FIRST OFF, LETâ€™S be clear that the two vehicles pictured here arenâ€™t at war with one another. The vehicle theyâ€™re aiming at is the pick of Toyota Fortuner range, the immensely versatile 3.0D-4D 4×4. Weâ€™ve driven the 3.0-litre turbodiesel extensively and despite the reputed initial instability concerns that tarnished the Fortunerâ€™s early reputation, we believe that it still has few real equals. SA agrees, as evidenced by its popularity on our roads, appearing everywhere from overlanding adventures to office parks, not to mention featuring predominantly on the school run. It continues to outsell every other SUV since it was first launched. The 3.0D-4D accounts for the lionâ€™s share of local Fortuner sales, but two new rivals now look to provide its first real opposition.
Its natural bakkie-based rival is Mitsubishiâ€™s highly underrated 3.2DI-D Pajero Sport â€“launched in 2009 with only with a four-speed Tiptronic autobox â€“ which is now also offered with a five-speed manual transmission to rival the class-leading Fortuner head on. The other threat to the popularity of the 3.0D-4D comes from within its own stabl, in the form of the new, more affordable 2.5D-4D 4×2 derivative, which is certain to attract a high percentage of soft roader customers as well, due its lower entry point.
But do these newcomers meet the benchmark or is 3.0D-4D still the default choice?
We planned a 400km round trip to test the mettle of both rivals, taking-in the open highways and country roads out of Cape Town on the N1 and turning off through the vines toward Ceres. From there we would head toward the majestic, wide dirt expanses of the Tankwa Karoo on the R355 before turning west and climbing over 1000m towards the Klein Cedarberg Nature Reserve. After bypassing the Koue Bokkeveld Mountain catchment area, we meet up with the asphalt R303 back towards Ceres and on to Cape Town.
While most would struggle to distinguish the visual changes of the first facelifted Fortuner, the recently freshened version weâ€™re piloting here is more distinguishable. The first time I saw the exterior revisions on a facelifted 4.0-litre derivative in Clarens late last year, I felt that Toyotaâ€™s designers had morphed the once attractive design into a cheap eyesore, blinging it out with tacky interior plastics and vulgar exterior chrome trim. The Fortunerâ€™s lines have since grown on me though, and I prefer the 2.5D-4Dâ€™s black grille over large chrome slatted item of the big petrol. Chrome still features on the wider boot trim strip, but somehow in this guise the overall appearance is less offensive. Much of the Fortunerâ€™s penwork centres around changes to its front bumper and, as with the Hilux, chiselled crease lines now define the bonnet together with a near-vertical nose. The new 17-inch alloys arenâ€™t bad either and similar to the new Pradoâ€™s in appearance, while the wheelarches appear bolder in proportion and the tail-lamps take on an improved form.
The Pajero Sport has always struck a more handsome pose and while acknowledging that styling is largely subjective, the Mitsubishiâ€™s muscular presence and high-ground clearance are unlikely to polarise as much opinion as its Triton stable-mate. Thereâ€™s an enriched sense of durability and quality to the Mitsubishiâ€™s demeanour when you drive it, thanks in part to its proven ladder-frame chassis. Built in Thailand, the Sport features multi-reflector halogen headlamps and foglamps offering adequate illumination in low light.
Interior styling and accommodation
The biggest differences between the Toyotaâ€™s and Mitsubishiâ€™s appeal lie in the interior design and accommodation. While both feature practical adornments such as 12V power supply points in the rear load bay (ideal for running lights or a small fridge) and air conditioning to the rear of the interior, itâ€™s the back seat configurations that give the Pajero Sport the upper hand. Although both are seven-seaters, the Mitsubishi offers a far more accessible load area thanks to its third row of seating which folds flat into the low floor of the vehicle. By contrast, the Toyotaâ€™s last row of seats fold against the sides of the cabin when not in use. This cumbersome arrangement restricts not only load space but inhibits the storage of bulkier items.
While the interior design of the 4×2 Fortuner is inoffensive and its plastic finishes are easy to clean, it is fairly bland by comparison with most its soft-roader rivals, due in part to the ice cream tub plastics of the sandy beige and grey combo facia. Thankfully though, it doesnâ€™t have the garish imitation wood trim finish of the 4.0-litre Fortuner or the mirror-mounted rear-view parking camera and six-way electric power adjustment for the driverâ€™s seat, which drive costs even higher. Storage binnacles are plentiful enough and exterior visibility is good .
The Pajero Sportâ€™s interior is more premium in its finishes and cabin equipment but feels more utilitarian, struggling to escape its bakkie- based underpinnings. This is most evident in the noisy engine clatter from the 3.2DI-D at low and highway speeds, which detracts from the overall drive. That said, there were no noticeable suspension creaks or interior rattles to complain about, on even the most corrugated dirt sections.
Under the hood
While the 120kW 3.0D-4D Fortuner offers a little more meat under-foot than the 106kW 2.5D-4D derivative, the smaller capacity four-cylinder feels refined and performed brilliantly, never feeling starved for power on the open road and offering great performance for its comparative price. We werenâ€™t surprised that the heavier Pajero recorded faster acceleration and in-gear tractability times than the 2.5D-4D, but considering its lower mileage we were surprised to see a lower average fuel consumption on our test route. The Pajeroâ€™s fuel tank is 10 litres smaller than the Fortunerâ€™s, but Mitsubishi claims that the 3.2-litre direct-injection turbo can safely handle 500ppm diesel fuel â€“ which is excellent for those planning adventures north of the border.
On- & Off-road handling
Dynamically, there was little to fault the 4×2 Fortuner or the 4×4 Pajero Sport on the winding asphalt turns through Ceres or over the dirt corrugations of the Karoo. The Fortuner did, however, feel slightly the more compliant on-road whereas the Pajero Sport felt more planted over the dirt crests and tracks that characterise the R355. A quick foray around an abandoned quarry allowed us to engage the Pajero Sportâ€™s 4WD system. With both a centre and a rear differential lock, the Pajero offers a 33:67 power split between front and rear wheels in 4High, and 50:50 in 4Low with the centre differential locked. The 4×2 Fortuner has a rear differential lock.
The 3.0D-4D Fortuner also employs a ladder-frame chassis and its power steering, front and rear suspension set-ups have remained untouched from the previous version, which is a good thing. Both the Pajero and Fortuner feature 26-degrees departure angles, but the Pajero has a better (36-degrees) approach angle while the Fortuner has 5mm higher (220mm) ground clearance.
From the miles of dust roads we travelled, itâ€™s clear that the instability concerns that clouded the appeal of the first-generation Fortuner are now a thing of the past. Toyota SA increased the alloy wheel size from 16- to 17-inches with 265/65 R17 Bridgestone Dueller tyres preferred over the softer-edged General Grabbers. Riding on a coil-sprung multi-link rear suspension, the Duellers demonstrated a greater degree of flex in their sidewalls. Online soapbox debates on the subject have dried up but one does wonder that in all the reports on instability from disgruntled owners, how much attention was paid at the time to aspects such as tyre pressures, prevailing road conditions and overloading.
All in all there is no loser between these two offerings â€“ the only winner is the customer. At its price, one cannot beat the Toyota Fortuner 2.5D-4D for what it offers, while the new manual Mitsubishi Pajero Sport offers an attractive and spacious alternative to Toyotaâ€™s popular 3.0D-4D model. The purchase decision between each of these seven-seaters will rely on budget, visual preferences and individual requirements with respect of utility space and the need for a 4×4 drivetrain with low-range. For my money, the Fortuner 2.5D-4D 4×2 is all the vehicle I would need and offers the best value.