You have to hand it to the folks at Toyota. Not only do they build good, high quality vehicles, but they’re astute marketers, too. The competition must be absolutely shell-shocked at the pricing of the new locally built Fortuner SUV, which has the looks, equipment and capability of vehicles costing much more. And by all accounts the market has been just as impressed, taking every one of the 500 or so units a month that the Prospecton plant is currently able to make. By our reckoning, that already makes the Fortuner South Africa’s best-selling SUV…
Of course, as the Special Report in this issue points out, the competitive pricing comes from the fact that Fortuner forms part of Toyota’s IMV programme, benefiting from the economies of scale that this international project brings to parts-sourcing and manufacturing. But what is the SUV model like to live with, and to drive?
Looks-wise, it’s the kind of vehicle that any sport utility fan would be proud of. The family resemblance to the Hilux is strong, but the transformation to wagon form has been handled brilliantly. As one of our testers remarked, “This vehicle looks as though it costs quite a bit more than it does”. It has a kind of Mercedes- Benz M-Class air about it, probably because of the rearward-sloping C-pillars and wraparound rear window. Blister fenders add to the purposefulness of the design, and the front end has a Toyota family look, with something of the air of the iconic Landcruiser wagon. Some tester had their doubts about the brightwork “moustache” atop the grille, but others thought this feature served as a brilliantly subtle way of distinguishing the SUV from its bakkie siblings.
Beneath the skin, it rides on the Hilux ladder chassis, and shares the pick-up’s double wishbone front suspension. But at the rear it’s all change, with a shorter body overhang, and a completely revised suspension set-up. Gone are the bakkie’s leaf springs, replaced by a four-link set-up with coil springs, with a lateral control rod added to counter pitching. Brakes are by a similar disc/drum combination to the pick-up’s, and ABS is standard. Our top-of-the range test vehicle, the 4,0 V6 4×4 automatic, came with 16-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 265/70 General Grabber rubber.
Under the bonnet, the top-liner features the same 1GR-FE V6 as flagship Hiluxes. While peak power remains the same, at 175 kW at 5 200 r/min, torque delivery is tweaked on automatic transmission versions, increasing peak output from 343 N.m to 376 N.m at 3 800 r/min. The five-speed auto transfers drive to the four wheels, with a lockable Torsen diff apportioning the split between front and rear. There’s also a locking facility for the rear diff, engaged by a button on the facia, and a two-speed low ratio transfer case.
The cabin is light and airy, thanks to a large glass area and the use of light colours. The test vehicle featured a light brown facia, neatly upholstered beige leather seats, and durable, rather than plush, fibre-punch carpeting under (optional) loose mats. The front seats are excellent, proving both comfortable and supportive, with a range of adjustment that suited the shortest and tallest test team members. Second-row seating is in the form of two folding “chairs” split 40:60. And behind this is another split bench, whose two halves collapse, and then fold up against the left and right bulkheads to free up extra luggage space. The rear seat is adequately comfortable, and there’s enough legroom for adults in the back row provided middle-row passengers are prepared to give up some of theirs. With the centre bench in its rearmost position, there is plenty of legroom for middle-row passengers. Our luggage capacity test using ISO blocks came up with a basic luggage capacity in sevenseater form of 168 dm3, increasing to 296 dm3 in five-seater configuration, with total utility space (with only the front pair of seats in use) at 1 360 dm3.
The hard plastic facia is pure Hilux, and minor controls are well placed. The MP3-compatible radio/ tape system is located high up at the centre of the dash, and the buttons and knobs are within easy reach – just as well as, unlike some other comparable SUVs, the Toyota doesn’t offer remote controls on the steering wheel boss. Sturdy, easy-to-use rotary switches for the ventilation system are positioned on the central hangdown section. Perhaps some would expect climate control in a vehicle of this type, but the “ordinary” air-con works well, and has separate outlets and controls for third-row passengers.
In fact, the choice of equipment has obviously been made with an eye on costs, the focus being on the useful rather than the luxurious, with just enough “comfort” features for buyers not to feel short-changed. Other practical standard items are electric windows all round (with onetouch down for the driver), immobiliser/ remote central locking, a multi-function display and a heated rear window. There are two handy 12V power-sockets, one on the lower facia, and one in the rear load bay. Stash spaces abound, and there are drink-holder slots in all four doors, in the centre console, and on either side of the third row of seats. There’s a portable ashtray that fits into the drink-holder slots, and a really handy lidded storage box is positioned between the two front seats. Two front airbags, protecting driver and front passenger, are provided.
From the high seating position, vision all-round is excellent, and the steering (adjustable for rake) and console-mounted shifter (with a separate selector lever for low range) fall nicely to hand. The big V6 fires up with alacrity and idles smoothly. Driving off for the first time, one is immediately impressed by the quietness of the Fortuner, and our Dawe sound meter confirmed that mechanical and road noise levels are extremely low.
On the road, ride is absorbent and comfortable, marred only slightly by an occasional jiggliness resulting from the separate body/chassis construction. Steering is light but communicative, making the Fortuner a relaxed vehicle around town. And, on the open road, low sound levels, high gearing and the comfy ride make it a relaxed cruiser.
Push it hard, and one finds that levels of grip and handling are good for a vehicle of this type, the only real limiting factor being the high centre of gravity. Despite the steering’s lightness, the vehicle can be positioned accurately in bends, and the permanent fourwheel drive provides extra stability, with a tendency to understeer as the limit is approached.
Off-road, the high ride height, high profile tyres and a good range of suspension travel make for comfy progress. And this is no softroader: owners wanting to use their Fortuners in rough or soft going will be able to do so with confidence. We tried it on a rocky off-road route and on soft sand, and it handled both with aplomb. Low range can be selected on the fly, but the vehicle must be stationary to engage the rear diff-lock.
Out on the test strip, the Fortuner V6 delivered scintillating performance. As is often the case with modern automatics, best acceleration times were achieved with the five-speed transmission’s selector in the Drive position. The zero to 100 km/h time of 9,31 seconds just shaded the best we achieved with the slightly lighter manual transmission V6 Hilux double- cab.
As in the case of the Hilux, top speed was limited to 180 km/h. Also much like the Hilux, the test car’s disc/drum brake combination took some strain in our punishing 10 stop 100-to-zero emergency braking test, though there was never any question of failure. In early stops, with the pad material cold, the ABS was not even activated. Then, as things warmed up, the anti-lock did come into play. Later, as pads, discs and drums became even hotter still, stopping times increased fairly significantly. The best stop of 3,14 seconds was reasonable for a heavy 4×4, but the worst, in 3,74 seconds, reminded us of pre-ABS days. Brakes adapted for off-road use will always record slower times in this harsh on-road test, and the system gave no trouble in normal driving. But, with most SUVs spending 90 per cent of their time on-road, we would be inclined to opt for better on-road braking performance…
For a large 4×4, the Fortuner recorded good fuel economy figures, its CAR fuel index working out at 15,04 litres per 100 km. But the small 65-litre fuel tank means that the range is frustratingly short, our calculations showing that, at that rate, the vehicle would have to return to the pumps every 432 km.
The Fortuner has certainly taken the local SUV market by storm, and with good reason. It is handsome, extremely practical, comfortable, well built, economical, and a good performer. Small fuel tank and soft brake pad material aside, it is in its element both onroad and off. And there is, quite simply, nothing to compete with it on value for money.