The exterior design is generic but pleasing enough.
The exterior design is generic but pleasing enough.
Not much bling in the cabin but it is functional and spacious.
Not much bling in the cabin but it is functional and spacious.

ROAD TEST: Foton Tunland 2.8 DC Comfort

If ever you doubted that the Chinese motor industry is progressing along the road to mainstream quality, just take a spin in the Foton Tunland.

It's a very far cry from that first flood of Chinese bakkies that reached our shores in the last decade, all styled around the 1980s Isuzu template and sporting panel gaps that could double as storage compartments.

Then came the GWM Steed, which - though not as refined nor as accomplished as the mainstream Japanese bakkies - was still arguably the first Chinese bakkie that could hold its head up in decent company.

Yet the new Tunland has even bigger ambitions than that. Ignore its corny name - this Foton wants to wrestle with the Hilux, Ranger and Amarok in the big boy's mud pit.

A brave move that, but it has come well armed - particularly in the 4x2 guise that was launched earlier this year.

AMERICAN HEART

The headline news, of course, is its 2.8-litre Cummins ISF turbodiesel engine. It's not the gutsiest engine on the block, with 120kW at 3600rpm and 360Nm at 1800rpm, but it matches the 3-litre Hilux for power and surpasses it when we're talking torque.

Dimensionally, the Tunland stands long and tall as a hulk of the bakkie world and it's even bigger than the Toyota Hilux and only slightly smaller than the Ford Ranger.

The Tunland has the biggest payload in its class, at 975kg, but its 220mm ground clearance puts it a touch lower to the ground than its rivals but we're really splitting hairs here.

The big deal with the 4x2 Tunland Comfort model - at R269 950 - is that it costs R70 000 less than the 4x4 model, which means that if you're not hell bent on tackling some tough off-road trails then this model does represent far better value.

Yet the penny really drops when you look at what its Japanese rivals cost. It's a whopping R120 000 less than the (albeit better specced) Toyota Hilux 3.0 D-4D Raider. In fact only the Ford Ranger 2.2 turbodiesel XL comes close in the value stakes, at R301 100, unless you're considering the Foton's smaller Chinese counterpart from GWM.

CHEAP FOR A REASON?

On average, though, the Tunland costs around R100 000 less than its rivals - but is it still a case of paying for what you get?

The short answer is that it not quite as refined or as well built as most of the mainstream, but it's much closer than what the R100 000 saving would suggest.

Its American engine is rather noisy and truck-like, but let's not forget that Cummins is a truck engine specialist. Besides, the 2.8-litre work mule is strong, torquey and doesn't lag off the mark. It also feels like it was built to outlast apocalypses, cockroaches and Zimbabwean despots.

Driven sensibly in real-world conditions, the engine has been found to sip as little as 8.3 l/100km on average.

It'll haul too - 2500kg according to Foton - and a colleague managed to haul a 1500kg trailer-load rather easily in this vehicle.

So it's a decent workhorse in the traditional sense.

But what about the softer side of modern bakkie-hood? Particularly those touchy-feely interior finishes that they like to gloat about nowadays?

Here this Chinese bakkie comes across as merely adequate, which shouldn't be a problem to most bakkie-heads. Like the exterior style, the dashboard design is generic and could have come straight out of anything else really. It's bolted together rather decently, but it's not really classy in any way. Unless you consider fake wood decorative trim to be elegant in some way.

ROOMY

While the interior style is nondescript at best, it is impressively spacious and there's plenty of room for rear passengers to stretch their legs in the back - which counts for a lot on this segment.

The Comfort model has all the basic amenities too - aircon, MP3/USB audio system, electric windows and mirrors, dual airbags and ABS. Spend another R20 000 and you can have the Lux model with leather seats, park distance control, loadbox rollbar, tonneau cover and side steps. And if you really want the latter three items on the Comfort model, the dealer will fit them as accessories.

On that subject, Foton doesn't have the same vast dealer footprint as its rivals have, but there are 35 outlets across the country, in addition to three approved service centres in rural areas.

The service intervals are also on the short side. The engine was designed to cope with 20 000km intervals on 50ppm diesel, but Foton has reduced it to 10 000km due to the danger posed by 500ppm. And while its rivals offer five-year/90 000km service plans, the Foton's one is only valid for 2 years or 40 000km.

Once again, you'll need to weigh this up against the significant initial cost saving over its rivals.

VERDICT

The Tunland 4x2 is not quite as polished as its mainstream rivals in many respects, but it does prove that the Chinese are catching up fast. It's an almost-as-good bakkie with a much lower price tag and that makes it a worthy contender in a mud pit that's increasingly expensive to enter.

PRICE

Foton Tunland 2.8 DC Comfort (120kW/360Nm) - R269 950

ALTERNATIVES

Ford Ranger 2.2 DC XL (110kW/375Nm) - R301 100

GWM Steed 2.0 VGT DC Lux (110kW/310Nm) - R209 900

Isuzu KB 250 D-Tec DC LE (85kW/280Nm) - R363 200

Mitsubishi Triton 2.5 DI-D DC (100kW/314Nm) - R334 900

Nissan NP300 2.5 TDi DC (98kW/304Nm) - R315 000

Tata Xenon 2.2 DLE DC (103kW/320Nm) - R228 495

Toyota Hilux 3.0 D-4D DC Raider (120kW/343Nm) - R394 800

VW Amarok 2.0 TDI DC Trend (103kW/340Nm) - R367 800