What really is a cross-hatchback? There’s no textbook definition really. But, at a bare minimum, any hatchback with a rugged body kit makes the cut; the more plastic cladding (and ground clearance) the better. The idea is simple: to cash in on Indians’ love for SUVs. The thing is, cross-hatchbacks exist when compact SUVs (the sub four-metre variety) don’t. Think about it. Hyundai, Volkswagen, Toyota and Fiat, each have cross-hatchbacks in their line-ups, while Maruti and Ford don’t. Whether the Vitara Brezza and EcoSport are SUV enough is a debate for another day. But by virtue of their shape, size and positioning, they are compact SUVs.
Now that you have the background, let’s get to the purpose of this piece. What we want to see
is where exactly Honda’s new WR-V fits in. With its bespoke styling, raised suspension and additional features, it is more than just a Jazz with cosmetic addenda. Is it all the rugged urban car you’d need or will it leave you longing for a compact SUV? We’ve brought in the most popular of the cross-hatchbacks, the Hyundai i20 Active, and the most popular of the compact SUVs, the Vitara Brezza, to provide the reference points.
Looking the part
Honda could have merely slapped on some bits of plastic cladding on the standard Jazz to come up with the WR-V. Thankfully, the carmaker’s approach was a lot more comprehensive, and the effect works. The WR-V’s bespoke front section with the high-set bonnet, along with the larger 16-inch wheels and 23mm increase in ground clearance to 188mm give it a distinct profile and a stance far removed from the MPV-like Jazz’s. There are identifiable carry-over bits like the doors but it’s easy to tell which of the Hondas is the SUV pretender. Styling, however, could be a point of contention. While some find the WR-V’s front end overdone, others like the effect of the stretched-out headlamps and heavily cladded ◊
∆ bumper. Likewise for the tail that is best identified by its unique L-shaped tail-lamps.
Lve it or hate it, you will agree the WR-V looks more quasi-SUV than the i20 Active manages to. Given the scale to which the standard i20’s shape found mass acceptance, Hyundai probably didn’t see the need to make expensive sheet metal changes for the i20 Active. And that’s the problem. The Active just doesn’t look unique enough. Sure, it’s got the requisite dose of plastic shrouds, roof rails and even ground clearance is up to a useful 190mm, but, even so, the Active looks like a tarted-up i20 and no more. Just looking at one, you’ll question if the Active is worth the Rs 60,000 premium over the standard i20.
Put this trio on display and it’s the Vitara Brezza that will generate the most interest. It’s not butch-looking from any angle but it’s still got that defined SUV silhouette and that seemingly counts for a lot among Indian buyers. A more adventurous styling would have been welcome, but for its part, Maruti has done well to add some glam to the Brezza’s simple lines with the contrast roof and there’s a full catalogue of accessories to stylise it further. Its 198mm ground clearance also gives it an advantage over the other two but venture into the rough stuff at your own peril. Like the Honda and Hyundai cross-hatchbacks, the Maruti SUV is front-wheel drive only.
A large draw of SUVs is the high seating position and the corresponding good visibility they offer. Once again, it’s the Brezza that has the upper hand here. You sit reasonably high up and get a good view out. Its relatively upright A-pillars further emphasise that feeling of being in an SUV. Like the exteriors, the Brezza’s cabin can be jazzed-up with colours and trims but essentially it’s a neat and user-friendly place to be in. The dash is low-set (aiding visibility again), the front seats are comfy enough and there’s lots of storage space, including two gloveboxes. Just to be picky, the plastics low down on the dash aren’t great and there’s quite a bit shared with lesser Marutis too.
Anyone familiar with the Jazz will immediately feel at home in the WR-V but will also notice that you are seated higher up here. The advantage is a more commanding driving position but there’s still no getting around the thick A-pillar that obstructs visibility at crossroads. And, as with the Jazz, some might also take time getting used to how far ahead the high-set dashboard extends to meet the windscreen. On the plus side, the WR-V also carries forward the Jazz’s main highlight – the immense feeling of space in the cabin. Those at the front will also like their sportily upholstered, large and supportive seats. Unique to the WR-V is a sportier gear lever (it looks good but isn’t great to grip) and Honda’s latest touchscreen infotainment system which we’ll get to in a bit. There’s a touchscreen for the climate control settings too, though it does tend to be distracting for drivers to operate on the move.
An updated touchscreen infotainment system is the distinguishing feature on the recently launched 2017 model year i20 Active. The rest of the cabin is the same as before, including those zany colour schemes – Actives with light-coloured exteriors get a blue-on-black theme while dark-coloured cars get a subtler orange on black. You do get used to the colours with time and the quality levels, that are easily a notch or two above the Maruti and Honda, give the Hyundai’s cabin a premium ambience. But the i20 Active just doesn’t give drivers or passengers the heightened seating they’d desire. It feels very ‘car-like’ and this is something that works against the Active, at least, in this company.
The back benchers
Are you likely to travel regularly with five in your car? If so, the i20 Active may not suit your needs. Its rear seat’s width and contours make it best suited for two occupants, while the rear air con tower eats
into middle passenger legroom. As a place for two, the seat is fine. But your passengers are sure to prefer the more generous legroom and better visibility the other two models offer.
Those seated on the Brezza’s back seat get ample headroom, a fair deal of legroom and more than expected shoulder room. Adding to the comfort factor is the flip-down centre armrest that also features
two additional cupholders. Some might find the seat back a bit upright though.
On the contrary, the WR-V’s rear backrest is perhaps a touch too reclined and cushioning is on the softer side too. But it evens out, given the sheer amount of space on offer. Legroom is terrific for what is still a ‘small car’ and the large windows only accentuate the cabin’s roominess. However, it’s disappointing that the WR-V makes do with only small fixed rear headrests and not the safer adjustable type as on the other models. Honda has also left out the top-spec Jazz’s split, fold and flip ‘magic seats’ on the WR-V that would have allowed maximum use of luggage space.
Still, it’s the WR-V with the largest boot and the most convenient access, thanks to its low loading lip. The i20 Active has the smallest boot as well as the highest lip. Maruti’s Brezza comes in second in terms of boot space and access but offers the versatility of 60:40 split rear seats; the others come with single-piece rear-seat fold.
The WR-V is available in two trims, the Vitara Brezza in four and the i20 Active in three. Let’s talk safety first and glance at what the base versions of these cars offer. The WR-V has the highest starting price (Rs 8.99 lakh, ex-showroom, Delhi) but dual airbags and ABS are standard fit. The Brezza range has the lowest entry price (Rs 7.49 lakh) but, thankfully, ABS and a driver-side airbag come as standard; a passenger-side airbag is a Rs 14,000 option. ‘Base’ spec i20 Actives (Rs 8.25 lakh) get dual airbags but no ABS. Switching focus back to the top-spec versions we’re comparing here and it’s i20 Active SX that goes one up (or should that be four up?) on the competition with six airbags.
It’s a close fight in the all-important battle of the touchscreens. The screens serve as the display for the reverse cameras and sat-nav system on all three cars, and all of them get MirrorLink. The Brezza and Active additionally come bundled with Apple CarPlay, but only the Hyundai offers Android Auto too. Honda’s Digipad system offers the most customisation, is the slickest in operation and is also the only one here that gets an HDMI port, SD card reader and allows web browsing using a paired phone’s 3G/4G connection. The Brezza’s screen is clear and legible but the lack of a physical volume control knob or button is an irritant.
Of the other features, all cars get electric-fold mirrors, push-button start and automatic climate control. The WR-V is the only one here with a sunroof, the i20 the only one with a rear air con vent and the Brezza the only one with both automatic headlamps and wipers. The Brezza does miss out on telescopic steering adjust, there’s no cruise control on the i20 and even the fully loaded WR-V lacks auto headlamps and rain-sensing wipers.
On the go
The WR-V and i20 Active are available with petrol and diesel engine options but the Brezza only gets a diesel. So it’s solely the oil burners we’ve taken into consideration here.
The WR-V is the sixth Honda product in India to use its 1.5-litre i-DTEC diesel engine that makes 100hp at 3,600rpm and 200Nm at 1,750rpm. This engine is renowned for its good drivability and for its clatter. Unsurprisingly, you get more of the same here. The WR-V pulls well from low revs and builds speed easily, making it easy to live with in town but the engine also offers little to excite, despite making the most power here. There’s no surge in power at any point in the rev range and it’s doesn’t rev quick or deep either; the limiter kicks in at just 4,000rpm. The real issue though is the engine noise. Honda has strived to reduce the decibel levels but the engine remains noisy throughout. You can make the most of the engine’s tractability to keep the noise to a minimum by upshifting early. The WR-V’s clutch is well-weighted and gearshifts on the six-speed ’box are nice.
Loud as the WR-V’s engine is, it’s not the noisiest one here. That unfortunate distinction belongs to the Vitara Brezza’s diesel unit. The Brezza is the loudest at idle (49.7dB to the WR-V’s 48.5dB and Active’s 47.3dB) and is also the noisiest at max revs (76.3dB vs 68.3dB vs 71dB). Of course, you are familiar with the source of the noise. It’s none other than the Fiat-developed 1.3 diesel that also powers most of Maruti’s other cars. In the Brezza, the engine makes 90hp at 4,000rpm and 200Nm at 1,750rpm. The latter figure may be identical to the WR-V’s but the two cars are as different as chalk and cheese in the way they produce their power. At really low engine speeds, the Brezza feels lethargic and you have to work around the engine’s lack of low-end pep. But as the rev needle crosses 2,000rpm and the turbo is on song, the Maruti shoots off like a hare. The mid-range is particularly strong and there’s even a 5,000rpm-plus top-end! The spiky power delivery won’t find favour with all types of drivers but it does add an element of zing to the Brezza. Crisper gearshifts on its five-speed gearbox (the others have six-speed units) would have further added to the experience.
The i20 Active’s 1.4-litre diesel engine may not feel as effortless as the WR-V’s at low revs and isn’t as punchy as the Brezza’s in the mid-range but it does offer a nice compromise. The engine matches the Brezza’s in power but is the torqueiest, producing 220Nm at a low 1,500-2,750rpm. It pulls well enough from low speeds and you can feel a surge at about 1,800rpm. Keep the throttle pressed and you’ll find the power tapering off around 3,800rpm, though the engine will pull on to 4,800rpm. The i20’s engine is the quietest while the six-speed gearbox is the smoothest. What does come as a surprise is the i20’s performance in the higher gears. It’s significantly quicker than the other two in fourth and fifth gears and that’s a function of its shorter gearing. The Brezza, on the other hand, is the quickest right through third gear. There’s little between these car’s 0-100kph acceleration times, though the WR-V does top the charts.
Side to side
All three models here use electric power steering, ride on 16-inch rims and rely on front MacPherson struts and rear torsion bar suspensions. But each has its own ride and handling characteristics.
The Brezza is the tallest of these models and has the highest centre of gravity so you’d expect it to lean heavily through corners taken at speed. The reality is quite the opposite. There’s little body roll and turn-in is quick. Some slackness at the straight-ahead position aside, the steering is also quite quick. Bring into the picture the Brezza’s free-revving engine and you get a car that is good fun on the right roads. It feels quite tight as a package but the downside is the relatively stiff suspension setup can’t completely iron out small surface imperfections. The Brezza also tends to thud through bumps.
In comparison, the WR-V offers more in terms of comfort. On the same patch of broken road, the WR-V will judder less with the suspension not only coming across as more absorbent but quieter too. What’s nice is that the WR-V holds its own at higher speeds as well where the suspension generally feels nicely damped. Even in the corners, the WR-V behaves far better than you’d expect a propped-up hatchback to. The steering isn’t particularly feelsome but does offer a good sense of control, and even body movements are well-contained. The WR-V also has the lightest steering at low speeds.
Like most other Hyundais, the i20 Active is pleasant in everyday city driving scenarios with a reasonably easy-to-twirl steering, and a supple low-speed ride. But, like most other Hyundais, it’s not the keenest of handlers. The steering doesn’t provide the level of connect you’d want (though it’s better than many other Hyundais) and there’s a fair bit of body movement at higher speeds. On uneven patches, you’ll also find yourself bouncing about on the i20’s softly cushioned seats.
The big picture
The Hyundai i20 Active and Maruti Vitara Brezza are not only the most popular models in their segments but are also the best-rounded ones. Should the WR-V have proved better than both, it would have leapfrogged a whole bunch of other models too. Honda, then, has reason to celebrate a partial victory, at the very least.
Let’s look at WR-V in terms of its cross-hatchback competitor, the i20 Active, first. The Active has the nicer finished cabin, the quieter engine and at Rs 9.78 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), it’s the more affordable car too. But is that enough? Not really. Because anyone willing to pay the premium price for a cross-hatchback is looking for something that comes close to a proper SUV. And it’s in these areas that the Active falters and the WR-V scores big. The Honda has the more distinctive design, offers the requisite high seating position while also having the upper hand in crucial areas of space and practicality. In short, it’s the WR-V that comes across as more of a cross-hatchback.
The WR-V (Rs 9.99 lakh for the VX) also manages to hold its own against the Brezza compact SUV in many areas. For one, it’s the comfier and roomier model here. But as good a cross-hatchback as the WR-V is, it is still just that. That is to say, despite its many talents, the WR-V doesn’t quite veer close enough to SUV territory to lure buyers away from the Vitara Brezzas and EcoSports of the world.
To conclude, it’s the Brezza (Rs 9.99 lakh for the ZDI+) that we would like to have in our driveways. It is practical, well-equipped and a reasonably fun-to-drive vehicle. Sure, the Brezza may be noisy and might not look special enough but it does give buyers most of what they like about SUVs in a compact and pocket-friendly package. Add to this the sheer pull of the Maruti brand and you’ll understand why the Brezza has gone on to become the massive success it is.