cabovers. As a result Hino cabovers are no longer available in Canada or the U.S., even though the company continues to make them for the rest of the world.

Since October 2004 all the trucks for North America have been assembled at a former Toyota facility in Long Beach, Calif. The plant can produce up to 20 trucks a day and all the components are domestically manufactured, with the exception of the engine, electronics and cab. ArvinMeritor supplies the axles, Eaton and Allison make the transmissions, and Hendrickson manufactures the suspensions, etc.

Interestingly, Hino has had considerably more success selling medium duty trucks in Canada than it has in the U.S., where it has five times less market share. In Quebec alone Hino has grabbed about 30 per cent of the pie. Lloyd Armstrong of Hino Windsor, Ont. thinks the Canadian success is a result of the truck’s broad appeal. “I deal with everyone from the air freight expediters to the home delivery guys to building suppliers. I’m just pricing a tilt and load for a tow truck.”

Ron Doyle, owner of RD Transport in Woodstock, Ont., liked his Hino 338 model so much he went out and bought another one.

“What’s not to like about it?” said Doyle. “Warranty and service are the main things. The service people bend over backwards to help you.” Doyle particularly likes the three- year unlimited mileage engine warranty, which he thinks is tops.

He also claims to get 13.5 mpg. “I do all the right things, though,” said Doyle. “I don’t run over 95 km-h and I keep the tire pressure at 100 lbs.”

Hino manufactures about 80,000 trucks per year and is by far Japan’s leading truck and bus manufacturer.

With the infrastructure now in place, according to at least one industry source, the company appears ready to enter the lucrative North American Class 8 market in the near future. And with fuel prices continuing to spike, it probably can’t happen too soon.

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