Assembled at the Foton plant in Clark, the Foton Toplander EX 4x2 A/T is holding its own in the SUV wars
Currently, the mid-size PPV (pickup platform vehicle) 7-seat SUV segment is dominated by Japanese brands (Toyota, Mitsubishi, Isuzu, and soon Nissan with the Navara-based Terra), followed by the Thai-American hybrids from Ford (Everest) and Chevrolet (Trailblazer, which shares its basic architecture with the Isuzu MU-X).
There’s a good reason for this. The segment is highly profitable for manufacturers as the volume generated is huge (roughly 30 percent of the total car market), and profits are equally significant, relative to, say, a B-segment car that provides less margins for the manufacturer even if it has larger in market share.
The 7-seat PPV-SUV segment straddles that all-important volume and profitability segment. For the consumer, this segment is attractive because SUVs offer more go-anywhere, anytime ability, thanks to its tall ride height and ground clearance, large tires, and more efficient diesel engines.
Thus, we see more and more competitors trying to enter this highly lucrative segment.
The Koreans also have the Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorrento, although these are car-based crossover SUVs.
Even Honda is trying to enter the market with its new CR-V 7-seat diesel-powered SUV.
We are, thus, spoilt for choice in this segment. But there’s one brand we shouldn’t overlook: Foton and its Toplander SUV. Yes, it’s a China-made vehicle, and people generally are suspicious of these China-made cars’ reliability and longevity.
But Foton has gone to great lengths to ensure that the Toplander can stand toe-to-toe with established brands.
A car’s engine is its heart, and the Toplander’s heart is very strong indeed. The Cummins-sourced ISF 2.8-liter SOHC CRDi turbocharged engine delivers a very decent 161 ps and 360 Newton meters of torque.
Power is transferred to the rear wheels via a Daimler-sourced 6-speed automatic transmission that shifts quite positively but not harshly: you can feel that the engine is underrated because there’s a huge grunt upon tip-in, such that it feels that the Toplander is hyper-active and super responsive.
Kudos to the very broad powerband that tapers off gently towards redline. The engine is a tad noisy relative to its Japanese competitors, but again, impressive for a first-time effort from Foton.
The brakes are equally powerful, but slightly over-assisted, making them grabby and difficult to modulate in stop-and-go traffic.
Out on the highway, brake feel improves slightly. Steering is quite heavy and a little numb, but again, it shines on the highway as the heft gives stability and confidence at highway speeds.
But try parking it in a tight space like at a typical mall, and it can be a bit tiresome.
The Toplander is also loaded: hill descent control, traction/stability control, ABS-EBD brakes, dual front airbags, and a touchscreen multimedia infotainment system with a reverse camera, leather seats, and more.
Suspension is decently firm and compliant, but the entire vehicle could do with a bit more NVH isolation as the engine can get a bit bothersome on long drives, and the 265/65R17 GITI Savero Plus highway-terrain tires deliver noticeably more tire and wind noise versus tires from Bridgestone, Yokohama or Goodyear, plus harshness into the cabin.
It would be comparable to say, a first-generation Toyota Fortuner or Mitsubishi Montero Sport released a decade ago, which goes to show how far the standards have been raised since then.
Though the interior dash architecture is well designed, and the controls are laid out ergonomically, the materials feel a bit low-rent, though leather is a nice touch for the seats.
Once you overcome the lack of lower leg/thigh support, it’s actually quite comfortable if you’re a passenger.
On the move, the Toplander delivers relentlessly aggressive acceleration. The powertrain truly dominates the experience, which—if you spend a lot of time on highway drives—is very satisfying.
There’a a decent amount of body roll through the corners, but par for the course.
Chassis pitching, squatting, and nose-diving are also somewhat similar to other SUVs in this segment, which means Foton spent a good amount on vehicle dynamics refinement and testing.
In terms of absolutes, the Toplander delivers well, but it’s the analog, subjective criteria where its rookie mistakes, so to speak, is noticed—biggest of which is the driving position.
The Toplander’s footwell is a tad cramped. If you have large feet, your right foot will feel a bit congested down there.
The brake pedal is also in need of further thought, as your right foot will do some odd angles to comfortably depress it, given the tight footwell.
The steering wheel has no reach adjustment, so you will need to sit quite close, a bit too close for comfort considering there’s an airbag on the steering wheel.
Think a bit like the classic Italian driving position: arms stretched out with knees bent heavily, which can also be tiresome on a long drive as it feels less natural.
The seats also lack support if you’re a tall driver, and the roofline feels low and close to your head.
Then there’s the over-assisted brakes which are difficult to modulate in traffic, and the slightly heavy steering wheel which is a chore in traffic and parking in tight spaces.
Mind you, all these comments are nitpicking and subjective, particularly to someone like me, who stands 5-feet 10-inches, and weighs 200 lbs with a shoe size of 11 EEE.
Crucially, the Toplander’s price makes for a compelling argument: At P1.488 million, it is priced below many mid-level SUV variants of established brands.
For that amount, you would most likely already get a manual transmission-equipped SUV with fabric interior.
A bit of national pride
There’s a bit of national pride in buying a Toplander: Foton imports CKD kits of the Toplander, and assembles these at the company’s 11-hectare facility in Clark Freeport Zone, which represents a direct investment of P1.2 billion, providing jobs, and supporting local OEM parts supply businesses.
So, before buying your next SUV, check out the Toplander. Priced well, its decent standard specifications and equally decent driving dynamics make it a worthwhile option to consider.