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The current-day SUV boom isn’t all about softer, more car-like high-riding options designed with little more than a school run in mind.

For many buyers out there, a family 4×4 still needs to be a proper off-roader, a tough-as-nails workhorse that blends a modicum of urban comfort with proper skills off the beaten path and has the ability to confidently and consistently tow loads.

The number of offerings facing the Australian buyer is bewildering, but we’ve chosen what we see as the key four cars — based on price, ruggedness and construction — with a wildcard thrown in.

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The modern strategy for the heavy-hitters in this part of the market has been to develop SUVs based on light commercial utes. So four of the five cars tested here follow this very strategy, reworked to varying degrees.

The Ford Everest shares its ‘T6’ architecture with the Ranger, the Isuzu MU-X with the D-Max, the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport with the Triton, and the Toyota Fortuner with the HiLux. As you might have guessed, all of these cars are made alongside their ute stablemates in Thailand.

The oddball is the almost 20-year-old Y61 Japanese-made Nissan Patrol, an iconic offering that many prospective buyers in the segment will be well familiar with. The first time yours truly sat in one of these, I was nine-years old. Can this warhorse from another age still compete?

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The timing of this comparison test is opportune indeed. Not only are large SUV sales across the board well up, but three of the five cars tested here – Everest, Pajero Sport and Fortuner – were launched well inside the last 12 months.

The MU-X, meanwhile, is the established and still top-selling contender here, a rugged and no-nonsense offering that we know is superior to its Holden Colorado 7 cousin (hence that car’s absence) and which outsold every car here last month on account of its very keen pricing.

We figured that the most effective way to put ourselves in the shoes of the buyer was to cross-shop this quintet on price. And so, the four ‘core’ cars here are all priced (at RRP, or before on-road costs) between $50,000 and $55,000, with the outlier Patrol a little higher.

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The result is a test that shows some sizeable differences in specification, something that rewards the value-focused brands and sets an engineering gauntlet to the others.

In essence, we have a top-specification Pajero Sport and MU-X, alongside a mid-range Fortuner and an entry-level Everest, the car Ford fancies as a Prado rival but which here meets different foes. The Patrol ST is technically ‘top-spec’, but that’s only compared to the very basic mine-oriented DX that almost makes a Defender look high-tech.

Price

The most affordable car here is the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport Exceed, at $52,750 plus on-road costs. This is despite the fact that the Exceed is the flagship variant in the range.

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Next is the Isuzu MU-X LS-T at $54,000. As with the Pajero Sport, the LS-T is the flagship variant within the Isuzu range. It appears our two value leaders are obvious.

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Both the Everest Ambiente (the base variant) and Fortuner GXL (middle of the range) are an identical $54,990, marking another blow to the Ford.

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Our outlier, the Patrol ST, costs $60,390 as tested, but is an appreciably larger car than the others here.

Equipment

The sparsest car here is the most expensive, the Patrol ST. You get ‘mod cons’ such as manual air-conditioning, Bluetooth and USB inputs, a basic four-speaker audio system, cruise control, 17-inch alloy wheels (including a full-size spare) and seven cloth seats.

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The Everest Ambiente is the entry car in its range, undercutting the Everest Trend variant by $5000. Over and above what’s in the Patrol ST, you get a reverse-view camera and rear parking sensors, eight speakers and auto on/off headlights.

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The Fortuner GXL gets everything mentioned above, but also adds a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Toyota AppLink, keyless start, auto wipers and dusk-sensing headlights. Something the Everest has over it is two extra speakers.

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The MU-X LS-T lacks a few things found on the Fortuner, being auto wipers and auto headlights with dusk-sensors. However, it gets many features over and above all cars mentioned so far in this section. These include climate control for its air conditioning, satellite-navigation, a 10-inch rear DVD display screen for back-seat passengers, eight speakers and leather seats.

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But the clear winner is the newest car here, the Pajero Sport Exceed, which adds (over and above the MU-X LS-T) the following: front- and side-view camera functions, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, DAB+ digital radio, blind-spot monitoring and 18-inch alloy wheels.

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However, the Mitsubishi misses out on the Isuzu’s in-built sat-nav, though the presence of CarPlay/Android Auto means you can mirror maps from your smartphone, which isn’t really all that data-heavy and works so long as you have reception. However, the Mitsubishi is also the only five-seater here, so if you want that third row of occasional-use seats, steer clear.

These last points aside, the fact that the $52,750 Pajero Sport Exceed is the cheapest car here (to get even similar, but still inferior, spec you’d have to drop about $60K on the Fortuner Crusade or Everest Trend) and has the most unique equipment, makes it the winner.

Cabins

One of these cars is not like the others. The Pajero Sport is the only five-seater here (you can get a seven-seat version overseas). Remember, Mitsubishi still has to sell the ‘regular’ Pajero, and this seven-seat car needs some unique selling points beyond a bargain price.

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If this isn’t a deal-breaker, then it’s the Pajero that offers the nicest cabin. The heated leather seats and the general cabin materials and presentation are far and away the most upmarket here. It feels properly luxurious for a dressed-up ute, despite wearing the keenest price tag.

The touchscreen with smartphone mirroring is also thoroughly modern, though people going bush will want integrated sat-nav that doesn’t rely on phone reception. The 360-degree camera is great, though the clarity is moderate at best. This modern infotainment makes the roof-mounted DVD player seem all the more anachronistic and clunky. The wheel-mounted paddleshifters are of weirdly high quality, but utterly unnecessary.

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The rear row of seats isn’t so crash hot. Taller rear occupants are perched up too high, though kids will no doubt enjoy the commanding view and the seats do recline. There are also no rear air vents, while outward visibility is a little impinged. You also get Isofix child seat anchors, something shared with the Fortuner. The middle seat space in the rear row is the worst here.

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The tilt-and-tumble function that flips the rear seats forwards is very clever, though there’ll never be cause for people to clamber behind them. The cargo space is good, if narrower than some cars here – we only just fit our cases between the arches. The lack of rearmost seats means the Mitsubishi offers the longest, deepest cargo space.

Next in the pecking order is the Toyota Fortuner, which is the second-most premium car in feel here, though it only has cloth seats that Curt, for one, wasn’t a huge fan of. The build quality and materials are all excellent, and its infotainment system is the second-nicest to operate with a clear rear-view camera — not that competition is stiff.

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There are plenty of modern touches in a generally well-presented cabin with some effort put into making it all feel upmarket.

Space in the middle is decent, though feels moderately less spacious than the Isuzu, and the C-pillar intrudes on outward visibility. The cabin gets three rows of roof-mounted vents that make it ideal for a family adventure. Middle occupants miss out on B-pillar grab handles, though they get take-away hooks…

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The one-touch flip-fold middle seats are good, but access to the third row of seats is among the tighter of the cars on test, and ditto the space for rear-most occupants despite roof scallops. But at least you get a third row.

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The cargo loading floor is quite high, and the third row of seats doesn’t fold flat or flush, but instead lift up and clip to the roof. This is very space-inefficient and outdated design. A few of us also noted the heavy tailgate.

The MU-X has a vast and spacious cabin, with the most commodious third row, fit for two mid-sized adults even. The middle row is also wide and comfortable in all areas, and there are three rows of air vents.

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The cargo area is wider but a little shallower than the Mitsubishi, though the seats fold much more elegantly than in the Toyota. The design of the area, which comprises strange carpet-topped plastic tubs, impinges on space, but at least you have somewhere to store the detachable cargo blind.

As mentioned, the MU-X is, like the Pajero Sport, a top-grade variant within its range. But while the Isuzu has mod cons and three rows of air vents, it doesn’t feel upmarket. The leather is tough but utilitarian, the screen software looks aftermarket, and the cabin plastics and buttons are the flimsiest here by some distance. As with the Ford and Nissan, you also miss out on reach-adjustable steering.

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But then again, as fellow tester Scott said: “This is a practical purchase at the end of the day,” so perhaps the Isuzu strengths will overcome its weaknesses for many.

The Ford’s cabin is quite clever and practical, with the best seat folding mechanisms, a wide and spacious middle moveable row with great headroom (albeit the outboard seats are lacking Isofix points) the second-best third-row seats, excellent ergonomics despite the lack of telescopic steering adjustment, a clever powerpoint for cabin occupants and air vents for all three rows. The loading area is long and flat with the seats folded and is perhaps the best arrangement here.

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But it’s also a sparse and low-rent place in Ambiente specification, beset with cheap and hard plastics (albeit well put together) and missing a lot of equipment. That central screen is a joke. Curt felt that the stack offered a finicky, non-descriptive button array, with “zero effort at making it feel upmarket in the company of comparatively priced family 4×4 competitors”. The lack of side steps also helps off-road but makes cabin entry tough for younger kids.

The best way to describe the Patrol is “dated but eminently charming”. It’s hard not to like the old-school soft cloth trim, while the fit, finish and stitching are superior to rivals. It all feels solidly built inside, and the judges all agreed that the huge side windows and thin pillars give a tremendous sense of ‘airiness’.

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But then you contend with the lack of features across the board, the terrible steering wheel placement – and a wheel in desperate need of reach adjustment — the centre lap belt on test, and the packaging shortfalls for such a big car (it has the same folding third-row seats as the Toyota). It’s not as spacious as the Isuzu in the rear, which surprised us, while the barn doors with rear-mounted spare tyre are a neat retro touch, if heavy to operate.

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The Ford, Mitsubishi and Toyota all get seven airbags, while the Isuzu gets six. The Nissan gets no rear airbags (meaning four in total, all for front occupants). All get five-star ANCAP ratings bar the Patrol, which only gets three.

As a side note, we’d add that all cars on test offer 12V points.

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On a second side note: Since we covered the cars in a certain order in this section — Mitsubishi, Toyota, Isuzu, Ford, then Nissan — we will often, though not always, continue this format throughout for consistency. Don’t read too much into it…

Drivetrains

No surprises here, all of these cars use turbo-diesel engines. We’ve chosen automatic transmissions for each, as the vast majority of sales in this market are the self-shifters. In fact, the Pajero Sport and Everest don’t even get the option of a manual.

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Leader of the pack is the Everest and its 3.2-litre five-cylinder engine, the only non-four-cylinder here. It punches out 143kW at 3000rpm and 470Nm from 1750rpm. Matched to this is a six-speed automatic transmission.

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Next is the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, though its engine is the smallest here. The 2.4-litre unit makes 133kW at 3500rpm and 430Nm from a fairly high 2500rpm. Standard is a class-leading eight-speed automatic transmission with paddles.

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The Fortuner’s 2.8-litre unit as tested produces 130kW at 3400rpm and 450Nm from 1600rpm. A six-speed automatic features.

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The MU-X’s 3.0-litre truck unit makes the same 130kW of power (at 3600rpm) but only 380Nm of torque from 1800rpm. A five-speed auto is matched.

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Back when the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel four first premiered in the Patrol, it was rather cutting edge. But its 118kW at 3600pm and 354Nm at 2000rpm outputs, and its four-speed auto format, are at the bottom of the pile now.

Of course, it’s not all about grunt. There are some variances here in each vehicle’s tare mass, with the Pajero Sport’s 1992kg figure undercutting the MU-X (2060kg), Fortuner (2095kg) and the heavyweight Everest (2311kg) and seriously hefty Patrol (2438kg).

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In terms of fuel use, the modern four cars are vastly superior. The claimed combined-cycle (measured against industry standard ADR requirements) are: Pajero Sport (8.0 litres per 100km), MU-X (8.3L/100km), Everest (8.5L/100km), Fortuner (8.6L/100km) and Patrol (a whopping 11.8L/100km).

The engines here all feel a little different to one another. The Mitsubishi’s might be the smallest in capacity at 2.4-litres, but it also has a much lighter car to lug about, and a thoroughly modern eight-speed auto to keep the engine speeds where they need to be, more effectively.

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Fellow tester Paul considered it the “punchiest” engine once on the move, with ample torque later in the rev range and the ability to even get the rear tyres squirming about in 2WD mode. It was also well behaved and tractable around town. Paul’s 0-100km/h sprint time stopped the watch at 9.6 seconds, which was the quickest here.

The Fortuner’s 2.8-litre is notably ‘crisp’ as well, offering excellent punch with a decisive gearbox matched, and it impressed us with the ease with which it towed our two-tonne camper van (more on that later). This is most notable with the driving mode set to Sport, operated via a simple button. Sport transmission mode also holds forward ratios until manually up-changed.

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Our 0-100km/h sprint time in the Toyota sans-trailer and with one occupant was almost 11 seconds, which is middle of the pack. Where the Fortuner absolutely led the pack was in terms of noise insulation — the engine is kept almost quiet enough to be a raspy petrol, thanks to ample firewall insulation.

The Isuzu’s engine is the equal second-biggest here by capacity at 3.0 litres, and its truck origins mean you know it’s going to go on, and on, and on. It’s a proper old-fashioned diesel, meaning it’s a little rough around the edges, but equipped with vast reservoirs of torque right down low, and a workman-like way of doing its business. It’s never crisp or punchy, but rather it just chugs along.

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What’s interesting is that it about matched the sprint time to 100km/h of the Fortuner, because while it lacked the immediacy off the line, it’s so strong across the rev band that it reeled everything else steadily in. We’ll talk towing in the next bit, but suffice to say it was among the best there too.

Where it’s not best — quite the contrary — is noise suppression. It sounds like a work truck (not a family SUV) and that’s precisely what it is.

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The Ford’s engine is the biggest here in capacity, and has one more cylinder. But the car is also a porker, 200kg to 300kg heavier than anything bar the Patrol. The engine is still a strong unit, though, and has a signature growling gruffness under revs, though never in a way that makes the NVH levels bad for the class. As Curt noted, that 4800rpm redline is fantasy – power drops off after 3800rpm.

You can’t fight physics, because the Ford was no quicker than the Isuzu and Toyota to 100km/h — you can strap a rocket to a hippo, but a mouse with a turbo-prop will still match it.

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Finally, to the Patrol. It’s little surprise that as the heaviest car here, with the lowest power and torque outputs, the big old Nissan felt slowest on test, and the most raucous. The 3.0-litre oiler might be well proven, but it’s 1990s tech and feels/sounds/act like it.

Initial take-up is okay, but it runs out of puff quickly compared to the others until you’re at a comfortable cruise, while its four-speed auto clearly lacks a ratio or two. Tackle a hill, hitch up a trailer, or lug around seven passengers, and you forward momentum will be slowest here, though as with any diesel, it’ll cruise along at highway speeds as happy as Larry.

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In terms of fuel use, the Toyota won, matching its factory claim of 8.6L/100km. The other ute-based offerings hovered in the low-mid 9.0s. The Patrol was into double digits. But we’d point out that this was based on general use of each vehicle throughout the comparison. That means that this is a good guide, but not scientific like the ADR figures listed above.

Towing

For our tests, we used an EzyTrail Sterling hard-floor pop-up camper trailer. It is one of the most rugged units on the market and a perfect fit for our family adventure haulers!

The braked towing capacities (more on this later) are 3100kg for the Pajero Sport, 3000kg for the Everest and MU-X, 2800kg for the Fortuner (higher with a manual gearbox) and 2500kg for the Patrol.

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All but the Patrol come with a reversing camera, which makes lining up the tow ball easier. The Mitsubishi’s around-view unit has the most angles but quite grainy resolution. The Ford’s screen is tiny (“very fish-eyed,” as Curt put it) but offers a handy tow ball guide, while the MU-X and Toyota’s screens are generally fine.

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With our almost 2.0-tonne camper hooked up, the MU-X felt the most relaxed. It’s truck-like diesel chugged along with effortless disdain, making this an ideal cross-country hauler. It also felt planted and stable, matching the Ford Everest in this area.

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The Fortuner’s engine again impressed, hammering up our gravel hill with the eagerness of an outgoing fan meeting their favourite celebrity at a supermarket.

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The Pajero’s engine felt decent, though not at punchy when weighted down as the others, meaning its smaller capacity caught up with it. But it cruised along once it was at highway speeds with zero issue and at similar engine speeds. That said, its body control was marginally more affected by the weight in the back, with some admittedly minor ride degradation.

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The big Patrol was planted and happy chugging along with the trailer as you’d expect, but it took much longer getting up to speed than the others.

Urban driving

There is a through-line to all of these vehicles. It’s extremely difficult to make a proper 4×4 as comfortable or easy to drive as a modern city-focused crossover SUV such as a Toyota Kluger or Hyundai Santa Fe. However, school runs and suburban surrounds are a fact of life — we don’t spend all our lives bashing through bush tracks and traversing beaches, even if we’d like to.

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Each of the five cars here has been engineered to handle properly heavy off-road work, and haul loads up near 3.0 tonnes on a semi-regular basis. That fact, plus the ute underpinnings on the core four (albeit, with shortened lengths and cushier coil-and-link rear ends as opposed to leaves) means urban duties are always going to be compromised. To a degree.

That said, none of these five — not even the old faithful Patrol — is burdensome to drive around the city, and indeed many people climbing into the more modern quartet after owning a generation-old SUV of any stripe will be surprised indeed.

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There are a few key measures to being strong in urban surrounds. Our circuit included all the usual suspects: speed humps, cobbles, tram tracks, low- to medium-speed roads of various levels of quality, train tracks, bridge joins, roundabouts and narrow inner-city lanes.

The ideal 4×4 for this work will have light, low-resistance steering that’s easier on the shoulders, suspension that irons over bumps without becoming overly soft and prone to wallow, good low-down diesel tractability without lag, responsive and not overtly busy gearing and clear all-round visibility.

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The Mitsubishi picks up sharper bumps courtesy of its larger diameter 18-inch wheels. It offers a generally decent ride, though it doesn’t recover from speed bumps as quickly as a few of the others, with some minor pogo-ing in the body. The engine is super quiet, quite tractable and the eight-speed auto was well behaved. It also offers light steering.

The Fortuner is sprung a little stiffer than the supple MU-X, with impacts sending more of a thud into the cabin. But it irons out cobbles and that ilk well enough. The hydraulic steering is once again pleasantly light and the engine the most refined and well-insulated here. In Sport mode it’s notably crisp.

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A surprise here was the Isuzu MU-X. Its suspension in the city simply swallowed up anything we threw at it, and offered what the team adjudged the best rear-seat comfort. On road it feels quite tied-down and settles really well. But the steering is very heavy and the wheel lacks telescopic adjustment, plus the engine rattle is a little more intrusive, though its nature is to be relaxed and tractable, and there’s sufficient torque to overcome a comparative lack of gearbox ratios.

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With the Everest, you immediately notice the comparative lightness of the electric steering system, which twirls with a finger, and there’s a nifty digital speedo. The engine is strong off idle and fairly well insulated, and has a distinctive five-pot drawl. The urban ride is good, given it errs towards being soft, without degrading into sloppy body control. It’s perhaps the school-run pick.

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The Patrol’s engine is rattly and noisy. Once you overcome the lag you get a brief window of pulling power, but it runs out of huff. It has the least power and torque, and it weighs the most, so this is not surprising. The suspension fidgets over small stuff, the body wallows a little, the steering is both vague and heavy, and the huge bonnet is hard to see over. But in old-school fashion it offers the biggest side windows here helping outward visibility, which you need on account of the complete lack of sensors.

Country driving

Curt and yours truly tested each contender on a mixed extra-urban route comprising pockmarked B-roads and gravel, which is the kind of terrain these cars are designed for. They have differing levels of Australian-made suspension tune, led by the Ford (it was entirely developed locally, about 50km from our test site) and the Toyota.

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Reflecting its light weight, the Mitsubishi felt the most nimble here, with the sharpest steering, and the easiest body to ‘place’. It offers an excellent driving position, an eager front-end that follows road camber well, and great stopping power on gravel (the second-best after the Ford by Paul’s measure). Its ESC also performed to a high standard in Curt’s simulated full emergency swerve and recover testing each car conducted on gravel.

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However, its chassis doesn’t feel as sorted as the Everest. On gravel, the rear can step out, and while highly effective, it lacks the stress-free stability control of rivals. Criticisms extend further to the notable vibration present through the steering rack over corrugations and the at-times jittery primary ride.

As with the Pajero Sport, the Fortuner’s primary ride over bad corrugations is less absorbent than it is choppy, and the body control moves from very tied down on good roads to a little fidgety once you go further into the bush. The steering is a little heavier but quite communicative, and the engine is always quiet, though undermined by the odd cabin boom over corrugations.

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As Curt noted, the stability control calibration was surprisingly loose, demanding a little counter-steering before intervening. This is a superior solution to an overly sensitive ESC, and when push comes to shove it’ll nudge the Toyota right if you get bent out of shape. The Fortuner was middle of the pack in our emergency brake test.

The consensus? A patently middle-of-the-road overall driving experience – not overly nimble nor ponderous, not the best nor worse for general comfort, and generally near the top for NVH. Typical Toyota.

The MU-X is really quite pliant in the initial ride quality – perhaps the best here, maybe even better than the Everest — the chassis is quite balanced on gravel, the engine noisy under acceleration but reasonably quiet on sealed roads during country driving (though not as quiet as the Fortuner or Everest), and the ESC calibration is impressive. It catches the body well during swerve and recovery without much counter-steer required.

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However, it’s not the most stable at high speed, or over big undulations, in that it can get a bit floaty. The steering at speed is okay but remains ponderously heavy at lower clicks, while the turn-in is a bit vague and, in conjunction with middling body control, the Isuzu lacks a sense of surefooted stability on the move. The suspension stays ‘high’ for too long after some bumps.

In Curt’s words, the Isuzu is “perhaps the most pleasant device for long-haul driving, though definitely not the most engaging nor confidence inspiring thanks to that loose body control”. Paul found the brake pedal feel good, but it was fourth in the emergency stop test ahead only of the Nissan.

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Given the Ford Everest’s aforementioned development at the  company’s nearby You Yangs test facility, it should win the extra-urban test. It’d be like the Australian cricket team losing the SCG test, or the Geelong Cats losing at Kardinia Park (sorry, NRL-following friends) if it didn’t.

The Everest certainly offers great all-round comfort on the move, though it’s perhaps not quite as supple in primary ride as the MU-X and not quite as quiet as the Fortuner on sealed surfaces. Its Watt’s linkage rear suspension ensures quite constant and consistent road contact.

All testers found the Ford to be very compliant on road, the suspension settled quickly and on gravel it felt planted and stable. This is perhaps thanks to the constant, rather than part-time, 4WD system, and while its rivals here can be engaged to drive in this setting too, the Ford won’t be caught on the hop. It also won our braking test despite the inertia of its lardy kerb weight.

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The steering loads up at speed but remains a little un-communicative, and the heaviness of the car, while lending a ‘planted’ road feel, hampers immediacy in any change of direction. It’s not the eager and nimble experience of the Pajero Sport, though it is a little more plush in ride comfort, which is probably a better overall balance.

Like the Mitsubishi, the Everest can be prone to some cabin boom over corrugations at lower speeds (under 100km/h). It also feels really big and wieldy on the move. But in Curt’s words, it’s: “a really well-sorted handling package for Aussie conditions” in most areas.

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The Patrol’s jittery initial ride is the worst of the field, and offers the worst ergonomics on account of its low-mounted steering wheel. That said, despite the ride issues (amplified over rapid corrugations, such as ungraded gravel tracks), it carries itself over bumps and undulations at speed well enough, and proved surprisingly grippy and agile on gravel for changing direction.

The engine is noisy and rattly under load, leading to a fair bit of cabin noise at a cruise. Other criticisms include the lazy ESC and the way its weight-driven inertia takes over and means it need a lot of real estate to stop or to recover from a swerving avoidance manoeuvre.

The steering goes from ponderously heavy and slow in the rack in urban surrounds to quite decent once on the move. And remember, you want some on-centre play when off-road.

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We’d give an unrelated hat tip to the Patrol for its sub-tank, giving it 125L of fuel storage for long trips. That’s mile and miles more than anything else here, with the Isuzu and Mitsubishi lacking the most (see the table below).

Two judges gave the Mitsubishi the highest ranking on-road, a hit rate the Toyota matched. However, given the Pajero Sport scored two thirds (behind the Ford in each instance), the Fortuner edged ahead of the pack in on-road prowess.

Off-road driving

First some facts and figures. The minimum ground clearances, in descending order, are: MU-X at 230mm, Everest and the just-downgraded Fortuner at 225mm, Pajero Sport and 218mm and the Patrol at a surprisingly low 210mm.

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The Patrol has the best angles (36-degree approach/24.2-degree departure). The other four are extremely close, with approach angles of about 30 degrees and departure angles around 25 degrees.

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The wading depth winner is the Everest at 800mm, followed by the Pajero Sport, Patrol and Fortuner at 700mm, and the MU-X at just 600mm. That said, our MU-X and its optional snorkel obviously took the cake as tested.

To put these family 4x4s to the test, we threw each of them across a wide variety of fairly heavy off-road terrain. Our test track included soft sand trails, moguls and divots, an old creek bed that produced about 30 degrees of body camber, slippery log trails, rocky outcrops both up and down, deeply rutted trails to test articulation, steep drop-ins and sharp peaks to test break-overs, a few water crossings with steep and slippery embankments and prolonged hill climbs and descents.

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The spectrum on test here really show the variety of ways that brands design their off-road systems. Some are idiot-proof, while some assume the owner has all the off-road nous they require and gives them the benefit of the doubt. We drove each of these cars four-up, with our off-road expert Paul taking leadership.

First again is the Pajero Sport. The superseded Mitsubishi Challenger was very popular among the hard-core 4×4 crowd — they’re a common site with lift kits and mud-plugging tyres — and the Pajero Sport successor is equally skilled off the beaten path.

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Immediately noticeable was the excellent driving position and the relatively light and vague steering (not a bad thing off-road), hurt only by more invasive, though occasional, rack rattle. As with the Toyota, the side steps impinged on break-over clearance.

The Pajero Sport offered outstanding throttle response and downhill brake control, while its road-biased 4H system also includes a 4HLc that locks the centre diff. You also get various off-road modes to change throttle and gearing (like the Everest) that puts options in your hands.

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Issues, though, included that retro-fit-looking tow bar that hurt the departure angle, while it failed to clamber up one trail without its rear diff lock on, whereas the Fortuner managed it easily.

Positives include the bluff nose that’s easy to see over, the great side-view camera (albeit with low resolution) and the excellent higher speed bump absorption, albeit redistributed in such a way as to throw off the body control somewhat.

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Next was the trusty Toyota. A few immediate differences presented themselves. The hydraulic-assisted steering is heavier but more communicative, while the Ford and Mitsu’s multi-mode off-road systems are not present, replaced by an older-world switch labelled 2H, 4H (that locks the centre diff) and 4L.

The Fortuner’s less touchy throttle and strong, linear torque delivery means you can happily plow over things in 4H anyway, though in typical Toyota fashion the brake pedal feel proved overly sensitive.

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The Toyota proved a match for anything here at a faster clip over smaller rocks, though it showed a little body flex during the see-saw, which made Paul in particular very gruff, grazed its side steps (though its under body clearance is outstanding) and felt a little more stiffly suspended along a river bank which, along with its lack of B-pillar grab handles, made it a little less comfortable for our rear seat passengers.

Still, it felt largely unstoppable, clambering up slippery embankments with the rear diff locked and low-range engaged with supreme confidence and ease. In Toyota fashion, there’s nothing overly spectacular here, but it’s an extremely capable off-roader in the right hands. In this case, Paul’s. Don’t tell him I said that, though, as I’ll never hear the end of it…

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Right off the bat the Isuzu felt every bit the proper off-roader, probably because our test car had a bull bar and a snorkel. But also because of its rattly and supremely relaxed diesel engine (albeit offering up a strange keening rattle through the cowl).

The Isuzu proved utterly free of drama for the most part, with good body rigidity, engine braking, tractability, clearances and angles. But its too-slow steering rack irked a bit, as did the absence of a rear diff lock — the only 4×4 here without what we would consider a necessary bit of kit.

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At speed over rutted tracks, the very soft suspension proved extremely comfortable, though there’s obvious body roll and wallowing in corners. The other bit of technology missing outside of the rear diff lock is a hill-descent control system — but with such a short first ratio, you don’t need really need it.

The Ford is interesting as the only full-time 4×4 here. Immediately, the car’s unique-for-the-class electric-assisted steering also made it much easier to tackle a sandy S-section, because fewer inputs were required.

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The Ford also impressed in the rapid way its traction control hooked up on slippery surfaces and with its composure at speed, while its multi-mode off-road select system mitigated the throttle’s overt touchiness on said surfaces by allowing you to dull the response and tweak the ESC calibration.

The articulation over some of the more rutted paths was insufficient to avoid ‘see-sawing’, but the body rigidity is such that the doors opened/closed without issue. The clearance proved decent, helped by the fact that this car lacks side steps (as the base variant).

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Tackling sharp inclines with the rear diff locked proved fuss-free but for a small shimmy, courtesy of the tractable engine. On the down slope, though, the portly Ford feels its weight. The hill-decent control is speed-adjustable, which is good.

The water crossing, about 500mm, didn’t trouble the car with the greatest wading capacity here (sans snorkel), and few quick jabs at the middle pedal to clear water off the rotors returned the breaks to full efficiency quickly enough.

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All told, the Everest was impressive, and its multi-mode 4×4 system makes it a breeze to use for less experienced off-roaders. As does the rapidity with which it engages low-range compared to some. Point, shoot and deliver.

We expected that the archaic Patrol might assert its dominance off-road, to figuratively sit these brash, youthful offerings down and teach them a thing or two. But the thing is, times have changed, and the Nissan, while still a beast, isn’t necessarily superior.

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The rack rattle, cumbersome steering and turning circle, the spongy brakes (that emphasise the huge dry weight), the rear diff lock that often just refused to engage, and the plethora or squeaks and rattle from the third row seats irritated us, as did the noisy engine’s lack of low-end torque.

That said, the Patrol is the winner when it comes to ground clearance, has the best approach/departure angles, an excellent low, low, low-range, supreme outward visibility courtesy of its huge windows, good mid-speed bump suppression and rear seat comfort.

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The Nissan was fitted with more off-road-biased Dueler tyres, which tells you about the target buyer — someone who doesn’t need mod cons, because they’re proficient and experienced at this off-road business. No doubt, the Patrol is as tough as an anvil and equally reliable, but it no longer dominates the field. Of course, if you’re headed for the Outback, there’s something reassuring about its ubiquity.

As you may see, it’s clear that each of these cars has upsides and requisite downsides. But the big point we want to mention is that each of this five had very few dramas on a circuit we’d grade six or so out of 10 in terms of difficulty — something few buyers are liable to tackle anyway. All deserve the tag ‘family 4×4’ in the truest sense of the term.

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Amongst the judges, the Ford scored two highest rankings, while the Mitsubishi and Toyota both earned single highest scores.

Ownership

The Mitsubishi comes with a five-year/100,000km warranty with capped-price servicing for up to four years with intervals of 12 months and 15,000km. You get one year of free roadside assist.

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The Toyota comes with a shorter warranty term of three-year/100,000km, and has shorter service intervals of six-months/10,000km. However, each of the first six services is capped at $180 a pop.

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The Isuzu gets a long five-year/130,000km warranty with roadside assist for the duration, but its service intervals are only six-months/10,000km, and the average cost at present levels for the first six are: $260, $360, $270, $790, $155 and $490.

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Ford offers a three-year/100,000km warranty and free loan cars. You also get lifetime capped-price servicing across longer 12-month/15,000km intervals. The first six cost: $390, $520, $480, $520, $390 and $610, all plus incidentals.

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The Patrol comes with a three-year/100,000km warranty and roadside assist over the duration. You also get capped-price servicing over small 10,000km intervals. The first six visits at current rates will cost: $379,$479, $379, $1125, $379 and $479.

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Verdict

The Nissan Patrol ST finishes last. It’s well and truly outgunned here, and its sizes and capacities are scarcely ahead of this more modern crop. Humble, reliable and ubiquitous it may be, but it’s not the ideal choice for most private buyers.

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Outside of the ageing Patrol, this was without a doubt one of the hardest comparisons the judging panel has been involved in for deciphering a winner. Each of the remaining four ticks a number of boxes, and equally all have shortcomings in key areas. But no car here is lacking off-road, as a tow car, or even as an urban-duty familiar hauler.

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It’s easy to see why the Isuzu MU-X is a top-seller. It’s utterly bulletproof thanks to its truck engine, and surprisingly comfortable on-road and spacious inside. But its cabin, despite good equipment levels, is low rent, its powertrain unrefined, and it’s lacking some key off-road tech. Still, if we could haggle a deal, and if we were a regional buyer and constant tower, it might be the pick, though its 65-litre fuel tank is a little small for the grey nomad set, really.

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The Ford Everest is a cracking car, with excellent road manners, an idiot-proof off-road system, city-friendly light steering and clever cabin packaging. But the Ambiente specification as tested is drastically under-equipped. The sparse interior feels mine-spec, not family-spec. Spend the extra $5000 on the Trend spec and you have a potential winner (read here for that story), but this test shows just how steep that starting price point really is.

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The Pajero Sport is the glamour car here. Its cabin presentation is sublime and its price-point beyond keen. If you favour urban use and only hit the dusty trail on the odd occasion, and you value creature comforts, then look no further. You also get the best warranty. But you also miss out on seven seats, and even the middle row isn’t brilliant. The 68-litre tank is also a touch underdone. Still if you only need five seats, it might be your choice.

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And that’s why, holistically, the Toyota Fortuner GXL wins. While it doesn’t top many areas — engine response and NVH notwithstanding — it also just does most things to a high standard. And sometimes that’s what constitutes a winner. Its cabin is pleasant though we wish it has sat-nav, its road manners above average, its off-road nous unquestioned, and its ownership credentials bolstered by Toyota’s vast network of dealers. Only that clumsy cargo area lets it down.

Has the Toyota pulled a Steven Bradbury? Yes and no. It’s not the best car here in many areas, but it’s probably the best all-rounder. That said, we hope this test and conclusion has warned you off a simplistic first-to-last result. Each is fit for purpose in its own way. Let us know below if you want to ask any more questions.

Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.

Videography by Igor Solomon.


 

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Equipment

Ford Everest

Isuzu MU-X

Mitsbishi Pajero Sport

Nissan Patrol

Toyota Fortuner

Variant

Ambiente

LS-T

Exceed

ST

GXL

Price (RRP)

$54,990

$54,000

$52,750

$60,390

$54,990

Air-con

Manual

Climate control

Climate control

Manual

Manual

Bluetooth audio

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

USB input

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Reverse-view camera

Yes

Yes

Yes, plus front and side views

No

Yes

Parking sensors

Rear

Rear

Rear/front

No

Rear

Infotainment screen

4.2-inch non-touch

Colour touchscreen

7.0-inch colour touchscreen

Buttons

7.0-inch touch

Sat-nav

No

Yes

No

No

No

Software

Apple CarPlay/Android Auto

Toyota AppLink

Speakers

8

8

8

4

6

DAB +

No

No

Yes

No

No

Blind-spot monitor

No

No

Yes

No

No

Keyless start

No

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Cruise control

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Rear display screen

No

Yes

Yes

No

No

Auto wipers

No

No

Yes

No

Yes

Auto on/off headlights

Yes

No

Yes, plus dusk sensors

No

Yes, plus dusk sensors

Alloy wheels

17-inch

17-inch

18-inch

17-inch

17-inch

Spare

Full-size alloy

Full-size alloy

Full-size alloy

Full-size alloy

Full-size steel

Airbag count

7

6

7

4

7

Seats

7, cloth

7, leather

5, leather

7, cloth

7, cloth

ANCAP

5

5

5

3

5

Isofix

No

No

Yes

No

Yes

Rear diff lock

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes (auto-locking free-wheeling hubs)

Yes

Off-road system

Selectable modes

2H/4H/4L dial

Selectable modes

2H/4H/4L shifter

2H/4H/4L dial

Trailer sway control

Yes

No

Yes

No

Yes

Hill descent control

Yes

No

Yes

No

Yes


 

Specifications

Ford Everest

Isuzu MU-X

Mitsubishi Pajero Sport

Nissan Patrol

Toyota Fortuner

Variant

Ambiente

LS-T

Exceed

ST

GXL

Price (RRP)

$54,990

$54,000

$52,750

$60,390

$54,990

Engine

3.2 turbo-diesel five-cyl

3.0 turbo-diesel four-cyl

2.4 turbo-diesel four-cyl

3.0 turbo-diesel four-cyl

2.8 turbo-diesel four-cyl

Trans

6AT

5AT

8AT

4AT

6AT

Outputs

143kW/470Nm

130kW/380Nm

133kW/430Nm

118kW/354Nm

130kW/450Nm

Driven wheels

4×4 dual range

4×4 dual range

4×4 dual range

4×4 dual range

4×4 dual range

Economy combined-cycle

8.5L/100km

8.3L/100km

8L/100km

11.8L/100km

8.6L/100km

Fuel tank

80L

65L

68L

125L

80L

Braked towing max

3000kg

3000kg

3100kg

2500kg

2800kg

Length

4892mm

4825mm

4785mm

5050mm

4795mm

Width

1860mm

1860mm

1815mm

1940mm

1855mm

Height

1837mm

1860mm

1805mm

1855mm

1835mm

Wheelbase

2850mm

2845mm

2800mm

2970mm

2570mm

Tare weight

2311kg

2060kg

1992kg

2438kg

2095kg

Made in

Thailand

Thailand

Thailand

Japan

Thailand

Wading depth

800mm

600mm

700mm

700mm

700mm

Approach angle

29.5 degrees

30.1 degrees

30 degrees

36 degrees

30 degrees

Departure angle

25 degrees

25.1 degrees

24.2 degrees

30 degrees

25 degrees

Breakover angle

21.5 degrees

22.6 degrees

23.1 degrees

Minimum clearance

225mm

230mm

218mm

210mm

225mm

GVM

3100kg

2750kg

2710kg

3020

2750kg

Front suspension

Independent

Independent

Independent

Independent

Independent

Rear suspension

Watt’s linkage

Multi-link

Multi-link

Multi-link

Multi-link






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