High on the highway: Whether it is charging through slush or taking a U-turn in the middle of a pond, the Toyota Fortuner can brave it all
Thank heavens it rained hard! A specially constructed off-road track outside Khopoli, near Mumbai, turned from slip-slide mud to a quagmire; the water crossings went from mere streams to SUV-engulfing rivers and climbing uphill turned into desperate scrambles to the top. And this was just perfect for the inaugural Toyota Fortuner Boot Camp.
Organised by Mumbais Automission Motorsport, for Toyota Kirloskar Motors (TKM), this boot camp was no competition but a unique opportunity to enjoy the thrill of off-roading. The idea was to show Fortuner owners the capabilities of their SUV, off-road, and improve their driving skills in the process. Fortuner owners rarely get to exercise the full potential of their SUVs and go beyond the potholes that characterise our roads and hence, the 3km-track on the Automission grounds was specially designed to give an unforgettable experience.
Over a period of two days, 30 brave Fortuner owners turned up for a dose of hardcore fun in deep dirt. It involved lots of revs, spinning wheels and torrents of flying mud. Getting stuck was part of the game, as was waiting to be towed to firmer ground by the recovery team. And mud-caked shoes and splattered clothes proved that driving was still easier than walking on the gooey track.
Almost all the Fortuner owners who turned up for the boot camp had driven their SUVs only on tarmac. Hence, a few basic lessons in off-roading were in order. Allan Almeira, a well experienced 4x4 specialist, was on hand to give a demonstration and drove owners over specially laid out ramps to describe wheel articulation, which measures the travel of each wheel and influences the ability to keep the wheels in constant contact with uneven terrain.
This small demo was enough to whet the appetite for the full course. Going up and down the extremely steep ramp was an exhilarating experience for the first-timers. Nose pointing skywards, all one could see were dark monsoon clouds. And what was astounding was the ease with which the Fortuners trudged up the slope and gently eased down the other side.
Track seems too tame a word for the slush that we were driving in, though thats what it was. The first few cars had it quite easy considering the track was still fresh and there was plenty of grip under all the brown water that covered most of it. But, with each passing vehicle, the ruts turned into chasms, the dirt got a little softer and the water, a little deeper.
Four-wheel-drive (FWD) high would work through most of it but as the day wore on, the track demanded that we stay in low, with the differential locked. It wasnt hard to get stuck on this course or lose all-important momentum for that matter. And thats when the JCB excavator would leap into action to haul the SUVs out of sticky situations.
Apart from the slush and deep ruts to navigate through, you could throw the two-tonne Fortuner around bends, catch its slow-speed slides and feel the tyres claw into the soft track for every last bit of traction. However, all our grins quickly turned into looks of horror when we approached the pond. Not only did we have to drive through this mini lake, but we also had to take a U-turn right in the middle of it!
Here, our first instinct was to back off which causes one to lose the vital momentum required, to carry you through. And, just as the Fortuners threatened to give up and sink, the tyres found grip and hauled us out of what would have been a very watery grave. The looks of relief mixed with elation told me what an adventure off-roading is for the novice driver.
But there was no time to breathe. Almost immediately, we were in the deep-ruts section to test the ground clearance of the Fortuner. Drivers winced each time the underbody flattened over the high centre ridge but it was too soft to cause any damage except for scarring the plastic underbody shield. And just when we thought that the worst was over, the cars felt like they were sinking into the most treacherous part of the track — a sticky stretch of soft, fine mud that just sucks you in. This was where we had to make the U-turn.
The trick was not to lose speed — so we took a deep breath, selected third gear and FWD low and charged through rapidly. Even then, not everyone made it through and the rescue team sprang into action.
Then there was a mad scramble up a muddy mound and over rocks before dropping sharply into a stream. This tested the Fortuners approach and departure angles and its ability to climb slopes in low-ratio second gear. And the more it rained, the more this bit became a test of the Fortuners wading ability.
A few tight hairpin bends and a lot more sliding later, we approached the end of the track — which is where we began to really breathe again. At the end of the day, Fortuner owners touched the limits of their Fortuners. A nice touch was the complimentary car wash at the end of the day, courtesy Carz Spa, and a free service offer for the Fortuner from Toyota. Everyone left with a light heart, a lot of off-road experience and new-found respect for their SUVs. It was experiencing hair-raising thrills at walking speeds. And that is what off-roading is all about.