Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The new Toyota-Mitsubishi battleground


A Worthy Rival? Mitsubishi insists the Montero Sport has what it takes to dethrone Toyota’s Fortuner.

IN 1973, THE BATTLE for supremacy was between the Lancer and the Corolla. Today, it’s between the Civic and the Altis. However, ever since the end of the 20th century, compact cars stopped being the first choice of car buyers as the market shifted to multipurpose vehicles (MPVs) heretofore classified under the light commercial vehicle (LCV) category.

Last year LCVs accounted for 64% of total automotive sales. Yes, even after the excise tax reform of 2003, even after the death of the 10-seater AUV rule, the Philippine "car" market is actually an LCV one. In fact, the Civic-Altis segment is only a portion of the remaining 36% of sales, which in turn is dominated by the sub-compact Toyota Vios.

While the ’03 tax reforms diverted our buying tastes from turning into a pick-up dominated market like Thailand, it did not materialize into a compact car utopia. Urbanized Filipinos still prefer LCVs, specifically multi-seat and high ground clearance ones, as no other vehicle can take the whole family and cargo to family reunions or resort destinations in distant rural areas.

Of this class, the Toyota Fortuner is still the Filipino dream purchase for the typical twin garage, single detached dwelling in Philippine suburbia. Its diesel engine, rugged IMV chassis and genuine seven-seat capacity keeps it popular close to four years after it was launched to long waiting lists. Even with its firm ride, the Hi-Lux pick-up chassis-derived Fortuner continues to hold its own against the bigger Ford Everest and Isuzu Alterra rivals.

Now rubbing shoulders with it is the seven-seat Mitsubishi Montero Sport. Like previous Montero Sport models, the latest one is based on a revised version of the Strada pick-up truck chassis, quite like the way Ford based the Everest on Ranger underpinnings and Isuzu’s Alterra on the D-MAX.

It is undeniably the sleekest looking among the comparable bunch in much the same way the Strada stands out from its boxy pick-up rivals.

Mitsubishi is making a statement here: anything so robust and utilitarian can be stylish too. The curvaceous Montero Sport means a wee bit less headroom in the third row seating area, so Mitsubishi compensated for it by smaller dimensioned seats using thinner but higher density foam. Marginally yielding to style over function, the trade-off is minimal as the legroom is still abundant.

Consistent with this style bias of the two-tone interior of the GLS model is the Montero Sport’s dashboard; it wouldn’t look out of place in a sporty car. The alloy trim is decidedly more up-market than a top-of-the-line Strada. It also has the Mitsubishi Pajero’s signature LED display for altitude, fuel consumption and ambient temperature.

Unlike the Fortuner’s front and rear ends which are distinct from its platform sharing mate the Innova, the Montero Sport uses a similar rear tail light assembly to that of the Fuzion MPV which, curiously, has a stand-alone platform that is not shared with any Mitsubishi model. The Montero Sport’s face is also unabashedly Strada.

On the road, the steering feel and acceleration does not mislead one about its near two-ton kerb weight. If one is looking for compact car like agility and pep, look elsewhere to monocoque-based compact SUVs like Mitsubishi’s own five-seat Outlander.

Nevertheless, the Montero Sport’s brakes can haul it down from 80 km/h in 25 meters as tested in Prince Bira Circuit in Thailand last year. And even with a full load of seven plus some cargo, the Montero Sport is still capable of 13.51 kms/liter of diesel on an all-NLEx cruising route using the traffic-free EC-Tag express lane.

Launching the most expensive 161 hp 3.2-liter diesel automatic 4x4 variant first, Mitsubishi left punters guessing if a 2.5 diesel 4x2 variant looms in the future. Judging by the 2008 launch of the 2.0-liter only Lancer EX, one may be proven wrong as the next Lancer Mitsubishi Motors Philippines came up with was the up-market EVO X sports sedan and soon, the Lancer Sportback.

With Fortuner category challengers rising every year and with even more rivals coming from Korea, Mitsubishi can count on the two Strada/Montero Sport strengths that should appeal to the family-lifestyle crowd; those harmonious body curves and that car-like ride. In fact the Montero’s ride, akin to the original Pajero, bests other Asian-branded SUVs costing twice as much.

Will it prove a worthy challenger to the Fortuner’s grip on the top slot? That’s a tough order as the Fortuner, at one time, even outsold the production run out Toyota Corolla-Altis model.

With a last quarter launch in 2008, the Montero Sport sales boosted Mitsubishi’s ranking over Honda with its popular Civic and production run out City sedan models.

However the economy moves in 2009, sales of the revamped Fortuner and the new Montero Sport may well bring back memories of the Lancer vs Corolla sales battles of the ’70s.