The Foton Tunland ute is more affordable than many of the mainstream models, but should you consider it? Matt Campbell finds out.
Competing in the cutthroat dual-cab ute market is tough going these days, especially for purveyors of lesser known models such as the Foton Tunland.
The Chinese-made Foton Tunland range has been rethought under a new distributor in Australia, and while it was once too expensive to be a rational choice, the revised line-up offers more food for thought than before.
All Tunland utes are powered by a Chinese-made 2.8-litre Cummins diesel engine. If you’re not a trucker, Cummins might not mean much to you – but the US company has a heritage for making strong engines that are commonly found in larger buses and haulers. There’s only a five-speed manual gearbox – no auto is available.
The Tunland range kicks off from $21,990 driveaway for the base-model two-wheel drive single-cab, while a four-wheel-drive version is $24,990. Dual-cab versions include the 4x2 at $26,990 and the 4x4 model tested here, priced at $29,990 driveaway. Read full pricing and specifications for the Tunland here.
To put the pricing in perspective, Tunland utes are dearer than fellow Chinese brand Great Wall (diesel dual-cab from $24,990 driveaway), the Indian Tata Xenon (single-cab diesel $20,990 driveaway, 4x2 dual-cab $23,490) and Mahindra Pik-Up (single-cab diesel 4x2 is $18,990 driveaway, 4x4 dual-cab tops the range at $25,990 driveaway) and close to the Ssangyong Actyon Tradie (dual-cab 2WD from $26,990; 4WD from $29,490).
Putting aside the other budget players, the Foton slides below mainstream models such as the Mitsubishi Triton, Holden Colorado, Isuzu D-Max, Nissan Navara, Toyota HiLux, Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50 and Volkswagen Amarok. Indeed, dual-cab 4x4 diesel versions of those models start from about $42,000 in most cases based on manufacturers’ list prices, though you'll generally get a discount.
The question, then, is whether the $12,000-odd discount that the Foton offers over mainstream rivals makes it worthy of consideration.
Let’s start inside.
The cabin features decent levels of fit and finish, with tight and consistent panel and plastic gaps that are better than some of the dearer utes we’ve driven. There are some cheap buttons and oddly placed controls – like the electric mirror switch that is somewhat hidden from view down beside the steering wheel – but it has niceties such as “leather” trim on the seats and steering wheel, and auto-down power windows.
Foton has fitted the Tunland with a simple CD/radio stereo system that offers Bluetooth phone connectivity, but at a very basic level – you still need to use your phone to dial – and the sound quality during calls is among the worst available on the market. There is no standard USB port for charging phones – instead, there’s a mini-USB port and auxiliary jack.
Steering wheel-mounted audio, phone and cruise controls are a nice touch, though they don’t illuminate at night, but the cabin offers commendable levels of storage, with reasonable cup holders, twin seatback pockets for maps, sizeable door pockets and some smaller loose-item caddies up front.
The Foton is one of the largest utes on the market, measuring 5.31 metres long, 1.88m wide and 1.87m tall, and it has a longer-than-average 3.10m wheelbase.
As such, occupant space is impressive, too, with enough room for a six-foot-tall (1.82m) driver and rear passenger. Back seat head-space is excellent, and while the bench seat means those in the rear will have their knees up, there’s enough room to do so.
The big issue with the back seat is safety. There is only a lap seatbelt for the middle occupant, which is deplorable in this day and age, and there are no curtain airbags. It's unlikely that you'd want to put your kids in the back of a ute with such compromised safety, but for buyers with littlies it's worth noting that child restraints are not able to be fitted - only a booster seat that doesn't need any restraint points can be used, and the rear seat backrest is fixed in place.
Indeed, safety is a let-down on the whole for the Foton, with a lack of front-side airbags, too, not to mention that no Tunlands have electronic stability control. It managed just three stars in ANCAP’s crash test (dual-cab, tested in 2013).
At the business end, the dual-cab Foton 4WD features a 1025 kilogram payload, while the tray – which comes standard with a hard-wearing poly liner – measures 1.50m long, 1.55m wide, 0.44m deep and has a gap between the arches of 1.12m. That means its tray is slightly smaller than the class-leading VW Amarok.
However, buyers after a ute capable of towing a huge load may need to look elsewhere, as the Tunland has a 2500-kilogram braked towing capacity – 1000kg less than the class-leaders. Unbraked towing is rated at 750kg.
At the other end, the Tunland’s 2.8-litre turbo diesel pumps out 120kW of power at 3600rpm, while peak torque is rated at 360Nm from 1800-3000rpm.
The latter is the key, as the pulling power of the Tunland proves strong in that rev range, with the best response coming from 2000-2500rpm. However, below 1800rpm there is quite a bit of turbo lag, and it can be easy to get caught out as you climb a steep hill in a high gear, meaning the need to downshift is more prevalent in the Foton than in some other diesel utes.
However, the engine is strong and willing for the most part, though the gearing of the five-speed ‘box is a little too long between second, third and fourth gears.
We found it to be quite frugal, too, with our test loop involving several hundred k’s of mixed driving, with a return close to the claimed average of 8.3 litres per 100km.
There’s a switchable four-wheel-drive system, with buttons for high-range 2WD, high-range 4WD and low-range 4WD working through a Borg Warner transfer case. The car must be stationary, and the lights take a while to show up on the dash. There are no further assistance systems such as descent or ascent control, nor is there a locking centre differential. It does, however, have a DANA limited slip differential.
The ride comfort of these sorts of vehicles is never plush, but even with an empty tray the Foton does a good job of dealing with bumpy sections of road at higher speeds. It can be a jumpy at the rear when negotiating rutted roads at lower speeds, though no more than, say, a Holden Colorado.
The steering is quicker than you’d expect of such a long ute, and it proves quite easy to manoeuvre around town despite the action being quite heavy. Due in part to its shallow rear window, parking the Tunland is a bit difficult, but it does have rear sensors as standard to help deal with its bulk. The Savero tyres on our car proved suitably grippy for high speed cornering.
All Foton models come with a three-year/100,000km warranty, and three years of roadside assistance. No capped price servicing is available.
While reliability may be a question, a bigger issue could be resale. Industry experts Glass’s Guide estimates the value of the Foton to be just 41 per cent of its purchase price after three years or 40,000km - well down on the likes of an equivalent HiLux (55 per cent), Ranger (52 per cent) or Navara (45 per cent).
There’s no denying the Tunland is a decent workhorse, and indeed it is the best Chinese-built vehicle this tester has driven. It drives with more competence than some of the established players, and its engine is strong.
But there are still some big questions that linger over the Foton ute, including its lax levels of safety equipment and the unknown fate of fledgling Chinese brands. It’d pay to look around and see what sort of deal you could get on a Triton or Navara, both of which are to be replaced in 2015.