We revisit Tegan Lawon’s trip to the Philippines in an SUV.
I’m stuck on a bus… and I’ve been stuck on this bus for five hours. Five hours!
I’m on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines. Luzon is the largest of the 7641 islands that form the archipelago that make up the Philippines.
It’s also the most populous, with some 53 million people calling the island home. No wonder then, the 90km bus ride from the capital Manila to our final destination, the Clark Air Base, a military facility home to both the Philippines Air Force and the United States Air Force, is taking so long.
So why am I heading to US Air Force base in the Philippines? It’s not to test the latest military hardware, that’s for sure. No, I am here to test some hardware of a different type.
Over the next few days will be exploring the Luzon countryside in four Ford SUVs: the Everest, Explorer, Escape (Kuga) and EcoSport.
Think you know peak hour traffic?
Thing again. With a population of around 13 million people, Manila’s roads are a busy place to be. After landing in the nation’s capital, we need to make the 90km trek to our base, but we are going nowhere. And it’s hot.
This is the first time I’ve been to the Philippines and when I was invited by Ford to share this experience with a bunch of other journalists, I knew it would be unlike anything I’ve done before.
I didn’t expect to spend the first evening on a bus, but it was fascinating to just stare out the window and watch what was happening as we crawled along in what I can only assume is a lane. There were no markings and the traffic was at least five lanes wide – each way.
There are so many cars, Jeepny’s (a hand-built type of public transport), motorised trikes, bikes and scooters, all weaving in and out and honking their horns. And not because they are cranky – instead, that’s how you say ‘watch out I’m coming through’. It’s organised chaos and the issue is the sheer volume of traffic.
Yet, somehow it all seems to work. Food stalls line the streets, vendors are knocking on vehicle windows in the hopes of making a sale, kids play alongside the sea of cars and there are people everywhere.
There are more than 102 million people living across the thousands of islands that make up the Philippines and Manila is one of the most densely populated cities in the world with 41,515 people per square kilometre. To put that into perspective, Australia’s largest city, Sydney, has a population density of just 380 people per square kilometre. And you thought Sydney traffic was bad. Pffft!
Though it is hectic and there are clearly defined pockets where those with and without money live, this collection of islands in southeast Asia boasts some stunning scenery.
As we make our way out of the city snarl with its manic and convoluted traffic flow, we hit the freeway and start to get a glimpse of the island’s spectacular environment.
As I mentioned, from Manila we were only travelling around 90 kilometres northwest to the Clark Air Base which is again in use by the United States Air Force for the first time since 1991.
Over the recent years, the US Air Force has deployed what it calls an “air contingent” to the Philippines. It’s believed this “contingent” is closely monitoring escalating tensions in the South China Sea.
The US military held a presence at the base from 1903 to 1991 but withdrew just before the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. And that exploding mountain is where we were headed.
Mount Pinatubo is part of a chain of volcanoes called the Zambales Mountains and when it erupted in June 1991, it was the second-largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century, spewing out ten cubic kilometres of ash and claiming 847 lives.
Avalanches of gas, mud and rock decimated local villages as a cloud of volcanic ash spread through the sky.
Monsoon and typhoon rain caused giant mudflows of ash and volcanic material, known as lahars. The lahar beds were up to 200 metres deep and they have been eroding over the years as water cuts through, creating valleys and perversely, amazing four-wheel-drive trails.
Driving the Ford Everest in the top Titanium spec, we tackled the terrain and the lahars are unlike anything I’ve ever driven on before. Lahars offer a unique texture that is stickier than mud, and not as slippery as sand. We had to maintain a speed of 30-40km/h or run the risk of sinking, potentially up to mid-door level and that’s not a position I wanted to be in!
It’s a great surface for getting a bit of a drift on though and as the dusty, dry surface gave way to water crossings followed by muddy lahar beds, we were able to test out the Everest’s prowess.
The Everest has a 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel that produces 143kW and 470Nm and it’s teamed with a six-speed automatic transmission. It also boasts full-time four-wheel drive and did a great job of pulling us along through the unpredictable conditions.
There had been a bit of rain recently so the water was flowing and combined with the cliffs formed by volcanic material topped with lush rainforest, it looked like we were embedded in a scene from Jurassic Park or Avatar.
Ford’s terrain management system has four modes – Normal, Grass/Gravel/Snow, Sand and Rock – and we used all, except Grass/Gravel/Snow, changing through them as needed. For a large family SUV it was surprisingly capable and remarkably comfortable to be bumping along over rocks and ruts in.
This Everest is stock standard too, right down to the 20-inch alloy wheels. Based on the Ranger, the 2016 Everest has independent front suspension and a new rear suspension set-up with a solid rear axle with Watt’s Linkage to limit lateral movement.
Something else that differentiates it from some of its competitors – it has electrically assisted steering rather than hydraulic.
The 4WD system defaults to 60 per cent rear axle bias, but can move torque to either end on demand as needed. It has an 800mm wading depth, approach angle of 29.5 degrees, departure angle of 25 and ramp break-over angle of 21.5. Completing the suite of off-road features, it has a lockable diff and low-range with hill-descent control.
Not to mention the Titanium has a sunroof which was perfect for watching the water splash over the top of the vehicle as we got up some speed along the lahar bed.
Next up was the Ford Explorer, which I was particularly excited about because we don’t get it in Australia and this would be my first time behind the wheel of this seven-seat large SUV. I asked the obvious question, even though I already knew the answer: Ford Australia was quick to reinforce that we are unlikely to ever see it here.
Which is a pity, because it’s a really well-rounded family car. It’s incredibly spacious inside, even in the third-row which is equipped with two decent-sized seats that probably wouldn’t be relegated to ‘sometimes seats’ if we were to review it thoroughly.
The Explorer is stylish with luxury finishes and plush leather seats and it’s perfectly at home off the bitumen too. We were headed to a place called Green Canyon Eco Resort which is the first eco art resort in the Philippines, located at Bamban around 10km from Clark Air Base and on the edge of the city of Angeles. Of course, we went the long way and followed some easy dirt tracks through dense trees.
The Explorer is larger than the Everest which may be why is very popular in the US. They just love their big cars and large pick-ups. It’s available with a 3.5-litre V6 or 2.3-litre EcoBoost engine in some variants, while the Sport and Platinum trim levels have a 3.5-litre six cylinder EcoBoost engine that pumps out 272kW and 474Nm. Both the Sport and Platinum are only offered in four-wheel drive with a six-speed automatic transmission and paddle shifters.
We were driving the Sport, which is a similar trim level to the Platinum but differs in that it has sharper steering, stiffer spring and damper tuning, and perforated leather trimmed seats with red stitching.
It was beautifully quiet, even over rough surfaces and the ride was unexpectedly smooth considering the stiffer suspension set-up and 20-inch wheels with low-profile tyres.
This leg of the Philippines experience was all about luxury so we got to wander through the grounds, enjoy a quick shoulder massage and relax by the wave pool. I wish I’d taken my swimmers because it was incredibly humid and a brief dip would have been amazing.
Our drive also wound its way through little villages, with narrow roads that were lined with smiling kids who waved as we went past, as well as little street stalls with food that smelled divine.
To get a glimpse of yet another side of the Philippines, we then jumped into the Escape which has been sold as the Kuga in Australia. However, that changes come model year 2017 when the new, refreshed Escape arrives Down Under.
The idea for this leg of the trip, was that we were escaping from the hustle and bustle of the city (see what Ford did there – escape, in the Escape!) and making our way through farmland and villages to a new, modern community called Lakeshore.
No off-road adventuring in the Escape, which was a relief in the end because I was mentally drained after playing in traffic that was just as crazy as when we had first arrived. This time I wasn’t a passenger observing through the bus window, I was participating and it was nothing short of scary at first.
After getting used to the way it flows, I quickly learned that you have to just commit and go. No hesitation, and no being nice to your fellow motorists. If you miss an opportunity to cross an intersection or get in on the roundabout action, you’ll be waiting a while for another one.
It was far too hot to use the heated seats on our top-spec Escape Titanium and after battling through the city, dodging tricycles and staying out of the way of Jeepny’s we arrived at the lake to learn a bit about the local culture, including a board game called Sungka which I purchased at the airport souvenir shop because it was a lot of fun and I’ve played far too many games of connect four to find it entertaining anymore.
The Escape is a medium SUV and not a bad size for navigating the narrow, busy roads. It has a 2.0-litre EcoBoost turbo petrol engine that produces 178kW and 345Nm teamed with a six-speed sports automatic transmission. It packs the punch we need to drive like a local.
The steering is light and direct, it’s all-wheel-drive, has torque vectoring and great body control. The ride is a little firm but it has a sporty feel.
The final leg is in the EcoSport, Ford’s compact SUV and we’re off on a bit of a race through the outskirts of town to get a taste of the local culture first hand.
We head out of town and over the Mega Dike access road which runs along the top of a wall that was constructed to help protect the city from surrounding volcanoes.
Filipino’s embrace Christmas and one of the traditions is to decorate homes and streets with hand-made lanterns. I gave it a go, but arty-crafty endeavours are best left to the professionals.
The EcoSport we are in is the Shadow variant which is a little different to the Titanium with its blacked out grille, dark wheels and black side-mirror covers. It has a 1.5-litre four cylinder petrol engine with a six-speed sports automatic transmission that produces 82kW and 140Nm.
With the day heating up, our next stop was a relief. Halo Halo – which means ‘mixed together’ – is a traditional Filipino treat. It’s like a milkshake/dessert made with ice, evaporated milk, sweet beans, coconut, sago, fruit and other ingredients that I couldn’t identify. It may not look pretty but it tasted amazing.
Our last stop was at a local market to shop for souvenirs and pick up a crate of coconuts – perfect for a fresh cocktail at the end of a busy few days.