4WDers are a bit spoiled for choice these days. Along with traditional big 4WD wagons and the huge array of 4WD utes available, buyers can also look at a segment in between: 4WD wagons based on utes.
We’ve got two of the freshest updates here: the 2020 Mitsubishi Pajero Sport Exceed (which is facelifted for 2020), and the 2020 Toyota Fortuner Crusade (which got a small update in late 2019).
We’ve dug into how these 4WD wagons operate as family haulers in a previous story, but this time we’re sticking to the off-road prowess.
The real beauty of these two 4WDs is that they can split the difference of family and fun duties well: they’re both relatively safe and comfortable on-road, but offer genuine off-road ability and versatility at the same time.
To read more about the interior practicalities, space and on-road demeanour, check out our on-road Pajero Sport versus Toyota Fortuner comparison here.
Price and specs
For this comparison, we're using the same two 4WDs from our previous comparison.
You could certainly mount a solid argument that keen 4WDers wouldn’t opt for top specification. Rather, it’s wiser to save money on tech and specs, and pick up a base- or middle-specification 4WD.
Our comparison will use the Crusade and Exceed specs, which still carry the same mechanical running gear (save for wheels and tyres on the Toyota) as the lower-specification options.
Both of these 4WD wagons have room for seven occupants across three air-conditioned rows of leather-accented seats.
While they both have a range of technology and features on offer, the Pajero Sport has the edge overall in the regard, with things like a 360-degree camera, Super Select II four-wheel drive, off-road driving modes and a digital instrument display.
Also important for family buyers, both the Toyota Fortuner and Mitsubishi Pajero Sport have five-star ANCAP safety ratings, along with autonomous emergency braking systems.
While both wagons here have four-cylinder turbo diesel engines, the Fortuner’s donk is the largest at 2.8 litres, which makes 130kW at 3400rpm and 450Nm at 1600–2400rpm.
Mitsubishi’s 2.4-litre engine makes slightly more power (133kW at 3500rpm), but more importantly it offers less torque (430Nm) in a higher and narrower rev band (at 2500rpm).
While the Toyota Fortuner keeps the same six-speed automatic gearbox as the HiLux, the Pajero Sport gets an eight-speed automatic gearbox that’s unique amongst Mitsubishi's range.
So while there is less torque, the Pajero Sport does have a wider range of gearing on its side.
Listed fuel economies according to the manufacturer pegs the Pajero Sport as slightly more efficient, with a straight 8.0L/100km bettering the Fortuner’s 8.6L/100km.
Our testing mirrored this split: while both 4WDs used a little more than their individual claims during our testing, the Pajero Sport proved to be the more efficient of the two.
Wheels and tyres
Both of these 4WDs have the same rolling stock in this comparison, 265/60 R18 wheels and tyres, which works out to be a relatively tame 30.5 inches in total diameter.
The 18-inch wheels are pretty well served by aftermarket options these days, but more serious 4WDers can step down to 17-inch wheels on both the Fortuner and Pajero Sport to improve your amount of available sidewall and tyre sizing options.
If you want to split hairs, the Pajero Sport’s slightly more aggressive tyre tread might be better in sloppy conditions. However, both will be made much better with an aftermarket all-terrain tyre, which doesn’t compromise the on-road experience at the same time.
The front suspension of both of these wagons is a direct copy of its ute counterpart: double-wishbone independent suspension that varies slightly in its design, but is effectively the same. While both offer a much improved on-road experience over a live axle, they don’t offer as much articulation off-road.
The Pajero Sport’s front bash plate sits slightly lower to fit in a low-slung cooling pack, but both standard bash plates are a decent (if not great) offering. We gave both a couple of gentle whacks off-road and they lived to tell the tale.
Rear suspension is a similar case of same-same-but-different; both wagons have ditched leaf springs in favour of coil springs, using four control arms and a Panhard rod. That’s still a live axle, by the way, with both set-ups offering a nice balance of comfort, control and articulation. The Fortuner fits longer shock absorbers, which mount low and wide on the rear of the axle housing. The Pajero’s dampers sit noticeably further inboard, forward of the housing and not as low.
It’s difficult to pick a superior set-up between the two: both ride well on the unsealed roads, but bigger and firmer damped shocks in the Fortuner yield a bit more control overall.
Both wagons also articulate reasonably well out of the box, giving you a nice sense of stability when behind the wheel.
General off-road clearance, considering the size of the tyres, is good for both 4WDs. Toyota lists 225mm as the ground clearance of the Fortuner, which Mitsubishi quotes as 218mm for the Pajero Sport.
While such numbers only give a basic idea of overall clearance, I’d warrant that the Fortuner’s greater number comes from better clearance around the front end, with a higher-mounted bash plate.
Traction aids, low-range gearing
The award for lowest crawl ratio goes to the Pajero Sport, with a solid 45.899:1 made through a 2.566 transfer case and 4.85:1 first gear. The Fortuner has the same transfer case ratio, but first gear is not nearly as deep (3.6), making the effective crawl ratio 36.109:1.
It has to be said, however, that both 4WDs give you good low-speed control through their automatic transmissions, engine braking and electronic driving aids. Where you’d see most benefit of the Pajero Sport would be if you wanted to fit larger-diameter tyres: the loss of reduction gearing wouldn’t be as bad.
Both have hill descent control functions, but neither has a low enough speed to work when you need it on really tricky descents. It’s still handy to have, however, and will help the confidence of novice off-roaders taking on steep descents.
The Pajero Sport gets better versatility on-road and high speed off-road driving through its unique ‘Super Select II’ transfer case.
Using a lockable centre differential and part-time 4WD, you can use four driven wheels on high-traction surfaces. If you’re driving through varying conditions, like between dirt, bitumen, hills, rain and mud regularly, this would be especially beneficial.
Conversely, the Fortuner uses a more time-honoured and common part-time 4WD system, which is shared amongst most 4x4 utes and older 4WDs. You can only use 2WD on the bitumen, but in an off-road sense, it still works well.
While both 4WDs have locking rear differentials, neither works in concert with the vehicle’s off-road traction-control system. Turning on the locker turns off traction control, in other words, which leaves your rear end 100 per cent locked and your front end 100 per cent open.
It’s a shame, because both of these 4WDs have good traction-control systems that make a big difference off-road. Both are relatively quick to react to traction loss, requiring small amounts of wheel spin before kicking in.
It’s tough to split the two into a winner and loser. Although the Pajero Sport has a few controllable modes to flick through, the Toyota's system is very good regardless and hard to beat overall.
A hack (of sorts) to be aware of with the Fortuner is the two throttle-control buttons near the gearshifter: Power and Eco, which tighten and dull off throttle response respectively. This can be used to good effect off-road. Use Power mode in sand and mud, while Eco yields a doughy throttle that helps low-speed crawling and climbing.
In terms of off-road traction, the Pajero Sport is improved, and is certainly better than the Triton stablemate. I’d give the Fortuner an overall edge, however. The traction control seems better (despite the lack of terrain-matched modes), and the wider wheel track and good rear articulation offer a little more stability off-road.
There’s a lot to like with both of these 4WD wagons. They’re both adept off-road and comfortable on-road, seating seven without costing as much to buy or own as something like a Patrol or LandCruiser. That size is good for conquering the daily grind, but also on holidays and weekends.
There’s enough room for the average family and all of their gear, and the more adventurous can start to accessorise for extra range, capability, durability and storage.
Both would be much better off-road if locking the differential didn’t turn off traction control, but they’re both still good regardless.
Although the Pajero Sport offers more vehicle and spec for similar money, 4WDers would likely prefer the Fortuner.
Off-road clearance and ability are better, and there are a few little details that suit the 4WDer better, as well: the potential to remove third row, space under the bonnet for a second battery, and a generally better underbody design.