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Chinese made, but with global-brand mechanicals

The Foton Tunland is a well-made, keenly-priced ute from China, with American-designed powertrain components, making it one of the best value for money utes in the market.

foton tunland

Like other Chinese vehicle introductions to the competitive Australian market the Foton Tunland’s was rocky.

In 2011 WMC Group walked away from a distribution agreement and the deal passed to Queensland company FAA Automotive.

Foton sales in 2012 and 2013 were poor and in April 2014 Foton distribution was picked up by Foton truck distributor, Ateco, thus putting Foton light truck and ute business in the same hands.

However, two short years later that Ateco deal was terminated and Foton decided to its own distribution.

Foton is no lightweight corporation in China. It was founded in 1996 to manufacture light and heavy-duty trucks, agricultural tractors and other machinery for domestic and global markets. It has assets exceeding $A10 billion and 290,000 employees.

Automotive products include trucks from two to 55 tonnes, dump trucks, tractors, mobile cranes, buses, MPVs and utes, and new-energy batteries.

Foton has R&D centres in Beijing, Germany, Japan and Taiwan, and technical supply agreements with Getrag, ZF, Aisin, Borg Warner, Bosch and Dana. In March 2006 Foton and Cummins created a 50:50 joint venture company to produce light-duty diesel engines. Capacity is 400,000 engines per annum.

In January 2009 Foton and Daimler AG formed a 50:50 joint venture for the production of medium and heavy trucks in China, with an initial investment of $A1.3 billion.

The Tunland

The Chinese-made Foton Tunland is aimed at markets outside China and has some notable advantages over its competitors in the Australian one-tonne ute class

Unlike previous Chinese-made vehicles the Tunland isn’t a ‘knock-off’ of older-generation Japanese vehicles. It incorporates world’s best engineering inputs: a new, light-commercial-specific Cummins diesel engine, Getrag gearbox, Borg Warner transfer case, Bosch electronics and Dana diffs.

The Tunland’s Cummins 2.8-litre turbo-diesel engine has a cast iron cylinder head and thermostat-controlled electric radiator fans rather than an aluminium deck and viscous-coupled fan. A steel-plate sump guard is standard on the Tunland 4×4.

Tunland’s Cummins engine does duty in Foton’s bigger trucks up to 4.5 tonnes GVM, so is under-stressed in a ute. With outputs of 120kW at 3600rpm and 370Nm at 1800-3000rpm the Euro V 2.8-litre engine is well behind its Japanese and European competitors. The possible upside of this situation is that the little Cummins mightn’t suffer from as many blow-by and carbon buildup issues as its compeititors do.

At launch in 2012 Tunland had the longest cab-to-rear-axle measurement in this class, minimising tray rear overhang and optimising tow ball positioning, plus it had the widest front track and second-widest rear track of any non-European ute in the class. It also featured the largest diameter front disc brakes, with twin-piston AP6 callipers, big rear drums and four-channel ABS with EBD.

Since then, the Tunland has scored four-wheel discs and a full suite of chassis electronics: electronic stability control, traction control, hill descent control and hill holding.

Initial Tunland deliveries Down Under were crew-cab utes, but a short-cab model was released in late 2013. The lineup now consists of 4×2 and 4×4 crew cab utes; 4×2 and 4×4 cab/chassis and a single cab 4×2 ute.

Recommended drive-away pricing for the Tunland ranges from $22,490 for a 4×2 single cab/chassis, up to $30,990 for a 4×4 crew cab ute.

Equipment levels are high: air-conditioning; cruise control, with steering wheel buttons; power windows; remote key two-stage door unlocking; leather steering wheel rim; CD/MP3/FM/AM audio, Bluetooth; USB ports; tilt-adjusting steering wheel with audio buttons; power adjustable and manual fold-back door mirrors with turn indicator lights; dashboard mode-select buttons for 4WD and low range; clutch foot rest; twin map lights for front occupants; 12volt/120W illuminated power outlet and ‘puddle’ lights under the doors.

On the crew-cab there are Isofix child seat anchorages on the two outside rear seat positions and the centre-seat occupant has a lap-sash belt.

The crew-cab 4×4 model also scores a tyre pressure monitoring system.

The main transmission is a Getrag five-speed manual, coupled to a Borg Warner transfer case on 4×4 variants, with a low-range ratio of 2.48:1. The Dana rear axle has an LSD centre on 4×4 models.

On and off road

We’ve tested a short cab tray-back and two crew cab Tunlands. Driving ergonomics were very good, with tilt steering adjustment, driver’s seat height, slope and lumbar adjustment.

The steering wheel buttons worked well on two of the test vehicles, but the cruise control buttons were ‘sticky’ on one vehicle.

The unladen short-cab Tunland’s handling and ride quality were quite good on smooth surfaces and over mild bumps, but potholes and major bumps sent the back end out of line. We reckon the rear leaf springs need a redesign, with a stronger main pack and helpers that come into play only when the load
increases to near-GVM.

The crew cab models were quite different, with spring rates that gave very good ride quality (for empty utes). The Tunland kept its feet on bumpy bitumen and corrugated gravel. We loaded one with half a tonne of payload and it sagged only marginally at the rear, and ride quality was fine.

We coupled a two-tonne boat and trailer to the other crew cab and it coped with 150kg ball weight quite happily.

Off-road ability of the three Tunland test vehicles was very good, thanks to a powerful rear-axle LSD and traction control.

Build quality was fine and fit and finish seemed no different from Thai-built machinery.

Noise levels inside the cab were low, unless the Cummins was working hard.

The four disc brakes produced great stopping power and handbrake operation wasn’t an issue.

Other ute makers claim that they’ve retained drum rear brakes to ensure good handbrake performance, but we don’t buy that: we think it’s a requirement of registration as a pick-up in Thailand, where most of these vehicles are built, along with the Thai-mandated requirement for leaf rear springs.

The engine bay was very well laid out, with a large air-cleaner box and easily-reached fuel filter. The serpentine drive belt was very easy to check and replace (unlike nearly all others) and the radiator had twin electric fans, so there was no fan drive to get in the way.

The main irritations with the Tunland test vehicles were the control protocols for the TPMS, entertainment, ventilation and cruise control systems.

The TPMS was way too intrusive; phone volume via Bluetooth could be adjusted only by altering the volume on the phone, not on the steering wheel; the air con switched off after every engine stop and needed to be restarted by pushing the dashboard button; and the cruise control lacked a ‘cancel’ button, meaning the only way cruise could be cancelled and resumed was to tap the brake.

In 2018 the Foton Tunland range had class leading chassis dynamics and an automatic box option was overdue.

Even if pricing goes up by a few thousand bucks Tunlands will still be one of the best value for money buys in the market. However, distribution and dealer support are still uncertain.

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