July 13, 2021 By C! Magazine Staff Words and Photos by Gelzon de la Cruz

Tough made stronger: the Foton Harabas lightweight truck

Based on the “Foton XianLing M1” model from China’s Beiqi Foton Motor Co., Ltd., the Harabas TM 300 lightweight truck from Foton Motor Philippines is a rugged hauler with surprising refinements and a powertrain that’s made suitably stronger for this market.

The 2,490kg gross vehicle weight Foton Harabas is available here in dropside flatbed, closed van, wing van and multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) configurations. Priced from P730,000 to P830,000, Foton’s lightweight hauler is in direct competition with, while being priced significantly lower than, the 2.5 ton Mitsubishi L300 as well as the marginally heavier 3.0 ton Isuzu Traviz, Hyundai H100 and Kia K2500.

Eclectic features

The Foton Harabas TM-300 lightweight truck line has the trademark engineering of tough agricultural haulers. The rugged undercarriage features solid axles and leaf springs in front as well as in the rear (3 leaves per side in front, 5 leaves in back). Its steering system is a re-circulating ball mechanism, the sort that’s usually reserved for four-wheel drive off-roaders.

Surprisingly, it has features you’d expect to see more on passenger vehicles. Its sleekly finished van-like interior has a factory installed in-dash AC system, powered and remotely operated locks, powered window cranks, a stereo FM radio and MP3 player, and a 12-volt auxiliary power socket (in addition to the anachronistic push-in electric lighter). The truck’s road lights include adjustable angle headlights, amber fog lamps and white LED daytime running lights (DRLs).

Driver controls are all enhanced. Steering and brakes are both hydraulically assisted, as expected, but so too is the clutch. More surprises: the engine throttle is a responsive electronic module, and front-disc / rear-drum brakes don’t just feature those load compensating release valves typical of commercial haulers but are instead controlled through a full-on antilock brake system (ABS).

A turbodiesel unlike in China

In China, this truck model is on offer with 1.2, 1.3 and 1.5 liter gasoline engine options bringing power and torque peaks ranging from 81hp and 110Nm to 110hp and 142Nm. Here, Foton Philippines’ localized Harabas features a 2.156 liter turbodiesel delivering peak power of 87hp at 3200rpm and max torque of 220Nm at 2000rpm–emphasis on that torque figure which puts the Harabas in the league of light trucks from big brands Mitsubishi, Isuzu, Hyundai and Kia.

Accessing the Harabas’ 2.156 liter turbodiesel

The Harabas’ turbodiesel isn’t a license-built Cummins like the engines of Foton Philippines’ Thunder pickup truck, Toplander SUV and Traveller passenger van. This truck’s diesel is a Chinese-built QuanChai QC485 (4A2-88C53) that doesn’t brandish any western licensing origins but, nevertheless, features a compact geometry turbocharger that depends on an exhaust gas bypass (EGB) system made by Cummins affiliate Holset for bleeding away excess pressure. The turbocharger’s small turbine in a compact chamber results in exceptional boost even with the engine turning just with low revs. On the other end, with higher engine rpm acting on that small turbocharger, the EGB pressure bleed then prevents turbine overspeed.

Heaviest Harabas

For a few days and covering 130km in the city, I drove the top-priced and heaviest Harabas, the P830,000 SRP 16-seat MPV with steel utility vehicle rear body constructed by Centro. Foton Philippines’ sales literature puts the Harabas’ payload at 1,130kg. Subtracting this from the truck’s GVW of 2,490kg means a curb weight of 1,360kg. This looks right for the Harabas’ cab and chassis platform, maybe even for its dropside flatbed variant, but I think further computation of corresponding curb weights and payloads for the heavier closed van and MPV variants has been overlooked.

My estimate puts curb weight of the MPV at 1,690kg (1,360kg preliminary curb weight less the 100kg of a flatbed rear body plus the 430kg of the heavier UV body), and payload at 800kg or the equivalent of a three row MPV’s (the official 2,490kg maximum gross vehicle weight less that 1,690kg recalculated curb weight).

These said, I think the Harabas’ official 2.5 ton GVW is set too low having been stipulated for its original Chinese market configuration with less powerful gasoline engine options. On the up side, I think it could now be closer to the 3.0 ton GVW of the Harabas’ heavier competitors. At any rate, it ought to be greater enough to restore the Harabas MPV’s payload to that asserted (though unadjusted) 1,130kg–a payload that’s enough for its 16-person nominal seating capacity.

Driving the MPV

Apparently, this diesel-powered Philippine model’s early onset torque that peaks at 220Nm is enough to require: (1) a high-pressure clutch that needs to be operated hydraulically; (2) a powerful brake system with ABS safety overrides for positive, managed braking; and (3) an electronic throttle actuator for smart handling of engine idle and rev ups. And, because of the more powerful diesel engine, the Harabas also mounts wider and larger diameter 185R14 tires than its China-stock gasoline-burning counterparts rolling on 175R14 rubber.

That stronger powertrain on paper makes the Harabas an actual, confident real steel hauler on the road.  There’s nothing tentative about the torque you let loose when you stoke the mill and make the engine’s slightly under-square 85x95mm bore and stroke ratio translate into easy revs through that novel electronic throttle. The engine is excitable enough that you’d want to train some patience into muscle memory to let the turbodiesel’s low end torque do most of the work getting your truck rolling.

A truck driving instructor will tell you to always keep the diesel’s revs working against a load–no free revving, not even as preamble to letting in some clutch. For roll outs, he or she would tell you to keep your foot off the gas, get the transmission in gear and then gently let off the clutch, feeling for that first contact between clutch disc and pressure plate before gently pressing down on the throttle and further easing off the clutch pedal at the same time, in synchronized smoothness. Ask the instructor about the proper gear to roll out on and he or she will admit that you should try going up the ladder from first to see what gear holds enough mechanical advantage to get you rolling. This, particularly in the case of wide-range, multi-gear transmissions with as many as 16 speeds.

Unladen, the Harabas MPV does a textbook diesel truck roll out on first gear, my foot never even having to press down on the throttle, those idling revs already enough to accelerate her, albeit slowly, to 5km/h which is the up-shift point to second gear. You’d normally step on the gas once you’re in motion, of course, for getting to the upshift point quickly–too quickly, in fact, on the Harabas.

Still unladen, if you’d consider rolling out on second gear, raising your shift ladder by an octave, as it were, the Harabas is just as smooth although with some throttle needed after making sure the clutch is brushing up against the pressure plate. You can treat second gear as a tall first, keeping revs moderate up to a maximum 1500rpm before reaching between 15 and 20 km/h (depending on load weight) for the upshift to third gear.

Third is your city cruising gear, feeling like a very tall second and tolerant of you lingering and not having to downshift if you occasionally bleed speed down to under 20km/h.  Be prepared (meaning be patient enough) to stay in third a while if you’re on a traffic grid. You’ll find that shifting higher at this point would entail conviction, an explicit transition in driving mode from city to the Harabas’ notion of a highway holiday.

An upshift after third would be possible if you get onto a straightaway with moderate traffic. Reach 45km/h with 2000 to 2500rpm for the relief of easing into fourth and hearing those revs back off. Good news is that, like with the Harabas’ lower gears, fourth gear is tolerant of you lingering there, letting you settle into an urban trot of as low as 40km/h with the engine turning at 1500rpm.

Reaching the fuel saving overdrive ratio of fifth gear is unlikely in city traffic but getting there is less of a struggle as getting from third to fourth. Conditions and lack of curves permitting, you can get up to 60km/h with 1500rpm, and stay there if you like a slow meandering cruise, or kick it up to a sensible 80km/h with 2000rpm, or even higher for a time conscious 100km/h at 2500rpm.

And through all these city driving and highway cruising sorties, confidence to accelerate whenever you can is bolstered by an impressively strong and sensible brake system. I never had to invoke that “antilock” aspect of the Harabas’ ABS feature but I was able to get those powerful brakes working assertively, or with finesse. Those stoppers are excellent at zeroing the momentum of the Harabas’ loaded mass, either quickly when needed, or gently whenever possible to keep passengers comfortable and fragile cargo intact.

Keeping her stable

The Harabas was well-behaved, with all its motions easy to stay ahead of, with at least 30psi front and rear on its 185R14 tires (the Foton company driver I asked said they keep those tires at an even higher 32 psi, minimum). The 1,690kg curb weight I estimated for the Harabas MPV needs strong tire pressure to stay stable on the right angles and hard pavement of the traffic grid.

Keeping tire inflation to those numbers would not only mitigate tire wear and improve fuel economy, but also make the ride more comfortable (no matter how counter-intuitive that sounds).

When I received the test drive unit, the tires were under-inflated. An evaluator before me might have tried to mitigate the tough truck ride by softening the tires to just around 20psi. The effect was like having second springs on all wheels, these ones not being dampened by the shock absorbers (as car springs ought to be). It turned the ride into something like that of a boat trip on rough seas. Moral of the story: keep those tires stiff with at least 30 to 32psi.

Suspension tweaks

Under-inflating those tires could also have been someone’s misguided way of addressing how the Harabas’ front springs seem to bottom-out at strange moments. It doesn’t happen with potholes and speed-bumps that are easily spotted and summarily handled from the truck’s tall cab-over driving position. Instead, it could come as a surprise when going over pavement cracks at city-cruising speeds.

I think I know the engineering intentions behind this and how to address the unintended side effect.

Given its apparent agri-truck origins, Beiqi Foton might have tweaked the truck’s stock configuration with a slightly nose-down attitude for better stability when at speed on smooth pavement. However, with less than 50mm clearance between chassis bottom and axle-top bumpers for those front suspension leaf springs, the Harabas’ front end tends to bottom out on edgy pavement bumps.

Good news is that this state of affairs exists with the Harabas’ front spring end bushings being bolted directly onto chassis mounting brackets. A straightforward solution that would keep the Harabas MPV’s legs straight and spry underneath heavy loads (and keep its acquisition cost to still under P900,000 even with after-market suspension work) is to add vertical shackles between leaf spring ends and chassis bottom mounts.

The Foton Harabas’ front suspension assembly with end bushings bolted directly onto mounting brackets

Squat and strong shackles would be enough to raise the chassis by an additional 20 to 30mm over those axle bumpers (while making sure there’s enough shock absorber shaft travel to handle the slight height increase).  Aftermarket work might also include the addition of a front axle stabilizer. Already advantageous in itself, particularly on leaf-spring fronts, a stabilizer would also come in handy if those vertical shackles introduce some extraneous sideways flex to the equation.

End of the day

Sum it all up and the Harabas lightweight truck shows Foton Philippines and Beiqi Foton making the right call upgrading its powertrain to a 2.156 liter turbodiesel. The compact turbocharger delivers good boost early on, when it counts for heavy roll outs.

That turbodiesel compliments the soundness of the truck’s other fundamentals with the engine mated to a rugged transmission featuring an agricultural-grade hydraulic clutch, an undercarriage that’s farm-roads tough with leaf springs and recirculating ball steering, and powerful and finely controlled brakes for bringing the whole show to a safe stop.

The Harabas MPV has a price tag that puts it in reach of first-time buyers of factory-new diesel-class light haulers. Its P830,000 price point can be kept at or under P900,000 even after the suggested aftermarket work to raise the front suspension.

That suspension tweak, adding shackles and a stabilizer up front, can be considered in the nature of shaking out a new workhorse, making it an even better mount for the work ahead. Adjustments can go both ways, after all, particularly on a no-nonsense, no-frills (or few-frills) utility vehicle like the Harabas.

For instance, good as that hydraulically assisted clutch is, I’d still advise some wariness on the pedal until the hydraulics warm up. On cold roll-outs, the clutch seems jerky, feeling like it engages too quickly–that or it’s my clutch leg’s knee and ankle that need acclimatizing every morning. In any case, patiently working around this feature really is a measure of the driver’s resilience more than any sort of glaring example of a vehicle’s quirks.

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