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A few weeks prior the second Toyota Gazoo Racing Vios Cup race weekend, Toyota quietly unveiled the latest GR-Sport models for the Hilux and the Fortuner. The launch of more GR-S variants signify a number of important things: that the market is evolving, maturing and becoming more savvy and discerning, requiring more specialized and sophisticated products, and that the market is more than ever willing to pay for said products, having reached a level of buying power and appreciation for high-performance and/or exclusive variants of mass-market models. 

A few days later, Toyota Motor Philippines invited us for a short but revealing drive of the latest GR-S models, the Hilux and Fortuner down south, covering a variety of road surfaces and conditions to see the key improvements they have made with the two models. The Hilux and Fortuner are the two latest mass-market Toyota models to receive the GR-S treatment, and we expect more to follow. And to put to bed cynical criticism that these two models are nothing but styling  / aesthetic exercises, here is a short rundown of the improved specifications. 

The Hilux receives a GR branded engine START/STOP button, a stylish gloss black interior with half leather / half suede seats along with matching red stitching, a dual zone climate control system, paddle shifters and a new infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard. The suspension receives the much talked about mono-tube dampers which Toyota claims improves damping consistency thanks to more hydraulic fluid being contained in them, therefore proving better damping control and improved thermal resistance to suspension fade , versus conventional twin-tube designs that overheat faster and loose damping consistency sooner, plus special mention to the Gazoo Racing branded 3-spoke steering wheel, a clear nod to the sub-brands sporty intentions. Outside, gloss black wheels, GR branded front brake callipers and a style bar for the bed, plus a standard bed-liner is included. 

Despite Toyota’s efforts to make this a more sophisticated feeling range-topping variant, its workhorse roots shouldn’t be compromised after all, which is also why the rear still sports drum brakes as Toyota deemed it safer when loaded with its maximum 1-ton capacity. Aesthetically, the GR-S variant gets a revised front bumper with the G-Mesh grill, body-coloured wheel fender flares and a new colour exclusive to this variant called emotional red.

The Fortuner GR-S gets even more substantial upgrades: the biggest of which is Toyota’s Safety Sense. The Panoramic View Monitor serves as the eyes of the driver to the outside world, now augmented with Pre-Collision System, Lane Departure Alert, and Adaptive Cruise Control Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross Traffic Alert is standard Fortuner GR-S. It also gets leather seats of course, and a fair carbon-fibre trim on the centre console versus the Hilux GR-S’s piano black trim. Both Hilux and Fortuner also get 8-way power adjustable driver’s seats. From a styling point-of-view, the Fortuner gets a redesigned front and rear bumper, fog lamp garnish, body color wheel-arch moulding and back door garnish, and bi-tone rear spoiler.

On the open road, the difference is noticeable. We own a 2016 Hilux G 4X4 A/T and has served our family flawlessly in the past five years and 52,000 kilometers. But the Hilux GR-S is just marginally yet noticeably and appreciably better in ever way. The ride is still firm, but the monotube dampers have significantly reduced harshness and bounciness, even as we traversed the very bumpy Pan-Philippine Highway going towards Laguna and fitter onto Quezon Province. The seats give a reassuring feeling of comfort and warmth missing on the fabric-covered seats of lesser models, and the dual-zone A/C, together with the latest infotainment system really gave a very enjoyable driving experience, crucially allowing Team Inquirer to have meaningful conversations on the road while driving. The Hilux GR-S feels noticeably more stable, more composed and more confidence-inspiring at highway speeds and on bumpy roads. 

But it was the Toyota Fortuner GR-S that really made a night-and-day difference. My brother owns a current model LTD variant which I have driven a few times. But the GR-S, from its stance and road-presence alone, felt a couple of notches higher just by looking at it. On the highway, the mono-tube suspension felt very smooth, and the Gazoo Racing branded brake callipers provided a very consistnt, easily-modulated braking feel that really encouraged me to brake a wee bit later, and tackle tight corners just a little bit more aggressively. A few rally-style ditch hooks on provincial roads failed to shake the Fortuner’s composure, and we found ourselves speeding noticeably faster than the non GR-S support vehicles Toyota sent to accompany us on our drive on the bumpy Pan-Philippine Highway. 

After a full day of driving, taking photos and videos, I wish we could have driven both models further, longer. The Hilux and Fortuner just beg to be taken to a truly epic road trip adventure. 

Of course, not to ignore the elephant in the room, but friends asked me after I posted photos on social media: are the GR-S models worth the price difference? The Hilux barely justifies it, thanks to its refined interior and stylish exterior, but the Fortuner’s added safety gear alone more than lived up to its premium. If you need a capable and reliable workhorse for long out of town drives on a regular basis, but also demand a refined and sophisticated , not to mention a slightly more exclusive model, both cars deserve a closer look and ideally a test drive.

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