Mule Variations

Toyota boxes clever.

The XP50. Image:

If as it seems, Toyota wears the production crown, at least it’s modest and fits snugly. Naturally, there’s the occasional slip, leaving the odd jaunty angle but on the whole their kingdom is based upon more prosaic, unpretentious values, listening to their customer’s needs.

Much of the decadent West (and Japan) demands vehicles adorned with creature comforts and stratified social markers that depending on nameplate can cause snob levels to rise or fall accordingly. Add in design, a language those interested can weave akin to a boxer’s feet. Today’s subject however contains almost none of these qualities. If the Transit van and its ilk are the trade’s workhorse, then Toyota’s Probox is its beast of burden.

Imaginatively named using the combination of the words, Professional and er, box, this most versatile of vehicles has been a Aichi mainstay for practically twenty years. Simple reliable transport, unadorned by trinkets or jewels – besides it’s not technically a car – one can have a Van (ostensibly goods) or Wagon (more seats for passengers) but with very car-like manners.

Built in the Daihatsu Kyoto plant, many of these automotive donkeys remain in Japan plying trades as taxis or compact class delivery vans with windows. Many more are exported to far-flung worldly corners with the same remits but vastly different environments. 

Let us deal with the exterior first. Western eyes unaccustomed to the Probox will utter adjectives circling the bland or vapid. Look past these (un) conscious biases and you will find this vehicle owns everything it needs and nothing it doesn’t. Plentiful glass area, a barely rising belt line, bumpers expecting to see action, with smooth, professionally plain body sides and rear. Rectangular headlamps, black grille.

Inside we find a spacious area and, for the driver, the essentials; steering wheel, a form of transmission selector, a singular half moon gauge containing speedometer and idiot lights, ventilation controls and a wee nod to modernity in the form of a digital radio. Plastics used are hard but enduring to withstand likely extremes of temperature and abuse. Even the ignition/ door key consists of nothing more than grooves and a shoulder stop. Instead of basic, try fundamental. Scrub utilitarian for serviceableness. 

The above description is for the 2002 launch model as the successor to the Corolla van. The XP50 Probox at 4,195mm long being a soupçon shorter than the identical Succeed van, both based on Toyota’s NBC (New Basic Compact) platform. A wheelbase of 2,550mm and the scales just tipping the tonne offered a not inconsiderable official payload of 400Kgs. Many users would severely test that; what weight a typical cow or a dozen (or more) humans?

The Probox’s power supply amounts to four cylinder petrol engines of 1.3 and 1.5 litres displacement mated to a five speed manual or four speed automatic gearbox. A 1.4 litre diesel was discontinued just three years into production. The 1.5 litre engine could be blessed with four wheel drive and in certain markets, the fuel was CNG.

Consider for a moment that popular choice of engine – the 1NR-FE (NSP 160V). Those thirteen hundred cubic centimetres developed around 95bhp and 90 foot pounds (depending on fuel quality), red lined at 6,200 rpm. Once entering the wilds, eschewing service bays for dusty roadside repairs, and thrashed mercilessly whilst burdened with precious cargo, that load-bearing mule delivered the goods, time and again. 

Therein lies Probox’s strength; mechanically robust, limited electronics, easily repairable with an excellent spares supply, no matter how remote. From Bolivia to Peru, Kenya to Myanmar, local conditions dictate the frequency and seriousness of repairs. Entire suspension systems may need complete replacement within three years. Engines with poor servicing maintain progress, parts prices are cheap.

The rear suspension consists of rearward angled shock absorbers with specially developed 4-links with barrel shaped, non-linear coil springs. From 2005, all models featured a manual headlight levelling system. Some models had the drivers window only electrically operated, the rest requiring human efforts. 

And after twelve years unalterable, the XP50 became the XP160 in 2014, garnering a full re-design. Full represented a reshaped bonnet, rear lights, front slatted grille and headlights – well how do you alter a box on wheels? Over time, such extravagances as cup holders, mats, trays and stowaway cubbies have appeared; ideal for paperwork, not hay bales.

The Probox XP160. Image:

Trim levels are limited to GL, DX or DX-J but since your author’s Japanese is as fluent as his mule whispering, it’s difficult to establish the differences. Exterior hues can be had in white, silver, black, champagne or navy blue. The 2014 upgrades also went as far as offering metallic magenta or brown, uprated brakes with ABS and air bags for the front. Interiors glide from charcoal to black. Driver and passenger comfort remain relegated to the principle of a seat being better than none – a rear bench seat is just that – harsh.

For a vehicle resembling a loaf of bread but offering far better handling than your average four-legged donkey, Probox has become something of a cool, cult car. The scope such a blank canvas presents seemingly irresistible to the customisation brigade, intent on altering almost everything but the shape.

Limited only by resources and imagination, the inner donkey is freed by its worldwide aficionados (who have Facebook pages devoted to such whims) transforming Probox from coriander courier to city centre cruiser. Round-the-clock taxi to weekend washes and waxing. A far cry from their unequivocally humble origins.

One of many thousands of Myanmar taxis. Image:

Demand for this box on wheels remains high and why fix something that ain’t broken? Fifteen year old versions containing precious little of their original pieces still change hands, for both seller and purchaser understand the logic of it’ll work. Newer, more colourful versions will filter down the chain eventually. The Probox will never be a contender in beauty pageants but that’s missing the point entirely. 

This is all the car you could ever need, and provides the rationale for the Probox’s antediluvian stance. Just not seen this side of the divide.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

19 thoughts on “Mule Variations”

  1. Good mirning Andrew. What an eminently sensible vehicle! It’s disappointing that more automakers don’t offer such models in their range. I really like the philosophy that underlies the Probox: simplicity, practicality, long production run, therefore (I would assume) relative cheapness.

    The absence of any attempt to ‘style’ the XP50 has produced a very satisfying result. It is timeless, because it was never ‘fashionable’ in the first place:

    On that basis, it’s disappointing that Toyota has attempted to give the XP160 a more marque-specific front end, which it absolutely doesn’t need and will date it when Toyota’s mainstream style moves on:

  2. Good morning Andrew. Another interesting article so thank you. As Daniel says above what’s not to like? I would certainly enjoy owning one. Off to find the Facebook pages that relate!

  3. A very likable rational vehicle, not that I need anything this big, but still. I like Daniels’ photo of the XP50 with the steel wheels without the plastic wheel covers.

  4. This is another one of those long-life designs. Its simplicity and robustness are commendable. It´s from the same six-sided cardboard container as the Toyota Crown Luxury taxi. These kinds of products demand more of our attention. They dodge fashion and so return to the classic formulæ of industrial design with a small nod to expresssion. The Probox has a chamfer on the trailing end of the DLO. That´s pretty much it. It makes a car like the Ford Fusion seem positively expressive. And that then makes one ask how a car *seemingly* so austere as the Fusion can be so expressive. There´s a clean, light blue late model on my road and it´s as eye-catching as someone undressing in a window though in this case you don´t have to look away. Returning to my favourite trope, print magazines, the question is why these products aren´t worth 1500 words now and again? I´d much rather read a Probox road trip than another tediously onanistic tale of lapping the ‘Ring in another 350 bhp sporting irrelevance.

  5. The nearest competitor I can find is the Nissan AD (pronounced Ay-Dee, not ‘add’, apparently). I believe it’s based on the Note’s platform. This topic follows on nicely from the coverage of the R4.

    I agree that it’s ridiculous that high performance cars are reviewed time and time again, while whole categories of vehicle are ignored to the extent that even enthusiasts are unaware of their existence (thank you Andrew for highlighting this one).

    1. “I bought Motorist magazine last month. It was rubbish because in among the articles on the Porsche 911, M3, Impreza Turbo, McLaren F39 and Rolls Royce GTi there was this article on the Suzuki Turnip Happy Box. It was a total waste of the cover price. I will never buy Motorist ever, ever again.”

    2. Couldn’t agree more, Richard. I’m sure it’s great fun for automotive journalists to play with the latest supercar, but given their tiny sales and market share, they are an irrelevance to the vast majority of readers and are given a disproportionate amount of coverage. This is why I no longer buy print car magazines.

  6. I felt really silly wondering why anyone would want a Yaris cosplaying as a Land Cruiser when there must be a commerical van with windows and seats that has a suspension which wouldn’t need to be replaced every three years*. Then I remembered the Matra-Simca (Talbot) Rancho, a Simca 1100 cosplaying as a Range Rover. I saw a bunch of those in Paris, they turned my head each time, always made me smile.

    Toyota does make a couple of very utilitarian vans that make me smile, but they might not be serviceable in Myanmar.

    Pixis: Far too cute for Myanmar.

    DynaRoute: Freshly fallen from the ugly tree, yet curiously lacking in doors, also way too expensive.

    * The Toyota ProAce is a badge engineered Citroën Jumpy etc. Perfect, I’d think, but not available in Myanmar.

    1. Hi gooddog. The weird Dynaroute looks just like a Toyota Dyna cab crudely joined to a Hi-Ace body. What advantage does it offer over a regular Hi-Ace, I wonder?

    2. Daniel, Was it to make proper use of the remaining periscopo rear view devices they once bought from Lamborghini? Or perhaps to solve the mystery of how sumo wrestlers travel?

      This one has a special antenna so the extraterrestrials riding inside can communicate with the home world.

    3. I understand the DynaRoute’s logic as follows:
      a) take the Dyna with its simle and robust BoF setup
      b) convert it to a van with a body you already have so you don’t have to design and tool a new one…

      They didn’t even have to hire a SsangYong designer for this.

  7. Andrew thank you for this very interesting piece on a vehicle I knew absolutely nothing about.

    Does the panel feel that the Citroen Berlingo comes close to being a Euro equivalent?

    We had one of the early ones into the UK – our only car purchased new. Very practical and little pretension.

    Not sure if adding the optional extra sunroof was contra to the utilitarian ethos, it handled a lot of abuse (the non verbal kind) but ultimately failed of Toyota levels of reliability.

    1. Rick, I think the Berlingo could fill that role very well. Never had one, but liked the early Fiat Doblo so much that we had three, the last being the first face-lift version in a fetching shade of cream – friends called it the ice-cream van. Didn’t like the looks of the new version so had a Peugeot Bippa instead which was similarly totally practical. All four gave faultless service (yes – really) and the Bippa still does – the friend to whom we sold it says it’s the best value for money vehicle he’s ever owned (mind you, he does also run a Jag XF….)

    2. Rick, I’d agree for the first Berlingo. Its facelift around 2003 would then be the equivalent of the Toyota’s XP160 front end disaster. All later Berlingos are too fancy for this comparison.

  8. Interesting article Andrew on a vehicle I did not know existed. Perhaps a Toyota Proxbox 1.5 petrol 4×4 automatic would be worth hunting down at an JDM import specialist.

    Daniel would you be kind enough if at all possible to photoshop some larger alloy wheels onto the pic of the white Proxbox. I’m intrigued to see if a wheel enhancement could improve the basic design style.

  9. Hi Christian. I’ve just seen your comment. How about these, not Photoshopped, but real:

  10. Late to the comments but I love these for all the same reasons – rugged, unpretentious, designed for task.
    As ever in Japan you can get custom kits and these round-headlamp retrofit kits from Renoca are rather cool:

    Also looking pretty great with a ruggedised ‘overland’ makeover by Autoc-1

    Both treatments on one car would be spectacular!

    Interestingly they will also retro-fy your HiAce

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