The car’s gently sliding across the muck, like a graceful ballet dancer. You could play Tchaikovsky in the background and it won’t look out of place. With the clutch pedal semi-depressed and with measured dollops of throttle, the rear wheels of the Toyota Fortuner spin for traction and, in the process, make the entire vehicle pivot around the front axle. Making semi-circles in wet mud was never this fun. The front wheels give way and the whole SUV moves laterally, as if there’s an invisible hand pushing it sideways. I could do this all day, making the SUV move in a trajectory that Toyota perhaps never intended — it’s loads of fun. The Fortuner churns up the wet earth and slaps it all over itself like camouflage; not unlike Arnie in Predator (Or was it Commando? Or Conan The Contrarian?).
Anyway, the point is as much as I loved mud-plugging, the new Toyota SUV is also game. This is a machine that loves the great outdoors, as the Fortuner proved it when I took it up and down some rather steep inclines with only stones and rocks to provide traction. The Toyota takes it all in its stride, without me even having to engage low ratio. That’s right, this is a pretty decent off-roader and taking off with it to one of those non-beaten tracks during the weekends wouldn’t be bad idea actually. With excellent ground clearance and tall 17” rubber, the Fortuner has the right ingredients — Rajasthan, Ladakh, here I come. It’s really a pity that we didn’t have this machine for our annual Slush Fest (look out for our September issue!). We could have yumped it as we always do, with four wheels in the air, and it would have hardly shaken itself loose.
We did that with the Landcruiser a couple of months back, and I dare say that the Fortuner is up to it too. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to call this a mini-Landcruiser; it has its share of those legendary genes in it. You can feel it in the way it simply stomps all over sticky mud or swallows some rocks and generally feels invincible while doing it. It borrows a host of design cues from its famous big brother and the overall effect is of a proper SUV rather than a car-like soft-roader. And it looks good and turns heads too. Its off-road cred comes from the fact that it has full-time four-wheel drive, brilliant approach and departure angles and of course a two-speed low ratio transfer case.
It’s crazy — on the one hand, the Fortuner shares its underpinnings with the Hilux pickup truck, and on the other, it’s intimately related to the Innova MPV. And the way it drives and behaves, it fits between the two. Like the other two, the Fortuner is spun off from Toyota’s IMV platform (Innovative International Multi-purpose Vehicle) — a venture to make cost-effective vehicles for emerging markets. It uses a unique construction method that marries unitary construction with body-on-chassis. The net effect is that you get a vehicle that is fairly civilised on road and capable when the roads disappear. The suspension setup has also been tuned for handling both extremes — double wishbones at front and four-link at the rear. As you would expect, the Fortuner is not a car-like soft-roader, so while you can attack corners, you will have to turn down the aggression. It has got good on-road manners that are forgiving towards the not-so-trained drivers but I still wouldn’t use it to carve up mountain roads in a tearing hurry. The ride quality is pretty good for the middle row passengers (space for only kids in the last row, please) but still, it’s not the Innova when it comes to good ride and handling qualities on tarmac. That said, Toyota has managed to do an excellent job with the Fortuner when it comes to balancing the dynamics required for both on- and off-road conditions.
Much of its strength also comes from the rather stonking oil-burner. Displacing 2982cc, this 16-valve DOHC inline-four turbocharged intercooled common-rail diesel engine develops 168 bhp at just 3600 rpm and a fabulous 34.98 kgm of torque between 1400 and 3400 rpm. When pushed, the Fortuner attains 60 kph in sub-6 seconds and 100 kph in 13.5, and goes on to a top speed well beyond 175 kph. The diesel motor impresses with its ability to haul this near two-tonne SUV; it’s so good that you don’t feel the weight of the Fortuner. Mated to a five-speed manual gearbox, the powertrain combination allows you easy driveability in the city and the ability to criss-cross the subcontinent with ease. The Fortuner can cruise all day at 120 kph with the tacho needle hovering just above 2500 rpm. The engine may feel a little noisy and vibey, but it’s not too intrusive. The gearshift quality, is however, a bit notchy and the throws are long. An automatic gearbox will be a welcome addition, and with that prodigious torque, it wouldn’t sap the engine’s driveability either.
What’s surprising is that for the kind of engine output — which also makes the Fortuner pretty quick and fast for a vehicle this size — Toyota has given drum brakes at the rear. Okay, it gets ventilated discs up front and ABS, but it could do with more stopping power.
The thing about the Fortuner is that it’s the sort of machine that’s old fashioned to drive. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a modern car across all aspects. It feels old fashioned because driving it is involving, like the way it used to when cars were built using body-on-chassis construction. It’s not the kind of modern car or SUV that moves on auto-pilot. In this, you feel like you are doing something. It could be making minor steering corrections all the time, absorbing the noise from the motor or shifting gears well matched to the revs — the net effect is that you are consciously controlling the car and I like it for that. Inside, as you would expect, the Fortuner has all the Toyota kind of bits and pieces inside and the quality of materials is good. The controls are large and well-placed and you get used to them in no time.
Though it comes at a price that is not exactly cheap (Rs 18.45 lakh ex-showroom Delhi), the Fortuner is great piece of kit. It has all the right elements that make it a proper, competent SUV — off-road cred, on-road dynamics, powerful engine, two rows of seats at the back, excellent bullet-proof build quality, robust underpinnings, etc. If only it would have been introduced in India earlier; I could have done with a mud-plugger like this over the last five years.