I COULD almost hear the Toyota HiLux breathe a sigh of relief as I switched it to four-wheel drive and inched closer to the sand.
Finally, it must have been thinking, I won't be used for just dropping the kids off at Kindy, negotiating pesky roundabouts then sitting on the highway for endless kilometres.
The HiLux deserved some well-earned playtime and here it was. A 100km return beach drive from the Noosa River to Double Island Point in the Cooloola Recreation Area of the Great Sandy National Park.
A soft sand cutting entry point, undulating beach, rivers meeting the ocean and endless glorious views - this is why you own a go-anywhere double-cab ute.
The people's car?
We're one month in to our long-term test of a Toyota HiLux Double Cab SR5, a vehicle basking in the glory of being named Australia's best-selling car for 2016.
Increasingly the choice of adventure-seeking families, cashed-up tradies and - you know who you are - those wanting to portray they have a rugged off-road life when in reality they just sit on the highway and city traffic perched higher than the rest of us.
But don't worry, I get it. The HiLux SR5 is an appealing-looking thing. I like the "car-like" cabin - electric leather driver's seat, decent climate control, seven-inch touch screen, reversing camera, sat nav, smart entry and start plus oodles of sexy chrome for the body. Plus it is same-old HiLux tough, tows 3200kg and is wonderfully effective off-road.
But ... it's $60k to drive away. Fine if you use all those four-wheel drive smarts but as a family car that really never goes off the bitumen? We have cheaper large SUVs for that, with decent rear load space when the seats are folded; Toyota's own HiLux-based Fortuner for one.
Anyway, 2000km in and the SR5 has done the utility bit wonderfully by hauling garden waste and household junk in its tub, plus carting furniture back from a token IKEA trip.
Around town, though, it's not been my favourite. With no weight in the rear it is a bouncy beast on its leaf springs and corners like what it is - a truck.
Boots on the beach
As much as these high-spec utes want to be all things to all people, physics just won't allow it. A HiLux simply can't be a shining star on road when it needs to be an off-road powerhouse.
Hence how its talents shone through on its day at the beach. Despite soft and reasonably deep sand at the entry cutting, the HiLux didn't even need low range to happily bound through the powdery stuff. It was all just too easy.
At low tide and down on the hard sand it was all about setting cruise control to 80kmh and enjoying the mighty ocean view out the right window. I ventured on to some of the bigger bumps higher up the beach and the HiLux bounded over them with aplomb, quickly settling back on its suspension and ready for the next test.
The odd shallow river estuary over the beach barely registered either as the ute's progress refused to be slowed through a bit of water.
Parking at Double Island Point for a well-earned swim, I managed to sink the wheels into some really soft sand. Tyres stuck deep and sand above the base of the rims, with my swim over I was fearing we'd be bogged.
No chance. In low range the Toyota rolled out completely unruffled. This truck could handle a lot more than I was throwing at it.
Talents like this give a man affection for a vehicle and the HiLux excelled on our beach test. With our two kids in the back (a pair of Isofix child seat points helping) it was a great family trip, emphasising why these utes find favour with so many.
When the fun stops...
I couldn't help but notice the other 4x4s on the beach though. Our HiLux SR5 was the youngest by some margin. Ubiquitous were 20-plus- year-old HiLuxes, LandCruisers, Nissan Patrols and Suzuki Sierras. Where are you, new double-cab ute buyers?!
While the dream of driving up the beach each weekend sounds good, cleaning a HiLux for two hours afterwards may put you off. A $60k vehicle can't be left with sand and salt on their underside.
An under-body wash ($18) then a few jet hose sessions ($4) followed, plus a turbo vacuum for the sand in the cabin (another $4). At least the water to rinse the rubber floor and tub mats was free.
All polished up, the HiLux is now back to on-road duties. Parked up on my driveway, it's nice to know it's always ready to get sandy or dirty again whenever asked.
And that's probably half the fun of owning one.
Model: Toyota HiLux SR5 4x4 Double Cab Pick Up.
Details: Double-cab four-wheel-drive utility.
Engine: 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel generating maximum power of 130kW @ 3400rpm and peak torque of 450Nm @ 1600rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Consumption: 8.5-litres/100km (combined).
Towing capacity: 3200kg.
Warranty and service: Three-year 100,000km warranty, capped price servicing for first three years/60,000km at $180 a time, service intervals are every six months or 10,000km.
Price as tested before on-roads: $57,479 ($54,390 base price plus auto gearbox, premium paint and tow bar).
Kilometres this month: 2178.
Fuel economy this month: 8.9L/100km.
The good: Superb off-road ability, strong and refined diesel engine mated to a smooth auto transmission, top-spec styling, cabin comfort, fuel economy is proving as Toyota quotes.
The not so good: On-road unladen ride is a bouncy thing to endure, infotainment not stand-out, modern high-tech safety gear lacking despite the price, not cheap at nearly $60k.
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