The idea of building a plush, family four-wheel drive on a truck's ladder frame might seem like an odd recipe, but it's given rise to some seriously popular family four-wheel drives. The Chevrolet Suburban has been carting American families around since the 1930s, and in more recent times Asia-Pacific buyers have been treated to a glut of truck based seven seaters. The Fortuner is Toyota's latest take on the formula, and we've spent a week behind the wheel to see how it handles life on the road, as well as off it.
Built on the same base as the Toyota Hilux for the Australian and Asian markets, the Fortuner has some serious off-road credentials. It will wade to depths up to 700 mm (27.6 in), and has 225 mm (8.9 in) of ground clearance, along with impressive approach and departure angles. For the caravan set, there's also a hefty 3,000 kg (6,614 lb) towing capacity.
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We took the car over some winding, steep four-wheel drive tracks and it handled everything with consummate ease. At no point did it feel like we were likely to scrape the underside of the car and the ride is seriously impressive on deeply rutted and bumpy sections of off-road track.
Equally impressive is the car's composure on loose gravel roads. Even though it can be uncomfortable on the blacktop, the Fortuner is smooth as silk on unsealed trails, even when it comes to choppy washboard surfaces. Set to two-wheel drive, it feels a little bit loose, and can even be coaxed into getting sideways. Why you'd want to powerslide a two-ton family barge is beyond us, but if that's near the top of your priorities list, the Fortuner might be for you.
Flick the little four-wheel drive mode switch across into high-range four-wheel drive and the shenanigans end, but that's no bad thing if you're carrying a carload of children. While some stability control systems struggle on gravel roads, the electronics in the Fortuner are well calibrated, providing a gentle helping hand without being too abrupt and upsetting the balance of the car.
The only real knock on the off-road fun comes down to the Fortuner's size. At 4.8 meters (15.75 ft) long and 1.85 meters (6.07 ft) wide it's can feel big on narrow tracks, and we spent a fair bit of time worrying about our tester's luminous blue paintwork and side steps.
For all its off-road prowess, the big Toyota is found wanting on the blacktop. In an attempt to civilize it for family duties, Toyota has dropped the Hilux's live rear axle for a five-link coil sprung rear, but there's no hiding its agricultural roots on uneven road surfaces.
Particularly at low speed the ride is unsettled over small bumps, and the body tends to rock from side to side long after you've gone past whatever small urban obstacle you've cleared. Here's hoping your kids don't get seasick, because every now and then the Fortuner feels decidedly boat-ish.
You'll also notice plenty of vibration from the 2.8-liter diesel engine. At idle there's no mistaking it for anything other than a diesel, and you can feel it through the steering wheel, seat and gearlever. Things improve a little bit once you're on the move, but there's very little joy to be had beyond 2,500 rpm, where the noise coming into the cabin becomes raucous and rattly.
Refinement issues aside, the Toyota's motor does a good job of hauling 2,120 kg (4,764 lb). With 130 kW (174 hp) on tap it's not what you'd call a powerhouse, but there's 450 Nm (332 lb.ft) of torque available from just 1,600 rpm, so it's got plenty of grunt to haul seven people and their luggage with a minimum of fuss.
If, for some reason, the urge to get sporty with the Fortuner strikes you, there are paddles behind the steering wheel to play with. There's also a "power mode" button on the center console, but we'd steer clear – making the throttle sharper makes the car feel jumpy and even more unrefined in traffic. Instead, we'd stick to eco mode, where the long throttle lets you make smooth progress without treating the accelerator pedal like a landmine.
Driving experience aside, there's plenty of goodies to keep you entertained in the Toyota's interior. The driver sits in a wide captain's chair that, if you're average height, is comfortable enough to sit in all day. But long-legged drivers will notice the seat doesn't go back far enough on its runners, and the steering wheel doesn't adjust far enough for reach, forcing you to sit with your legs spread uncomfortably.
My hour-long commute led to a numb right leg, and the hour-and-a-half highway cruise to the tracks where we went off-roading became very uncomfortable very quickly. Yes, 6-foot-6 isn't average height, but in a car as big as the Toyota, you'd expect range of seating comfort to cater for even my lanky frame.
The tall center console houses your climate controls, off-road buttons and switches, as well as a seven-inch touchscreen. There's nothing wrong with the touchscreen, but it feels a bit sluggish compared to the latest offerings from Subaru and Mazda. There aren't any physical buttons, and the traditional volume knob has been replaced with touch-sensitive controls, which makes for lots of awkward prodding on rough roads.
Not only is it annoying, it forces you to take your eyes off the road for way longer than is safe. Thankfully, everything from climate control to the rear differential locks are on proper buttons.
Rear seat passengers are treated to plenty of legroom, although the third row is only really suitable for small kids. Despite its boxy shape, taller rear seat passengers or shorties with tall haircuts are lacking in head/hair room. If you're tall AND have a well-formed quaff, you're in real trouble.
Folding the both rows of rear seats opens up a cavernous 1,080 liters (38 cu.ft) of load space, and the third-row seats can be removed altogether if you swung by the condom aisle before getting frisky. If not, they can be stowed against the side of the boot, and take just seconds to put into place.
So, where does that leave the Fortuner? If you need to tow a boat, or really enjoy taking the family to hard-to-find camping spots, then it's probably perfect for you. Mums and dads looking for a refined, civilized family hauler to tackle on road duties would be better served dropping their AUD$69,000 on a Kluger (Highlander), or even the relatively new Land Rover Discovery Sport.
Our video review, complete with some of Loz Blain's gorgeous drone photography, is below.
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