Probox: It Will Kill Your Image But Build Your Business

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Few cars have elicited such varied reactions from the Kenyan public as this one. And far much fewer cars have served as many functions, too.

Considering it is vintage (a year 2002 creation), fewer cars are as simply built.

From some perspectives, it is a car that makes no sense at all, and from others, it makes all the sense in the world. What makes matters worse is that it comes in two distinct spec levels, which have different names, and as such Wikipedia counts them as two different vehicles. Strange.

This particular piece, this review (or to be exact, my take on this car), has been a long time coming. Welcome to the paradox that is the Toyota Probox.

This is what industry specialists would call a “world car”, though in some ways it does not fit the description. World cars tend to be cheap, usable, versatile, and in most cases, poorly styled — the Probox fits this description.

But world cars are also typically aimed at Brazil and the Third World, but correct me if I’m wrong here, the first Probox I ever saw outside of the Internet was an import, meaning the local franchise holders of all things Toyota never sold it new. If they did, then the sales they made were a closely guarded secret. More and more curious. With a little foresight, they may have made a killing.

What is it?

It is Toyota’s answer to the prayers of the typical Tokyo taxi driver. The need for a cheap and spacious vehicle to ferry clients along the Shutoko freeway could not be answered by Mark II (too flashy for the ordinary citizen) nor the Progrés (smaller and cheaper, but the 2.5-litre engine is also found in the Mark II, so driving it in thick traffic would run up a huge petrol bill).

Neither of these two saloon cars can lug much more than a rucksack or two suitcases at a time. What if you have an adventurous threesome toting backpacks on the way to the airport for an overseas trip?

Enter the Probox. It has a sub-2.0-litre engine and all the more economical, thanks to Toyota’s VVT-i under-bonnet wizardry. The passenger space is more than ample. The boot is cavernous, for lack of a better adjective. And it can be had for next to nothing. This also makes it the spiritual successor to the famous, hunchbacked Corolla 100-based DX, right down to the drab grey interior and the five-speed manual transmission with a thin gear lever sprouting from the darkness that is the space between the driver and passenger foot-wells — the four-speed auto is an option, as is 4WD — and yes, even the splashes from Toyota’s design palette (available in either metallic grey or white).

Some might claim that they may have or may have seen red, blue, or even black examples, but ignore them: these two hues are the most ubiquitous.

This DX ancestry means that besides taxi work, the Probox is also classified as a commercial vehicle (in Japan), so the car you buy may or may not have been a sushi-delivery vehicle or transport for a quartet of toilet cleaners in its former life.

And this is not cynicism; back when the import car market was opening up and everyone thought it was cool to have a car with Japanese hieroglyphics emblazoned all over the side, we once asked an Oriental acquaintance to translate the writing on a Nissan matatu, and he told us it says “We Clean Toilets”.

What you should know

So you want to buy a Probox? Lucky you. It is ridiculously cheap, given how adaptable the thing is, which we will get into in just a moment. Most dealers will quote you prices just below 600 grand for a newly registered ex-Japan model, which should be just about seven or eight years old.

There are also rumours that the automatic has issues with the gearbox. If it does, then maybe it is time people reconsidered the manual transmission.
Should you care?

It depends on a lot of things. If you spend any amount of time in front of a mirror making sure you look acceptable to society, then you are slightly narcissistic and as such, you are barking up the wrong tailpipe.

You can never look good in a Probox, no matter how outrageous a body kit, how many inches apart the outer edges of your rims are, or what colour you choose to paint your car. Buy an Avensis estate, or maybe a used Caldina. Or even a Wingroad. I don’t care; anything but this. After my “List of ugly cars” failed to star this vehicle, some readers raised protest, so it is clear that a good number of your equally vain peers deem this car unsightly.
But if you possess even a modicum of business savvy, then this is your car.

Just check this out: In western Kenya, the Probox has now replaced what we call the “seven-a-side”, the passenger transport “solution” derived from a pickup. You know, the kind that can only be found in areas so remote, there is only one M-Pesa agent in the entire district and traffic policemen walk bare-foot and use large rocks to set up road blocks (obviously the nearest tarmac road is a good 70 kilometres away).

Not satisfied with that conquest, now Proboxes (Probices? Probi? Proba? What’s the plural?) are now phasing out the seven-seater Noah/TownAce vans as short-distance, high-speed convenience transport. But unlike the Noah, the Probox can apparently accommodate 10, not seven, with a bit of creative placement of limbs and heads. I don’t know how that works.

It is not just low-capacity passenger transport that is feeling the presence of the Probox; the light commercial vehicle sector is also reeling under the onslaught. The Probox took over from where the DX left off as a bearer of meat from abattoir to butchery, which in itself was formerly the preserve of the half-tonne pickup.

And in a grand coup d’etat of West African proportions, now someone tells me they are used for the conveyance of qat/khat — miraa in Kenyan parlance. This cannot be taken lightly, so obviously further investigation is called for.

The Probox is a lot cheaper (a new Hilux pickup can buy almost five of these accursed objects), but there is a trade-off. The carrying capacity can never quite match that of the Hilux, the tiny petrol engine is not as powerful, and it is not as robustly built, so its lifespan can be likened to that of a mayfly when subjected to hard labour. But you will have five of them for every brand-new Hilux you buy.

It is my intention to pit the Probox against its second cousin, the Hilux pickup, not in ferrying miraa (I would not dare) but in a shoot-out just to see if it is worth the savings.

One more thing you should know… If you, like me, have a secret plan to disband the revenue authority once in power, then here is a tip. For all that work it can do, and in spite of its classification as a commercial vehicle in Japan, it is not a commercial vehicle here.

So instead of buying a pickup and fretting over TLB, inspection stickers, reflectors, and speed limits, just get the Probox. It is the equivalent of a plug-and-play USB device: buy-and-drive (carrying meat or khat, but please make sure you have a licence for your business).

Verdict?

There are very few cars that I care less about. I do not hate the Probox, but I don’t love it either. I have no feelings for or towards it at all. I am not a businessman, so I do not need it. The leaf-spring rear suspension, the seedy little 1.5 litre VVT-i, and uninspiring front-drive chassis mean I do not want it either.

You might be wondering why I did not discuss driving dynamics, experience behind the wheel, and all that jazz. That is because there is almost nothing to report. I have been in a Probox (behind the wheel, no less) and I came to two conclusions: One, I am not sure I want to be in one ever again and two, save for the roominess, the soft-edge rounded off dashboard surfaces (comes off looking like someone was child-proofing a late ’80s Japanese dashboard), and horrible instrument panel, speedometer especially (what is it with the long strokes marking the speeds?), it looks messy, crowded, and unprofessional. There really is nothing else worth writing here about. Sorry.

There are now too many of these things on the road to call for a nationwide embargo, so it is a case of live and let die. May we please have another world car, please.

What is a Succeed? Is it or is it not a Probox?

Honestly I don’t know. They look the same to me. But something I read on the Internet may have shed some light on this.

The new Probox model will have something called G-BOOK, not a social network for gangsters, but Toyota’s own telematics device, a sort of Japanese iDrive for those familiar with BMWs.

The Probox/Succeed will become a lifestyle vehicle for the very young — old enough to drive but too young to afford their own cars. This is a demographic that has an uncanny grasp of elaborate and sophisticated electronic devices, the people who crowd social networks, speak a strange language that sounds almost like English, and are thus made mobile and connected using Daddy’s money.

More on this later.

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