Slip-sliding with Triton in Sabah

By Lee Pang Seng

HAVING been quite impressed with what the new Mitsubishi Triton had to offer during our brief off-road experience under controlled conditions on the outskirts of Bangkok in November 2018 (read here), we were looking to see if the impression could be enhanced with actual off-road drives in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah two months later.

Things sometimes don’t work out the way you would expect it and that was exactly what happened to our Triton experience in KK in January. Firstly, from the dry and dusty drive in Bangkok, we were given the ‘wet’ experience as we brought the rain during our visit to the Sabah capital. Apparently, it hadn’t been raining for a while and the rain brought welcomed relief to the folks over there.

That, however, made our off-road experience a bit more exciting. After having been through many off-road drives with pick-ups and SUVs (sport utility vehicles), our expectation of another ho-hum event was turned into a jolting and bruising experience. There might have been the danger of a 20-metre drop down the side of the slopes at some point, but this Triton off-road adventure was definitely one of our more memorable outings.

Before the event took off from KK, the anti-climax though was being assigned to the Triton VGT M/T Premium that has a six-speed manual transmission. We might not be averse to driving a manual transmission pick-up but we felt its relevance to the market in the peninsula was minimal. At the same time, we were looking forward to see how the new Hill Descent Control (HDC) feature in the flagship Triton VGT A/T Adventure X would fare under real-world conditions, more so now that slippery off-road terrain was anticipated.

Given this less interesting scenario, we decided to be a rear-seat passenger and let our younger media partner do the driving. At least, we feel, we would be gauging the new Triton on its comfort factor. Given the increasing popularity of pick-ups as work and personal transport vehicles, the comfort factor gains more plus points in a buyer’s choice.

And in that department, the new Triton didn’t disappoint. Mitsubishi has tuned the rear leaf suspension to provide a comfortable ride, especially for the rear passengers, while maintaining damping performance that would befit its role as a pick-up to handle off-road terrain and conditions. This was the case for paved road and off-road surfaces.

In this respect, we must point out that the Tritons provided for the KK drive were all shod on all-terrain tyres that are designed to perform reasonably well on paved roads and dirt trails. The tyres on the Triton VGT M/T Premium were 245/65 R17 Dunlop AT20 GrandTrek, while those on the Triton VGT A/T Adventure X were of a bigger size, 265/60 R18.

Having the rear seat-rest inclined a bit also made travelling long distances easier on the back while the seat provided sufficient thigh support to add its contribution to a comfortable ride. We also liked the rear air circulator with roof vents and air blower selection as this made it cooler for the rear passengers.

The new Tritons also come with grip handles on the B-pillars that serve as assists in getting in and out of the vehicle for the rear passengers. This is in addition to the foldable grip handles above the rear doors. We found this B-pillar grip handle very useful when we hit the dirt trails in Tamparuli, about 60km from Kota Kinabalu.

Initially, during the earlier part of it when the gradients were gentler (about 35 degrees) and the roads less demanding, we could withstand the off-road jolts quite nicely by bracing ourselves with our legs on the floorboard. Subsequent ones were 40-45 degrees slopes.

However, unlike the Triton automatic with the HDC, our only recourse in driving the Triton manual down the slippery slopes were to use first gear in four low ratio mode (4L) and try our very best not to hit the brakes. Doing so would lock the tyres easily under these wet conditions and send the pick-up into an uncontrollable slide.

This is despite the Triton manual being equipped with Active Stability Control and Traction Control. It just didn’t have the HDC of the automatic version that has an electronic management function that controls the performance of the engine and brake system for a given road condition so that descent is more organised and stable.

We were left to our own reckoning to control the Triton manual as it went slip-sliding down the slippery gradients. Advice was given along the way – there were four gradients on that kilometre-long stretch – each getting slipperier and more treacherous as we came along, being the second last vehicle in the convoy.

Our driver was told to jab at the accelerator to bring up engine revs to serve as a kind of engine braking. The second descent was a taste of what was to come as we slid into a deep rut, jolting the vehicle badly and giving us a bruising time when we scraped our arm against the door panels while being thrown about. This was when we found that the B-pillar grip had a second role as a hand brace, along with our legs on the floorboard, against severe jolts.

The final descent was the scary one, more so when we saw the vehicle sliding reasonably fast down the gradient and heading towards other media people taking pictures and the support crew at the bottom. Thankfully, the nose of the Triton brushed heavily against the thick undergrowth and that helped to slow the pick-up before we came to a complete stop. We had another bad jolt on this descent as well but escaped more bruises by being better braced. The front number plate was ripped off though by the undergrowth.

The remainder of the off-road excursion was more of the ho-hum variety with three stream crossings and milder terrain. In any case, the stream crossings weren’t deep enough to highlight the higher placement of the headlamps on the new Triton and the rocky bed provided a firmer hold for the all-terrain tyres.

Our feedback of the Triton manual was mainly through our media partner, whom we had paired up quite a few times in other drive events before. He found the gear ratios between second and third a bit too wide and this showed up woefully on the road drive to Kundasan. This is a windy and uphill stretch, similar to that going up to Cameron Highlands, with short multi-lane sections for overtaking heavy vehicles.

The manual transmission gear configuration made it necessary to change gears often. This was despite the 2.4-litre MIVEC turbodiesel DI-D Common Rail VGT Intercooler engine churning out reasonably strong output – 133kW (181PS) at 3500rpm and 430Nm of torque at low engine speeds to 2300rpm.

And for someone who is right at home with an automatic transmission car, the slow and winding drive was a tiring affair. The clutch action was not heavy but it wasn’t light either and the frequent use added to a sore left leg. There was hardly an opportunity to use fifth gear, much less sixth, along the heavily trafficked road.

We decide to relieve our media partner of his agony during the following rest stop but were only too happy to be told we would be moving to the Triton automatic at that point. It wasn’t the end of our troubles though… the Triton Adventure X that we were to drive subsequently had earlier reported an electronic warning of a ‘transmission service required’.

Surprisingly, this unexpected glitch didn’t manifest itself during the off-road session but only the road drive. And it came up during our drive and when it did, the engine management system went into a safe mode during which the transmission would only operate in a few gears. The technical people following the convoy couldn’t diagnose the root of the problem and an engine restart was usually the only solution before the glitch surfaced again.

And while things were running well, we enjoyed a few rare moments of cruising along in sixth gear with the Triton automatic. Of course, there was also getting a feel of a more luxurious leatherette interior from the fabric one of the Triton manual. The central console panel also had more traction buttons to give it more character from the plain façade of the Triton manual; likewise the instrument panel that has a multi-information display to provide the driver with more vehicle details.

At the end of it, this was one of those drive events where we experienced extreme moments but in the wrong vehicle (a manual instead of an automatic with HDC) and had a less than smooth-sailing road drive. Nevertheless, we would add this Triton adventure to the few that had us on the edge of our seats, and perhaps the only one that we suffered some bruises with.

Related story here: Off-road experience under controlled conditions