Fortuner here as SUV sector peaks?

The increasing popularity of what are prosaically known as lifestyle vehicles is probably nearing its zenith, but might still show a bit more growth this year.


THE increasing popularity of what are prosaically known as lifestyle vehicles is probably nearing its zenith, but might still show a bit more growth this year.

That’s a speculation forwarded by Toyota New Zealand executives today when showing off yet another model for an already congested category – the seven-seat Fortuner wagon.

TNZ says there’s a place for this new model, which uses Hilux running gear but with a unique body and different interior trim – including bespoke instruments and seats -  but also wonders whether the SUV sector has reached saturation.

“It’s been an incredible run but how much bigger can it get? My gut says not much bigger,” Steve Prangnell, general manager of sales and operations told Motoring Network.

“I suspect there might be a bit more growth in it yet. But realistically you can’t imagine that it can get that much bigger.

“There is still an interest in sedans. There are still some people who will always prefer cars.”

Nonetheless, orthodox sedans and hatches have lost ground to cars and light trucks that conform, at the very least visually, to the promise of being able to deliver more than just on-road driving.

Last year was especially huge: In 2015 sports utilities accounted for 30 percent of vehicle sales – a result that was 40 percent up on the year previous - and the one-tonne trucks that are increasingly being bought as recreational choices, especially in high-end doublecab turbodiesel format, claimed another 20 percent.

Sales in 2015 were up more than 20 percent on 2014 and SUVs are clearly the dominant vehicle type now.

Is it fair enough to include utes, which officially classify as commercial vehicles? Prangnell says the time has come to make that consideration when so many are being bought for family and recreational use.

“Certainly, the line between a high-end double cab – in two or four-wheel drive – starts to blur with what we call a sports utility vehicle. I agree, it’s something as an industry we should look at.

“If you look at, say, an SR5 Limited Hilux with everything it has then we know 50 percent of those may never have to engage the centre diff lock.”

The SUV dominance doesn’t mean the roads are awash with bigfoot mud-sluggers, because the market definition of the type is very broad – perhaps too much so.

Increasingly, makers are prone to attach that label to anything with at least a styling that suggests ability to handle conditions beyond the seal – an elevated ride height alone will do it. It needn’t even have all-wheel-drive.

Indeed, Toyota cites that 46 percent of SUVs sold last year were front-wheel-drive models. It has also noticed petrol engines are now comfortably beating diesel as a preferred buyer choice, with a 76 percent stake.

With Fortuner now here, TNZ has seven SUVs on sale – the others being RAV4, Highlander, Land Cruiser FJ Cruiser, Land Cruiser Prado and Land Cruiser 200 series, though that count will reset soon as the petrol-only FJ is about to be withdrawn as showroom stock and become a special order item.

Toyota runs hard in every category it competes in and dominates most. There’s just one space it doesn’t contest – the so-called ‘SUV compact – but that’s going to change next year, when a new model based on the Corolla platform comes in.

That future model will be another softy; a label that simply cannot stick to the Fortuner.

By virtue of its size and also by dint of it having a separate chassis construction and a pukka four-wheel-drive, with a switchable low range, it’s emphatically what TNZ categorises as a ‘medium rugged.’

Here in three specification levels and four derivatives, it is especially well-suited to off-seal driving and towing, TNZ contends, though they accept there will undoubtedly be strong interest from buyers whose driving experiences might be mostly much less arduous.

TNZ has forecast 720 sales for the model this year and sees the customer base including farmers, contractors and and lifestyle block holders.

Prangnell predicts the mid-level $75,990 GLX will draw more interest than the high-end $78,990 Limited or the entry GX, the sole version to represent in manual (for $70,990) as well as $200 six-speed automatic.

Why so many derivatives, and also why a manual when that gearbox type attracts just one percent of SUV sales?

“We have offered three variants to see which one the market prefers, and we will evaluate which ones will become the most popular,” Prangnell says.

“We constantly review our models within the segments. We typically bring them all in at the start because there is customer inquiry, but they have to be sustainable.”

What’s it up against? One of its own – the Prado – but also the Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, the Mitsubishi Pajero and Pajero Sport, Holden Colorado 7 and the related Isuzu MU-X, SsangYong’s Rexton and the new Ford Everest, built to the same formula as Fortuner (being based off the Ranger).

There’s potential Fortuner will eat into Prado sales – one plus being that, while its smaller and with the same engine, it has a 500kg superior towing rating, with the manual holding a 3000kg capacity and the auto cited as being good for 2800kg.

A mix of off- and on-road driving highlighted that Fortuner has, unsurprisingly enough, a lot of commonality with Hilux.

As with Everest, the wagonisation of a ute has not created a car-like experience. Fortuner’s weight is felt through corners and on the straights. It’s not outright ponderous, but in comparison with something like a Hyundai Santa Fe, on sales count the best of the diesel monocoque breed at this price level, you’d find the car-based Korean was more reactive.

Handling-wise, it’s reminiscent more of the donor, of course and traits typical of a body-on-frame construction come through. Having the same double-wishbone front end as Hilux is good for steering accuracy and reactivity but it’s that five-link coil-sprung rear end doing duty under the rear that imparts the bigger difference when comparing with the ute. It’s no limo, though, and while the coils remove much of the choppiness out of the ride, it’ll stick kick the tail around once traction on loose surfaces is overcome, a trait the stability control struggles to contain.

All the same, it’s not a vehicle that feels on the edge of its ability in those circumstances. Though Toyota has chosen tyres that are designed for more than just seal, there’s a load of grip for a start and, though the body moves around a bit when you start pushing through corners, it’s far from acting like a small ship on a wild sea.

Also appealing about the Fortuner is the refinement; the powerplant, though obviously gruff, isn’t as shouty as some and Toyota has done a good job isolating extraneous noise. You’d expect those large door mirrors to generate wind roar, but they don’t seem to and even its meaty isn’t too loud of coarse chip.

Toyota is onto a winner with this 2.8-litre four-cylinder common-rail direct-injection turbo-diesel powerplant.

A unit that impresses mightily in its prior applications – Hilux and Prado – is no less smooth and flexible here. A particular positive is the broad torque curve. In-gear thrust out of the auto isn’t sporty, but it is solid, which bodes well for towing. Likewise, there’s a heap of low-speed heft that will appeal for off-roading – in this instance picking our way around around private land on Cape Kidnappers, including a gully that had lots of traps for the unwary.

The Limited model we drove then could for the main part be left to pick and drop its wheels through ruts and over bumps pretty much on idle or thereabouts. The generous ground clearance, solid engine braking and good suspension travel were also evident.

Fortuner has a rear diff lock and a descent control as standard, plus a hill-holder for the automatic to make mid-ascent restarts easier.

Though coping with 30Nm less torque, the manual model is more reactive than the  auto and it has enough muscularity readily at hand pull out of tight corners in a higher than normal gear; the impressively steep and graveled hairpins of the Burma Rd inland from Havelock North included. Gear selection requires a measured approach. This transmission has a light and generally positive feel, though it cannot be rushed.

The cabin environment intrigues; there are some elements of the design and layout that might have the unwary questioning how ‘new’ this model really is. The speedo and tachometer look old school in appearance and the Limited has a deep brown leather that also smacks of the 1980s.

Aside from safety and structural pluses, one reason why makers started to shift away from body on frame designs in favour of car-like structures was the latter offered more interior space.

Fortuner isn’t anything like as awkwardly cramped as its ancestor, the Hilux Surf, but you do note that old-school bugbears still hang around. Everyone sits high, for instance, and because of the rear suspension packaging, the occupants of that second row seat will discover their heads are quite close to the roof lining, despite Toyota having cleverly recessed this.

Likewise, those relegated to the back chairs will see their space is also limited. Also, the seats there fold up to the sides because there is no way of being able to engineer them to flip fold into the floor, as you can in car-based vehicles. Front seat occupants aren’t affected, save for perhaps wanting for a touch more footwell space. At least all occupants are kept well ventilated by various air con outlets and when the third and second row seats are stowed a decently spacious load area is created.

Toyota has also provisioned the model with practical use in mind. There are 12-volt outlets (in the front, for the middle row and in the boot), a USB and auxiliary input, and the Limited has a 220-volt household power plug. As with Hilux, it has room for a second battery and the electrical system is sorted to take additional wiring for accessories.