Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Foton's Game Changer: Upclose with the Toplander
During one otherwise uninteresting afternoon, I received a rather peculiar phone call. “Sir, would you be interested in driving the Foton Toplander in Indiana?” Given the quality of our cellular service in Manila, I was almost sure I misheard the other person on the line. “Sure,” I said. When will you need me to submit my Chinese Visa requirements? “No sir. You won’t need it. This drive will be in Indiana, USA.” A long pause ensued. A Foton drive in the Midwestern US? They must be kidding, I thought. Lo-and-behold, two weeks later, I was actually on a 31-hour plane ride to Columbus, Indiana to see the Toplander.
Initially, this didn’t make a whole lot of sense given the Toplander (Sauvana as it’s called globally) isn’t offered in the US. Jeff Caldwell, Cummins’s General Manager for Global Pickup and Van Business clarified things though. Foton is one of the largest customers for America’s diesel engine specialist and this is especially true for the ISF 2.8-liter common rail engine—currently Cummins’s smallest engine. Cummins produces 400,000 of these engines annually and half of the lot end up in a Foton vehicle. What’s more, the Toplander is actually the first SUV application of this powerplant and it will soon be joined by two more SUVs that’ll even be more luxurious. It’s easier to see that a lot’s at stake when it comes to the Toplander and its American-designed engine.
After a quick tour of the Cummins factory, the Toplander was unveiled for everyone to see. Joining the highly competitive mid-sized 7-seater SUV market in the Philippines, the Toplander does come with its own unique style. Clearly, it’s not merely a copycat; instead, it’s a unique design that’s well-proportioned if a bit understated when looked at for the first time. Still, nothing seems out of place on this one. Upfront, it features a trapezoidal waterfall grille (Foton’s new design trademark) and diamond-style headlights. It’s also got roof rails, daytime running lights integrated into the fog lamp cluster, and LED indicators on the side view mirrors. Over at the side, it’s got a sharp waist line that reduces the slab-sided look while 265/65R17 tires fill each corner. At the back, it has a simpler treatment with multi-reflector tail lamp clusters and a standard rear spoiler. It has a wheelbase similar to that of a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, but overall, it’s longer and wider than Prado, but lower.
Inside, it’s surprisingly modern and ergonomic in its execution. Material-wise, it’s still pretty much of the hard plastic variety, but the fit and finish of the two-tone cabin feels pretty consistent. The dashboard is laid out by operational zone with the two-barrel instrument cluster front and center of the driver and the large infotainment system located on the same eye level. Directly below it sits the automatic climate control and below that is the gear knob with a shift-on-the-fly rotary controller for the 4WD system. All power convenience features is standard on the Toplander as is a separate aircon blower for the third row, but the 4x4 tops that with steering wheel-mounted audio and cruise control buttons on the steering wheel and a power moon roof. Space-wise, the Toplander can easily match the other mid-sized SUV offerings and is highly flexible with a second row that folds in a 60/40 split and a third row that folds flat to the floor.
Carefully developed and engineered to serve Foton’s growing global customer base (they sold 670,000 vehicles last year), the Toplander is underpinned by a rugged platform shared with the Thunder pickup. When equipped with the shift-on-the-fly 4WD system (with a Dana-sourced rear axle no less), it can traverse grades of up to 60 percent and travel on terrain with up to a 40-degree tilt. It also has a 220-millimeter ground clearance and 600-millimeter water wading depth—making it a perfect ally to tackle Manila floods. Of course, careful consider has been made to improve the on-road and urban driving comfort and this necessitated a rear five-link rear coil spring suspension as well as four wheel disc brakes.
The excellent underpinnings aside, the main event is brought about by the Cummins ISF 2.8-liter engine with 160 horsepower and 360 Nm of torque. This Euro-IV emissions compliant engine features a Bosch electronically controlled high-pressure common rail direct injection system as well as Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR). It’s mated to a five-speed Getrag manual and coming soon, a 6-speed ZF automatic transmission. In either application, it can make the Toplander tow up to three metric tons—perfect for those who plan to use it for recreational use.
A short run through a specially-designed off-road course in Rawhide Range in Indiana says a lot about the engineering know-how that went into the Toplander. The engine is quiet with low levels of noise, vibration, and harshness. In this purely non-pavement drive, the Cummins engine has very good pull but the high engagement of the clutch and long throws of the shifter takes some getting used to. Still, master them and this SUV is surprisingly good at tackling extremely muddy terrain. The suspension travel isn’t as generous as some of its Japanese counterparts nor is the bump absorption on the same level, but at least it feels capable and secure in this kind of unforgiving terrain.
Despite its affordable pricing (P 998,000 for the 4x2 M/T and P 1,150,000 for the 4x4 M/T), the Toplander also comes equipped with a slew of active and passive safety equipment. Apart from the rugged and tough body, it has dual SRS airbags, anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, and rear parking sensors as standard. The 4x4 model adds electronic stability program that integrates hill start and hill hold assist.
It’s easy to dismiss the Foton Toplander mainly because of its country of origin, but considering the amount of engineering and technical know-how put into this SUV? It’s more than meets the eye. In fact, it’s pretty good. Considering how a lot of archaic Asian Utility Vehicles or AUVs remain popular choices in the country, the Toplander can be instrumental in its demise. If there’s living proof that the Chinese are quickly catching up in the global stage, especially in producing world-class commercial vehicles, it’s this one. It’s all good news, because while others are divesting car manufacturing in the country, the Toplander will soon be assembled at Foton Philippines’s new assembly plant in the Clark Freeport zone increasing employment opportunity for Filipinos and becoming an instrument in the country’s rapid development.