DEEP IN THE Rooiberg at the foot of Mount Horeb, lies the picturesque town of Clarens. Regarded as the ‘Jewel of the Free State’, its tree-lined streets offer a majestic display of colour, with blossoms in spring time set against the backdrop of the escarpments towering behind. It’s the perfect hang-out for artists, photographers and nature lovers.
Or it used to be, until half of Sandton discovered it. Now, as you enter the village, a garish Protea Hotel dominates the skyline and Summercon-style townhouses are strewn across the hillside, spoiling the simple charm of the original sandstone and corrugated-iron roofed houses. The village centre has gone all commercial too, and visitors are faced by a barrage of kitsch pubs and uninviting restaurants; hardly the way to end our three-hour drive to escape the smog of Johannesburg.
It reminds of that old adage: if you’ve got a winning recipe, why change it? The same rings true for the Toyota Fortuner I’m driving. It’s the 2011 update, the second rework in as many years of a vehicle that is testimony to the strength of the Toyota brand in South Africa. Selling on average 700 units a month, the Fortuner utterly dominates its segment.
This is despite initial instability concerns and electronic maladies (on the 4.0 derivative) which clouded the reputation of the 2006 launch version. With the first facelift, seen by many as a knee-jerk reaction to address these issues, Toyota SA increased the alloy wheel size from 16- to 17-inch, opting for 265/65 R17 Bridgestone Dueler tyres instead of the softer-walled General Grabbers.
Growing sales showed many were satisfied that the Fortuner had been fixed, silencing online soapbox debates initiated by disgruntled owners who made little mention of their own negligence. One wonders how much of the ‘instability problem’ could be attributed to aspects like tyre pressure, prevailing road conditions and overloading by owners.
While most would struggle to identify all the visual tweaks associated with the first facelift, the second facelift we’re piloting is easy to spot. Sadly it’s rather ugly, evidenced by many gawking grimaces and traffic light double-takes as we’re exiting Egoli. Seems no-one told Toyota that facelifts are supposed to improve looks. Like Clarens, this once attractive option has been blinged out with vulgar exterior chrome and tacky interior plastics that sully its original appeal.
Seems it’s time to get some fresh air, so we ride out of town, headed for the sandstone formations and steep cliffs of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Here, vast golden plains link the snow-covered peaks that turn rich and golden as the sun ebbs below the horizon. It’s beautiful, if icy cold, at this time of year.
As snapper Marc Bow captures the newcomer in the last light, I peruse the exterior design once again to see if the new lines have grown on me since leaving Johannesburg. They haven’t. Toyota’s penmen have aped their Prado and 200 Series Land Cruiser, starting with a front bumper and chiselling deeper creases into the bonnet. The near vertical nose is dominated by a large chrome slatted grille which reminds me of an ornate tissue box, as does the chrome jewellery that finishes the wider boot trim strip. The new alloys aren’t bad and quite similar to those on the new Prado, while the wheelarches appear bolder and the rear taillights have been improved. So it’s not all bad.
Thankfully the fundamentals are unchanged. Fortuner will be offered with the same tried-and-tested 120kW 3.0 D-4D turbodiesel powerplant (in full-time four-wheel drive and rear-drive only guise) with the choice of either a five-speed manual or four-speed auto transmission. There’s also a promising newcomer to the range, a high-output 106kW 2.5-litre D-4D turbodiesel derivative with 343Nm of torque. Offered only in 4×2 manual guise, but with entry-level cloth interior, the 2.5 D-4D is likely to become the volume seller thanks to its keener pricing. For now though, we are behind the wheel of the thirsty 4.0-litre V6 which is only available with the five-speed auto. On our trip to Clarens and back, the 175kW petrol managed on average 560km between every fill of its 80-litre fuel tank.
Inside, the new silver metallic plastics look cheap, as do the imitation wood panel inserts around the centre cluster and top steering wheel surround. While the addition of Korean tree may add a spot of grandeur to a Mercedes S-Class or Range Rover, it fails to look classy in a Fortuner. The ice-cream tub plastics of the original also remain, albeit in a sandy beige and grey combo on the dash.
Aesthetics aside, the functional items include six-way electric power adjustment for the driver’s seat, a dual (split front and rear) aircon with climate control, and steering mounted controls for the audio system with iPhone access. Toyota has also included USB iPod connectivity and new higher definition Optitron instrumentation graphics on the colour dashboard screen. On the downside, the new rear parking camera display isn’t very clear in direct sunlight and tends to distort parking distances more than rival systems. I also can’t help but wonder why there’s still no reach adjustment on the steering column, considering this is the second opportunity they have had to introduce it.
Look past the quibbles though and be glad the Fortuner retains its tough ladder frame chassis and proven suspension components – double wishbones up front and a multi-link independent rear. The 4WD models offer a full-time system with a limited-slip centre differential, low-range transfer case and the ability to lock both the centre and rear differentials. Combined with 220mm of ground clearance, this gives the Fortuner excellent credentials off the beaten track.
The next day we make our way back via Harrismith, cruising effortlessly along the N3 highway back to Johannesburg. On a long trip the Fortuner is immensely comfortable, with a cushioning ride and confidence-inspiring grip through turns. It still gives off that confident air of reliability, durability and go-anywhere, anytime flexibility that the brand is famous for. The keen pricing of the new 2.5-litre is sure to add to the Fortuner’s growing volume of happy D-4D customers. Ironically, the only derivative which looks likely to struggle is our top of the range 4.0-litre petrol. In its new skin most are likely to find the new FJ Cruiser an altogether more attractive option.