China comes in for round two in the ute market with the release of the Foton
Great Wall made all the running for China’s grand entry into the popular ute segment for the Australian market, and now that brand is joined by Foton, a company with a history more involved in medium and heavy trucks.
The Chinese brands are currently being handled by independent importers, a very different way of doing business from an Australian division of the manufacturer itself. This can lead to communication difficulties where the importer doesn’t have the necessary standing with the manufacturer to create specific models to suit our market and has to take what they are given, rather than what they might prefer.
There are also secondary problems that relate to the financial commitment behind a private importer in terms of the level of parts stocking and customer support. That said, there is ample evidence these days that some of the major manufacturer-owned brands in Australia have skimped on a commitment to parts stocking in this country, relying instead on a minimum of a three-day supply chain from Singapore.
If you want to see a traditional, longstanding involvement in the development of the motor industry, such as the 125 years of Daimler, you are not going to find that type of history with Chinese vehicle manufacturers. What you will find though is the establishment of joint-venture agreements, where the relatively recently established Chinese manufacturer teams with a long established European manufacturer to gain technical insight and ability.
Foton was only founded as a company in 1996, but it succeeds as the result of a joint venture with Daimler AG in July 2010, to build the Auman truck range in China with a Mercedes-Benz OM 457 engine built under licence. This is at the high end of the weight range for prime movers and rigid trucks.
What makes the entry of Foton trucks into the Australian market more interesting is that the medium and heavy-duty truck business is being handled by ATECO Industries, with the car, ute and van business handled separately by private importer Foton Automotive Australia.
At the lighter end of the truck market sits the Foton Tunland, the first Foton product to enter the Australian market. Still to come are passenger cars, vans and people movers, some of which bear a striking visual resemblance to existing Toyota products, such as the HiAce.
The big attraction with Foton comes for those with an affinity for heavy trucks, specifically from North America, and that’s because of the fitment of a Cummins engine under the bonnet. In this case it’s the 2.8-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged and intercooled version of the red engine that’s built in China at the Beijing Cummins/Foton joint venture manufacturing centre.
Delivery has already visited the Cummins/Foton manufacturing centre in China and can confidently state this is a world-class facility that supplies engines to a variety of customers on the Chinese market.
With a compression ratio of 17.6:1, this 2.8-litre engine features common-rail direct injection and produces maximum power of 120 kW at 3,600 rpm. Peak torque of 360 Nm is rated through from 1,800 to 3,000 rpm. The engine construction is with a single overhead camshaft with cast iron cylinder head and block assembly.
Cummins of course has the benefit of being one of the World’s leading engine suppliers, and it shows in the performance and fuel economy figures, listed as being a combined figure of 8.4 l/100 km with an urban figure of 10 l/100 km and an extra urban figure of 7.5 l/100 km. The emissions level for this Euro IV compliant engine is 219 g/km of CO2. Fuel tank capacity is 76 litres.
The engine characteristics are excellent, with strong torque supply thanks to the electronic controls of the common-rail fuel injection system. Operating through an electronic pedal, various sensors reporting back to the ECM (Electronic Control Module) provide an automatic engine idle rpm upspeed for when the vehicle is negotiating steep climbs. This means the driver can leave it to the ECM to control the engine rpm, effectively climbing many steep ascents without even touching the throttle pedal.
The transmission for the 4×2 ute on test was the five-speed manual sourced from Getrag, with ratios of 4.016, 2.318, 1.401, 1.0 and an overdriven 5th gear of 0.778. This is matched to a Dana Dongfeng rear axle with a diff’ ratio of 3.9:1, fitted with a limited slip centre.
The Tunland comes in two levels of trim, the Quality and the Luxury, with both available with a 4×2 and 4×4 driveline. There’s not a huge difference between the two levels, with most of the upgrade being the audio system.
Up the front end you’ll find power-assisted rack and pinion steering, but for a 4×2 the turning circle of 12.5 metres is somewhat excessive, making a 360 degree turn in a carpark more of a trucking experience than perhaps is necessary.
The front suspension uses coil springs with double wishbones and a front sway bar. At the rear it’s the standard set-up of semi-elliptical leaf springs, mounted on a chassis with eight crossmembers.
The braking system relies on Bosch 4-channel ABS with electronic brake force distribution with twin piston calliper disc brakes on the front and drum brakes on the rear. Tyres are 245/70R16s on 16×7 alloy rims.
Delivery’s first impressions are that the Tunland is more aligned with the current trend of the ute-makers to upscale in size, and the standard of vehicle build quality appears to be certainly higher than that of Great Wall.
At the introduction drive-away pricing of $26,990 for a 4×2 ute, it’s a much easier vehicle to live with than either Great Wall or newcomer TATA could offer, being altogether larger. The big drawcard here is the Cummins engine, which easily matches the top-end Japanese contenders and, as with Isuzu, it comes from a long established and very experienced engine company.
Our reservations as we start to work with the Tunland on an everyday basis belong to the suspension ability, and, in particular, that of the rear suspension design that can step the rear of the ute out of line when it encounters a series of potholes or bumps. This suspension performance when unladen can be improved upon and needs to be on the agenda for Foton to fix as a matter of urgency.
Maintenance schedules see oil drain and engine filter replacement intervals at 20,000 km, with a shorter 10,000 interval for fuel and air filters. Warranty is for three years/100,000 km.
Foton doesn’t yet offer a cab/chassis version for tray fitment, but of course it’s an easy operation to remove the tub and replace it with local bodywork. In its imported form the tub is one of the largest on the market, and the Australian importers expect to be able to add a chassis/cab version with a tray around the second quarter of 2014.
From a safety perspective, the spec’ includes rear parking sensors and driver and front passenger SRS airbags. In case of breakdown, you even get a set of warning triangles to warn oncoming traffic. With dual airbags, the Tunland scores a crash rating from ANCAP of three stars. Air conditioning, Bluetooth connectivity and a CD/MP3/FM/AM audio system are also standard inclusions.
Delivery will continue its test programme with the Tunland over the coming months in order to assess its strengths and weaknesses that will contribute to its suitability for the Australian market. On paper it looks good, but that needs to be proven, and only more time behind the wheel can provide those answers.