THE mid-size SUV marketplace comprises a mix up of vehicles that all do different jobs. On one hand you have the light-duty people movers like the Toyota Kluger, Mazda CX9, Mitsubishi Outlander and Kia Sorento which are hugely popular, yet bucking the trend is the off-road capable Toyota Prado that outsells them all most months.
Since Mitsubishi hammered the nail into the coffin of its legendary Pajero 4x4 wagon late last year, the Prado really has had that end of the segment all to itself.
Below the Prado you have the smaller 4x4 wagons that owe their existence to the popular 4x4 utes and are wagon derivatives of the light trucks. Mitsubishi has passed the iconic Pajero nameplate on to its Triton chassis-based wagon and now calls it the Pajero Sport, whereas older versions of this wagon were called the Mitsubishi Challenger.
Toyota has this niche in the market covered as well with its Hilux-derived Fortuner wagon, and if you want to trace its roots back to earlier models you could call it the successor to the once-popular Toyota 4-Runner wagon.
When we say these wagons are based on their light-truck siblings, they share a chassis with the utes but the chassis has a shorter wheelbase and the rear leaf springs which allow the utes to carry heavy loads, are replaced with a coil sprung multi-link suspension to deliver better ride and handling than the load haulers. Rear disc brakes are also included in lieu of the drum brakes fitted to the back of the respective utes.
Instead of a ute’s cargo tub, both of these wagons are fitted with third row seating to carry up to seven passengers.
PAJERO SPORT EXCEED
THE Pajero Sport was launched back in 2015 but received a mid-life refresh at the start of 2020. This included updated styling and a handful of new features such as a power tailgate and remote operation via a phone app.
The Exceed is the top end of the four-tier Pajero Sport range which includes variants with five or seven seats and all of them are four-wheel drive. The Pajero Sport Exceed is priced from $59,990 driveaway for private buyers.
POWERTRAIN & PERFORMANCE
PAJERO Sport comes with a 2.4-litre diesel engine that makes 133kW and 430Nm of power and is only offered with an 8-speed automatic transmission – no manual gearbox is available.
Four-wheel drive comes from Mitsubishi’s proven Super Select 2 system that gives driver the choice of 2WD, full-time 4x4 and locked 4x4 in high and low range in the transfer case. It is backed up by a driver-selectable rear differential lock for when the going gets tricky. The Sport also gets a drive mode selector that optimises the chassis electronic systems for various terrain conditions including Sand, Mud and Snow, Gravel roads and Rocks.
The engine delivers adequate performance for a family wagon but could never be described as sporty. The acceleration is linear from the initial throttle input through to the upshift and is relatively quiet and refined for a 4-cylinder diesel engine.
For its part, the 8-speed automatic transmission is smooth and does its job without complaint. We did however, feel a bit of backlash in the drivetrain when commuting at light throttle. This was more evident when driving in the full-time 4WD setting than in 2WD and was only a minor annoyance.
ON ROAD RIDE & HANDLING
AS mentioned, the Pajero Sport employs a traditional ladder-frame chassis derived from that found under the Triton ute. Under its back end, the live axle is located by a three-link system with coil springs and a Panhard rod in lieu of the leaf springs under the Triton. The front end shares the double wishbone and coil design with the Triton.
The Pajero Sport’s suspension is soft and delivers a supple and comfortable ride across sealed roads and rough terrain. That compliance also allows the chassis to pitch and wallow on its suspension and like the performance of the engine, the suspension could never be called sporty which leaves us still looking for the ‘Sport’ in the model name.
The fully independent, monocoque chassis Pajero was more sporty than this vehicle. The suspension borders on loose and felt like it had 414,000km on it, not the 14,000 as displayed on the odometer. This wouldn’t be helped by the addition of the steel bullbar fitted to the front end on the factory suspension.
THE shorter wheelbase when compared to the Triton means that the Pajero Sport has a tighter turning radius than the load-hauling ute and thus is more manoeuvrable wherever you are driving it.
The shorter distance between the axles is also beneficial when you are off road as it improved the ramp-over angle, meaning the wagon is less likely to get hung up on the sills or chassis in the middle of the car.
The Paj didn’t suffer any clearance problems on our test but its tractive ability was found lacking on our set hill climb. Using just the electronic traction control with and without the rear diff lock (RDL) employed and in the various modes of the terrain selector, the Paj failed to get up our hill which was greasy on the first day of our test.
It did get up there on day two when the track was dry and with the RDL switched , while the Toyota did it relatively easy on both days.
CABIN & ACCOMMODATION
THE Pajero Sport feels big and airy inside, even if not as spacious as the now discontinued Pajero proper. The power adjustable, heated leather front seats are comfortable and with the tilt-and-reach adjustable steering column, allow you to get in the best position for driving.
The second row seat is equally as comfortable and both sides tilt and roll forward to allow access to the third row. The second row does not slide fore and aft to allow for more leg room in the second or third row of seats. Not that it is needed in the third row, as we found the seat quite spacious with enough leg and headroom for an average-height adult, although the position would best be suited to kids on anything but short trips.
The Exceed has dual-zone climate control (left and right) a large AV screen with inbuilt navigation as well as access to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, although it does annoyingly have only small, fiddly buttons for volume control, a pet hate of our testers who prefer more functional and tactile knobs or dials.
Part of the 2020 update to the Pajero Sport included a phone app that allows the user to remotely access the vehicle status including fuel level, find their car, and open and close the power tailgate. This app is also accessible via an Apple Watch.
Extra points for the abundance of power options in the cabin with two USB ports in the front of the console, two more for the rear seat as well as three 12-volt outlets and a 150W-220-volt inverter outlet. There’s another 12-volt plug in the cargo area. A modern family wagon can’t have enough power outlets to keep everyone and their devices charged.
THE Pajero Sport is a rugged 4x4 wagon built to take on any road with the right accessories. Thankfully, it is well-supported from the aftermarket companies as well as Mitsubishi which offers a range of kit such as the bullbar fitted to this test car.
In Exceed spec it has a 670kg payload and is rated to tow 3100kg. The engine breathes in through the inner ’guard and the wading depth is quoted at 700mm. The fuel tank carries 68 litres of fuel, so it’s getting on the small side of what you might want for touring in Australia.
The Exceed rolls on 18-inch alloys with a matching spare, and the tyres a now common 265/60-18 size. Pajero Sport uses an electric park brake, which is not automatic in its operation as similar devices are in other vehicles.
Mitsubishi bolstered the Pajero Sports safety systems with the 2020 update adding autonomous emergency brakes (AEB) radar cruiser control, blind spot warning, lane change assist and rear cross-traffic alerts to the usual ETC, ABS and ESC. There’s also what Mitsubishi calls Ultrasonic misacceleration Mitigation System which warns the driver if the car thinks he or show has accidentally hit the accelerator pedal instead of the brake.
TOYOTA FORTUNER CRUSADE
LIKE the Pajero Sport, the Toyota Fortuner was first released in Australia in 2015 and received its mid-life refresh in 2020. This came in September with the introduction of the heavily revised 2.8L diesel engine that was introduced across the Hilux, Prado and Fortuner models at the same time and has certainly breathed new life in to the Toyotas. In fact, with 500Nm and 150kW now on tap, the performance of the Fortuner represents a significant difference between these two family wagons, with the Fortuner feeling far more sporty than the Paj Sport does!
Like the Pajero Sport Exceed, the Fortuner Crusade is the top specification in the model line-up, although there are only three models offered by Toyota. They do however, offer interior option packs to the GX and GXL models to up-spec them with leather trim and extra features. The Fortuner Crusade sells for $61,140 plus ORC so it will cost buyers a few thousand more than the driveaway price of the Pajero Sport Exceed.
In addition to the engine upgrades the 2020 refresh included updated styling inside and out, with added features including improved headlights and improved safety kit, although this is limited to the inclusion of front parking sensors.
POWERTRAIN & PERFORMANCE
ALL Fortuners get the improved 2.8L diesel engine and it’s backed by a 6-speed automatic transmission only, while the 4WD system is part-time only with locked high and low range and a rear differential lock. It doesn’t give you that full-time 4x4 functionality that Mitsubishi’s Super Select 2 system does in the Pajero Sport.
The updated 1GD-FTV 2.8L engine gained 20kW and 50Nm over the pre-September 2020 model and that 500Nm of torque puts it up there with the torquiest 4-cylinder diesels in the class, namely Ford’ 2.0-litre bi-turbo engine as found in the Everest and Ranger models.
With 150kW coming in at 3400rpm the Fortuner is a more exciting car to drive than the Pajero Sport as you really feel that extra power when you put your foot down. The Toyota engine is a touch harsher and noisier than the Mitsubishi’s under such throttle application although neither of them are intrusive. The auto transmission is positive and direct in its shifts, further adding to that sportier feel. Both of these cars have paddle shifters behind the steering wheel for manual gear shifts.
ON-ROAD RIDE & HANDLING
LIKE others of its ilk, the Fortuner rides on a ladder chassis derived from that of a ute, in this case the ever popular Hilux, and it has a shorter wheelbase and a coil spring, multi-link rear suspension.
Toyota has set the Fortuner’s suspension up to ride firm and composed, although not too firm as to be uncomfortable as you might find in many 4x4 utes. The five-link rear suspension provides plenty of control for improved dynamics when driven back-to-back with the softer Pajero Sport.
Toyota also tweaked the hydraulically-assisted power steering with the 2020 update to make it easier to turn at lower and parking speeds, yet still retain plenty of feedback for the driver at road speeds, and it has succeeded in this regard. The steering combines with the firmer and more controlled suspension to make the Fortuner a better ‘driver’s car’ than the Pajero Sport.
CABIN & ACCOMMODATION
LIKE the Pajero Sport Exceed, the Fortuner Crusade is well-appointed in terms of interior trims and equipment. The now bigger AV screen has its own satellite navigation as well as access to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and the gauges ahead of the driver have a fresh look and updated features in the information screen.
The steering column is adjustable for both reach and height, while both front seats are power adjustable and heated. The climate control system is single zone, however there is a button to switch the rear air on and off.
The second row seat in the Fortuner slides fore and aft to allow extra legroom for the rear passengers depending on which row they are occupying, however the third row doesn’t offer the same space, notably the headroom, as that offered in the Mitsubishi. Our average-sized passenger said he felt more cramped in the rearmost seat of the Fortuner and stated that he wouldn’t like to have to sit there for long.
A standout feature of the Crusade’s cabin is its excellent JBL sound system, while it only has a single USB outlet in the front along with a 12-volt plus a 12-volt and 100W-220V outlet in the rear. There’s also a 12-volt in the cargo area.
WHEN Toyota updated the Fortuner back in September, it raised the towing capacity to 3100kg so that it now matches the Pajero Sport. In Crusade trim the payload is rated at 645kg on a 2800kg GVM.
The Fortuna Crusade’s 18-inch alloys also wear the popular 265/60-18 size tyre so finding replacements shouldn’t be an issue.
The engine takes its air from the inner ’guard and wading depth is 700mm. Toyota offers a healthy range of factory accessories and the aftermarket supports the Fortuner well for any gear you may need. The standard fuel tank holds a handy 80-litres of diesel.
THESE two wagons are very similar in size and specification on paper so it might look like the Pajero Sport Exceed would be the better buy due to its lower driveaway price. But a decision shouldn’t be based on price alone and for our money, we’d find the extra dollars to put the Crusade in our garage.
While the Mitsubishi might edge the Toyota out for rear seat space and safety equipment, the everyday dynamics and performance of the Toyota more than make up for this. The Fortuner accelerates, rides and handles better than the Pajero Sport in all conditions and then leaves it behind when the going gets rough off road. It is more of a driver’s car, if ever you could call a 7-seat SUV a driver’s car and this makes it a better and safer touring vehicle.
While the Pajero Sport and Fortuner both reside in that crowded mid-size SUV segment, they both bring an extra level of capability to the category than the softer equivalents in the class, the respective Mitsubishi Outlander and Toyota Kluger can offer, giving adventurous families wider scope for their travels.
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