Special Report: Foton Philippines introduces first-ever Toplander A/T variants

Story and images by Gelzon de la Cruz

Foton Philippines has unveiled the new A/T variants of their Toplander mid-size SUV lineup.  On an organized drive to parts north of Manila last October 18 to 19, Foton gave members of the press extensive wheel time on test units of the new standard and premium Toplander 4×2 A/T variants–the EL and EX, respectively.  Having been shipped in only the week before, and as fully assembled CBU units, the new A/T test vehicles were so fresh off the boat that Foton could only quote indicative prices for the new variants: P1.28M for the EL with fabric upholstery, and P1.40M for the EX with leather and a DIN 2 telematics head unit for its infotainment suite.

The semi-long drive took us through moderate traffic, onto unpaved tracks, kept us at efficient highway cruising speeds, and spurred us into spirited uphill bursts up the Kennon Road route to Baguio. Through these evolutions, we discovered that the new automatic gearbox with its sophisticated engineering seems to belong on higher-end makes and models, making the entire vehicle feel like the kind of gem that it isn’t supposed to be.

Rugged but not rough

The Toplander is powered by a longitudinal, front-mounted turbodiesel, is rear-driven through a solid axle, and is built body-on-frame … brandishing the kind of old-school toughness that seems self-consciously over-engineered these days.  Compared to more mainstream SUVs, the Toplander is slightly larger than the latest model Mitsubishi Montero Sport and the Toyota Fortuner. In fact, the Toplander is closer in size and weight to the up-market Toyota Land Cruiser Prado.

Introduced first in 2015 but only with manual transmissions, those Toplanders started at P0.998M for the base 4×2 variant and topped out at P1.498M for the premium trim 4×4.  And, even now, with the addition of automatic transmission variants in the mix at P1.280 and P1.400 million, the Foton Toplander retains the distinction of being among the very few SUV models with prices starting under P1 million. The Foton Toplander has been among a handful of SUV models with prices that start under the P1M mark, sharing this distinction with the Ford Ecosport and the Honda BR-V but also strongly opposing these compact crossovers with its traditional and more rugged front-engine, rear-drive, body-on-frame, and solid-axle construction.

And yet, the Toplander’s ruggedness doesn’t equate with roughness, not with 2-tons of curb weight to tamp her down and a long 2.79m wheelbase that keeps the ride stable (and also frees up generous legroom in the back). Solid, roomy, smooth and without the weight- or space-saving compromises of compact crossovers, the Toplander with its new automatic transmission variants is now being positioned by Foton Philippines as an urbanized, traffic-tolerant transporter.

Solid build

Along with all other commercial vehicles marketed by Foton Philippines, all these except their Toano oversize van, their Toplander line is already assembled locally at the Clark, Pampanga factory they opened in February, 2016. Foton Philippines president Rommel Sytin says that the initial batches of Toplander 4×2 A/T variants will be brought in as completely built up or CBU units. But, Sytin continues, these will eventually join their M/T counterparts, all produced locally from completely knocked down or CKD kits, all on the Foton Philippines assembly line with its 12,000 unit annual capacity.

Foton Philippines’ Romy Arnar says that they’ve been reaching out to their Pampanga neighbors for several years now, hence the media drive being turned into an opportunity to visit the Nabuclod Elementary School in the West District of Floridablanca in Pampaga. There, Foton Philippines distributed care packages to the students as well as the teachers in what is considered one of the province’s hardship postings.

As they were, these test units imported as CBU units from much maligned China factories, and before these even transition to local assembly, the build quality on the Toplander 4×2 A/T variants is already surprisingly good.  The new SUV feels solid and handled those rough roads and moderate bumps without any telltale squeaks that would’ve meant shoddy assembly or loose tolerances. At the very least, it shows how well the individual components can be put together (abroad or here), and how well the hardy Toplander design can keep it together.

Superb driveline

All Toplander variants (both the original M/T’s and the new A/T’s) are well heeled with a 2.8 liter Cummins ISF2.8 turbodiesel delivering peak power of 161hp at 3600rpm and peak torque of 360Nm at a remarkable rev range of 1800~3000rpm.  When originally introduced in 2015 the engine was certified to be Euro 4 compliant.  Now, through a requisite diesel oxidation catalyst (DOC) and some possible new stages in the exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) system, the Toplander’s Cummins ISF2.8 engines are certified Euro 5 compliant starting with these new A/T variants.

And the newly introduced 6-speed automatic gearbox?  That upgrade does its very best to unmask the turbodiesel’s strength, getting out of the way and doing automated shifts that would make any driver look like an expert, that’s how good it is.

In the standard drive mode, she goes thru gears like there’s this veteran trucker on the stick of the 6-speed diesel:  a short stay in 1st then an up-shift to 2nd as the speed hits as little as 10km/h (on level ground, with light load) or as much as 15km/h, then up-shifts after that at 15km/h increments whenever the tachymeter needle just starts to brush against the 1500rpm mark.  The revs are tight, there’s minimal slippage in the system, little difference in the hydraulic converter’s impeller and turbine revolutions that would amplify torque.

And, abstaining from any firewall-punching fun, you could keep things inside that 2000rpm green zone all the way up to cruising speed, reaching best-economy speed at between 95 and 100km/h with revs at around 1750rpm and while consuming 7.4L/100km (for mileage of 13.5km/l).  That’s quite a feat on a mid-size SUV that already masses 2 tons even when still empty.

Sublime shifter

Nevertheless, all the promised acceleration is still there when you need it, and there in a flash. On level ground, in intermittently slow intra-town traffic, the inevitable overtakes can be fun affairs. Punch the accelerator and the 6-speed ‘matic would do these amazingly fast and intuitive kick-downs.  For these fast-twitch downshifts, the box would suddenly free-wheel the engine’s flywheel, keeping the transmissions’ gears disengaged just long enough to get some teeth into the rev-up, and then drop her into the next lower gear in super-fast time.  There’s no anxiety-causing accelerator lag that finally and oh-so-slowly ends with shift shock, there’s just this sense of having a meatier gear ratio suddenly at work, no pause in the engine’s revs which smoothly build up into a roar as the big SUV lunges forward.

On the Kennon Road twisties, staying in default drive was no pain at all with the gearbox doing its thing and keeping revs tight, staying firmly in low or middle gears without the transmission hunting up or down too much, anticipating shifts.  In fact, the transmission felt tight in all gears, like the lock-down clutch would engage, creating hard contact between the converter’s impeller and turbine anytime, in any gear as soon as their differing speeds come within acceptable range of each other.  The benefit was this nice, solid and tight feel to the drivetrain as we kept things in low or mid-gear for the climb up Kennon.  And, with the Cummins ISF2.8 engine delivering peak torque from 1800 to 3000rpm, the entire climb saw us camping out below 2500rpm for the most part and surging up to 3000rpm only when we had to do some uphill overtakes.

The gearbox’s sport mode was handy when it came to handling the twisties.  The sport algorithms bring the entire shift-schedule downward, keeping things in low to middle gears for wider speed ranges and increasing the revs ceiling above 1500rpm before triggering an up-shift. Plus, the sport mode seems to make engine braking more tangible.  This combination gave the Toplander a semblance of 1st or 2nd gear engine braking as she entered tight curves, and the torque multiplying muscle of these gears when she got past the apex and can then accelerate out of the turn.

These said, when it came time for downhill slaloms, toggling on the Downhill Assist Control or DAC function in any drive mode automated the whole art of engine braking with low gears. With DAC on, a firm braking action would put the Toplander in low gear and keep it there as long as you don’t step on the accelerator.  This way, with the gearbox in 1st, 2nd or 3rd gear, downhill rolls would be slowed down by the idled engine, pushing the pistons into revolutions of just around 1000rpm. Like we said:  just like a veteran trucker would do things.  And there’s no mistaking when it’s man or machine that’s the pro behind the sleek stick and pedal work–the DAC indicator on the instrument panel would start blinking whenever its algorithm is invoked.

Gem of a gearbox

When the Toplander was introduced with her M/T variants in 2015, industry observers in several markets reported the eventual introduction of variants with 6-speed automatic transmissions from ZF Friedrichshafen AG of Germany.  And that’s what finally happened now.

The Toplander’s new automatic gearbox feels so advanced, it must be ZF’s next-generation 6-speed automatic, particularly their 6HP21 model. This model is manufactured in ZF’s China factories (conveniently, for Foton’s supply chain), and has the trademark features that would explain the Toplander’s surprising shifter.

The next-generation 6HP21 has all the drive modes and settings we found on the Toplander A/T:  default drive mode complimented with sport, eco and snow modes, manual sequential shifting overrides, hill-start assist (HSA) and downhill control assist (DCA). And the 6HP21 brandishes superfast gear-shifting happening in 100ms, below the threshold of human perception, and boasts of an improved torque converter that permits clutch lock-up in any of its 6 forward speeds. So … super-fast, almost imperceptible shifts and a torque converter that’s more akin to a responsive clutch and pressure plate setup rather than a sluggish hydraulic assembly.

Brand intelligence

Although the Foton name is widely known to be Chinese–well known as such in all parts of the country–the OEM registries for their vehicles must read like a who’s who of the auto industry’s major global players.  The Foton Toplander SUV, also known as the Sauvana in other markets, mounts a license-built ISF2.8 turbodiesel from Cummins of the US, a heavy-duty 5-speed manual gearbox from Getrag of Germany, and, for its 4×4 variants, a truck-grade transfer case from BorgWarner of the US.  Now, Toplander A/T variants add the ZF name to the mix.

Cummins, Getrag, BorgWarner, and now ZF, all major players that had set up shop in China, riding the back of the dragon since the last decade and having stake in its becoming the largest automotive market in the world.  It really seems that Foton knows they have value to offer, and they’re now counting on the market knowing how to spot it in their specs.

With globalization already a worn-out household word, and with China being the largest automotive market on the planet, its high time for consumers to look past countries of origin and investigate the many brands that go into a frontline, showroom marque.  And, frankly, a ZF automatic gearbox is a remarkable thing to have under the hood of an economically-priced, traditionally-tough, mid-size SUV.