“Mobile office” is the theme of this shoot, according to my teammates. The plan is they would whip out their laptops and work while I maneuver through the tightest streets Metro Manila has to throw at me behind the wheel of the all-new Toyota Hiace GL Grandia Tourer.
Laptops have indeed been whipped out, but by the sound of the chitchat and laughter behind me, I’m the only one in this van who is truly working.
You see, this isn’t just any regular van I’m driving. I’m behind the wheel of the Hiace GL Grandia Tourer: A 14-seat behemoth that’s 650mm longer than the ‘regular-sized’ GL Grandia or Commuter Deluxe, with a 3,860mm wheelbase—a measurement that easily eclipses the entire length of a Toyota Yaris (2,550mm).
This vehicle’s dimensions don’t exactly make it a breeze to drive in the city, but Toyota’s done a stand-up job of making its size as easy to deal with as possible. From behind the wheel, the GL Grand Tourer feels manageable thanks to its light steering and large windows. And with its new dashboard layout, there are times you get the sense you’re driving a midsize SUV instead of a metal whale on wheels. It’s both a gift and a curse, as it’s imperative you remind yourself of the vehicle’s dimensions during tight corners.
So far, so good. Of course, we can’t celebrate just yet. We’re nowhere near our destination—the fabled Wai Ying Chinese resto in the heart of Binondo.
Anyone who has traversed the streets of Earth’s oldest Chinatown will know that with a vehicle this size, a trial lies ahead. So we do what any self-respecting motoring journalist would do in preparation of a challenging drive: We grab a bite. And since the University of Santo Tomas (UST), my alma mater, is along the way, where better to do so than at Mang Tootz?
This humble turo-turo along P. Noval holds a special place in the hearts of all Thomasians, thanks to its cheap eats, friendly servers, and legendary Banana-Rhuma mini turon. Old wooden tables and red monobloc seats still line the street in front of the eatery, and its prices are still as affordable as I remember. They’ve opened a branch in Makati City, though I’m very glad to see its original location has stuck to its rustic non-air-conditioned roots.
We’ve arrived at an opportune time, too—just before lunch and a sea of students throws this now-quiet establishment into chaos. Now all we need is parking…and here lies the problem.
You know your ride is in trouble when even the persistent ‘parking attendants’ that litter UST’s surrounding streets tell you it’s too big. We try our luck on a couple of spots anyway, but to no avail. So we switch on our hazard lights for a couple of minutes and order one big pile of Banana-Rhuma to go, which is fine as there’s more than enough space inside this unit for us to comfortably pass grub to one another on the move.
Those of you familiar with the area will know local fire trucks are routinely parked along P. Noval, so to give you a better idea of the kind of size we’re going on about, the image below is for comparison. The GL Grandia Tourer is about as long—if not longer—than a small fire engine. That’s…big, and this photo should be enough to warrant not bringing this point up again (we hope).
There are two major upsides to all those millimeters: First off, you probably already know the engine has been moved forward and there’s now an actual hood, leading to noticeably less vibration and heat for the driver and front passenger.
Second, there’s a ton of space here: Respectable legroom for a van that can hold up to 14 individuals, and enough headroom for my five-foot flat girlfriend to stand up inside the cabin. This brings us to our next stop, Raon, the country’s capital for cheap, er, everything. We test the GL Grand Tourer’s real estate by borrowing a guitar from one the nearby music shops to see if Top Gear Philippines’ resident musician and editor-in-chief Paulo Subido can comfortably play a tune or two within the confines of the door-side seat. Needless to say, the van passes with flying colors.
There’s more to the interior than space, too. You’ll find an abundance of USB charging ports on one side of the car, and there is a handful of neatly concealed storage compartments scattered all throughout. This is also arguably one of the most polished interiors in its class, with aisle seats equipped with armrests, perforated upholstery, and grab handles installed in ideal locations.
All that said, the cabin isn’t perfect. One of the downsides to the high ceiling is that the Hiace’s A/C system clearly has issues with the amount of space it needs to cool. Another is the seats’ limited reclining angle, with the last row devoid of the convenience altogether. Under the heat of the noontime sun, the rearmost section is not a nice place to be in as passengers will find themselves sweating in an upright position for the duration of a trip.
Finally, the road opens up as we cross the Quezon Bridge, and for a brief moment the Hiace stretches its legs: A 2.8-liter turbodiesel capable of 161hp and 420Nm of torque. A few minutes of free-flowing traffic isn’t much of a test though, so we’ll need to schedule a proper drive out on the expressway—hopefully with close to a full load (the vehicle is only at half capacity at the moment).
We pass through Binondo’s Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arch, and as the streets tighten up and the view of the sky above becomes obscured by worn-down apartment buildings and a maze of tangled cables, my time with the Hiace begins to draw to a close.
At this point, I’ve acclimatized to this vehicle’s size—grown fond of it, even. Tight turns are easily dealt with via a few looks at the side mirrors and some careful maneuvering. There is one final trial though.
There’s no chance this monster will find a parking slot on the street, so we head over to the Lucky Chinatown Mall parking garage—just a few blocks away from Wai Ying. Vertical clearance: 2,400mm. The GL Grand Tourer’s height? A nerve-wracking 2,280mm. That’s close, and it appears even closer once you’re actually passing through the sign overhead, but thankfully we make it through.
I’m done sweating bullets today, and it’s time to gorge ourselves on an endless supply of affordable Chinese fare. I’m surprised it’s my first time here, as Wai Ying’s prices alone make a drive into the heart of Binondo worth it, whether you’re behind the wheel of a right-sized hatchback or, like us, a minibus.
The Toyota Hiace GL Grandia Tourer is hardly an ideal vehicle for today’s itinerary—it just doesn’t make sense, and it’s really more of a shuttle than a family vehicle. But I’m of the opinion that meals like this, experiences like this, are best enjoyed with large groups composed of good company. If you share the sentiment, then the Toyota Hiace GL Grand Tourer makes all the sense in the world, regardless of destination.