And then there was no rain. You see, we wanted to do a strawberry run to Mahabaleshwar (in the BMW 320d) and we ended up getting only processed fruit. Then we went for the annual two wheeler slush fest and we had a bone dry day with no serious challenge from rain the gods. Then we prayed, crossed our fingers and sang to the clouds for some rain before or during the four wheeler slush fest. What did we get? A bright day with a brighter sun that put a thumb on its nose and said boo…
And if you are worried that we didn’t have any fun…ahem, take a second look at the pics and you are bound to change your mind. Sure our slush-fest arena (top-secret, dare I add, after all these years) was all green and firm with barely any water beneath the grass to send Bridgestones slithering, let alone kick up some mud. That meant two things (a) our bunch of SUVs were going to run very fast and petrol cars were going to be the toast of the day (b) the surface was going to be hard on the cars, especially on the rocks, and we had to be careful if we didn’t want to end the day repairing mangled axles and engines off their mounting points.
Quick course correction, literally, meant that a brand new PET (performance evaluation track) was outlined with pylons. And as JK Rowling would put it, ‘all was well’.the pet ‘but not really wet’ course
Here goes a flying lap of our 2007 Slush-fest PET. The SUVs would start the run from a firm grass patch. Due care at the launch would ensure that the cars would get away cleanly and on to a left hander with a surface change. From grass to loose gravel while still accelerating requires caution, especially with a turn thrown in for good measure. Of course, some cars behaved like naturals while some needed a bit of wrestling – well, the whole idea was to find out which one was what, right?
Machines, once they get sufficient grip, entered the fastest section of the course. Petrol cars were doing near three digit speeds on gravel and the slightest steering input provoked them to fish tail big time. Directional stability in gravel (or for that matter no-road situation) is a big strength for SUVs – you really do not want your two tonnes worth of sheet metal and glass sideways and on to a path of an on coming road-train some where in the outback, for example.
The next big test was in the form of hard braking on the loose surface. Cars had to come to the first of many ‘zero’ spots and that meant shedding some serious speed without locking up and, again, losing their sense of direction. The entry and exit angles of an SUV are so critical that it makes or mars its ability to step off tarmac and enter the real world. After the above mentioned zero, our SUVs had to counter a ditch (from the start/finish line we couldn’t see the cars attempting this section!) and then run flat out on slippery grass to another caliper baiting braking maneuver to come to another ‘zero’ spot.Then on, the cars would roll down into what was, till last year, the slushiest part of the circuit. This time it needed some eighteen runs before we could get the cars to drift here. The idea is to give a surface that needs extreme yet precise steering inputs from the driver (while on the power) to negotiate. The 4WD system and electronic torque splitting are put to the ultimate test here too, since spinning a wheel or two was not a difficult task here.
An on the pivot turn and another ‘zero’ later, the cars got some serious water-plugging. A narrow exit out of the ‘pond’ was to test the departure angle again before negotiating the right hooker that followed. Another zero later, the cars would gun for the flying finish and tackle a gradual climb with many ridges to ensure that the wheels got some air. An undulating surface is not a place to accelerate on, especially when the suspension and tyres are taking a serious pounding.The track was meant to give the driver as well as the car a thorough work out and the wide grins that we got at the finish line this year proved that we were pretty successful. Damn the rains.
Competing this year for slush fest honours were two petrol powered SUVs and two diesel sippers. Obviously, the modern day diesel engine with its common rail direct injection tech, tremendous low end torque and petrol-like top whack is ideal for powering sports utility vehicles. Yet the refinement on offer from smooth petrol power packs cannot be ignored altogether – despite the high running costs.
Let us start from the Honda CR-V –
the quintessential soft roader that took off where the Toyota RAV 4 began and has never looked back. It is built like a car, which means it features monocoque construction, and drives like one too. But since it has got SUV dimensions, Honda has given it a rather sophisticated all-wheel drive system. Most of the time the Honda is pulled by its front wheels, but it sends torque away from the wheels that are spinning too much to those with more traction. Can the plucky Honda go to battle with the proper body on chassis thugs that its competitors are? We had to find out.
The Suzuki Grand Vitara was a brute force when it came for the slush-fest last time around. It had the ability of a Pajero and a silky smooth V6 petrol propelling it. This time around, the Grand Vitara looks more contemporary thanks to near Land Rover looks but, alas, does not feature a torquey diesel or a power monger petrol mill. The four pot motor does not sound or behave like a petrol engine from Japan either. But then Suzuki wants to compete with the CR-V in the money spinning soft-roader market in India and it comes well appointed to do that. The sign of it shying away from mud was obvious - the low ground clearance giving the game away.
The Mitsubishi Montero is the most expensive SUV this year. Mind you, when its older brother the Pajero 2.8 came for the slush fest, it had swallowed the competition and burped aloud. Nothing, I repeat, nothing on our PET could trouble the car that made the Pajero name plate a legend in India as well as around the world. This time out we got the new Pajero, renamed Montero to avoid confusion with the 2.8 gem that is still being built and sold in India. Can the monocoque Mitsu carry on the legend built by the Pajero over the years? Or will it show signs of weaknesses as drivers get more and more familiar with our PET and start upping the pace?
The Ford Endeavour is ‘all new’ according to Ford. But we all know that what it got is a face-lift that every Bollywood actor would want once they turn forty. It looks even more butch, even more stout and best of all, engineers have worked hard to make it easier to drive. But the moment you sit inside, there is no escaping the fact that this machine started life as a pick-up truck. Get off the pavement, though, and show muck to the greedy tyres and the Endeavour transforms the way only a winner can. It likes to
gallop on the ridges, loves water like a hippo and provides more sideways action than your average computer game. Dark horse? You bet.
The Honda magic
Driving the CR-V on the PET brought at its strengths and weaknesses. It was incredibly quick on gravel and the steering was spot on. And that meant some of the fastest times on the track. But what it does not do so well is to instill a degree of confidence in the mind of the driver. For most of the track, what weighed the testers down was the fact that it is a car more than an SUV. But as mentioned above, the powertrain and the all-wheel drive gear can take the loose stuff pretty well. As for directional stability, some drivers (Josh, Rohin take a bow) were driving it like a rally car and that meant superb slides and brilliant opposite locks to catch a wagging tail. It could enter the big ditch easily, but its belly scraped through and we were worried about the departure angle too. On grass, the CR-V was brutally quick and surprisingly very good on heavy braking too. Again, like a good car. The progress was somewhat halted by the little slush that it had to counter – the car was certainly not very comfortable and it required sharp steering inputs at the right time to keep the momentum going. If the slush-fest arena had received two days of rain prior to D-day, the Honda would have really struggled to finish the lap. The Honda did hit a hidden rock in the ‘pond’ and that made all the testers even more nervous. The brilliant engine kept it going when the going was straight and not hindered by boulders. But any one who loves his cars (that includes most of the BSM bunch) wouldn’t want it to suffer on ridges and ravines. In short, a massive performance on the more or less dry PET – but not one that would convince us that it is the best off-roader of the bunch. Admit it, this car is delicate and while it can tackle bad roads and even no-road situations, we would baulk at the thought of throwing it into a forest trail and emerging it.
Where are the genes?
The Suzuki Grand Vitara was quick on the steering and offered tremendous feedback to the driver. That meant brilliant starts and rock-steady progress through the gravel. It could touch 100 kph before slowing down for the ‘ditch’. Getting out of it was an issue with the Vitara and it has got far too many plastic bits that would scrape through and unsettle the driver. But the lower centre of gravity and overall poise shone through the grass patch. The Vitara’s braking was a weak link and by the end of the day the front brakes were wheezing. The rear drums had a tendency to lock-up (almost as if the hand-brake was engaged) and that meant some very sharp, unexpected turn-ins. On the slush, the Vitara was easy to pilot, though it felt a tad underpowered. It scraped through the entry into the pond almost every time. Again, proof that Suzuki wants its buyers to use it for office commutes rathan than for the Raid de Himalaya. The final run was more like that of a rally car – rear hunched, front end almost wheelying and rocketing towards the finish – and it looked good. At least one road tester asked why this car is not as potent as the good old Gypsy on an off-road course. True – the Suzuki Grand Vitara has evolved from being a capable ape to be an insipid human being. It has got road manners, is civilized but lacks the grunt and guts to win an arduous battle for survival. The plastic bits we had to throw into its back after testing are testimony to this weakness. The quicker drivers relished the power delivery of the petrol motor and translated that to good times. But it couldn’t beat the ‘other petrol’ car, the Honda CR-V to the post. The Grand Vitara has been tailored (at least for the Indian market) as a road car and good drivers can unearth the off-roader hidden way beneath its sharply designed sheet metal.
Pajero we miss thou!
The Mitsubishi was brilliant to look at and had the potential to win the crown this year at the slush fest. Two years back, the Nissan X-Trail had won top honours with the combination of a monocoque body and a torquey diesel motor and there was nothing to stop the Montero from aping that success. This is a Rs 30 lakh plus SUV and as expected came with lots of bells and whistles. But powered seats won’t help in getting a good time out of the PET course – that responsibility was left to the DID motor that lurked beneath the bonnet. Testers struggled to find traction at the start line and the insipid, over servoed steering didn’t help matters much on the turn-in into the gravel run. Once there, the Montero resembled a steam locomotive than a mere SUV as it hurtled across, covering a vast amount of land in quick time with a long dust trail trying to catch up with it. Keeping it pointed at where we wanted it to go was not much of an issue, despite amazing lack of feedback from the steering gear. What most testers complained about was the way the gear ratios were knitted together. Shorter ratios would have meant a faster top-speed on the gravel stretch. Braking was alright and brought the car to a lock-free stop for the ‘ditch’. Great departure angle meant the Montero was accelerating out of the ‘ditch’ almost every time. On the slushy bit, the Montero transferred too much power to the rear wheels and almost everyone executed their idea of Kenjiro Shinozuka on a Dakar hunt. It was pleasing to see Srini, Shumi and Aman controlling the slide through the patch and enjoying every bit of it. Certainly, the Montero had its fan following by the end of the day. The long-wheel base format meant it scraped its belly through the entry into the ‘pond’ though. The biggest splashes that you see were reserved for the Montero along with the Endeavour. Muscling through the last stage was always fun with the Mitsubishi. Panels rattled against glass as the dampers and springs got the kind of work out a customer car receives in a year – within a stretch of 300 odd meters. The Mitsubishi is a strongly built car that can take the abuse. But it is not as strong as the Pajero, as we know it, when it comes to pure off-roading. Its strength is a brilliant diesel motor (the best engine of the day?) and its weakness is poor gearing and the luxury bits that weigh it down. Spartan is a nice word on the off-road, slush-fest course, you see.
Everest base camp, any one?
The Ford Endeavour wins our slush-fest 2007 hands down. It may look like a bully and may have the ride quality of a tipper truck without load. But what it is capable of is nothing short of amazing. It is the Endeavour that we took for mapping the course and it is the fully loaded Endeavour that we took for the test driver’s briefs. Almost everyone drove it as if nothing could break loose and nothing did. Almost every run in the Endeavour started off slow – the big Ford trying to get the mass moving. The improvement made to the steering is easily perceptible and the behemoth turns in with a certain degree of urgency now. Trampling the gravel with brute force as the turbo charger found its blowing prowess, the Endeavour got on with the act of pulverizing the PET. Once it finds its rhythm, it is difficult for anyone to lose poise with the Endeavour. But hauling to a stop on the slippery surface is another thing altogether and you wish it came with a chute attached. Every stop was accompanied by big lock-ups and rubber struggling to find grip. The ‘ditch’ was dismissed as if it didn’t exist and the progress on the grass patch was even more brutal. From our previous experience, we knew that the truck roots of the Endeavour come in handy on the slush and Mr.E didn’t disappoint us this time around too. With the traditional 4WD gear slotted into high-ratio, the Endeavour could be driven flat out. There is no ride-quality whatsoever in this machine and more so with when driven solo. That meant the car was a photographer’s delight (see for yourselves). It would canter over and clear the boulders and ridges, its suspension hardware would buckle for a nano-second before getting up and starting to gallop again. You sit very high in the Endeavour and that means you get a good view of the obstacles ahead – like the climb towards the ‘pond’. Testers complained of too much rear bias when it came to power delivery on the right hander just off the ‘pond’. As mentioned above, the car has a better steering now but too much of torque on the rear tyres meant struggling with opposite lock when you really don’t want it (the natural path would mean a nose dive back into the ‘pond’ again!). The ridge that signaled the arrival of the final dash had a difficult approach angle, which almost every one of its competitors had to slow down for. Not the Endeavour. It drove majestically over it, nose in the air and all and started off for the final flourish to the flying finish. The Ford Endeavour is one of the finest off-road machines that we have on Indian roads today. It is honest, does not depend on electronics heavily for transferring power and has an attitude that is difficult not to fall in love with. While some of the other SUVs use shovels to handle the muck, the Endeavour prefers the sledgehammer…and needless to say it wins. We are certain that a few farmers in the deep end of Punjab are using the Endeavour to plough their fields in air-conditioned comfort.