This Week On Car Clinic: Endless Toyotas – Prados, Surfs, Starlets & Hating On The Hateful Avanza

Hi Baraza,

I am torn between buying a Toyota Surf and a Prado.

  1. What are the pros and cons when you compare it with a Prado? (on-road and off-road ability, practicality, longevity, consumption)
  2. I am heavily biased towards the Surf (I like the looks). Which is the better engine choice for this vehicle and why?

Give your unbiased opinion.


Hi Nyaga,

  1. Prado vs. Surf. Brother vs Brother.

On-road, the Surf is better: it handles better courtesy of its independent front suspension (IFS) and is a bit more stable owing to its lower overall height and slightly reduced ground clearance. These two endearing qualities become its undoing when you hit the rough… Don’t get me wrong, the Surf can still strut its stuff in the mud, just not with as much aplomb as its wobbly sibling. The IFS is delicate and will break if you are the kind of person who is brutal with the throttle when the ground underfoot is no longer hard-pack. This is especially difficult if you do the kind of high-speed off-roading that comes with murram roads. Catch air a few times and the front axle will inevitably collapse, digging the Surf’s nose into the ground. As for the clearance, that is nothing that a 1” or 2” lift kit can’t cure.

Practicality is an almost fair split… almost. The Surf’s interior is cramped as far as headroom is concerned. Just by eyeballing it, one can tell it is a narrow vehicle, height-wise, not width-wise. Tall people will not be entirely comfortable in it, they are better off in the Prado. To this add the fact that the Prado is a legitimate seven-seater SUV and you can see that perhaps “fair” is not the word I should have used. But that depends on what you want the car for, because the Surf has a party piece that can only be found either on it or on a pukka Range Rover estate: the availability of a rear hatch.

While the Rover’s rear hatch opens outwards, the Surf’s trick is that the rear windscreen can be made to “disappear” into the door. It is an electric window, just like the one next to the driver.

This makes the Surf invaluable as a camera tracking car if you are in the filming industry, as well as easing loading duties if you are in a tight space and can’t, or won’t, open the tailgate for some reason.

It also makes the Surf a fun adventure-mobile in that you can drive around with that rear window open for a sense of “exposure” to the elements. I have done that  in a previous model. On a dusty road, it is fun for exactly 90 seconds before an irritated passenger barks at the driver to shut that damn window, the dust is getting in.

Longevity will depend mostly on how you treat your car, but all factors considered, the Prado is a lump of granite that you will be hard put to kill unless you take corners foolishly like a variety of Kenyans who then get on social media to lambast the vehicle for reducing population numbers (for the millionth time, geniuses: learn the difference between a Prado and a Supra! Stop cornering like you are trying to win a prize!).

The Surf is delicate, as stated above, so hard use will not ensure a long life, unlike the Prado, which can withstand a substantial amount of abuse and still stay upright.

Consumption is not something to discuss here because you know what? These two are the same car on the same platform with the same engines: the only differences are the body styles (differences in drag coefficients are negligible) and the fact that both the Prado and the Surf deploy IFS for the front axle.

  1. 2. What would you prefer? Power and speed? Get a V6, either the old 3.4 or the later 4.0 litre. Want (relative) economy and frustration on the highway? The 2.7 is for you. Incidentally, this is the most common engine under Surf bonnets locally, so you might as well run with it. I know I would.


Hi JB,

Like many people, I love  your column.

  1. I request that you take me on board on your next test drive.
  2. Have you ever done a piece on the Avanza?
  3. Mumira


Greetings Mumira, and many thanks for the compliment.


  1. I don’t usually do ride-alongs but who knows, exceptions could be made. I have an insanely busy schedule the first quarter of 2017 and test drives sometimes appear at short notice, so “next” might not necessarily be the appropriate word to use here. I sometimes also fly out of the country for test drives on a manufacturer’s coin, and they don’t entertain uninvited guests, as do some owners of some cars I drive locally.

This might take some arrangement for it to work; it’s not as simple as plopping your derriere into the shotgun position and yelling, “Let’s do this!” Let’s see how it goes.

  1. I have not done a piece on the Avanza, but I have ridden in it several times in South Africa. It is commonly used there as a taxi, but  I wouldn’t want one. I don’t mean to disparage the owners of the Avanza either here (Kenya Power) or in the RSA (taxi owners), but  I wouldn’t buy one. It looks like a jacked-up Toyota Wish without the roominess. Alternatively, think of it as a Toyota Rush/Daihatsu Terios on Viagra. It has the dimensions of a 5-seater but look inside and you will find perching for seven like a Hebrew candlestick. To this add the narrowness (width-wise) of a Rush.

That makes it worse than cramped. If you play your cards right, you’ll be saddled with a limp 1.5 litre engine that  is apparently the range-topper. If you are not careful, you’ll wind up with a 1.3 or, worse still, a 1.0 litre three-cylinder (!).

Pack that car (like my colleagues and I did once or twice in South Africa) and watch it wheeze its too-big-by-half mass up a hill in first gear (it will shudder and stall in second). It does not look pleasant to drive, at all. The tall, narrow, slab-sided body also looks like it will introduce you to crosswind hell on the open road, just like the Rush.

It is not well specced, the interior’s One Shade of Grey is entirely naff and… no. Just no.


Hi JM,

I am planning to do a social and economic experiment by buying a second-hand (maybe even fifth-hand) Toyota Starlet going for around Sh200,000. Is this a wise buy in terms of reliability, fuel economy and maintenance, or will I just prove my mum right that I should grow up and get married after it frustrates and runs an already poor me broke? How do you rate this ride and what should I be looking for when shopping around for one. 

Salim Juma


Hi Salim,

I smiled at your email. Interesting experiment, this. For Sh200,000, you will get anything from a well-kept example whose owner has to get rid of it for reasons beyond his/her control, to an insurance write-off (slightly more probable) or you might buy junk, which is the most likely scenario.

Whether or not it is a wise buy depends on the objectives of your experiment. As a project car, sure. To impress the ladies…. wrong path. Reliability will depend on what you find under the bonnet, as will fuel economy. Thankfully, Starlets have delightfully simple engines that are easy and cheap to put right, even if it means a replacement.

Maintenance will depend mostly on the rest of the car. With Sh200,000, you might be looking at dilapidated bodywork and busted suspensions. How you handle that is between you and your garage.

I rate the car highly. It is a pleasant and fun little thing, turbo or not. It is easy and stress-free to own and operate and I would recommend ownership for the introduction to spannering and learning the ropes around a motor vehicle, if nothing else.

It won’t bankrupt you, unless you get a turbo one and start fiddling with modifications. You go ahead and do the nuptials, but find a way of also including a Starlet in your life (not at the expense of a wife, though).



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