Why Can’t I Buy a Toyota Hilux in America?

The Toyota Hilux is one of the most popular, durable, reliable and versatile pickups in the entire world, which certainly leads some people to ask why can’t I buy a Toyota Hilux in America?

You can’t by a Toyota Hilux in America because of something called the Chicken Tax, which is actually a 25% tariff (tax) imposed by the American government on imported brandy, dextrin, potato starch, and light trucks like the Toyota Hilux. If the Hilux was built by Toyota here in America, like many of the Japanese automaker’s other models are, it wouldn’t attract that tariff and it could be sold at a competitive price. As it is, the tariff would simply make the Hilux too expensive and unable to compete in the compact pickup truck segment.

Toyota Hilux history

It might come as a surprise to some people here in truck-obsessed North America, but the Hilux has been finding considerable favor with pickup truck buyers around the globe outside this continent since as long ago as 1968. Some people might want to categorize it as a compact pickup, but it’s mostly been considered a midsize truck since 2004 when the seventh-generation of the Hilux was launched.

It was sold here in the US as the Hilux until the name was dropped in 1976, although the truck itself continued to be sold until it was replaced here by the all-new Tacoma in 1995.

This world-beating midsize pickup truck entered its eight-generation in 2018, and it is now assembled in Thailand, Argentina, Pakistan and South Africa. It’s currently available with three different gas engines, six different diesel engines and five and six-speed automatic and manual transmissions, depending on the market.

Legendary durability

Top Gear Hilux

Back in 2007, the Hilux gained an almost mythical status for its durability after featuring on the UK’s global hit TV show, Top Gear. The show bought a 1988 Hilux that had 190,000 miles on the odometer, with aim of trying to “kill” it by putting it through a series of increasingly arduous tasks. Toyota already claimed the Hilux was the toughest vehicle in the world at the time, so the show set out to see if that was correct or just an unsubstantiated claim by the manufacturer.

The show took the Toyota and sideswiped buildings with it, drove it down a flight of stairs, crashed it head-on into a tree, and even tethered it to a slipway into the sea while the tide was out and left it there to be covered as the tide came in. During the night, while the Hilux was left in the sea, the windshield was washed out and lost, the tether broke, and it was then half-buried in the sand by the tide.

After it was eventually recovered from the sea and the sand was removed, a mechanic was allowed to work on it with nothing more than a basic toolkit and no replacement parts. Remarkably, despite being completely flooded, the Hilux was eventually started and driven away.

That would have been enough to prove how tough and durable any vehicle was, surely? But that was just the start for the Hilux. After all that it was then driven through a wooden shed, had a trailer dropped onto it, was hit by a wrecking ball, and then set on fire. Although it was severely scorched by the fire, it still managed to drive away.

The final trial saw the Toyota pickup taken to the top of a tower block that was due to be demolished using explosives. The explosives were set off, the building collapsed into itself, and the Hilux disappeared in a cloud of dust and rubble. Amazingly, the technician who revived it after it was drowned in the sea returned and got it to start again. Not only that, but the mighty Hilux was also still drivable.

This stunt made the Toyota Hilux legendary, and it certainly didn’t do future sales of the truck any harm at all. We know the Tacoma and Tundra are incredibly reliable and durable trucks that hold their value incredibly well, but the Hilux is regarded at an entirely different level after its Top Gear performance.

Why does the Chicken Tax affect the Hilux?

The Hilux is affected by the so-called Chicken Tax for one reason and one reason only, and that’s because it is a light truck that’s built outside America. The tax wasn’t specifically created to stop the Hilux being sold in America in particular, but it’s one of the more notable products to fall foul of this law.  

It was back in 1963 that the tax was introduced by President Lyndon Johnson, and it was introduced in response to a similar tariff imposed by France and West Germany on chicken meat imported from the USA. The tax was designed to protect American producers and manufacturers from what was seen as unfair foreign competition, and tensions of the Cold War-era thwarted diplomatic attempts to avoid the Chicken Tax being imposed.

Perhaps a little surprisingly, the tariffs applied under the Chicken Tax to brandy, dextrin and potato starched were lifted a long time ago, but the tariff on foreign trucks and cargo vans has remained in place to protect American automakers from foreign rivals.

However, big-business and capitalism often find a way around things when there’s profit to be had, and a number of loopholes in the tariff regime have been exploited over the years. Even though Chevy and Ford were two of the American automakers the Chicken Tax was intended to help, they came up with what was called the “chassis cab” loophole.

The loophole allowed foreign-made trucks that had passenger compartments, but not a cargo bed or box, to be imported and sold in the US with just a 4% tariff. This allowed a cargo box or bed to be installed once the vehicle was in the USA so it could then be sold as a light truck.  This particular loophole was closed by Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Even today, Transit Connect vans that are built by Ford in Turkey are imported into the US fully configured with rear seats so they are classified as “passenger vehicles.” This means they are not subject to the Chicken Tax 25% tariff, and once they have their rear seats and other parts stripped at Ford’s plant in Baltimore they can be shipped out to Ford dealers around the country to be sold as cargo vans.

Isn’t the Tacoma just a US Hilux?

At first glance, you could wonder if the current Toyota Tacoma is just a Toyota Hilux sold here in the US under a different name. After all, they are both trucks in the same class and they are built on similar platforms. However, there are a number of significant differences that make the Hilux right for international markets but not for here in America.

For a start, the Tacoma is wider than the Hilux, which is fine for the wide roads we tend to have here in America but not conducive to narrower, winding roads elsewhere in the world. The Tacoma also has a boxy, rugged exterior design that goes down well with American buyers, but the Hilux has a somewhat softer look to appeal to a different buyer.

Both trucks have nice interiors, but despite the fact the Hilux interior used to be pretty rugged in days gone by, the latest models are much nicer than they used to be inside and they’re not as rugged as the Tacoma.

Around the world, the Toyota Hilux is seen as a commercial vehicle, while the Tacoma is more of a retail vehicle here in America. That’s probably why the Hilux is still available with a single cab, even though it’s only available in chassis cab format. And when it comes to chassis cabs, the Tacoma further emphasizes its retail credentials by not being offered as a chassis cab at all.

Finally, a lot of Hilux production is concentrated on diesel engine models, which are not particularly popular with American consumers unless we’re talking about big heavy-duty pickup trucks.

Is the Hilux likely to come back?

There have been constant rumors, guesses and misinformation about the prospect of the Toyota Hilux finally being assembled and sold here in the US, so where are we right now? The Hilux is one of the most popular trucks of its kind in the world and hundreds of thousands of them are sold every year; just not in America. Now Ford has finally reintroduced something extremely close to the global Ranger pickup into the US market, it’s hardly surprising the rumors about a US Toyota Hilux have started again.

It was said it would come as a 2017 model, and when it didn’t arrive it was then supposed to arrive as a 2018 model. None of that happened, and now the rumors and whispers are about 2020 and 2021.

For what it’s worth, I can’t see Toyota bringing the Hilux to the US as things stand. Ford didn’t have a midsize or compact pickup truck over here when it re-launched the Ranger, but Toyota already has the extremely successful Tacoma.

However, the current Tacoma was launched in 2015 and so was the current generation of the Hilux. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that instead of new generations of the Tacoma and the Hilux in a few years, Toyota decided to come up with a single global model that only needs minor differences to be sold in the US market.

Sean Cooper

Former retail auto industry professional for almost a decade and now an automotive writer and journalist for the last 7 years

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