MID-SIZED WAGON OF THE YEAR

Five contenders duke it out for our inaugural 4WD awards comparison…

 

It’s the new breed of family car. Gone are the days of sedans and wagons doing the family duties seven days a week; those responsibilities are now firmly in the hands of the ubiquitous SUV. Not everyone is happy with just a high-riding crossover, however. Some want genuine off-road capability. Something that’s nice to drive on the bitumen, but can also go beyond it.

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You don’t have to spend close to six figures to get a nice family 4WD these days. There’s a solid bunch of seven-seater diesel 4WDs that will fit the bill of family taxi and holiday tourer that you can choose from. But which is the best? We reckon there is only one way to find out…

 

 

THE CONTENDERS

For this comparison, we gathered together five different 4WDs. All proper 4X4s, with diesel engines, automatic gearboxes, low range; and room to seat seven. More than that, each vehicle you see here sits at around $55,000 – give or take a couple of grand.

 

All of the mid-sized wagons are based upon utes, as well. They share engines, gearboxes, front suspension and some interior elements with the utes – but veer away with coil-sprung rear ends and wagon bodies. So in no particular order, we have the Ford Everest Ambiente ($52,990), The Holden Trailblazer LTZ ($52,490), the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport Exceed ($53,000), the Toyota Fortuner GLX ($54,990) and the Isuzu MU-X LS-T ($56,100).

 

 

THE TESTING

Because the prices were all pretty close, the RRP didn’t really come into the decision. But value for money definitely did. Quality, inclusions and specifications all roll into this element. We looked closely at the interiors and exteriors of the vehicles – scrutinising things like seven-seat practicality, load space, comfort and safety. Underneath and outside, we considered the underbody, underbonnet, ‘bushability’ and ground clearance.

 

Then it was time to get behind the wheel. After a short stint of on-road testing, we spurned the blacktop for steep climbs, river crossings and loose, rutted fire trails. Mount Seaview Resort has no shortage of off-road trails… which meant we were able to really push these vehicles’ limits.

 

Because we’re an off-road magazine, we gave extra weighting to things like off-road performance, touring suitability and aftermarket support. With no further ado, here are the results…

 

 

THE FORD EVEREST AMBIENTE

Being the lowest-spec option available, the interior of the Everest was criticised for being quite spartan and basic. This Ambiente spec will get an improved infotainment screen in future editions, so we did overlook our model’s puny screen. But regardless of that, the Everest was easily the least-specced. In terms of internal comfort and load space it was somewhere around average; but it did score points for having the best overall payload.

 

Having an Adblue system in the exhaust is a bit of a bugger for those wanting to go 4WD touring as well.

 

On-road, the Everest was a mixed bag. While it steered nicely with control and predictability and was pushed along well by the 3.2L donk, it was severely hampered by the gearbox. Gears were held too long, and the engine was forced to rev way out of its 2,500rpm comfort zone.

 

Off-road, the gearbox was still the main cause for complaint. Reasonable traction control and a locking rear diff all made it a solid off-road performer, but a gearbox that didn’t make the right decisions very often (especially when momentum was a cherished resource up steep, rutted climbs) was annoying.

 

 

THE GOOD BITS

Torquey engine

Full-time 4WD

 

THE BAD BITS

Poor gearbox performance

Basic interior with complicated controls

 

THE FORTUNER glx

Despite being the worst-selling vehicle on the comparison, the Fortuner did impress in this GLX specification. The interior is a bit lacking in specs and technology – especially when compared to the Pajero Sport and the Trailblazer. But at the same time, it was a nice place to be.

 

The third row of seats was probably the tightest out of the vehicles tested, but old-school fold-up seats have benefits over integrated seats: The load space worked out to be the biggest and the easiest to modify with drawers and other camping accessories. There’s also space for a second battery under the bonnet, complete with an empty accessory fuse panel. All in all, the Fortuner makes the most sense as a 4WD tourer.

 

On-road, the Fortuner gave little room for complaint. Although the 2.8L engine doesn’t have the most capacity or output, it did perform quite well in combination with the six-speed gearbox. And to boot, it managed to remain quite composed. There’s a fair amount of refinement in the drive and noise levels of the Fortuner, which scored it points.

 

Toyota’s ‘A-TRC’ off-road traction control is a smart and responsive unit, giving you smart and non-intrusive wheelspin control. The rear locker is a handy addition, but using it switches off traction control on the front. Regardless, good wheel travel in the rear and great traction control make the Fortuner excellent off-road.

 

 

THE GOOD BITS

Great engine and gearbox performance, on-road and off-road

High levels of overall refinement

 

THE BAD BITS

Third row a bit cramped

Not as good ‘value for money’ with inclusions

 

THE TRAILBLAZER ltz

Compared to the Colorado 7 it replaces, the Trailblazer is a massive step in the right direction from Holden. That powerful, willing engine is harnessed much better by the gearbox now; and suspension tuning has also come a long way.

 

The interior of the Trailblazer is a nice place to be, even if it is a bit on the ‘cheap’ side. It’s all hard plastics, but a good-sized screen full of tech and respectable ergonomics do bring it up. When you consider the inclusions, the Trailblazer weighs up with good value. Bonus points for a high-mounted alternator as well.

 

The engine and gearbox combination in the Trailblazer really feels like the fastest on test… 500Nm is the highest amount of torque out of all of the vehicles, and a firm suspension setup pays great dividends on-road. An LSD is a positive for on-road driving as well as off-road adventuring.

 

Off-road, the Trailblazer was a real dark horse. You can forget how effective an LSD can be in some situations – giving sharp performance without fully locking the rear end. HDC was quite jerky and rough, and some funky noises coming from the driveline did put a question mark in some testers’ minds.

 

THE GOOD BITS

Very responsive engine with good on-road demeanour

Good inclusions for the money

 

THE BAD BITS

Interior plastics feel a little cheap

Noticeable road noise compared to others

 

THE PAJERO SPORT exceed

In this comparison, the Pajero Sport is the highest-spec model available at ~$55,000. The Exceed has lots of inclusions, and you can’t argue with its value for money. Heated seats, adaptive cruise control, lane departure and blind spot monitoring were all there (plus lots more), but the overall quality of the interior fittings touchpoints wasn’t as good as others.

 

The third row of the Pajero Sport folds up in a unique manner, which does eat into the load space noticeably. Regardless of the big rear overhang, a shorter wheelbase means the Pajero Sport has less interior load space in the real world. Aside from that, it’s quiet, comfortable and technology-laden.

 

On-road, the Pajero Sport is a real surprise package. It steers very nicely with balanced suspension, and the 8-speed gearbox really wrangles everything out of the 2.4L diesel without anything losing its cool. Road noise is fairly controlled, and the practicality of ‘Super Select’ is a definite positive.

 

Off-road, the Pajero Sport did show up some weaknesses. Where all vehicles drove the same tracks, the Mitsubishi was the only one that took some damage to the bash plate, and it was probably lucky to escape without damaging the cooling system or the lubrication system (that’s where the oil filter lives). Despite its limited ground clearance, the Pajero Sport does have good traction capability – with a locking rear diff and snappy traction control.

 

THE GOOD BITS

Suprisingly good performance from engine and gearbox

Untouchable value for money

 

THE BAD BITS

Limited ground clearance and weaker underbody protection

Slightly small load space compared to the others

 

THE MU-X ls-t

Like the Pajero Sport Exceed, the LS-T from Isuzu is a range-topping MU-X. The interior gets nicely jazzed up with a fancy steering wheel, door insets and other things. The infotainment screen is big and pretty functional; and our testers did appreciate the simple, easy to use instruments and controls. The second row flip-down screen would definitely score points with some families as well.

 

Like the D-MAX, the MU-X is probably one of the less pretentious 4WDs getting around. Its ground clearance and underbody setup are all pretty good, and the 3.0L engine is well matched to the 6-speed gearbox.

 

On-road, things did turn a little sour for the MU-X. The road noise and engine noise are a little more intrusive than others; and the overall steering and suspension were too soft for dynamic driving. Body roll felt much worse than in the other cars, and the MU-X did start to understeer a bit.

 

What’s good is that this on-road shortcoming meant the MU-X was a little softer and more compliant off-road – sponging up the bumps somewhat better than others. No rear locker or LSD meant the MU-X was a little more reliant on wheel speed and momentum on tougher, steeper challenges. Where some would like to use slower speeds, lockers are hard to look past.

 

THE GOOD BITS

Strong torquey engine

Up-specced
interior with some nice touches

 

THE BAD BITS

On-road handling was quite boaty

Open rear differential – compared to the rest of the field

 

 

THE RESULTS

After straight comparisons over a few days, it was a very interesting exercise to see opinions start to grow, change and develop over the testing criteria we had put in place.

 

We had some real surprises pop up during the comparison; let-downs and dark horses that did catch our testers off-guard. The testing criteria involved on-road performance, off-road capability, and interior and exterior evaluations. We gave off-road related tests extra weighting because we’re a 4X4 magazine. And if you’re going to spend the extra money buying and maintaining a 4X4, it should be good.

 

It’s worth noting that all of these vehicles are in fact quite desirable. They are all powerful, efficient and impressively capable off-road. One prominent point of concern is ground clearance – but that can be fixed with things like barwork and suspension. Throw some good rubber and underbody protection into the mix, and you’ll have a seriously capable 4WD.

 

In a way, it’s a shame there has to be a loser: In our testing, it was the Pajero Sport. Despite being good value and having a solid on-road demeanour, its limited load space and worse ground clearance brought it unstuck compared to the competition.

 

If the Ford Everest wasn’t let down by an indecisive gearbox and SCR system, it would have ranked much better than fourth place. The engine is strong and gutsy, and there’s a great payload available for touring and accessories.

 

The middle range 4X4 in this comparison is the MU-X. Other than its on-road characteristics being not so great, the Isuzu was pretty solid across the board. The engine and gearbox combination is strong and exudes confidence. Add a locking diff, and it would become even better off-road.

 

Second place belongs to the surprise-packed Holden Trailblazer. It’s much-improved in 2017, with new technology inside and a better-performing driveline under the skin. The value-for-money argument is there, and the on-road and off-road performance were both strong.

 

After those four, there is one left: The Toyota Fortuner. It’s strange that the worst-selling model in this comparison wins, but you can’t argue with results. The Fortuner was the most consistent across the board, and it was the unanimous winner with all five testers. It was great off-road, with a smart and practical interior. While it wasn’t the best value for money on test, it did work out to be the best vehicle overall.

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