The Toyota HiAce or Nissan NV 350, which would be the best matatu?

Tuesday November 12 2019
Nissan matatu




I am an ardent reader of your column and have benefited from the articles once in a while. I intend to venture into the transport (matatu) business in the very near future. I would like to buy an 11-seater shuttle that will cover a distance of approximately 500 kilometres daily on a good and smooth road by all standards. I am torn between the popular Toyota HiAce van (box) and the newly introduced Nissan NV350. Both vehicles are almost similar in look, size and capacity, both the diesel and petrol versions. My questions are:

1:Between the two engine variants, which one is more reliable as far as power, efficiency and reliability are concerned? Toyota HiAce comes with a 2KD engine for petrol 2000cc and diesel 2500cc and 3000cc versions while Nissan comes with a QR20 engine (petrol model 2000cc) and YD25 engine (diesel model 2500cc).

2: Between the diesel and petrol version, which is better considering the number of kilometres to be covered and the task the vehicle will undertake?

3: Routine servicing costs of the petrol and the diesel version?

I am inclined to go for the Nissan petrol model since more are coming to the market and government agencies have of late bought quite a number. Also, its cost is pocket-friendly. Please advise me before I commit myself and burn my fingers.


Maina John

Hello Maina,

I first encountered the Nissan NV350 in California back in 2013, and since then, two factors have stood out, the immediate reaction being astonishment at the uncanny resemblance it bears to the Toyota HiAce H200 - a resemblance that has escaped nobody - and the second being askance along the lines of why it took so long to finally hit these shores. That said:

1: Slight correction here, the Toyota 2KD engine is diesel-powered, turbocharged, not petrol. It’s the 2500cc unit you refer to later in that sentence, with the 1KD pushing 3000cc. Power and efficiency favours the diesel engines in both brands since they are both turbocharged and pack more inches in their trousers compared to the petrol engines.

The YD25DDTi High Power Nissan engine makes about 190hp and 450Nm. The 1KD-FTV Toyota engine does between 170hp/352Nm and 190hp/420Nm, so it may seem Toyota loses this battle on paper, but I have seen these things in action, and unless they are secretly tuned before being put into service, they are not to be trifled with. The 2KD will go unlisted for now because its outputs are inferior to the aforementioned pair, which are more evenly matched.

Both these engines are roughly 20 years old, but there is a reason they have hung around for so long with only minor updates: they are extremely popular with users, especially those in the market for a double-cab pickup or an SUV, but they are not without their weaknesses.

The YD25 has been known to suffer injector problems and ECU failures while serving duty in the D40 Navara, so don’t be surprised to see these weaknesses transferred to the NV350. There is also a risk of premature timing chain failure, which are words nobody ever wants to hear about their engine. 

Inspections are strongly recommended at the 100,000km mark and then every 40,000km after that. There have to be inspections because these timing chains operate suspiciously quietly even when worn out or stretched so when it goes bang, you will never hear it coming. Like its ZD30 stable mate, the EGR in the YD25 is also a source of grief, which causes excessive smoking, and the EGR cooler could cause a coolant leak via corroded or split flanges.

Toyota Hiace

The Toyota HiAce. PHOTO | COURTESY

The 1KD is rattly from a cold start. This may or may not be an issue, a quandary solvable once the engine heats up. If it goes quiet, then you’re good. If it keeps rattling, then you have faulty injectors. The fuel pump is also a potential candidate for going on the fritz. Beyond this there doesn’t seem to be much else to cause alarm, but as with all turbo-diesel engines from before, say, 2010, good care must be taken to prevent turbo failure. This mostly involves warm-up on start-up and cool-down before shut-down, more so if some heavy-duty work is involved in between those two points.

2: Diesel wins. It gives better gas mileage (I see the oxymoron there, but roll with me) combined with diesel fuel being cheaper per litre than petrol and it develops comparatively more torque, which is something you will need when toting a payload, human or otherwise.

3: Routine servicing costs are what they are. I’ve never had to service any of these engines, and prices of parts, especially filters, vary by brand and location, as do labour charges, so you will understand when I tell you that I don’t have solid figures for this.

You seem to head in the opposite direction to that a rational PSV operator would take. The 2.0 petrol is not bad in and of itself, but you will be thrashing it at full throttle especially on hilly sections just to get any semblance of motion out of it. This will hurt engine life and fuel economy.

Nissan has not had a strong showing in the recent past, especially on the reliability front, and Toyota seems to have eaten their lunch. Despite first coming across the NV350 six years ago, interaction has been sparse and it hasn’t hung around here long enough for users to draw meaningful conclusions about its service life. It has yet to prove itself, but in doing that, it has to deal with the crippling effect of being saddled with the YD25 High Power, which did not fare too well in the Navara D40 historically. 

The NV350 may undergo the same evolution that the HiAce H200 did: in the early days of KD engine family use in PSVs, lack of knowledge on direct injection and turbocharging led to a lot of premature failures to the point where many operators were swapping out the KD engine and installing much older 3L and 5L engines, which they believed were more robust and had longer life, besides being cheaper to maintain. I expect the more fearful NV350 operators may swap out the YD25 for the QD32, which is venerated in 14-seater circles in these early stages before a lasting solution to the YD25’s flailing reputation is found.

Tell me more…

Hi Baraza, 

I would like to know more about latest version of Subaru. The venerable EJ engine series has officially gone out of production to pave way for the FA and FB series, which feature direct injection. New Subarus also come with something called EyeSight ® which is a driver assistance technology aimed at improving safety.

Hello there, 

Forget about what you may hear that Toyota owns Subaru. It doesn't. All Toyota did was increase its shareholding at Fuji Heavy Industries from 16 percent to 20 percent, that can hardly be described as one "owning" the other. However, there have been a few collaborations between the two that people believe is diluting the quirkiness that was Subaru cars past. There is the Ractis-Trezia, then there is the GT86/BRZ and now word on the street is that Toyota will have a hand in the development of the next WRX STi. Let's see how this goes...

Tech in cars is for incompetent drivers…

Dear Baraza,

Your article, 'Why pay to repair a car when that money can buy you a new one?' refers. I have been reading you for as long as you've been writing about cars and the one thing that spooks me about your writing is your views about technology integration in cars. I love cars, but I am against tech in cars, especially nanny tech that keeps tabs and reports to some external authority (e.g. "guvment", insurance) on everything that you do while driving, like we see on nearly all late model vehicles (2017 coming forward). Things such as Lane Keep Assist, Automatic Start/Stop (ASS), Wi-Fi connectivity, software updates (Tesla anyone?), etc... Since when did cars become phones and laptops to warrant such kind of tech? If you cannot drive without these 'assistants', it means you are incompetent and shouldn't be behind the wheel in the first place.

I will not write a drawn-out account of how much I loathe tech in cars, but will refer you to a guy who does it so eloquently, I tend to agree with him 99 percent of the time (including his views on Battery-Electric Vehicles, starting with Tesla). I kindly request you to peruse what he has to say: 

Kind regards,

Mathias Muliro,

Hi Mathias,

I agree with you on the front that there seems to be an excessive infusion of tech in modern cars, but I seriously doubt if these vehicles submit reports to the authorities. That is an invasion of privacy, and if people cottoned on to that fact, car sales would drop immediately and there will be scandals of epic proportions that will follow shortly after. The most these cars can do is submit reports to the manufacturer themselves, and even then, it is still not done unless upon request or with permission from the end user. Who the manufacturer chooses to share this data with is entirely up to them, but again... it will have to be under exceptional circumstances or with explicit permission from the vehicle owner.

I also agree that if you can't drive without driver assistance then you shouldn't be palming a steering wheel, but this is a massive grey area we are talking about. Which assists promote ineptitude and which ones are necessary? Remember power steering and ABS are also driver assists. Do you want to drive a car without ABS? (Full disclosure: I deactivated the ABS in my Subaru for specific reasons, but this move is not to be copied by anyone. Do not try this at home. Do as I say, not as I do). A lot of this tech is to optimise efficiency, reduce emissions and increase safety. Sure, we don't actually need that tech, but it may come useful in... um... exceptional circumstances. Better have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Also, a large number of these extra features can be switched off.

I have gone through your friend's website up there and I can only assume he is writing tongue-in-cheek because if he isn't, his complaints are either frivolous or misguided.

You can't snuggle up with your sweetheart? What are bedrooms for?

Follow a suspect with your lights off? That constitutes harassment.

Peg the speedo? Why are you gunning for 260km/h, unless the suspect you were trailing above turns the tables on you and you need to escape urgently?

I agree with the concept of flipping the air cleaner cover in that it is representative of an increased inability to DIY your way out of a mechanical problem owing to the maddening complexity and need for specialty tools to even access some parts of the engine. He is also right about "dimming the lights with your feet" because cars nowadays have transmission controls in the oddest and most mistake-prone places. Mercedes-Benz put the PRND controller in the same position where the indicator stalk is, while Dodge put theirs in a configuration and location dangerously similar to the volume control knob in an early 2000s' stereo system. It is... grating at the very least, and downright hazardous.

As for seating facing backwards... I'm not sure anybody really wants to do that, but if they feel a pressing need to witness the landscape rushing away from them instead of towards them (a feeling that is very disorienting), there are certain forms of transport that still offer this experience: trains and stretch limousines.

Toyota Isis with a suspension that is too low


I have a Toyota Isis but its suspension is too low. By removing the springs, which are already in the car and replacing them with coils, will my problem be solved?

Hi Muinde,

I'm pretty sure your Toyota Isis already has coil springs fitted. If the car is too low for your needs, then you bought the wrong car. That said, you could raise the ride height by installing longer/taller springs, but that will do wonders for your handling, and not in a good way. All the best

How do I change the navigation setting on my C200 2011?

I need some help. The settings on the above car are about Japan. How do I change to the local maps.


Hi Tom,

I honestly don't know. In some systems, you can change the language from the settings menu if you can find it, in others, the language is fixed, so to get an English version means replacing the system, but then again, certain models of cars can be quite easily bricked* once the infotainment/sat-nav system is tampered with. This is usually cured by reinstalling the system and reprogramming the entire car, something that will cost you a pretty penny. This is the price you pay for cheap imports. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

(Bricking: quite literally turning something into a brick. This term usually applies to machines or equipment which have been rendered useless via a software glitch, commonly applied to electronics or devices comprising electronics.)