Convenience, comfort and power: just three of the many attributes the motoring public are always looking for when buying a new car. Then there's also the matter of pricing which has to be just right, or else buyers would look for another bargain instead.
As SUVs and crossovers continue to lead market sales in the country, automakers are now coming up with cars that are choc-full of equipment, but need not be too much of a premium which may scare away prospective buyers. The midsize SUV segment, particularly the pickup-platform vehicle (PPV), is by far one of the most cutthroat (and hotly-contested) segments in the country.
Long dominated by the Japanese and American brands, Foton plans to shake up the status quo with the Toplander. First launched with only a manual gearbox in late 2015, Foton is looking to tap the mainstream market by offering an automatic version of the seven-seater PPV. Having already developed a reputation with light and heavy commercial vehicles, particularly in logistics and transportation solutions, it was only fitting that Foton finally decided to take the big leap and join the big players in the SUV segment.
Most of you might say that we already have enough PPVs in the market and there are enough variants to go around for almost everyone. But with most of the top players having already received numerous upgrades, they're not exactly the most affordable nowadays. This means there is now a gap at the bottom of the PPV segment that Foton has taken advantage of.
To get more familiar with Foton's latest offering, the company recently invited us on a ride and drive to see what the Toplander A/T is capable of.
It was a rainy morning when we assembled along North EDSA for the two-day ride and drive event. Our destination, Central and Northern Luzon, particularly Pampanga and Baguio. Despite the unfriendly weather, we soon forgot about the gloomy rain when we finally saw the Toplanders in the metal.
As far as its exterior design is concerned, it is not the most eye-catching but it's not exactly bad either. The Toplander actually looks and feels butch thanks to its brawny, honest design. It has some curves and rounded edges sure, but the Toplander's overall look is tough, rugged and no-nonsense.
Moving over to its interior, the Toplander has a more of a utilitarian finish but is ergonomic nonetheless. Those familiar with manual version of the Toplander will notice that the cabin looks similar, which is not bad as the interior didn't need to be redesigned to begin with. What's new however is the automatic gear selector which, quite frankly, looks upscale. Depending on the variant, the Toplander can come with leather or fabric seats, touchscreen infotainment and other neat features which I'll get to later.
Under the hood is the 2.8-liter Cummins ISF SOHC turbo-diesel engine. It produces a healthy 161 PS along with 360 Nm of torque. As mentioned earlier, the 2018 Toplander is now available with an automatic transmission. At first I thought it was a five-speed but a quick check and I was surprised to see it had six gears.
I volunteered to get behind the wheel of the Toplander first as I was pretty curious with the Cummins engine and Daimler-sourced six-speed automatic. Sure, the output figures looked pretty average but it was how the powertrain delivered its pull that impressed me. The engine's fat torque curve and relatively smooth power delivery was surprising to say the least. Overtaking other cars along NLEX proved to be a cinch thanks to ample pulling power always being available.
The six-speed automatic did not disappoint and went through all the gears without a problem. It can easily cruise at a sedate pace or go through the cogs quicker. In addition, the automatic transmission also comes with several modes like Eco, Sport and Winter. For added safety, the Toplander automatic even gets hill-descent control and stability control.
The brakes, on the other hand, may need some tweaking. Don't get me wrong, the Toplander's brakes are pretty powerful but I wished it had better modulation as they tended to be grabby and numb. Also, the Toplander could do with better Noise, Vibration and Harshness (NVH) deadening. It may still be a ute by heart, but if they're serious about going toe-to-toe with the big players, perhaps a quieter, more refined cabin can be fitted in the Toplander.
After about an hour or so, we arrived in Floridablanca to visit the local Aeta community at Nabuclod Elementary School. With tight provincial roads and a bit of off-roading ahead of us, I was more than eager to check out the Toplander's form. Despite having a hydraulically-assisted power steering, the Toplander was fairly easy to maneuever around corners. It's not something you'd carve mountains with, but it does have a finely weighted steering and generous amounts of road feel.
Again, overtaking slower vehicles was not a problem thanks to the torquey four-cylinder. Should one feel the need to go through the gears manually, the Toplander A/T does have manual select. I rarely got to use it since the transmission was doing a great job of going about its business, but I did noticed that it was quite slow to respond when downshifting manually.
As we neared our first destination, it was finally time to hit the off the beaten path. With a tall ride height and fairly thick tires, the Toplander made short work of the dirt roads, the puddles of water and even the rocky terrain. Even in 4x2 form, the Toplander was still able to take on the trails quickly and safely. Hopefully Foton will have a 4x4 automatic variant soon.
Ride quality, on the other hand, was good as well as I did not expect the Toplander to have a lofty ride. The Toplander does not feel too floaty despite its soft yet firm suspension which meant it was good in both on- and off-road.
After about a good 30 minute drive, we finally arrived at Nabuclod Elementary School. Why were we here? Foton Philippines was actually holding an outreach program in the local community and was handing out food and other goods to the Aetas that live near the elementary school. Despite the hot weather and humidity, it was nice to see the locals (especially the kids) smile and have fun during our brief stay.
To think our short time with them brought joy into their lives.
Not before long, we were back on the road and were now heading to San Fernando to grab lunch. Still behind the wheel, the Toplander was slowly growing on to me as I liked it how it's butch to the core yet is somewhat refined. It's quite vocal at highway speeds and outside noise still intruded into the cabin, but its rugged charm and relative simplicity is something most would like about the Toplander.
After grabbing lunch and catching up on some rest, it was now time to go to Baguio to rest for the night. Having covered my fair share of driving already, I decided to let the others have a go at the Toplander as I wanted to get some rest and check out the ride quality (and some of the in-car features) of the Toplander from a passenger's perspective.
Rear head-, elbow- and legroom are very generous and the cold air coming in from the vents can reach all the way to the second row seats. Space on the third row seats is fine but again, it's mostly for the kids.
For the technophiles, the Toplander won't disappoint as it comes with a plethora of standard features. All variants come with automatic headlight and windshield wipers, dual-zone climate control, reverse parking sensors, steering wheel mounted audio controls and headlight beam leveler. High-end models, on the other hand, will come with several extras like a reverse camera, cruise control and adjustable lumbar support for the driver's seat.
In terms of amenities, the entry-level EL comes with fabric seats and a 1-DIN audio head unit that supports AM/FM radio, Bluetooth CD, USB and Aux. While it does have Bluetooth, it's only there for answering calls, not for audio playback. Meanwhile, the top-spec EX gets leather seats and a more intuitive touchscreen infotainment system that comes with AM/FM radio, Bluetooth audio, USB, Aux, iPod interface and SD.
Overall, the in-car features are good and are enough to keep the occupants entertained. But perhaps better fit and finish will do nicely for the Toplander. Hard plastic is extensively used, but then again you are in a rugged SUV, not in a plush sedan.
After going through Pangasinan and La Union via TPLEX, we were now just minutes away from Baguio. This was the perfect time to test out the Toplander's capability in climbing up the steep and winding Kennon Road.
With generous amounts of torque, the Toplander was able to cover ground easily and kept on the power throughout the climb. We didn't actually need to set the transmission to 'Sport' as it was smart enough to know which gears to use. Did I mention that the Toplander also has a limited-slip differential? A neat feature on a vehicle such as this I'd say.
Handling was good but since it has a soft suspension setup, it wallowed through the corners and body roll was quite noticeable. That comes as to no surprise, so do remember to take on sweeping bends with caution while in the Toplander. After what felt like nearly an hour or so, we finally reached our respite for the night, The Manor at Camp John Hay.
I have to say that the Foton Toplander surprised me in so many ways, showing that Foton is indeed serious in tapping the local SUV market. Its powertrain is good, the handling is acceptable, ride quality is admirable and its in-car features are enough.
But how much will the Toplander set you back? Well if you need a budget seven-seater SUV, the entry-level EL retails for Php 1,280,000. If you want more bang for your buck, the top-spec EX is priced at Php 1,400,000. This puts the Toplander A/T's price range well below the usual mid- to high-end 4x2 SUV seven-seaters offered by its contemporaries.
For those that do not mind the badge and want the best value that their money can buy, Foton's Toplander in automatic trim presents a very strong case indeed. Plus, Foton assembles (CKD) both the automatic and manual models of the Toplander at their Php 1.2 billion, 11-hectare facility at Clark Freeport Zone.
Foton may have arrived late to the lucrative midsize SUV arena, but as the saying goes, it's better late than never.