Track and field
We test three genuine off-roaders
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.
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 off-roading, there’s hilldescent 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.
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.
The Everest has a mountain to climb to match this pair
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.
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 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. 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.
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