There was a sense of elation! Not because I would be testing a vehicle off-road, but the car in question is a Toyota Fortuner. I have always had an attraction towards the Fortuner, but in its new avatar, the macho/brute/dominating character is lost. The SUV now looks chic and can 'blend in the urban crowd' due to its curves and personally I like SUVs that look renegade. I was at the Toyota Fortuner Drive Camp where a number of customers and media publications were invited to test the vehicle, off-road!
A carved out track would test the Fortuner to its limits and prove its off-roading credentials. Veteran instructors first took us around the track which included an acceleration and braking test, a deep ditch, a steep incline and descent, rumblers, chicken holes, water wading, articulation, side incline and finally a slush pit. After the instructor's round, we were allowed to test the vehicles' mettle off-road and here is my take. The acceleration and braking tests were where the new Fortuner inspired a lot of confidence, especially while panic braking. The two-tonne-plus SUV did not lose its composure, which is a contrast to the earlier iteration that had a drum brake setup at the rear. The new Fortuner has an all-disc brake setup.
For the deep ditch, a downhill assist feature or Downhill Assist Control was engaged with the transmission engaged in S or a manual mode in first gear. The S mode engages the car in a certain gear and holds it until the driver does not wish to change it from the paddle shifters or the gear selector on the gear lever. A slight acceleration to the entry of the deep ditch and all that was needed was minor steering inputs. The Downhill Assist Control (DAC) worked with ease, giving consistent braking inputs to keep the vehicle's speed in check. Once out of the ditch, the next obstacle was a man-made incline and descent. This hurdle would test the Fortuner's capability for holding on a hill. So, after a steep incline, the instructor asked to stop the leviathan and leave the brake pedal. This was a bit nerving as my apprehension was that the vehicle would roll back. That said, the hill hold assist made sure the SUV didn't roll back for four seconds. This system is engaged all the time and comes pretty handy even on tarmac.
The rumblers and chicken holes were done with no acceleration inputs. Ride did become slightly bouncy but wasn't rattling. However, the second-row passengers would have complained of it. That said, it is inherent with an SUV with a stiffer suspension setup for better handling. After the chicken holes and rumblers, the next challenge was water wading. One important aspect when wading through flooded sections is to go into the section slowly. A splash would not only affect any car's mechanicals, but also disrupt electrical connections thereby 'beaching' the car. The Fortuner has a water wading capacity of 700 mm which is 100 mm lesser than the Ford Endeavour. That said, the flooded section was tackled gracefully without any water leaking inside the car. Mind you, this is not the first try of the same Fortuner through this patch. It had been going through the obstacles all day. Next up was the side incline which was a 30-degree one. On paper, the Fortuner has a lean angle of 40 degrees, so tackling this part was also easy for this behemoth.
The other two sections, which involved vehicle articulation and tackling a slush pit were restricted to the instructors and the SUV tackled them with ease. In the articulation, one mechanical drawback that was evident, which is a personal outtake, is the presence of a limited slip differential over a locking differential which some of the competitors have. A locking differential works better when all the wheels are not on a surface as an LSD (Limited Slip Differential) provides slightly more power to the wheel without traction, compared to a locking differential that would provide maximum power to the wheel with maximum traction. Although the vehicle goes across this obstacle, it does so at a relatively slower pace. The Fortuner, however, has the patented Toyota Auto LSD which also engages and disengages the brake on the wheel without any or less traction.