WORKHORSE or WEEKEND WARRIOR | UTE REVIEW- FOTON TUNLAND

Chris Mullett and Rob Randazzo spend a week in two Foton Tunland 4×4 utes – one a base model, and the other fully-optioned.

It’s a sad reality that even the current breeds of much-improved Chinese light commercials coming into our market still have to fight to get prospective buyers to even test drive their products.

Some developed this attitude after being stung by previous experiences that included poor reliability, inferior quality, low resale value, and inefficient aftersales service and parts availability from the dealers and distributor.

Ateco Automotive Australia has had the responsibility of turning this attitude around, and is now ready to hand that role over to direct factory distribution by Foton as the manufacturer grows the brand further in Australia.

As Alex Stewart, general manager for Foton Motors Australia, explained:

“Foton will switch to factory-operated distribution of its products in Australia, following the successful introduction of the Foton range of trucks and utes in Australia by Ateco Automotive Pty Ltd, the Sydney-based automotive distributor that operates in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

“The handover process has started, and will be complete by June 1st 2017, with vehicle distribution, parts supply, technical and warranty support, and dealer appointments being the responsibility of a new entity to manage Foton business in Australia. This will be known as Foton Motors Australia Pty Ltd – an overseas subsidiary of Foton Motor Group in China.

“The company was registered in Sydney in 2011 and is currently operating from its office on the Gold Coast, Qld.

“We will be working closely with Foton and our dealers to ensure that this handover process, something we have done several times before, is as seamless for customers as is possible. Our priorities are our Foton owners and the dealers that provide them with exemplary service across Australia. The smooth handover of the business is as important to us as launching a new brand”.

Our two test Tunlands were the last of the Euro 4 production run, but with the added safety of electronic stability control (ESC), four-wheel disc brakes, lap/sash seatbelts for all three rear-seat passengers and seatbelt pretensioners on the front. Euro 5 Tunlands are now being sold in Australia.

While Chris Mullett spent the first half of the week in the basic-spec workhorse, I was lucky enough to score the top-spec Tunland, with its $15,000 worth of options. However, other than the extra bling on one, these utes were identical.

Our time in the Tunlands included the Easter holiday break, which is traditionally a time when all week-end warriors load up their families, friends, eskies and toys and head for the hills to find some mud. With so many serious off-roaders sharing the Hume Highway, our blinged Tunland attracted quite a few questioning (What is that?) glances.

The options included a Carryboy canopy with lockable tinted lift-up side windows (good for tradies), RidePro 50 mm suspension kits on the front and back, five Dynamic Python 17”x8” alloy rims shod with Toyo A/T2 265/65R17 tyres, an Airflow snorkel, a black bullbar with a VRS winch and 4310 kg wire rope, a tow bar kit, a VRS recovery kit, clear bonnet protector, a slimline weather shield on each window, and a set of all-weather mats for the front and back.

Both test utes had full heavy-duty plastic tubliners (standard on Tunland 4×4 models), which extended over the top rail of the tub. The canopy of the upmarket ute kept this in place, but rubbing movement of the liner itself on the other had already started damaging the paintwork where the liner met the top edge of the tub – a simple problem requiring a simple fix.

Other available accessories through Foton dealerships include hard and soft tonneau covers, roof racks, headlight covers, cargo mats, electric brake controllers, driving lights, nudge bars, Sunseeker awnings and an attachable tagalong tent.

The interior of the current Tunland is a vast improvement on previous expectations for a Chinese ute. The leather-trimmed seats are comfortable, and the driver gets manual lumber adjustment as well as height, tilt and reach control. The dash design and finish are as good as most Japanese utes, and narrow sections of glossy faux-timber create a good contrast to the usual grey plastics. Side steps make cab entry easy, with floor heights of 580 mm in the pretty ute and 550 mm in the base version.

Placing controls for Bluetooth, phone, stereo, and cruise control on the leather-wrapped steering wheel are indicative of Foton’s aspirations to get things right. However, the omission of a reversing camera (especially on the ute with the canopy) and airbags for the back-seat passengers shows they are trying to appeal on price value rather than safety. Australian buyers often use dual-cab utes as family transport, especially on weekends, and many would be reluctant to put their families in the back of any vehicle that did not offer airbag crash protection. Delivery also holds a very strong view that all new vehicles coming into our market should have reversing cameras.

Standard safety features on our test utes included anti-skid braking systems with electronic brakeforce distribution, electronic stability control, traction control, hill-descent control, hill-hold control, hydraulic brake assist, dual front airbags, rear parking sensors, remote keyless entry, daytime running lights, (excellent) powered side mirrors with defrost function, and an engine immobiliser.

Foton’s four-speaker sound system with Bluetooth and MP3/USB inputs provides good audio quality, and, while the air-con/heater is not a climate-control unit, it works very well at keeping things comfortable.

The usual instrumentation provides the basic essential readouts for distances travelled and the volume of fuel used – both instantaneous and average. Headlights are height adjustable and the dash houses the buttons for 2WD/high, 4WD/high, 4WD/low, traction control and hill-descent assist. Unfortunately, there is only one 12-volt outlet.

Back-seat passengers will also be comfortable with decent leg and headroom along with a headrest and lap/sash seatbelt for all three seating positions. The rear seat base folds up to make a flat load area, and reveal two covered storage cavities for the jack, tool kit and wheel brace, plus clips for a small fire extinguisher and space for a few extra tools if needed. With the seat clipped up, there is plenty of room for the shopping or the hound, while your seats remain clean.

The Euro 4, 2.8-litre, four-cylinder, turbodiesel, Cummins ISF is not the most powerful engine on the market, but it hails from a load-lugging heritage, and gets the job done with its outputs of 120kW @ 3600 rpm and 360 Nm @ 1800-3000 rpm. At a highway speed of 110 km/h in top gear the engine is spinning at a little over 2000 rpm, which sits nicely within the torque range. However, it only takes a long hill to drop the revs below 1800, and this is when the Cummins struggles to pick up quickly without a gear change. I must say though, that when this little Cummins needs to work, its engine burble is a very sweet sound indeed.

The five-speed Getrag manual transmission with BorgWarner transfer case was identical in both utes, but gear selection seemed notchy in one and heavy in the other. This was not a problem on the open roads, but mixing with Sydney Airport traffic I was really wishing for a good six to eight-speed automatic to keep things moving smoothly.

Advertised combined fuel consumption is 8.3 l/ 100 km, and this would be quite realistic considering after a week covering 60% country roads, 40% city traffic, and including shopping-centre carparks, a variety of road surfaces, a romp in the paddock and a little bit of heavy work, one of our utes showed an average of 7.0 l/100 km and the other 7.3 l/100 km.

Standard suspension consists of a double-wishbone and coil-sprung front end, and a Dana live beam axle with Dana limited-slip diff under five-leaf spring packs on the back. The optional 50 mm lift kit fitted to one of our Tunlands used six-leaf packs.

During my time in the base model, I loaded the tub to capacity with firewood, which would have approached half the payload – maximum payload is 1025 kg and towing capacities are 2500 kg (braked) and 750 kg (unbraked). The load did not drain any power at all, and really improved the Foton’s road manners. In fact, ride quality went from quite a jumpy rear end to rather subdued on the poor quality sealed and unsealed roads it encountered.

Loaded, the height from the ground to the top edge of tub only dropped 45 mm – from 1305 mm down to 1260 mm – and still left 65 mm between the bump stops. The ground to top-of-tub height on the optioned ute was 1335, while ground clearance under the rear diff on both utes measured 210 mm.

To the end of March, Foton had sold 149 Tunland 4x4s for the year (VFACTS YTD), which is a far cry from the 8022 Ranger 4x4s sold by Ford to make it market leader. However, the most basic 2.2-litre, Ranger 4×4 dual-cab has a recommended driveaway price that is $19,000 more than the Tunland’s driveaway price of $30,990. In fact, you can drive away in the fully-optioned Tunland for less than this basic Ranger.

At the time of writing, you could drive away in a basic GLX Triton for a short-term sale price of $33,000. However, excluding intermittent sales by the competition, the Tunland is the only diesel, 4×4, manual dual-cab with a recommended driveaway price under $40,000­ – and it beats Triton’s normal recommended driveaway price by $10,000.

If Foton gets serious, by adding a good auto transmission and bringing its utes up to five-star ANCAP standard, the Tunland could really ruffle some competition feathers.

It is definitely not the best ute on the market, nor is it the worst, so, if your buying criteria is heavily influenced by dollars and “sense”, and you want a good-value farm, fun or tradie 4×4 dual-cab that you will drive until it drops, keep the Tunland on your options list – and some dollars in your pocket.

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