The time has come to replace the old stager Ford Territory fleet at Boral. Finding a worthy successor is no walk in the park, but it is a lot of fun.
WORDS & PHOTOS AFMA | Scott Murray
Ford Territory won the 2004 Wheels Car of the Year and sold shy of 23,500 units the following year. With reasonable equipment, minimal trim updates and a diesel arriving mid-life, it’s been a dependable practical and affordable workhorse for Boral’s wagon fleet. Times have changed. So how do you find and replace such a safe well-rounded vehicle in your fleet? Do what Greg Sharpe does – host a drive day.
It needs to be competent, maximise safety and be cost effective. Safety is the common denominator in anything vehicle-related for Greg and Boral in general. You cannot replace a nation-wide fleet with sub-standard vehicles that don’t come with a five-star ANCAP rating. Full stop. The vehicle needs to be robust (laden or not), with ample stowage space, and be able to handle Australian roads in its stride, not just endure them.
“The Territory was essentially the last big wagon in Australia,” Greg said of the retiring Aussie barge. “It was a heavy tower, provided good comfort for long-distance driving and carried reasonable payloads, even on the roof, with a decent ride height and all without being too tall.”
“Unfortunately the petrol engine was thirsty and the diesel AWDwasn’t much chop for Boral’s needs. The AWD system wasn’t up to it in our tests; the car was too soft underneath so it didn’t cut it as an off-roader – we moved to the Ranger 4WD for those needs – but we still need a station wagon. Sadly, nothing on the market’s as well-suited as the Territory was.”
For Greg, that means forced compromise and further difficulty comes from third parties. “Many other construction and mining sites we provide services to now only permit 4WD and in some cases even mandate diesel vehicles on their sites. It heavily complicates the selection process with people needing to do their jobs but not always in an expensive off-roader. It forces you to expand in a world where businesses are trying to consolidate. It’s not just us – everybody’s in the same boat.”
Greg’s multi-stage evaluation process works through a series of selection criteria of descending importance starting with ‘Fit-For-Purpose’, then ANCAP safety, ‘Whole of Life Cost’, driver acceptance, and dealer network location and support. It puts his drivers out in the test vehicle field because ultimately they’re the ones who need to use them. The day’s exercise consisted of 11 vehicles from four manufacturers and teams of two per car – one person from Boral, the other from one of the four carmakers’ fleet and/or product development divisions. This co-operative not only provides a chance for staff to sample a variety of engines, handling, comfort and different interpretations on ergonomics, it offers manufacturers invaluable customer feedback and the chance to reflect on theirs and competitors’ products in an objective way.
Keeping nearly 30 people together around Sydney and its outer regions, the twisting B59 through Kurrajong and out to Bilpin, then through the testing dirt sections of Mountain Lagoon and Comelroy Roads, is not for the disorganised. Teams are given booklets with vehicle details, mapping info and route directions, plus a series of checklists for each of the 11 vehicles they experience during the day. Drivers drive and provide verbal feedback; likewise the passenger scribes and adds their impressions of the car.
Issues like head and leg room, getting in and out, clarity of instruments, binnacles and buttons, good visibility (or lacking), on-road size and maneuverability, storage compartments, driving dynamics and handling plus braking and engine performance in real world applications, are all taken into account and marked purely based on expectation, and then scores the experience relevant to that expectation.
Getting the 12-car convoy to each driver change-over point to swap vehicles and then continue down the road, among regular daily Sydney commuters was a task left to Stewart Nicholls, business development manager and driving safety expert with Ian Luff Motivation. ILM driving academy conducts training courses, corporate functions and motivational talks across Australia and New Zealand. Their motto is ‘drive to survive’, appropriate considering the roads and potential for accidents.
“Our team had four or five planning meetings before the event and drove the route multiple times to ensure everybody was going to be safe,” Stewart said. “When you’ve got that many people out on public roads, in that many vehicles, you’ve got to plan and prepare for everything. There’s a lot to get through in one day, everybody’s under pressure to keep things moving and I thought we were very successful on this exercise.”
“Safety is already the paramount concern for the entire Boral business, so we put contingencies in place for everything. We’ve never had an incident on an event like this and that comes down to planning.” Stewart’s background is etched in the realm of motorsport, running large-scale rallying events with CAMS (Confederation of Australian Motor Sport), where communication and planning were paramount. “When you’ve got hundreds of volunteers, hundreds of competitors with snorting rally cars and thousands of spectators on public roads we over-plan, and that helps things go smoothly.”
Key to the operation was a 12th ‘sweep’ vehicle that keeps the group together, bound by two-way radio between it and the ‘lead’ car. “We had connectivity through radio communication at every second along the way,” Stewart adds. “We had medical presence in the team, and there were alternate routes and plans ready to implement if needed. At the same time we ensured the program also ticked all the boxes needed to gather the data and road conditions that the fleet needs to cope with.”
“Lastly, we also ensure a strong psychological element is controlled too,” he added. “You need to spell it out so that the message is clear from the outset: You’re in a foreign vehicle, on the public roads, in a variety of road conditions where you need to pay attention and be sensible. The risk versus reward has to be emphasised. Fortunately Boral’s safety procedures are exceptional and everybody’s very well trained. My presence as the lead car helps control the pace of the group on top of that, which helps them focus on safely assessing the car.”
Feedback across the day was impressive for a group of people not accustomed to ‘road testing’, per se. That said, picking a fleet vehicle to suit the needs of a business cannot just rely on the sometimes weathervane opinions of motoring journalists. The vehicles need to be tried first-hand.
Ciara in Boral’s Concrete division works on new project sites across Sydney which can offer, pardon the pun, mixed driving conditions. “I regularly drive one of the Territorys which I really like, it’s really high-up and quite responsive so it’s interesting to see what these new cars are like,” she said at the first major stop outside the Sydney metro area.
“I will be doing some long-distance driving, in traffic between project sites, so I also quite like the Kuga, it’s relatively comfy on short motorway stints with good seating and lumber support. So I would need something that’s quite well-rounded but not necessarily a big car,” she added.
The complexity of the exercise becomes clearer speaking to more drivers. Accounts and sales pundit John, in the Cement business, started his day and quickly took a liking to the new Ford Everest Trend.
“For me, the Territory has perfect height for taking to trade shows and product exhibitions where I’ll be lifting bags of concrete and gear in and out of the boot,” he said. “The last thing I need is to injure my back. The Everest as an SUV definitely covers that requirement and would be comfortable for long haul regional trips which can often be a 500-1000kms roundtrip.”
“At over six-foot-tall I prefer an SUV that I can step into rather than clamber out of – as well as a tailgate I don’t bump my head on, plus I like a quiet cabin. The five-star ANCAP rating, excellent all-round vision including no blind spots in the big door mirrors and easy driving feel make Everest practical for what I need.” At a hefty 60 grand manufacturer’s list price however, it may prove too costly an option – but if it does the job well enough, this might be overlooked.
Subaru proved a staunch contender with additional ride-height over the Mondeo wagon and excellent stowage combined with its renowned
symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, useful for Boral’s multitude of surface variations between sites. In naturally aspirated 2.5-litre petrol guise a number of comments suggested the below-par power (129kW) and torque (235Nm) at 80-100km/h speeds made overtaking and drive performance inadequate with the test load of two adults and 200 kilos on board. Subaru’s ‘Eyesight’, the standard active safety equipment suite included across the Outback range, was praised a number of times, however often went unnoticed for all the right reasons. Lane departure warnings went off for a number of drivers, adaptive cruise control made Sydney’s hectic motorways less so, and nobody had to use the pre-collision braking systems to avoid a crash.
Linda from Boral Fleet’s tolling, infringements and invoicing area, doesn’t drive the Territory, and is a sensible driver with a more passive perspective.
“I don’t do a lot of driving but I find the Outback diesel quite nice to drive and easy to use, very smooth,” she said. “There’s a little bit of reflection off the centre screen, but it’s still readable and intuitive to use. The seat position is good, steering is light enough, and the diesel feels stronger than the petrol we drove previously.” Although with all its standard safety equipment including reversing camera, EyeSight, and hill descent control at $35,990MLP in automatic vs manual diesel at the same price, a strong case stacks up for the base model 2.5i petrol.
Driving up the twisty steep hills out of Richmond towards Bilpin and the nearly-famous Tutti Fruity sign and convenient driver change point, the top-spec 3.6R and diesel Outbacks outdrove the base model with 200kg of ballast aboard every car– especially when Linda found the Outback’s Sport-Drive button. However, talking payloads, the plucky Subie with its much-improved and smooth CVT gearbox, lacked the Territory’s towing potential.
Much closer to the predecessor’s haulage limit was the Mitsubishi Outlander diesel with two-tonne braked towing capacity, just 300kg shy of the Aussie. While the plug-in electric Outlander PHEV made its presence (or lack thereof) known in the inner suburban legs of the day, with comfort, smoothness , SUV practicality and safety, it still lacks the toughness needed in the Boral fleet. Another ace up the AWD Outlander diesel’s sleeve was its list price at $37,500 for the five-seater with safety pack, making a strong case against the Everest.
Don from Boral HR, whose regular ‘commute’ includes a tour through the Blue Mountains, to Canberra and further inland, quickly commented on the choppy ride of the Pajero Sport and Outlander, however was praising of the latter’s driving simplicity.
“You couldn’t criticise it, it did everything well, but nothing stood out for me,” he said as the convoy hit the dirt roads. “I found the Subaru had notable safety features but was a bit stiff, whereas the Pajero Sport is over compensating, a bit too soft and unsupportive.”
On soft shoulders, tight turns, bumps and tougher corrugated dirt sections the Pajero Sport revealed its flaws. Another six-footer, comfort is clearly important for taller drivers like Don. “This car’s very spongy with the weight in the back, it’s sloppy and makes the soft American Kluger feel tight. The Mondeo was quite smooth, but had too many buttons to learn.”
“I drive to quarries or asphalt sites, do long trips down to Dunmore near Nowra, to Hall Quarry on the ACT border, to Thornton in the Hunter Valley – all in a 2-3 hour range each way, about once a week. So the car needs to be comfy, safe and purposeful because often I’m driving at dusk or dawn. Brakes also need to be good for avoiding kangaroos.” Don transferred to the Everest for a back-woods driving leg and was noticeably impressed on the even rougher corrugations, deep potholes and fine dust, although it proved a little skittish in the rear. He also found the black-on-black facia buttons difficult to see and push while driving due to their inward-sloping angle.
Anecdotally, cabin layout and the overloading of driver distractions from technology were one of the resounding themes from the day across all test vehicles. Too many buttons, too much connectivity, and an overloading of information provided the most significant hurdle for drivers to adapt to. In fleets, some people change cars daily or weekly and are expected to operate the vehicle safely, but not being able to find functions like cruise control, wipers or seat adjustments easily, becomes a massive concern. Cabin screen and dashboard reflections, poor button lighting and positioning, or steeply raked windscreens that blind in afternoon sun are often lesser-considered safety design issues.
Safety concerns are just some of the aspects Greg Sharpe wants taken into consideration. Safety is the absolute top priority for Boral. For such a large company with so many people working in potentially hazardous environments, it has to be. They follow a simple but effective motto: ‘Zero Harm Today’. It asks staff to think consciously about what they can do to avoid causing harm to others or themselves. It’s with this mindset that Greg organised the event.
“We are always asking ourselves the question, ‘What can I do to avoid anyone being harmed today?’ If we see a situation we don’t trust, we terminate what we’re doing immediately. If there were any uncertain or unforeseen conditions, then we’d have stopped and turned around. We do not take chances with people’s safety at any cost. I’m very pleased that everything went very well and we gathered all the information we needed to make a sound decision in the near future.”
As for hosting your own evaluation day for picking your next fleet, Greg is always one to offer good advice that comes with experience. “Don’t go in with any preconceived ideas because you’ll be disappointed,” he concludes. “Pay attention to safety and detail, and above all pay attention to planning. Safety falls into place with proper documented planning – get it right and make sure all the right processes are in place. Then pick your people diversely from the short to the very tall, from construction workers and sales persons to office types, not just your mates or your boss and not just car nuts. Make sure they assess everything – no opinion is wrong because everybody has to drive your fleet.”
The line-up consisted of: two Ford Kugas, a petrol 2WD and diesel AWD variant, plus the 2WD Mondeo wagon diesel and 2WD Everest large SUV; Mitsubishi’s mid-size Outlander diesel and PHEV plug-in hybrid AWD’s, plus the larger SUV Pajero Sport diesel 4WD; three of Subaru’s tried-and-true Outback AWD’s in base-model petrol, mid-spec turbo-diesel, and top-spec 3.6R petrol; and a Toyota Kluger for good measure in V6 petrol 2WD guise. Boral’s fleet is already familiar with the Toyota Prado 4WD, Kluger AWD and the RAV4.None of these candidates had been selected for their styling or tinsel.