Normally, it’s hard to separate a carmaker from its country of origin: Toyota is from Japan, Hyundai is from Korea, Tata is from India, and Foton is from China. Subsequently, there’s some temptation to judge how good or not-so-good a car is based on where it’s made. But you’re not going to read any of that. Instead, you’re only going to read about how the Toplander performs on its own merit; how it performs as a mid-sized SUV. Known more for their commercial vehicles and heavy equipment, it’s hard to imagine what lengths Foton had to go through to design and engineer their first-ever SUV. Yet, the Toplander easily passes all the requirements of a would-be Filipino buyer.
Though it looks somewhat plain to the eye, there’s no line that looks out of place. It’s decisively less sleek than the newer-generation SUVs, but you have to hand it to the Toplander’s designers for penning an elegant-looking body. The main draw here is the trapezoidal waterfall grille, which happens to serve as Foton’s new design trademark flanked by complex-looking headlights with projector low beams and LED signal lights. At the side, a sharp line at the waist cuts the silhouette visually lowering the height while 17-inch alloy wheels and LED rear lamp clusters complete the external design cues.
Getting into the cabin requires a step-up, but pillar-mounted grab handles for both the first and second rows make this an easy task. Settling in, it’s clear than the interior echoes the exterior in its design and execution in that it’s pleasantly modern, if a bit plain. Pretty much all of the materials used for the cabin are hard to the touch, but at least the fit and finish is consistent. Though there’s some nice texturing going on, there are still some cheap bits like the stalks and the vanity mirror lid, but they aren’t major deal breakers.
That said, it’s easy to get accustomed to the Toplander’s cabin. The controls are laid out in a clear, concise manner. In front of the driver is a two-barrel instrument cluster with the tachometer placed on the right side (a trait shared with performance-oriented cars) and to its right is a large infotainment system with both physical and touchscreen controls. Directly below that is the manual climate control system, and below that is the gear lever with all 4WD-related controls neatly arranged in a column to the right.
Aside from the solid ergonomics, the Toplander mostly succeeds in providing for a roomy and practical cabin. The front seats themselves offer surprisingly good support and generous space in terms of head, shoulder, and leg room. The second row is also comfortable with ample knee room along with reclining seatbacks and adjustable headrests for all. It’s only in the third row where the space feels compromised. With the second row not being able to slide fore and aft, taller individuals will find the rearmost accommodations lacking. The high floor design means that knees on all three rows are slightly bent up, though it’s most noticeable for those in the last row.
For its exterior size, the Toplander’s cargo space is smaller than expected. Around four full-sized luggage and numerous carry-ons can still fit with the third row stowed, but the tall loading height means having to exert extra effort to put them in or out. What’s more, folding the third row seats isn’t exactly a single button or lever affair. Two levers are required; one to spring the seat cushions up and another to bring the seat backs down. In theory, it’s supposed to all work smoothly until the cushions bang up against the fully reclined second row. This necessitates having to pull the second row seatbacks to a fully upright position first before being able to fold the third-row seat completely. It’s the same situation when trying to retrieve the third-row seats from a stored position.
While the Toplander needs some work with its seat mechanism, there’s no denying about how solid a drive it is. The foundation here starts with the platform which is comprised of front double wishbones and rear coil springs with five links. In the urban environment, it offers a compliant ride that absorbs some of the worst bits of Manila’s roads. Potholes, road ribs, and expansion joints rarely make it unfiltered through the cabin. It’s only when going over long, continuous expanses of uneven terrain (like that dreaded truck lane on C5 again) or larger obstacles that shocks can be transmitted into the cabin. Still, these occurrences are rare.
Being a pick-up based SUV, the Toplander doesn’t offer any sporty pretensions. Rather, it’s going more for a predictable and safe experience. The hydraulic power steering means more effort to maneuver at low speeds (especially during parking), but makes up for it with good visibility. Despite the size, it’s quite easy and natural to drive in the city. At highway speeds, it remains feels solid and planted enough, though there’s noticeable wind noise at speeds above 85 km/h. Though the entire duration of the drive remained on pavement, it is equipped with a shift-on-the-fly 4WD system. It can traverse grades up to 60 percent and travel on terrain with up to a 40-degree tilt. The 220-millimeter ground clearance and 600-millimeter water wading depth make it a dependable flood-proof daily driver.
Speaking of being a daily driver, knowing how to drive a stick is imperative to Toplander ownership since a row-it-yourself 5-speed gearbox is the only transmission available (for now). Those who don’t mind will find the clutch light in effort and easy in modulation. Starting uphill is no problem thanks to a Hill Start Assist system with the bite point and engagement remaining entirely predictable. The only let down actually is the shifter itself. Aside from consistently crunching going into second gear, the gear ratios as a whole feel out of whack—as if the odd-numbered gears are all low and the even-numbered gears are all high. Even after hours of seat time, it’s hard to get acclimatized to it.
The odd nature of the gearbox effectively neuters what could have been the Toplander’s best-selling point: the 2.8-liter Cummins ISF engine. On paper, with 160 horsepower and 360 Nm of torque, it should make this SUV feel adequately fast. And to some degree it is, but there’s some throttle digging necessary to find it. From a standstill, it feels sluggish, the 2,060-kilogram curb weight and oddly ratioed first gear showing its ugly head. Once it gets going (hitting 2,000 rpm or when any gear apart from first is engaged), it finds a good rhythm. NVH isolation also isn’t exactly a strong point, though it does feel marginally quieter than another mid-sized SUV fitted with a 2.8-liter diesel engine. Fuel efficiency is also something to be desired, registering just 7.14 km/L at an average speed of 14 km/h.
Knowing quite well the competition it’s facing in the local mid-sized SUV market, Foton has equipped it generously given the P 1,298,000 price tag. Apart from the touchscreen infotainment system and rotary dial 4WD system, it comes with dual SRS airbags, anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, electronic stability control with hill start assist and hill decent control, rear parking sensors with reverse camera, and steering wheel controls, even a power tilt/sliding sunroof. The only thing missing is leather seats—something you can get in the more expensive “Executive” edition.
With the Toplander, Foton still hasn’t completely shaken off its commercial vehicle roots, which could be both to its advantage and disadvantage. On one hand, it feels over engineered with a solid, robust platform and an engine designed for durability and reliability. On the other, the more luxurious trimmings such as the folding seat mechanism and even the omission of an automatic gearbox means some work still needs to be done. Still, at this price range (and more so with the P 998,000 4x2 version), the Foton Toplander is hard to beat when it comes to value. Priced to take on the archaic Asian Utility Vehicles or AUVs, it presents itself as a solid and practical choice. It’s also proof that a good vehicle need not be dependent on its country of origin.
2016 Foton Toplander 4x4
|Ownership||2016 Foton Toplander 4x4|
|Vehicle Classification||Mid-sized SUV|
|Body Type||5-door SUV|
|Engine / Drive||F/4WD, Part-Time, Auto, Low Range|
|Under the Hood|
|Fuel Delivery||Direct Injection|
|Layout / # of Cylinders||I4|
|BHP @ rpm||160 @ 3,600|
|Nm @ rpm||360 @ 1,800 - 3,600|
|Fuel / Min. Octane||Diesel|
|Fuel Economy @ Ave. Speed||7.14 km/L @ 14 km/h|
|Dimensions and Weights|
|Curb Weight (kg)||2,060|
|Suspension and Tires|
|Front Suspension||Independent, Double Wishbone|
|Rear Suspension||Five-Link, Coil Springs|
|Front Brakes||Vented Disc|
|Tires||Giti Savero H/T Plus 265/65 R 17 T (f & r)|
|Anti-Lock Brakes (ABS)||Yes|
|Traction / Stability Control||Yes|
|Parking Sensors||Yes, w/ Rear Camera|
|Other Safety Features||Hill Start Assist (HSA), Hill Descent Control (HDC), Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS)|
|Fog Lamps||Yes, Front and Rear|
|Steering Wheel Adjust||Tilt|
|Steering Wheel Material||Leather|
|Folding Rear Seat||Yes, 60/40 (2nd row); 50/50 (3rd row)|
|Power Door Locks||Yes|
|Climate Control||Manual, Dual Zone|
|# of Speakers||6|