European buyers have long enjoyed the comforts of high-roofed vans like the Volkswagen LT (now Crafter), Iveco Daily, Ford Transit and Mercedes Sprinter. But aside from the odd imported Sprinter and Sprinter clones, the format hasn’t really taken off locally. Until now. Toyota and Nissan, for example, offer high-roof conversions of their passenger vans. The appeal is obvious: More space and comfort to weather hellish Manila traffic or long provincial trips. But for the ultimate VIP, the heavy van is king. Here, Mercedes' long-standing Sprinter has been joined by rivals like the Sprinter-inspired JAC Sunray, the gray-market Ford Transit, the VW Crafter, the Hyundai H350 and the Foton Toano.
We reviewed the Hyundai H350 earlier this year, and were impressed with its massive space and comfort. The high roof, however, made it nigh-impossible to find covered parking. It’s a similar story for tall vans like the Sprinter and the Sprinter-based Crafter, both over 2.6 meters in height. But at 2.415 meters, the Toano is shorter than most heavy vans, while still offering space far beyond smaller conversion vans.
While most tall vans share very similar lines, leading to cries of 'Sprinter rip-off' every time one launches--never mind the fact that Ford did the aero-roof shape years before Mercedes--the Foton Toano’s resemblance to the Sprinter is beyond uncanny. This is no accident. The Toano has been engineered by the same Stuttgart-based team that did the Sprinter. Hence, the Foton shares the same muscular lines. This also means tight panel gaps and a sleek, modern look that’s above and beyond Foton’s other commercial offerings.
The sheer bulk of the vehicle dwarfs the 16-inch alloy wheels, despite the huge 215/75 R16 tires. Notable from the outside is the long wheelbase. At 3,750mm, it's 80mm longer than the Hyundai's, despite the Toano being 300mm shorter overall at 5,995mm. The difference in roof height, however, is less obvious. With vans this large, your sense of scale is well and truly warped!
The lower roof helps, though, as it fits in some ground level indoor parking garages and through most drive-throughs. Also, you have a 50:50 chance of sneaking under the Class 1 Toll limit if you’re really nice to the toll teller on the SLEX.
The interior of the Toano, while similar in layout to other European market tall vans, still reflects an Asian sensibility. An electric step is provided to ease access into the rear cabin through the single side door. Instead of a pass-through cabin, there’s a front bench to squeeze extra passengers beside the driver. In-cabin height clearance is sufficient for 5’6” passengers to stand up straight. Taller passengers will have to slouch a little.
For comparison, the Crafter and H350 have clearance for six-footers. There’s light beige fabric everywhere, and the seats are generally soft and comfortable, although they’re hinged in a way that the lumbar support pushes out when you recline them fully. This poses problems for heavier passengers who want to nap. The single seat beside the sliding door is also difficult for the wide-of-shoulder, due to the intruding pillar, and the door presents a pinching hazard for children seated there. All rows have movable arm-rests and shoulder belts. Chair legs are covered off by skirts, which allows you to hide small luggage and valuables under them when you park.
The dashboard is clean and modern, with a pleasing shape and wonderful outboard cupholders mounted under the A/C vents. The glossy carbon fiber applique on the inserts is a bit naff, but it’s dark enough to blend into the background. There’s not as much shelf storage as in other large vans, but there’s a lidded cubby under the shifter beside the ashtray that's big enough to hold a water bottle when open. HVAC controls are electronic and fairly conventional, and there are separate knobs to control the rear A/C over the driver’s head. The head unit is a perfunctory 2DIN unit. It is expected that buyers will be customizing the sound system to their liking anyway.
The Toano is powered by the same 2.8-liter direct injection Cummins turbodiesel as the Toplander SUV. It’s equipped with a cooled EGR circuit in order to meet Euro IV emissions regulations. Power remains the same, at 161hp and 380Nm of torque, channeled to the ground through a heavy duty six-speed Getrag transmission. The shift linkage feels positive, with just a little slop, though the clutch does feel a little bit on the heavy side. Worse yet, the front wheel well and transmission tunnel pinch the driver footwell, making the clutch a bit hard to actuate for the wide of foot.
The engine revs smartly, pulling to 4,000rpm with ease. While Foton claims maximum torque comes in at just 1,400 rpm, the turbocharger can feel laggy at low rpms, and it takes a downshift or two to complete an overtake. Once you’ve got the turbocharger spooled, there’s power a-plenty, and the Toano can scoot to 100kph in just 14sec. Claimed fuel economy is 11.5km/L. We did manage to top that on the highway, getting around 13.5km/L on level stretches. Not bad at all for a vehicle of this type.
Ride and handling
You don’t expect the Toano to be nimble, and it isn’t. The long wheelbase presents some challenges while going around tight corners, for one. Good thing there are wide-angle parking mirrors on both sides. When I received the unit, the ride was uncomfortably bouncy and the handling wallowy. I had my suspicions, so I checked, and yes, the tires were underinflated. They were set at a dangerously low 30psi. Yes, 'dangerously.' Commercial trucks on bias ply tires require higher tire pressures for safety reasons. With the tires pumped up to the manual recommended 50/60psi, the ride is on the firm side, but not uncomfortably so. Despite the leaf-sprung rear axle, you can feel the shock absorbers working hard, keeping wheel movement in check over rough roads. Handling is acceptable, with less body roll than you’d expect. Not that you’d ever want to go around a race track in one of these things.
Forward visibility is great, as you look out over the tops of even the biggest SUVs, but parking can be a chore. There are rear parking sensors bundled with the base Toano, but the buzzer is hard to hear, even with the radio off.
That radio isn’t much to write home about. It’s a standard 2DIN unit with a CD player and auxiliary input. Sound quality isn’t harsh, even at higher volumes, but it isn’t very good, either. The basic Toano package includes parking sensors, side mirror indicators, foglights and the aforementioned electric step--which would cost you P30,000-P50,000 outside by itself.
For those wanting more, there’s a ‘Limousine’ variant that swaps out benches for leatherette-clad swivelling captain’s chairs and a nautical-themed interior that includes 'wood' flooring, mood lighting, automatic window shades and a 23-inch LED TV hooked up to an amplifier-backed sound system. But this starts at a relatively high P2.58 million. That’s still cheaper than the H350 or Crafter, but given the P1.9 million base price of the Toano, you’ve got a lot of leeway for modification if you decide to go your own way.
In the end, it’s this flexibility you’re paying for with the Toano. For the same price as a premium Japanese van, you get a commuter van with generous interior space and comfort, with the possibility of conversion into a home away from home if you decide to give it the ‘Manila-proofing’ treatment or even some DIY modification. While the lack of an automatic may turn off self-driven owners, it’s a cost-effective solution for the chauffeured set looking to save some money over the usual suspects, with German engineering and robust mechanicals backing it up. And for those who do choose to drive themselves, it offers less compromises in driveability than some of its larger--and more expensive--competitors.
SPECS: FOTON TOANO
Engine: 2.8-liter turbodiesel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Power: 161hp @ 3,600rpm
Torque: 380Nm @ 1,400-1,800rpm