“No way!” I think to myself. The alarm bells in my head have gone from a light tinkle to full blast jangle on our reconnaissance drive around 19 Degree North’s many acres of forest.
I have driven here before and know the terrain, but today, it seems very daunting and it isn’t because of what I am driving either. In this lightly customised Mahindra Thar, or The Ram, as I think of it, we can just barge through the wilderness without a care. The Thar heaves over boulders and thuds through ditches nonchalantly, albeit with the grace of a fully loaded truck. Physical discomfort aside, the Thar offers a lot of peace of mind here. After all, even if we don’t manage to avoid all the obstacles, this 1675kg creature could surely handle a few hard hits. But my teeth clench a bit as I think about the rest of the flock that’s waiting in the parking lot.
Like a lamb to…
Whatever will they do? I can imagine some of this lot crunching to a halt just a few hundred metres down this path. Honda’s CR-V, or the City Slicker as I thought of it, is the first car that comes to mind. The Honda isn’t pretending to be a tough guy; quite the opposite, it’s unabashedly urbane. Forcing it to get its feet dirty is incredibly mean. The Skoda Yeti, the Sophisticate, is the next one to pop up in my head. It’s amazing how something so small and quirky can wrap itself in an air of upper-crust cool. And it also has a demeanour that suggests it could use its paws for more than just shaking hands. Know what I mean?
Then there’s Posh Spice, or the Range Rover Evoque. Like the former pop phenomenon, the Evoque is mostly seen in the posh areas of town, but it’s a Range Rover and it’s meant to go anywhere, isn’t it? But it just looks so dainty, and it certainly isn’t cheap, so we’d better be careful with that one. Next up is the Renault Duster, or the Sheep. When seen in the wilderness, the Duster looks a bit lost, like a kid that’s been shorn of the security of its flock. Hopefully, we don’t have to shepherd it too much. In contrast, the Mahindra XUV500, looks properly confident.
No, I am not thinking of it as the Cheetah – it’s more like the Wolf.
Interestingly, although these cars are built around a monocoque chassis and all of them use all-wheel-drive systems of varying sophistication, they aren’t designed for hardcore mud plugging. Unlike the Thar, these five don’t have optional off-road tyres, low ratios or a locking rear differential either. So how far will they go?
Soon, we reach the spot picked out for a group photograph. It is perfect, but is there any other way, an easier way to get here, I ask our guide. There is, he assures us, and we head off to scope out the alternative route. Relieved, I follow his Gypsy in the Thar. But my relief is short-lived. The climb up is littered with big rocks, the route is rutted unevenly and there are large steps every now and then too. The only way it seems to be better is that there is some room to manoeuvre here. The sky is overcast too. If the rain stays away, we may be able to pull this off. But if it pours, some of the softies might have to spend the night here.
Pretty but tough
This is it. A couple of drives up and down the first test patch in the Thar has done little to ease the lump in my throat. I quickly take stock of the combatants and formulate a plan. Objectively, the Evoque seems quite ready for the challenge ahead. Still, it is the one I am most worried about damaging, so I jump into the deep end of the pool and head off in the Evoque. Within the first few minutes, my worries start to melt away. While the suspension seems a touch fidgety on tarmac, here, it feels completely at home. Unlike the Thar, you aren’t rocking violently side-to-side, crawling over the ruts and rocks.
At the point where the road dives downhill, I pause and peer down. It still looks pretty daunting. The descent will test each contender’s off-roading basics, such as approach, departure and ramp break-over angles. On the way up, it will be the drivetrain that will have to prove its worth. In the Thar, we could take the chance of clambering down without a second thought, but we have to tread a bit more cautiously with the Evoque. So, I push the driver’s seat up to get a better view of what’s ahead. Rahul, an experienced off-roader, is playing spotter and guides me around and over obstacles that aren’t visible to me from inside the cabin.
In the Mud and Ruts program of Terrain Response, the Evoque has transformed dramatically. The all-wheel-drive system seems to be locked and the 2.2-litre diesel engine is making all the torque easily accessible. Even though the Evoque doesn’t have a low range box, it crawls in a measured manner because it packs the new 9-speed gearbox with a shorter first gear. Combined with the grunt of the engine, the Evoque marches forward with confidence. There’s hardly any wheel slip, and it’s only our over-cautiousness that’s slowing it down. Down, up and once again, the Evoque makes it look like a cakewalk and comes through unscathed. Whew!
Out of the closet
Next, I pick the CR-V to tackle the slope. The Honda is the car with the least ground clearance, only 170mm, and its wheelbase is the second- longest here. It’s such a city slicker that Honda doesn’t publish its approach, departure and ramp-over angles anywhere around the world. It also doesn’t have any off-road mode or locking switch to prime it for the route up ahead. Also, this Honda runs on petrol power and loves revs. So, if you throw the CR-V’s spec sheet into this battle, it would be laughed off. What followed was a complete surprise.
The CR-V breezes through it. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. But the CR-V is incredibly calm. We take it down slowly. Carefully stepping off rocks and hopping down the ledges, else the soft suspension could cause the chin to ground down. Despite our best attempts, the CR-V does kiss the ground once, but only just. It then makes it all the way down without any struggle. The climb up is made tougher still as it starts to rain. And here’s where the engine and the all-wheel-drive system surprises us. The i-VTEC motor seems to have ample torque on the ready for every prod of the throttle and the all-wheel-drive system uses it all effortlessly. Consequently, as we crawl uphill, the CR-V doesn’t scrabble for grip, it just steps calmly forward. We are so surprised that we take it down the loop just to make sure we aren’t imagining it. Turns out, we aren’t.
What makes a great off-roader?
Skoda’s Yeti is one of the packages that we expect to spring a surprise. The India-spec Yeti 4x4 is sold as the Yeti Outdoor in Europe. Which means the bumpers, front and rear, are more off-road oriented to improve approach and departure angles. That’s 19 degrees (on par with the Evoque) at the front and 32 degrees (better than the Evoque) at the rear. Along with its facelift in 2014, the Yeti also received the latest generation of the Haldex all-wheel-drive system that provides an Off-Road mode. When activated, the mode optimises the ABS, traction control systems for better braking and acceleration on loose and slippery surfaces. It also automatically engages Hill Descent Control and I can feel it applying the brakes smoothly to slow the Yeti as we trundle downhill. But the trek down is more taxing than expected. Although the Yeti’s nose stays clean of obstacles, its ramp break-over angle proves to be its Achilles’ heel as the Skoda’s belly crunches repeatedly on the rocky road.
Coming uphill is tougher still. It’s all too easy to stall the engine as the bite from the clutch is too sharp. The 2.0-litre motor’s weak bottom-end torque complicates matters further as I have to dial in the revs to get the Yeti going. Getting the right amount of torque to climb smoothly over an obstacle is a bit like stabbing wildly in the dark. A desperate hit or miss. In the end, the Yeti makes it through, but we can’t help but wonder what it would be like with some more ground clearance.
You just don’t know what to expect of the XUV500. It certainly has a larger than life image, and it is large too. It’s the longest car here with the longest wheelbase and it weighs a considerable 1785kg, nearly as heavy as the RR Evoque and outweighing the Mahindra Thar. And it has ample ground clearance too. By default, the four-wheel-drive system on the XUV operates as a FWD, but when it senses slip, torque is transferred to the rear wheels. It also offers modes to lock the all-wheel drive in 4x4 mode and a switch to activate Hill Descent Control. So, it’s quite well prepared.
With both modes selected, we attack the slope. The XUV isn’t short of ground clearance, but the suspension tosses us around a bit more than others. However, the Hill Descent Control is handy, as you keep clutching in and out to cut power, but the system applies the brakes automatically to slow us down. On the way uphill, the XUV’s tough credentials are put under intense scrutiny. On the first attempt, the XUV loses steam halfway up the hill, as the engine rpms drop off along with the available traction. At first, we are flummoxed, but repeated attempts prove that the AWD Lock is cutting off halfway up the slope, presumably because it’s heating up. It takes us three attempts and a fair bit of manhandling to get the XUV500 up the climb.
Finally, the Duster AWD. Its specification sheet suggests that under its simple garb is a lot of promise. At 205mm, its ground clearance is 5mm more than the Thar and 5mm shy of the Evoque’s 210mm. Its 30-degree approach angle and 36-degree departure angles can put the Evoque to shame too. Multiplying its off-road ability is its 1315kg of kerb weight, the lightest here by far! The 4x4 system is electronically controlled, which can be used in 2WD, AUTO or 4WD Lock mode. The latter splits torque between front and rear axles equally.
Like most of the others, the Renault too slithers downhill without breaking a sweat. However, it has an added degree of fluency as the soft suspension, the ample ground clearance, good approach and departure angles let it pad gently downhill. Neither the rocks nor the sudden drops can bother the underbody.
The real surprise is the way the Duster climbs uphill. Renault’s choice of the TL8 gearbox with the shorter ratios helps make up for the lack of a low-range option. Whether I roll off the gas or press down for some more torque, the Duster strides up as though it’s taking a stroll. We push it further and find that it can tackle most of the climb in second gear as well! This clearly is no sheep.
Now that we know the lay of the land, it’s time to play. We attack a short but sharp ascent to test the go-anywhere ability further. The CR-V surprises again and the Duster’s light weight gives it an edge once more. As the rain stays away, the brown terrain doesn’t turn into a murderous slush fest, which means these street-tyre equipped soft-roaders go further and play for longer. But the real adventure is a little further, so while the others wait patiently, the Duster and the Evoque follow the Thar into tougher terrain.
Whether it’s heaving up and down on narrow and rocky paths or driving down streams, the Evoque and the Thar prove to be more enjoyable and capable than you would imagine. Although both these soft-roaders sit at two extremes of the price range, you can’t fault either. But which one excites us more? The Evoque’s appeal is hard to beat. But the sensible pick it certainly isn’t. After all, any unfortunate incident would prove to be quite expensive; the battery of electronic aids will need to be cared for too. Crucially, the Evoque can’t really top the Thar’s off-road abilities, definitely not without locking differentials.
Without locking differentials, the Duster too won’t be able to go as far as the Thar. However, if we found it a set of Mud Terrain tyres and a sturdy bash plate for the chin, we’d be willing to find out. After all, isn’t off-roading about adventuring into the unknown and taking on the chin whatever comes your way? If so, we’d be just a little bit happier doing so with this Wolf in Sheep’s clothing.
The XUV500 uses a Borg Warner NexTrac differential. It turns the XUV from a front-wheel drive to an all-wheel drive in an instant. The XUV packs a hill descent control system to crawl down inclines. Making your way up is made easier by the Hill-Hold assist as it prevents the XUV from rolling back for a few crucial seconds.
The Evoque uses a Haldex centre differential, but allied to Range Rover’s Terrain Response, the going gets easier still. The different modes adjust torque split, wheel slip, the throttle response and gear shifts to claw through the terrain better. The Evoque does without low ratios like on its elder siblings, however, the ZF9HP gearbox makes up by providing a lower first gear than the previous Evoque.
Dubbed Real Time 4WD by Honda, the CR-V is primarily a front-wheel-drive machine that splits torque to the rear wheels when it senses loss of traction. It too uses a multi plate-clutch centre differential. The Honda is the only vehicle here that doesn’t offer any dedicated modes for the all-wheel-drive system. However, the CR-V’s system is road-biased and bestows it with exceptional composure and agility on tarmac. The Honda also offers Hill Start Assist to prevent rolling back.
The Yeti uses the latest fifth generation of the Haldex all-wheel-drive system. The Off-Road mode tweaks electronic aids such as Anti-Slip Regulation, Electronic Differential Lock and ABS to enhance the Yeti’s off-road performance. The Yeti’s Hill Start Assist adapts throttle response and caps engine rpm to make it easier to get the manual transmission-equipped vehicle going up a slippery incline.
The Duster’s all-wheel-drive system is a Nissan-sourced design. It can be locked in 2WD mode for street use. In Auto mode, torque is sent to the rear wheels in varying ratios, depending on the conditions. In Lock mode, the torque split is fixed to 50:50 and the mode is disengaged at speeds above 60kph. The TL8 gearbox, derived from the 2WD variants’ TL4 unit, uses shorter ratios, especially the first gear, which makes crawling at low speeds a breeze.
With the facelift, the Thar has received a very potent update to deliver on its go-anywhere promise — a locking rear differential. This electronically controlled system locks the differential when it senses slip of 100rpm between the rear wheels. With low range and mud tyres, the Thar’s go-anywhere promise has been fulfilled.
What makes a great off-roader?
What makes a great off-roader
1 Weight If you want to get around quickly and smoothly, be it on race tracks or mud tracks, weight is the enemy. The frugal roots of the Duster gave it, presumably, an unintended advantage in this regard.
2 Ground clearance The importance of it is highlighted amply by the plight of the Yeti. More ground clearance would have helped it carry more momentum and smoothen its passage.
3 Tyres The Thar used here wears optional mud terrain tyres. A high land-to-sea ratio, that is, plenty of grooves between tread blocks lets the tyres claw through muck and are pretty good at cleaning themselves out too.
4 Patience This is a driver feature. Taking things slowly and methodically will get you further. Just try and rush ahead, and no matter how good the vehicle, the journey could end any minute. All it takes is a stray rock, or tree stump hidden by a tuft of grass.
5 Spotter A friend in need, and you’ll need one when you go into the rough stuff. Using hand and voice signals, a spotter can direct the vehicle over the best route. Sometimes clambering over a rock can be better than going over it — the spotter is there to take these calls. This is why having an experienced off-roader to spot for you can make the experience safer and more enjoyable.
With inputs from Rahul Kakkar