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If you’re in the market for a rugged, yet family-friendly SUV, then it’s hard to go past these two contenders: the 2016 Mitsubishi Pajero Sport and the 2016 Toyota Fortuner.

Both are diesel-powered, both are priced close to one another in the trim levels we have here – the Mitsubishi being the flagship Pajero Sport Exceed, and the Toyota the mid-spec Fortuner GXL – and both are going under scrutiny here so we can see which we would recommend as the best rugged off-road family vehicle at this price point. …

You may be thinking: “Wait there, didn’t CarAdvice already give the win to the Toyota? Remember that 4×4 family SUV mega test that the guys did early in 2016?”

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Well, you’re right: we did crown the Toyota champion of the segment – chiefly because the Pajero Sport didn’t offer seven seats. But now it does. And that could be a game-changer…

So, can the Toyota hold on to its spot at the top of the rugged SUV crowd? Or will the now more practical Mitsubishi claw its way up the rankings? Let’s find out.

Pricing and specifications

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The Toyota Fortuner GXL won our SUV mega test because it argued the most convincing case among its peers, and at $55,990 plus on-road costs it was well and truly in the mix in terms of pricing.

But we’ve now got the seven-seat version of the Pajero Sport Exceed, which is still more affordable than the Toyota at $52,750 plus on-road costs, but it’s now more functional than it used to be. That’s right – the price hasn’t changed, but the practicality has been bumped up a seat or two.

And despite being more affordable, the Mitsubishi gives the Toyota a bit of a spanking for standard equipment.

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The Mitsubishi has safety extras that the Toyota misses including forward collision mitigation (autonomous emergency braking) with mis-acceleration mitigation (where the car won’t move forward if you accidently hit the throttle and there’s something in front of the vehicle), plus it has blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and a surround-view camera.

The Toyota misses out on all that high-tech safety kit: it has a rear-view camera and rear sensors, but that’s it.

Further, the Toyota has cloth trim instead of leather, halogen headlights instead of LEDs, 17-inch wheels instead of 18s…

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Neither car has satellite navigation, but the Mitsubishi’s media system offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, meaning you can use your phone’s mapping software to tell you where you’re heading, provided you remain in data-friendly phone range. But, that could simply be a limitation of the phone’s operating system, given Android Auto allows the installation of extra applications, making offline maps a viable option.

Other good stuff the Mitsubishi gets that the Toyota doesn’t includes heated seats with electric adjustment up front, digital radio reception, auto wipers, and it’s got a longer warranty – five years, over three – and a longer capped price service program. You really can’t argue against the value of this thing.

Now, those third-row seats…

Interior

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As we’ve intimated above, the big reason the Mitsubishi didn’t win the test last time was that it lacked third-row seats. In fact, that was the only reason.

Sounds like we can call this over now, then, yeah? The Mitsubishi should win against the Toyota because its biggest flaw has been addressed, and it’s still cheaper…

Perhaps, but rather than take an early-mark on this test, let’s look at the execution of each SUV’s third-row seating.

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Neither of these SUVs has the more traditional and space efficient mechanism that sees the seats fold flat into the floor.

In the Pajero Sport the seat bases fold forward and the uprights fold down flat. If you need even more boot space, the second row rolls and tumbles, and the third row bases tuck away.

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In the Fortuner, the seats fold upwards and latch onto the head lining, meaning you can never use the full width of the boot. When you fold them down they latch on to the floor, and with the second row folded you’ve got good space, but those third row seats are still in the way.

As for occupant space, there’s barely anything in it between these two: both are fine for younger people or smaller adults, but taller occupants may find themselves a little cramped, particularly for head room – and if you’re off-road, there could be bumped heads as a result. There’s probably just a touch more space in the Mitsubishi in the back row, so if that’s vital to you…

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Pictured above: Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (top); Toyota Fortuner (bottom)

Another point worth considering is that those in the third row get a better view out the side windows in the Pajero Sport than they do in the Toyota, because of the way the C-pillar is shaped.

Both have roof-mounted vents for all three rows, and the second rows of each vehicle houses controls for the rear fan speed and temperature controls. Storage is good for both vehicles in the second and third rows, with bottle holders in the third row, big door pockets in the second row, and flip-down armrests with cup holders in the middle of the middle row.

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Pictured above: Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (top); Toyota Fortuner (bottom)

Boot space in both is limited with all seven seats in place, but the Fortuner has a slight advantage in that situation: it has a claimed 200 litres of capacity, where the Pajero Sport has 131L. With five seats in use the Fortuner (716L) again betters the Pajero Sport (673L). But if you need to load larger items, the Pajero Sport offers a better setup than the Toyota with all the rear seats folded down, and holds a handy advantage as a result (1624L vs the Fortuner’s 1080L).

The second-row space is slightly better in the Toyota, with a tiny bit of extra legroom, and it also has second-row seats that slide fore and aft, where the Mitsubishi’s are hinged in a stationary position. Again, taller occupants may feel a little hemmed in for space, due to the stadium seating of both.

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Pictured above: Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (top); Toyota Fortuner (bottom)

If you have a tribe of kids, the Pajero Sport has three top-tether anchor points for the second-row seats (they attach above the back row, so straps could be annoying – note: you have to fit the outboard top-tether attachments yourself: only the centre attachment is fitted from factory), as well as a pair of ISOFIX anchor points in the second-row. The Toyota has the exact same setup.

Up front the Mitsubishi instantly appeals more in terms of layout and presentation, and a lot of that comes down to the media screen, which sits flush in the centre stack and has a crisp, colourful display. In contrast, the Toyota’s extruded tablet-like screen lacks the colour and clarity of its rival.

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The screen in the Mitsubishi actually has a bit more going for it in terms of convenience: as we’ve stated, there’s extended smartphone connectivity, and it has digital radio.

The menu layout is extremely easy to learn and use, where the Toyota’s menus can be a bit hard to remember, and it just isn’t as user-friendly. Further to that the Toyota won’t allow you to dial numbers or look up contacts on the move, where the Mitsubishi will. At least the Toyota’s voice control system is legit.

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The difference in design of the front cabins is stark, with the Toyota already looking a bit dated, where the Mitsubishi’s looks fresher and more modern. Part of that comes down to the colour selections: the brown cloth trim in the Toyota isn’t to some tastes (or any tastes, based on our review team!), and it just doesn’t look as cohesive as the Mitsubishi in terms of execution.

Enough chat about the interiors, what about what powers these two?

Drivetrain

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Despite the fact the Toyota has a bigger 2.8-litre turbo diesel engine, it doesn’t have that big a power and torque advantage over the Mitsubishi.

The 2.4-litre in the Pajero Sport actually has a few extra kilowatts – 133kW at 3500rpm versus 130kW at 3400rpm in the Fortuner – but it falls a little short on torque: the Mitsubishi has 430Nm at a higher 2500rpm, where the Toyota has 450Nm from just 1600rpm.

The Toyota definitely feels as though it has more pep. Part of that comes down to the six-speed automatic, which offers better response – and that’s also part of the reason the Fortuner won the mega test before.

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The Fortuner’s engine is stronger from much lower in the rev range, and it pulls willingly up to about 3500rpm before starting to run out of grunt. The fact it has so much more urge than its rival from a standing start could appeal to buyers who appreciate getting the jump from the line – that’s not to say that it is devoid of lag, but it does a better job of disguising it than the Mitsubishi.

The Pajero Sport is more leisurely in the way it gets away from a standstill, with some noticeable lag below 2000rpm before you hit the torque sweet spot, and the fact it has two extra gears means the transmission can be a bit more eager to jump around between ratios. In fact, using cruise control at 100km/h, the Toyota was notably more settled over hilly terrain (though not perfect), where the Mitsubishi seemingly couldn’t choose a gear and stick with it.

Further, if you need more grunt you have to push the pedal pretty hard, where in the Toyota if you step on the throttle too hard you’ll get wheel spin, whether the surface is damp or dry.

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The positive of the Mitsubishi’s doughy throttle response is that it is easier to maintain speeds over rough surfaces; the Toyota’s right pedal is twitchy enough (and its ride is so firm – more on that soon) that you may find it hard to balance the right amount of pressure over corrugations.

If you do a lot of long-distance driving, the bigger fuel load of the Fortuner should help – it has an 80-litre tank where the Mitsu has a 68L capacity. But the Mitsubishi is a bit more efficient, so that 12-litre difference might not actually matter too much: the Pajero claims 8.0 litres per 100km, where the Toyota claims 8.6L.

On test we didn’t see much difference between these two over an array of testing including urban, highway and off-road time. The Mitsubishi was hovering at 9.0L/100km, where the Toyota saw 9.3L/100km.

While towing wasn’t part of this test – it was part of the mega test, so if you’re a boatie or caravanner, check that out – it’s worth noting that even though the engine of the Mitsubishi doesn’t have as much pulling power, the vehicle itself is set up to cope with more weight behind it: the Pajero Sport’s braked towing capacity is 3.1 tonnes, where the Fortuner’s is 2.8 tonnes.

On the road

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Now, as much as you might wish you could get out and explore the scenery all the time, the sad reality is that most people who buy these highly capable SUVs will spend the majority of their time around town in them. And in terms of user-friendliness, there’s one vehicle here that is significantly more liveable – it’s the Mitsi!

Look, it’s not the last word in on-road driving refinement, but it does a better job of dealing with bumps than its competitor in this test.

Part of that comes down to the fact the Mitsubishi isn’t firm like the Toyota, and that results in a more enjoyable environment when you’re dealing with the cut and thrust of daily commuting. The Mitsubishi is softer and spongier over bumps, meaning if you hit a speed-hump a little quicker than intended you will coast over it and feel the rear suspension take a second to rebound and then settle. In the Toyota, the same speed-bump will see a firmer initial impact, and the rear end is much sharper, too.

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Over general rough roads in the Toyota it still feels like there are plenty of bumps being transmitted to the cabin. It never feels as settled or as comfortable in the Fortuner as it does in the Pajero Sport.

Both steered reasonably well – the Toyota perhaps a little slower and with a heavier action at lower speeds, where the Mitsubishi was slightly quicker to respond from the straight-ahead position, despite still taking quite a bit of twirling at lower speeds.

Neither of them offer the cornering tenacity or composure of a monocoque SUV – there’s body roll and rear-wheel squeal through tight bends, and each lacks that certain manner that makes you feel ultimately confident when charging into a tight bend a few clicks over the indicated suggestion on the sign post – but that’s to be expected. These are ladder-on-frame off-roaders, and that leads us to our next section…

Off the road

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It comes down to degrees and millimetres when you’re traversing a craggy crevice or smashing through mud-filled puddles, and there’s bugger all in it between these two when it comes to the numbers.

There’s only 7mm between the two in ground clearance (Mitsubishi: 218mm; Toyota: 225mm) and both have the identical 700mm wading allowance. There’s barely anything between them for approach angles (both 30 degrees), departure angles (Mitsubishi: 24deg; Toyota: 25deg), and rampover angles (both 23deg).

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In practice, though, the stiffer suspension of the Toyota means it cannot cope with larger angle changes quite as well as the Mitsubishi, which seemingly offers better articulation over steep inclines and declines. We smacked down with the front bumper in the Toyota but we didn’t in the Mitsubishi, and the rear end bucked more in the Toyota than in its rival. In fact, the progress of the Mitsubishi was considerably smoother than in the Toyota over the most challenging sections we sampled.

The same story about comfort is true of this pair when it comes to driving on coarse gravel tracks littered with pockmarks, ridges and potholes. The Toyota’s firmer suspension setup meant it never felt like it was soaking up the bumps and lumps as well as the Mitsubishi did.

Further to that, the Toyota has a limited selection of four-wheel-drive equipment, with a twist dial system to select between two-wheel drive high-range (2H), four-wheel drive high-range (4H), and low-range 4×4 (4L). It has a rear diff lock, too, but that can’t be engaged unless you’re in low range. It simply can’t match the Pajero for off-road technology.

The Pajero Sport has the Super Select 4×4 system with 2H, 4H, 4H with the centre diff locked, and 4L with the centre diff locked as well, and it also has a rear differential lock.

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And unlike the Toyota, this has a terrain selection system to help you get the best traction in different situations, be it sand, mud, gravel or rock. And with the Mitsubishi you don’t have to put it back in two-wheel drive when you hit the sealed road. You do in the Toyota.

The Toyota’s chassis setup is so much stiffer that it can be hard to balance your foot on the throttle over sharp bumps. In fact, the ride in this is pretty punishing, and it can be tiring to drive over long periods off road as a result.

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Indeed, at the wheel of the Toyota the rear end would buck and shuffle from side to side time he hits a pothole the back end bucks from side to side.

The Mitsubishi glides over the ruts and you can tell that it has a much softer damper setup than the Toyota. But the steering of the Mitsubishi jolts more over bumps even though you still get a good feel for what’s happening at the front end.

In short, we felt like we could go further and harder for longer in the Mitsubishi.

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Ownership

Obviously the Toyota badge is worth its weight in gold to some buyers, particularly out in the bush.

But it has a shorter warranty than the Mitsubishi – three years/100,000km, compared with five years/100,000km – and the Pajero Sport has a longer, but more expensive, capped-price servicing campaign.

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The Mitsubishi requires maintenance only every 12 months or 15,000km for four years/60,000km (whichever occurs first), with servicing costing $350 for the first visit, then $580 for the following three visits.

The Toyota’s capped-price program sees it need to be brought in to the dealer more regularly, which could be a pain if you’re doing a lot of distance driving. The services are due every six months or 10,000km, but they’re cheap: $180 per visit, and the program spans three years or 60,000km.

Verdict

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We said from the outset that this was going to be tight, but in the end the gap was bigger than we’d initially suspected.

The Toyota Fortuner remains a top-notch rugged SUV, one that deserves as many buyers as it is getting. It is, however, overpriced and under-equipped against the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport – like, it’s almost rude how much more equipment you miss out on in the Toyota.

It’s not just equipment though: the ride comfort of the Mitsubishi far betters that of the Fortuner, and while it has a slightly smaller boot, it does have better efficiency, better towing and better off-road modes.

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It is, we think, better in almost every way. And as a result, the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport – now with seven seats – wins this test, and wins it well.

Click the Photos tab above for more images by Sam Venn.

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