Compact SUVs in name only, or can they handle some midly harsh terrain and our worst roads? Here’s our verdict.
Anything that looks big sells in the Indian car market. Well, most do – take the case of compact SUVs. The popularity of these vehicles has risen many fold in the last few years and we Indians seem to have fallen in love with the fact that these have a higher street cred, offer a SUVish stance and come with a higher seating posture. But, can these justify the ‘SUV’ badge? To see just that, we decided to pit three of the most popular compact SUVs against each other at the country’s finest privately owned off-road track at the ‘Off-road adventure zone’ just outside Gurgaon.
Maruti Vitara Brezza: The country’s highest selling compact SUV does everything an owner wants. It comes powered by the ever reliable 1.3-litre (its 1248cc actually) diesel motor which is good for 90 PS / 200 Nm. Can the light weight Brezza show its true colours in tricky off-road situations?
Tata Nexon: This cool looking compact SUV has caught the fancy of Indian consumers. Looks nice, is spacious and is powered by the most powerful engine here – the 1497cc diesel motor has 110 PS / 260 Nm and you can also pick the 1198cc petrol with 110 PS / 170 Nm. Good combination?
Ford EcoSport: We love the updated EcoSport and the way Ford has packaged it well for Indian consumers. And guess what? While the Brezza and Nexon were diesel versions for this comparison, we picked the 1.5-litre automatic petrol EcoSport just to add a pinch of spice. Automatic on an off-road track? Yes!
Round 1: High-speed run
We started off by having a go at the high speed outer track at Oraz (off-road adventure zone) which is referred to as the Auto Cross.. This is an approximately 550 meter track in a squarish form with soft sand and a few demanding curves thrown in.
The Maruti Brezza, thanks to its light weight, felt at ease here and it was a delight to throw it around with the free revving DDiS being pushed to its red-zone. The peppy diesel engine makes sure power is at hand though turbo-lag did catch me unaware a few times.
Next, the Nexon felt like a different thing all together. Though the 1.5-litre diesel motor takes time building up the momentum, once on the boil, the Nexon impressed me. And ofcourse I made use of the Sport mode for round one and after a few laps, the Nexon finished off in style, being almost neck to neck with the Brezza in terms of timing.
I was skeptical about the EcoSport as this was an automatic version but was proved wrong within the first lap. The 1.5-litre dragon motor loves being revved and thanks to paddle shifts, I could take over the transmission with better control. I love the way this Ford handles and could push it hard, thanks to availability of ESP / TC which is now being offered with the diesel motor too. Good work there, Ford.
In the end though, it had to be the Brezza that was the quickest here, setting a time of 31 seconds. Just for comparison, as per Vikramjeet, owner of Oraz, the best time at the outer fast loop has been 28 seconds, set by a heavily modified Gypsy running on A/T tyres. Not bad, Brezza, not bad!
Round 2: The chicken humps
As the name suggests, when driven on this track, the car performs like a chicken, moving vertically with one or even two wheels up in the air. Wheel articulation and throttle response come in handy and you have to be gentle with the car while preventing any wheel-spin.
The Brezza went in first and though I assumed turbo-lag would have been an issue, it came out in with flying colors. The only trouble here was the relatively limited ground clearance which meant this Maruti hit its underbelly while negotiating the last big hump – thankfully it was hard sand and not rocky, so no damage there.
The Nexon has best in class ground clearance and every millimeter helps. I also switched to the city mode here so that throttle response became less jerky and the Nexon could sail through the humps smoothly, with one wheel up in the air as seen here.
The EcoSport’s automatic became its best tool here. No throttle intervention required as the creep function took over and the EcoSport managed to drive past well. On one occasion though when I stopped mid-way for my team’s cameras, starting off was tricky as the petrol motor had to be revved to generate the required torque, thus resulting in unwanted wheel spin.
This section proved how these compact SUVs could handle the occasion obstacle during your adventure trip without an issue. Always fancied jumping a divider to skip traffic?
Round 3: Axle breaker
The name is apt. This section has deep traps, filled with a big tyre each. The elastic rubber can catch your car’s tyre off-guard and stall the engine easily. If you rev too hard, the extra pressure on mechanicals can damage a lot of parts.
First up, the Maruti offering. The trick is to drive with half clutch at slow speeds so that the wheel has enough torque to move past the grip of the tyre trap. However, the depth of the pit caught me unaware. The stiff suspension of the Brezza does make you feel uncomfortable in such scenarios but being light weight, the 190 Nm of torque easily pushes it again. However, the Brezza has the lowest clearance here and it was evident.
The Nexon is heavy but has the highest torque. I literally went non-stop at a constant pace and the confidence at this particular stretch was the best here. So much so, I did this round five times, both in City and Sport modes. Tata, how about coming out with a 4×4 now?
We had the range topping Titanium+ EcoSport which meant it came with low profile 50 section tyres on 17-inch wheels. Not the best option for off-roading we say. The tyre traps did hit us hard but with the auto ‘box in manual mode in 1st, we made our way to the end. I am assuming the torquey diesel would have performed better here.
Round 4: The slush pit
We saved the best for the last. This slush pit is a big round park which is full of 15-20 inches of slush water and is usually reserved for 4×4 or AWD vehicles. I was sure these Pseudo SUVs would bog down easily and will have to be pulled out. However as you can see in the images, we had our share of fun and these little monsters refused to get stuck, giving my team members enough time to capture these shots.
If you keep the momentum going, these compact SUVs can give you grinning moments and your car a new paint job. Keep the torque right, do not over rev and you are sorted. The moment you feel the car is slowing down and wheels are spinning away, start steering left-right continuously – the tyres will start gripping again, thus gaining momentum again.
All the three contenders performed equally well with the EcoSport’s high water wading ability giving me that extra confidence. And had this area been wider, the light weight Brezza would have been fun with the rear stepping out easily.
As you can see, we had our share of ‘soft-roading’ in these compact SUVs. These are not hard-core utility vehicles given the lack of 4×4 or AWD but thanks to high ground clearance and big tyres, all these three contenders end up negotiating tough obstacles rather easily. The Brezza offers peace of mind given its easy repairs and reliable mechanics, the Nexon offers highest clearance and torque and the Ford EcoSport showcases than even an automatic can handle rather adventurous sections well.
If you own one of these, remember, momentum is the key and so is patience. Take it easy, get used to the vehicle and make sure you have a good spotter – a person who is walking outside besides the vehicle to warn you of obstacles.
You can, however, be sure that these three are perfectly capable of handling our worst roads and even an occasional, careful trip into mildly harsh terrain where no roads exist. Stay within their limits, and they will keep you happy.