Track and field

We test three gen­uine off-road­ers

Herald Sun - Motoring - - FRONT PAGE - RICHARD BLACK­BURN CARS­GUIDE ED­I­TOR richard.black­burn@news.com.au

WHEN your pop­u­lar­ity is wan­ing, it’s not a great idea to pick a fight with the big­gest, most pop­u­lar kid in the play­ground.

But that’s ex­actly what Ford has done. It’s called out Toy­ota with a se­ries of “chal­lenger” ad­ver­tise­ments that high­light “cus­tomer ad­van­tages” it of­fers over its ri­val.

First in the crosshairs was the mid-size best­seller, the Camry. Then it was the big­gest sell­ing ute, the HiLux. Now it’s Aus­tralia’s favourite large SUV, the Prado.

It’s a hell of a way to get no­ticed.

Ford is con­fi­dent its Ranger with a roof, the Ever­est, can mix it with the Prado. But there’s a catch. Toy­ota has just added a roof to its HiLux, called it the For­tuner and un­der­cut the Ford on price.

There’s no doubt the Ever­est has a moun­tain to climb to match this pair of Toy­otas. It’s time to find out whether it be­longs at the sum­mit or back at base camp.

FORD EVER­EST

The Ever­est is a good look­ing ve­hi­cle, with a more co­he­sive de­sign than the For­tuner. In­side, it has the most at­trac­tive and mod­ern look­ing in­te­rior of this trio, al­beit with lots of hard plas­tic sur­faces. The in­stru­ment read­outs are clear and have a hi-tech feel, with a dig­i­tal speedo and yaw and pitch me­ters to tell you what the car is do­ing on rough off-road ter­rain.

There is a “ter­rain man­age­ment” pro­gram that ad­justs the car’s setup to cope with dif­fer­ent sur­faces. Set­tings in­clude sand, road, rocks and mud, grass or snow. For of­froad­ing, there’s hill-de­scent and as­cent, se­lectable 4WD low and a lock­ing dif­fer­en­tial. It has a higher wad­ing depth than the Toy­otas (800mm to 700mm), al­though ap­proach, de­par­ture and ramp over an­gles aren’t as gen­er­ous.

On the road, the Ever­est is more sure-footed through cor­ners than its ri­vals, with less pitch­ing and lean­ing. The steer­ing is too light, though and the ride doesn’t feel as plush as the Prado.

The 3.2-litre turbo diesel is ef­fec­tive but makes it­self heard at idle and un­der heavy ac­cel­er­a­tion. On the open road, the diesel rat­tle is less no­tice­able and the Ever­est makes light work of over­tak­ing.

The equip­ment list in­cludes a pow­ered tail­gate, voice­ac­ti­vated con­trols, wi-fi hotspot, two USB out­lets, four 12-volt plugs and a reg­u­lar house­hold power point. Safety gear on the Trend in­cludes seven airbags, lane de­par­ture warn­ing, drowsy driver alert and adap­tive cruise con­trol with for­ward col­li­sion alert. It also gets front and rear park­ing sen­sors.

The third row seats are tighter than Prado but pass­able for adults on short trips. They are the eas­i­est to store and when they are in place, there is room enough for overnight travel bags. The rear load area is wide and long, but not as deep as the For­tuner.

TOY­OTA PRADO

The Prado feels the most re­fined of th­ese three. Its sus­pen­sion does the best job of iso­lat­ing oc­cu­pants from road im­per­fec­tions and the cabin is bet­ter in­su­lated, with less en­gine and road noise. In­te­rior plas­tics and velour seat cov­er­ings feel more up­mar­ket.

The cabin looks old­fash­ioned, though, with dated graph­ics dis­plays and con­trols and a lack of con­nec­tiv­ity and tech­nol­ogy that’s avail­able on the Ever­est. The GLX goes with­out voice-ac­ti­vated con­trols and there’s no lane de­par­ture warn­ing, blind spot de­tec­tion, front park­ing sen­sors or ac­tive cruise con­trol.

There are other ar­eas where the Prado feels dated, as well. The side-hinged rear door with the spare wheel on the back is cum­ber­some to open and doesn’t work in tight park­ing spots. The op­er­a­tion of the rear seats is fid­dly and there is very lit­tle lug­gage space be­hind the third row. On the pos­i­tive side, there is no­tice­ably more head and leg room for pas­sen­gers in the sec­ond and third rows.

The Prado’s off-road cre­den­tials are well known and it has bet­ter ap­proach and de­par­ture an­gles than the Ranger. But it trails the other two for tow­ing ca­pac­ity (2500kg to 2800kg for the For­tuner and 3000kg for the Ever­est).

It also feels the slow­est. It shares its new 2.8-litre diesel with the For­tuner but is con­sid­er­ably heav­ier, which blunts per­for­mance. It’s ad­e­quate with­out a full load, but you get the sense it would strug­gle with a full crew on board and a trailer or car­a­van be­hind.

Al­though the ride is com­fort­able around town, on the open road it is prone to wal­low over big bumps, lean through cor­ners and gen­er­ally re­sist at­tempts to change di­rec­tion in a hurry.

TOY­OTA FOR­TUNER

The For­tuner has the sharpest price by some mar­gin here, but it misses out on the safety equip­ment of the Ever­est and doesn’t get the Ford’s front park­ing sen­sors, dual-zone cli­mate con­trol, al­loy spare or elec­tronic tail­gate.

The in­te­rior isn’t as at­trac­tive or well fin­ished, ei­ther. The knobs and sur­rounds on the cen­tre con­sole look cheaper and flim­sier than the Ford, while our test car had a ques­tion­able brown and black colour scheme. You can see that money has been taken out of the car — the stereo has six speak­ers to the Ever­est’s 10 and there is no van­ity mir­ror for the driver.

The third-row seat is more old-school as well, with seats that fold away to the side of the load area rather than tuck out of sight be­neath the floor. When the seats are stowed, the an­chor points stick up in the rear load area, which has an un­even floor. Al­though the seats cut into the width of the load area, they also mean it is

The Ever­est has a moun­tain to climb to match this pair of Toy­otas

no­tice­ably deeper than the Ever­est and Prado, which is handy for taller, bulkier items. The seats also tum­ble for­ward to lib­er­ate more load space.

On the road, the For­tuner feels the most truck-like of the three. While the steer­ing is rea­son­ably sharp and ac­cu­rate, the body jig­gles up and down and side to side over bumps and mid-cor­ner cor­ru­ga­tions. It doesn’t have the com­fort and re­fine­ment of the Prado, nor the com­po­sure of the Ranger through the bends. It also has the most no­tice­able diesel rat­tle around town and un­der hard ac­cel­er­a­tion.

It does, how­ever, feel live­lier than both. Al­though it gives away power, torque and cu­bic ca­pac­ity to the Ever­est, it gets off the mark more quickly, helped by a slicker shift­ing auto and a weight ad­van­tage over the Ford of close to 300kg.

VER­DICT

Buy­ing a truly off-road ca­pa­ble 4WD is not a cheap ex­er­cise. All three of th­ese are lack­ing tech­nol­ogy and fea­tures avail­able on cheaper fauxwheel drives. The Prado is the first off the list here. It has an edge in cabin re­fine­ment but is the most ex­pen­sive, feels dated and lacks tech­nol­ogy. The For­tuner is priced at­trac­tively, is the liveli­est per­former and has a flex­i­ble cabin. But the Ever­est jus­ti­fies its pre­mium — and wins this con­test — with more safety gear, higher tow­ing ca­pac­ity, more fam­ily-friendly fea­tures and bet­ter com­po­sure on the road.

Pic­tures: Jeff Dar­manin

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