Toyota has sometimes given the impression that its heart has not really been in it when it comes to making a big impression on the light commercial vehicle market.

The brand’s Hilux pick-up truck, of course, has gained a near legendary reputation in its category, but as for panel vans, the brand seems to have been less focused on establishing a strong foothold.

With the new Proace medium van, however, crowned What Van?’s LCV of the Year alongside the Citroen Dispatch and Peugeot Expert, that could be set to change. Like the previous generation, this Proace shares a platform with the two aforementioned PSA Group vans, but this time Toyota has had a bigger influence on the resulting vehicle, according to LCV product manager Gareth Matthews, who came on board in 2016 tasked with focusing exclusively on light commercials – a change of strategy for the brand, which had previously bundled them in with passenger cars.

Matthews says the Proace’s recognition by What Van? helped bolster the brand’s belief in the product and also boosted the marketing push. All vans carry a What Van? award-winning badge and the logo also appears on the Toyota website and in dealerships.
“It’s reinforced the message that [the Proace is] about collaboration, it’s not just a rebadged PSA,” Matthews says.

He goes on to claim the What Van? accolade has helped drive-up Proace sales, particularly with small business buyers who are more influenced by a ‘van of the year’ badge as an endorsement of quality than larger fleets, he reasons. “With SMEs the priority is to run their business,” Matthews explains.

“They don’t necessarily know about vans – they could be a builder, for example, so the industry tells them what is a good product.” In order for the company to create a sustainable business model, Matthews says: “We are getting dealers to focus on finding local businesses – good local business means aftersales opportunities.”

He argues that big fleet deals can be expensive for manufacturers and come with less likelihood of keeping customers in the loop for servicing, maintenance and repair (SMR).
Matthews reveals that Toyota planned for 2,500 Proace sales in 2017 but claims: “The order pace is looking better than that,” although he admits: “The challenge will be to have enough production to cover this. We have to fight our corner for our share.”

The Proace van is available in three lengths, two trims and with three engines (95hp, 115hp and 120hp). Matthews names the medium-wheelbase 115hp van in the higher Comfort trim as the core model. A 180hp automatic version is offered with the Verso passenger-carrying Proace.

Toyota has about 200 dealerships in the UK, all of whom can sell LCVs, according to Matthews, but most business comes through 63 Business Centres with “the lion’s share” concentrated on the 24 LCV specialists within this group.

He says Toyota kept an eye on covering an even geographical spread when taking on the specialists and ensured they had workshops big enough to handle LCVs. He stressed the outlets also had to demonstrate a willingness to invest as the selections were made on a “buy-in not appointment” basis.

A sign of Toyota’s deeper involvement in the LCV sector is the launch of its Trade Plus approved conversion range, which it showcased at the CV Show in April.

TGS is making tippers and dropsides based on the Hilux single- and extra-cab (double-cab versions are not available as the payload would be pushed below 1.0t, making the vehicle liable for VAT), Bristor is racking out the Proace, and Cool Kit is producing refrigerated versions of the same model.

The Hilux dropside conversions cost £2,695 on top of the base model, with the tipper priced at £3,795 more. The racking options cost £995 or £1,495 extra, and the temperature-controlled systems go from an additional £4,700 for a chilled conversion to £5,750 for a freezer van.

“We want to offer more than standard vehicles like we used to,” Matthews says. “We want to be more serious about LCVs.” He claims standardised conversions are easier for dealers to get their heads around than low-volume, niche bodies and enable them to target SMEs within their market regions – the refrigerated vans, for example, suit local butchers, he says.

The Proace has joined the highest-volume, most competitive sector in the market, where it must fight for recognition against the likes of the Ford Transit Custom, the Vauxhall Vivaro, the Renault Trafic and the VW Transporter as well as its PSA siblings.

But Matthews insists “we don’t want to play the price game” by targeting the big-selling Ford and Vauxhall brands. “We don’t work on market share,” he claims. “We have a [target] volume number and the share works itself out.”

The pick-up segment is also becoming increasingly competitive as more manufacturers join the fray with models aimed particularly at the lifestyle market. “We always anticipated losing share at the top end,” claims Matthews.

On a more positive note, however, he points out that with the Hilux, Toyota is now one of the few brands (Izusu with the D-max is another that springs to mind) to focus on offering standard, utilitarian pick-ups, rather than concentrating primarily on more luxurious models. Matthews says this market positioning enables Toyota to service larger fleets, utility companies, public sector bodies and the rental sector – an inverse approach really to that which the brand takes with the Proace.

“The new Hilux has won decent fleet volume,” he remarks, but adds that the brand has not planned an increase in 2017 on the 7,500 units it shifted last year.“We recognise new players are coming in,” says Matthews but draws a distinction between customers who “fancy a top-of-the-range pick-up” and those who want “a proper pick-up” that also looks good – such as the Hilux.

Coming back to the Proace, Matthews says the brand is in the mid-term phase of its strategy and is still working alongside dealers in presenting the van to market. Despite prioritising small businesses he admits there is room to focus on more fleet volume and to enhance the product with more accessories. Expanding the dealer network could also be on the cards if demand grows.

He acknowledges that the used market is an unknown quantity for the Proace but expects higher-specification models to attract the most interest at remarketing time.
Beyond the Hilux, Toyota has shown little appetite for the LCV market historically – the signs are that the brand now has the stomach for the fight.