Vehicle buyers might once have been able to dismiss the products developed and built in China, but things are changing quickly. If the Foton Tunland is any indication, Chinese vehicle manufacturers are catching up very quickly.
The Tunland deserves some respect. It has earned it. Last year we were invited by Foton SA to join them in tackling Lesotho’s infamous Baboon Pass in a convoy of Tunlands. We were handed a Tunland in Johanessburg, drove it to Lesotho, successfully completed Baboons Pass and drove it back to Johannesburg. The bakkie never missed a beat. And although its bodywork had taken a hammering, its mechanical components all survived the harrowing outing.
To be fair, a substantial section of the track had been improved, but a horrific 13km-stretch of boulders and vertigo-inducing drop-offs remained. It was a terrible track – the sort that could give even the most capable trail vehicle a run for its money. And to make matters worse, the bakkies didn’t have rear diff locks (there were murmurings that the production versions would have differential locks, but the current models still do not have rear lockers). This meant, of course, that momentum was needed to traverse the steep inclines and nasty axle twisters.
It was a painful sight as the bakkies scraped, bounced and shuddered over the boulders. There were mercilessly flogged. Never before had we resorted to this sort of off-roading. On many occasions we were sure the vehicles had suffered serious damage as they butted boulders and belly-flopped onto sharp rocks. But the bakkies kept going. So we have a lot of respect for the Tunland. It is undoubtedly a tough bakkie. However, being tough is not enough these days.
In a market filled with large SUV-like double cabs such as the Amarok, Ranger, and BT-50, a bakkie also needs to be practical and comfortable. Can the Tunland compete with the latest offerings from established bakkie builders?
*** Features and equipment
The Foton Tunland is a Chinese bakkie, but many of its crucial components were sourced from established American and European manufacturers. Bosch, Continental, ZF, Dana, Getrag and Borg-Warner components were used. Most notably though, it sports a 2,8 litre Cummins oilburner, the first light commercial vehicle in the world to be powered by a Cummins motor. The powerplant generates 120kW of power and 360Nm of torque, which is less that that offered by the latest vehicles in the segment, but on par with that produced by the most important bakkie in the segment – the ubiquitous Hilux. In fact, the Tunland’s engine offers just about the same torque and power as the three-litre D-4d Toyota (the Hilux offers 120kW abd 343 Nm of torque).
The Foton doesn’t have quite the linear power delivery as the Hilux, but the power on offer is nevertheless very usable. The torque curve is flat, with the engine already producing 340 Nm at 1800 r/min. Torque peaks at 2800 r/min, and starts to drop off at around 3100 r/min.
The powerplant is compliant with Euro IV emissions standards, but can still run on 500ppm diesel. In order to deal with the dirty local fuel though, Foton has apparently needed to reduce service intervals from 20 000km to 10 000km.
Overall, the engine is impressive. It won’t astound you with its briskness, but is a far cry from the ancient and underpowered engines found in earlier Chinese bakkies. This is truly an engine on a par with those produced by Japanese and other American manufacturers.
The oilburner is quite loud, but in all other respect it is impressively refined. Cruising on the highway is a pleasure. There’s no need to shift down from the fifth to the fourth gear to overtake. The power is there, waiting for you when you hit the accelerator pedal. The engine is mated to a five-speed manual gearbox that feels slightly notchy, but nevertheless works well. Safety equipment and features include two airbags, ABS and EBD. The Tunland doesn’t have traction control or dynamic stability control (DSC) but, considering its competitive pricing (R354 3950 for this top-spec luxury model), one can’t be too concerned about this.
The Tunland is a large bakkie. In fact, it is larger than the Hilux, and very close in size to new double cabs such as the Ranger, Amarok and BT-50. This obviously results in a roomy interior. Where other Chinese bakkies’ have traditionally felt quite narrow and cramped, the Tunland’s interior feels spacious. The rear of the cabin is large, easily accommodating two adults. There is also no shortage of comfort and entertainment features. It has an MP3 CD player with USB and AUX inputs and four speakers, high-quality leather seats, electric windows with one-touch opening and closing, air-conditioning and park distance control.
To be sure, these features are not necessarily new to Chinese double cabs – there have certainly been other Chinese bakkies with similar features – but the quality in the Tunland is impressive. Sure there are few niggles. Some of the plastic fittings look a bit cheap, but the overall quality of the cabin is very good, especially at the price.
*** Gravel performance and handling
To truly appreciate the build quality of the Tunland, one need only take it onto a dirt road. During our test, noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) levels on gravel were very impressive. The cabin remained comfortable and quiet, and there were no squeaks or rattles, even on the most corrugated roads. Of course, any bakkie with an empty load area will have a tendency to feel a bit loose on gravel, but the Tunland certainly performed on a par with the other bakkies in the segment. However, the lack of DSC does reduce confidence somewhat. In an era where we have got used to the added level of security provided by stability control, the lack of it can leave one feeling a bit exposed. Still, in four-wheel drive the Foton behaved predictably and handled well.
The Tunland is a good performer on gravel. It handles well, but perhaps more importantly for a Chinese bakkie, it feels solid and doesn’t give the impression that it would fall apart if driven regularly on bad roads.
** Trail capabiity
As mentioned above, the Tunland is a tough bakkie, and any vehicle capable of completing Baboons Pass is certainly a proficient off-roader. However, this is not a vehicle aimed at buyers looking a trail vehicle. Like all the latest bakkies, the Tunland is simply too wide and long to be a particularly effective trail 4×4. Moreover, it doesn’t have a rear diff lock. As we saw on Baboons Pass, this can usually be overcome by a bit of momentum, but the lack of a rear locker does make off-road driving riskier and more difficult. Still, the Tunland is a solid off-road performer that will undoubtedly meet the off-road needs of most buyers. It has low-range gearing and decent wheel articulation, so the absence of a rear diff lock will really be noticed only in the harshest of conditions.
**** Overlanding suitability
For those looking for a reasonably priced double cab that can be used both as an overland vehicle and a workhorse, the Tunland is worth looking at. The bakkie is large, comfortable, easy to drive on the open road and, most importantly, feels robust and enough to deal with bad roads. Fuel consumption is fairly respectable. During our test, we averaged 10,7 litres per 100km. With its 75-litre tank, the bakkie should be able to travel around 700km at a stretch. As mentioned above, while 50ppm diesel is obviously recommended, the Cummins powerplant will run quite happily on 500ppm, so there’s no need to worry about fuel quality when venturing north of our borders.
Foton is marketing the Tunland as a serious yet affordable competitor to the big bakkie brands. And viewed from this perspective, the bakkie does indeed seem very competitively priced. It offers practically the same specifications as the Hilux at a much-reduced price. So does that make the Tunland an obvious choice in the segment? Not necessarily.
Firstly, the quality is not quite up to the standards of established brands. It comes very, very close – closer in fact, than the price difference suggests – but a bit of work still needs to be done. Secondly, the Foton will continue to be seen as a “Chinese” bakkie by conservative double cab buyers. Yes, it is cheap compared with bakkies offered by established brands, but it is significantly more expensive than the GWM Steed 5 (a good Chinese bakkie that is priced at R259 990). Moreover, bakkies such as the Navara 2.5 dCi 4×4 XE and Ranger 2.2 XLS 4×4 are priced uncomfortably close to the Tunland.
The Tunland is a good vehicle, but it will probably take some time for buyers to become comfortable with its price. Finally, many buyers will worry about parts availability and relase value. Foton SA seems determined to provide food service and support, and it boasts the backing of Imperial, but finding a foothold in the local bakkie market is never easy.