Developing the long-awaited 2016 Ford Everest has been one the larger design and engineering projects in Australian automotive history.
The rugged seven-seater SUV with the mountainous name was honed and readied for the world on the doorstep of Melbourne at Ford’s Asia Pacific R&D headquarters, currently at the peak of its powers.
Alongside the even more diversified Ranger ute with which it shares its ‘T6’ architecture, the Ford Everest will be sold in well over a hundred nations. It’s truly a good news story in Australian vehicle creation.
In fact, Ford Asia Pacific’s vice-president of product development Trevor Worthington — a boy from Benalla — reckons the four-year development cycle of this car matched the scale of the Ranger. The Everest, he says, is no mere ‘Ranger SUV’.
Instead, it’s pitched on one hand as an alternative to ‘softer’ car-like fare such as Ford’s own Territory and the Toyota Kluger, and on the other as a commercial-based off-roader to rival a fleet of tough conceptually similar SUVs, but clipped of the rougher edges.
Perfect, Ford says, for the school run, towing the boat or float, and going for some casual rock-hopping and mud-plugging all in the same week.
Thailand, the “Detroit of Asia”, will bring the Aussie labour to fruition by housing the factory that builds it. And the jungles of Chiang Rai are as good a place as any to get a taste before the Everest hits Australia in October.
The Ford Everest has two very good reasons to succeed. First, the Ranger is Australia’s second favourite ute after the all-conquering Toyota HiLux, and the gap continues to narrow. The design similarities between the ute and the Everest are obvious and Ford has a following stronger than almost any other brand.
Secondly, SUVs of all stripes are where the market growth is. The large SUV market in particular continues to boom at a rate that outstrips the market as a whole by some margin. Ford reckons 29.0 per cent of its entire global sales will soon be SUVs, up from 23.0 per cent today.
Far removed from the rather downmarket previous-generation Everest sold in few western markets, this new one is a significant step upmarket. But not, Ford says, at the expense of toughness.
Right off the bat, this is no big softie like the car-based Territory. Sure, some Territory buyers will jump into an Everest, but the real replacement for that car when it disappears in current form in October 2016 will be either the Edge or Explorer.
Ford actually rather fancies the Everest as a rival for the slightly larger and soon-to-be-updated Toyota Prado, which this year is the nation’s most popular large off-roader.
Of course, many would counter that its ute origins make it more of a rival for the upcoming Toyota Fortuner (based on the HiLux like the Everest is based on the Ranger) that launches around the same time, as well as conceptually similar cars such as the Isuzu MU-X, Holden Colorado 7 and the just-revealed new Mitsubishi Challenger.
The question is two-fold, then. Does the Everest justify premium positioning, and has the Aussie development basecamp developed a rugged and yet luxurious SUV deserving to scale the heights of global segment domination?
The opening price is $54,990 plus on-roads for the base car, climbing to $60,990 for the Everest Trend ($2500 more than a mid-range Prado GXL) and climbing to an eye-opening $76,990 for the Everest Titanium, which is $3000 more than a Prado VX and $8000 less than a Prado Kakadu.
How does this compare to the Territory? Equivalent diesel-powered AWD versions of that car vary from $45,740 for the TX to $57,740 for the Titanium.
Be aware, also, that top-spec diesel-powered AWD versions of the Hyundai Santa Fe or Kia Sorento are more than $20,000 cheaper than an equivalent Everest. On the other side of the coin, if you want something rugged and up-spec you can get a flagship-spec Holden Colorado 7 or Isuzu MU-X for more than $20,000 less as well.
The entry Everest comes with equipment such as cloth seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, auto headlights, roof rails, active noise cancellation, cruise control and a rear-view camera with sensors.
Infotainment is covered by an old-generation SYNC 1 system based on a 4.2-inch TFT screen, though you get Bluetooth/Aux/USB, SYNC Emergency Assist, and no fewer than four 12V sockets (and one 230V powerpoint in the rear). All Everests also get seven airbags, including three-row curtains.
The $6000 walk to the Trend gets you 18-inch wheels, an electric tailgate, chrome grille, running boards, projector headlights with auto high-beam, dual-zone climate control, twin four-inch digital instrument displays behind the now-leather steering wheel, privacy glass, rain-sensing wipers and — how generous — front and rear floor mats.
You also get an upgrade to a 10-speaker audio system with DAB+ digital radio, matched to the newer SYNC 2 system controlled via an eight-inch touchscreen with advanced conversational voice control to adjust things such as phone settings, song and even ambient temperatures.
You also get a swag of safety equipment such as adaptive cruise control with forward collision mitigation, a lane-keeping assist and departure warning system, and front parking sensors.
The $16,000 walk to the big pappa Titanium gets you further bits such as 20-inch alloys, metallic running boards, chrome on the handles and mirrors, LED daytime running lights, and scuff plates with badges.
Inside, extras include Active Park Assist (it steers your car into parallel bays), a panoramic sunroof, eight-way electric leather seats, electric-folding third-row seats, ambient cabin lighting, satellite-navigation (a $600 option on the Trend, shamefully), blind-spot monitoring and a tyre-pressure monitor.
All Everests come as seven-seaters, unlike rivals that generally offer base five-seaters. A further ace in the hole for the Ford is how flat the second and third rows fold — which is very. Cargo space is 1060 litres with five seats in use, expanding to 2010L when the rear two rows are flat.
Dimensionally, the Everest is a shade bigger than an MU-X (70mm longer though the same width) and a few centimetres smaller than a Prado is most areas. It’s 60mm longer in the wheelbase though, and thereby gives excellent interior space.
The middle row also reclines and slides, while the Titanium’s electric folding rearmost seats are very useful. The pews are flat to increase cargo space when folded, but still comfortable in all rows, especially in terms of headroom.
Our test versions (Trend and Titanium) had rear ventilation controls, as well as plane-like roof-mounted vents covering all three rows. They made short work of the Thai humidity. The presence of a powerpoint behind the centre console is fantastic, though the Titanium should surely have screens embedded in the rear seats at this price point.
Up front, the dash design is very similar to that of the new Ranger, which is hardly coincidental, but no bad thing given that car sets the ute benchmark. The horizontal design themes create an illusion of width, and everything is well laid-out and logical.
There are tons of storage cubbies, including a glovebox that fits a 16-inch laptop, and at least six cupholders across all rows, with another four bottle holders in the doors.
Ford’s SYNC 2 system isn’t to all tastes, but the eight-inch screen split into four quadrants works well for me, the Bluetooth was rapid to pair and the voice control one of the most intuitive out there (as it is on the Territory).
Less ideal is the lack of reach-adjustment on the steering column. Ford defended this by telling CarAdvice that it calibrated the seating position to suit “95.0 per cent” of drivers. I guess I’m in the 5.0 per cent, as my hands never quite could get to the ideal placement. Here I was thinking I was a one-percenter…
Also less than ideal are the downmarket touches on even the Titanium, such as the lack of a starter button (you get a flip key), and the preponderance of hard plastics on multiple touch-points (though there’s a soft bit atop the dash). The ambience should be better on a car pushing $80K before on-roads, and you’ll not convince me otherwise.
Engine and transmission:
Under the bonnet is the same Euro V 3.2-litre Duratorq turbo-diesel as the Ranger ute, albeit with some changes. It has 143kW rather than 147kW in the Ranger, but the same 470Nm of torque. This still edges the new 2.8-litre Prado’s 130kW/450Nm.
Ford has changed the exhaust gas recirculation system, fitted new injectors and added sound insulation. The peak torque band is between 1750 and 2500rpm, a little narrower than the Ranger.
Maximum towing capacity is 3000kg — 500kg less than a Ranger, but equal to the MU-X and 500kg greater than a Prado — and you get trailer sway control. Fuel use of 8.5 litres per 100km is 0.6L/100km thirstier than the new Prado based on factory claims.
Matched is a six-speed automatic transmission that adjusts to your driving style.
Pulling power down low is strong, given the fact you get all that torque at 1750rpm, while the gearbox generally feels nicely calibrated to this iteration of the 3.2’s tune. It all does a good job of hauling what is a portly car — just under 2500kg in Titanium guise.
Ford has done a lot of work keeping noise and vibrations at bay inside the cabin, with lots of sound-deadening in the floors, the firewall and under the bonnet — a la the Ranger Wildtrak. There’s also electronic active noise-cancellation that works like your sound-deadening headphones that run off batteries.
It’s a little raucous from outside the car, but from the driver’s seat it does indeed feel commendably refined, the low diesel drone a distant rumble rather than a screech. All that insulation does have the reciprocal effect of highlighting the one very minor NVH issue we found: some slight throttle vibrations under mild load, through the drive-by-wire setup.
For background, we drove the Thai-market 2.2-litre four-pot diesel that isn’t coming to Australia. Naturally, it isn’t as effortless as the five-pot, but it would be serviceable as a price-leader.
On the road:
Don’t expect the Everest to drive like a Territory on the road, largely because the Territory couldn’t drive like an Everest off it. This is a body-on-frame off-roader made comfortable, not vice-versa.
Chief among the changes over the Ranger is the more passenger-friendly rear suspension setup comprising a coil-over strut design with a Watt’s linkage as part of the solid axle to limit lateral movement. This keeps the tail more settled over sharp bumps and keeps the car flatter mid-corner. Ford has also tweaked the damper valving and spring rates.
All told, the engineers have done a great job creating a suspension and damper setup that minimises cabin intrusion from rough and corrugated roads, with even sharp road joiners and potholes dispatched easily. The Everest is not only quiet, but also supple — even on the Titanium’s 20-inch rims and low-profile tyres.
The steering system is a EPAS electronically-assisted unit, necessitated by the need to save fuel (the hydraulic setup with pump is no more) and for the active safety technology.
It’s lighter around town but loads up variably at speed, and while there’s the familiar sense of disconnectedness — it’s not as dynamic as the Territory’s brilliant system — it’s predictable and easy to shuffle around town. Despite the car’s rugged looks, you could twirl it with a pinky (but, don’t).
In terms of general ride and handling, the Everest errs on the side of spongy, with plenty of lean and roll through corners compared to a more car-like SUV, though its change of direction nous is superior to your average ute-based SUV.
The standard 4WD system generally allocates torque with a 60.0 per cent rear axle bias, though extra torque can be sent to either end of the car on demand. There are also some nifty off-road modes along with the lockable diff and low range.
Off the beaten path:
One of the Everest’s USPs compared to softer family SUVs such as the Territory, or something such as a Toyota Kluger, Hyundai Santa Fe or Kia Sorento, is its nous off-road. It has a separate chassis and a two-speed transfer case with low range, for starters, plus an electronic locking rear diff and Hill Descent Control.
It also has Ford’s Active Terrain Assist system, with four modes operated by a rotary dial that optimises the transmission, brake/traction module and throttle to suit the terrain at hand.
For instance, Snow, Mud and Grass mode keeps rpm lower via the gearbox and reduces pedal sensitivity. Sand mode transfers torque between the axles more aggressively and increases throttle response, while Rock mode makes the torque transfer even more aggressive and ups the traction control to combat wheel slip.
You also get what Ford calls class-leading 800mm water wading capability, as well as as a decent 225mm of ground clearance, a departure angle of 25-degrees, a ramp-over angle of 21-degrees and an approach angle of 29-degrees.
We tackled an off-road track with water crossings, muddy trails, rock hopping and sharp descents that would be as tough as most weekend warriors or fishermen would tackle. Put the right mud-plugging tyres and a snorkel on, and the Everest has the attributes to be a beast. As you’d expect.
So that’s that, Ford’s great Australian-developed SUV for the globe is now plying its trade.
A comparison test with the soon-to-be-updated Prado should prove very interesting, because Ford has done a good job of insulating Everest occupants from any rough edges native to the iteration of the T6 architecture used in the Ranger.
In terms of road refinement and ride, cabin space and practicality, engine performance and off-road ability, it stacks up really well. No, this is not just a Ranger SUV, and it feels a cut above an MU-X or Colorado 7 (the as-yet un-launched Fortuner and Challenger will be good baselines).
There are some gremlins, though. The hard cabin plastics in places, the lack of reach-adjustable steering wheel and a starter button, the subtle pedal vibrations to put a chink in the armour of the NVH… and, of course, that excessive pricing.
Still, if the Prado can be the nation’s top-selling large SUV on a regular basis, there’s no reason Ford can’t build on the success of the Ranger and get a nice piece of the pie for itself. Roll on October and a proper crack on local roads.