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Off-road Review: Toyota Fortuner 3.0

Words and pictures by Grant Spolander

Although we’ve already tested the Fortuner in our December ’06 and April ’08 issues, SA’s favourite SUV has undergone two fundamental changes since then: the introduction of Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and the availability of a 4-speed automatic transmission mated to the 3.0 D-4D engine. Lesser changes include two minor facelifts, an increase in rim size (from 16 to 17”), greater fuel tank capacity (from 65 to 80 litres), fitment of HID driving lights and a host of new cabin features like power-adjusted seats, dual-zone climate control, touchscreen audio system, satellite controls on the steering wheel and a newly-fitted reversing camera.

Now you may be thinking (as I did) that a 4-speed automatic gearbox has no place in our modern automotive world, especially with manufacturers like VW fitting 8-speed trannies to vehicles like the Touareg. Such gearboxes cater for almost every gradient, payload or towing tonnage that the vehicle will ever be subjected to; they also cut fuel consumption by reducing engine speed. So I wasn’t expecting much for the old school Toyota box. But boy did it surprise me. Convinced that a 4-speed box wouldn’t be up to the job I did everything I could to find its weak points – like backing off the throttle while driving uphill and kicking down at inopportune times.

But the Fortuner’s 4-speed auto box proved almost flawless, what’s more it felt perfectly paired with the proven 3.0 D-4D motor. The only criticism I have against the Fortuner’s auto box is its reluctance to downshift. Thanks to the D-4D’s super low torque curve (343 Nm @ 1 400 rpm) and an absence of turbo lag, this engine is more than happy to lumber along in fourth, but at times it does this when third would be a better option. For example: although the engine / gearbox combination has no difficulties pulling the Fortuner uphill at 1 500 rpm, if you suddenly want to overtake the car in front of you, you need to bury the accelerator before the gearbox downshifts.

I found that flipping the gearlever to the right and manually downshifting – was a far better option than waiting for the gearbox to work out what was required. Fuel economy is surprisingly good; I was expecting to get poor consumption figures, thinking that the lack of a fifth gear would adversely affect the Fortuner’s open-road economy. But it doesn’t – during our test we recorded an average economy of 8.5 – 9.0 l / 100 km on the freeway and 9.5 l / 100 km off-road. At one point the gearbox overheated, this happened while I was driving up a steep off-road track littered with obstacles.

In these circumstances, the gearbox works extra hard, continuously jumping from first to second and back again. This causes the transmission fluid to overheat and triggers a warning light. Of course, this scenario isn’t restricted to Fortuners – almost all automatic transmissions are prone to overheating when continuously shifted under load. This is particularly true when driving off-road, especially so in sand. For this reason it’s advisable to take the gearbox out of Drive and to manually select first, second or third. The moment I locked the transmission in first gear the Fortuner’s gearbox quickly cooled down and the warning light turned off.

There’s an ongoing debate over the Fortuner’s new VSC system and whether it includes traction control (TC). What Toyota will tell you is that the Fortuner’s VSC system is designed to maintain traction in high-speed slippery situations. In other words, it’s a safety feature designed to keep drivers in control, or help them easily regain control during a high speed skid. Or rather, to prevent such a skid from occurring in the first place. In contrast, TC is a low-speed traction aid designed to increase off-road performance by monitoring wheel slip and transferring torque to the wheels with grip.

Confusion stems from the fact that Toyota doesn’t mention TC in the Fortuner’s brochure or spec sheet, although it does list the vehicle as having VSC. As a result, many people are convinced that the new Fortuner has no TC and that the VSC system is entirely different. They are mistaken, the VSC system includes a basic form of TC. This said, the Fortuner’s TC system isn’t quite as refined or sophisticated as the Discovery 4’s or the new Jeep Grand Cherokee’s – but for the most part, it gets the job done. Some say that the Fortuner’s VSC system was specced to combat the vehicle’s supposed propensity to roll. The story goes that Fortuners are ill-equipped in the suspension department and that they’re prone to toppling over – in some cases at speeds of below 40 km/h.

Personally, I don’t buy it. I’ve driven thousands and thousands of gravel kilometres in several different Fortuners – all without VSC. These trips took place in Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and extensively in SA. On one particular tour I was following a fast-moving convoy through Mozambique. We were travelling at ridiculous speeds on bad gravel roads and my vehicle (a stock-standard Fortuner D-4D) was severely overloaded with supplies; nevertheless, it handled faultlessly. That trip alone cemented my confidence in the Fortuner’s gravel travel abilities. The irony is that although I must sound like a Fortuner fanatic, I feel no undying love for this vehicle, nor a burning desire to own one.

In fact, the Fortuner fails to excite me – it’s the automotive equivalent of a chargrilled chicken breast served with leafy greens, baked potato and a lemon sauce. I can’t fault it – it’s a good all-rounder blessed with comfort, functionality, ergonomics and great off-road performance. But despite what the Heart Foundation tells me, I prefer spare ribs, lamb shank and fillet steak. The Fortuner may embody vehicular vitality, but for me – and I suspect a large number of you – I’d rather risk an automotive aneurism and drive what thrills me.

Toyota Fortuner 3.0

Toyota Fortuner 3.0

Ed – On a recent trip to Mozambique I had the chance to be a passenger in a new Fortuner. I’m not a great fan of some of the materials that they’ve used to pimp up the vehicle’s interior and I actively dislike the look of those new tail lights. But what really impressed me about the new Fortuner was in the cabin, its Multi-Information Display, the radio and the dual zone climate control. Over the years since its launch, the Fortuner has become a luxury machine but it’s achieved this without losing any of its innate off-road ability (in fact, with traction control, it’s actually got a little better). And that’s a transformation that not many manufacturers get right.


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