Suzuki Grand Vitara vs Honda CR-V - Off and On

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Taking these two SUVs over some monsoon drenched terrain is somewhat like a precursor to our slushfest. But I was thinking beyond our annual mudplugging event. Driving the new Suzuki Grand Vitara over some rough, gravelly patches, I was wondering how it would perform at the mother of all offroad events, the Raid de Himalaya. In fact, to me, it looks like this year’s Raid is going to be awesome, especially if the factory cars are SX4s and  Grand Vitaras.

Really? We know that the SX4 hatchback is being readied for WRC 2008, so the sedan should at least have some rallying attributes, but what about the most expensive Suzuki sold in our country? Is it that good that you can even consider taking it offroad? Well, it’s like this. The impression the GV (allow me this acronym here and there, please) gives is that it is a luxurious, integrally constructed and more powerful... er, Gypsy. Yup. Somehow, I got the feeling that the ghost of the Gypsy still resides in the new Grand Vitara’s veins. There are various reasons for that. But we’ll come to that later. Why don’t you meet the Honda CR-V first?

This, the latest generation soft-roader from Honda, feels quite different from the one that it has replaced. It is European in build, in feel and in the way that it drives compared to its predecessor, which only felt Japanese if you know what I mean. This is a good thing, actually, because it shows that Honda is capable of putting together great monocoques that match their brilliant engines. Finally. 

The only major thing common between the two SUVs here is that they are both Japanese, and that’s where the similarity ends. You see, the Honda is bulkier (though surprisingly not heavier!) than the GV, and is more luxuriously appointed. And it’s more powerful too. Both SUVs feature full-time all-wheel drive, but in the GV you get the option of selecting 4H or 4L manually via a rotary knob on the dash. And then, there is the price. The GV retails in Delhi for Rs 13.8 lakh for the manual transmission version, while the CR-V’s ex-showroom Delhi price is Rs 17.8 lakh, again for the manual. Now four lakh rupees is quite a substantial difference too. Still, when you are in the market for a petrol-powered SUV within the Rs 20 lakh range, this is what you have to answer: CR-V or Grand Vitara? 

Both SUVs are powered by inline-fours. The 2354cc Honda DOHC i-VTEC 16-valve motor develops 160 bhp at 5800 revs and 21.8 kgm of torque at 4200 rpm, while the 1995cc 16-valve DOHC Suzuki motor produces 119.5 bhp at 5500 rpm and 17.4 kgm at 3500 revs. The Suzuki engine also features a variable induction system, which essentially allows you better fuel efficiency and better throttle response. The difference between both engines is not just apparent in the output figures, but in the way they develop power. The CR-V motor is smooth and refined, and when the needle gets closer and closer to the redline, it sounds just the way a precisely engineered, fine-tuned motor should sound. The Suzuki, on the other hand, is a disappointment. Output is way too low for a 2.0-litre engine – anything above 135 horses and we’re talking. Suzuki seems to have detuned this engine for Indian applications, ostensibly to stretch that litre of fuel. Then there is the refinement factor – it doesn’t come through as an engine that’s good enough to wear that stylised S badge either. Forget the previous generation Grand Vitara XL-7’s V6 (it was in another league altogether when it came to silkiness), still, my expectation from Suzuki powerplants is more than what the GV’s inline-4 delivers. Pity. More so because the GV deserves more power.

The test GV came with a five-speed manual transmission, while our long-term CR-V features a five-speed automatic. So I won’t strictly compare the two, but we’ll take them individually. Though the gears are decently spaced out, the shift quality of the GV’s gearbox is disappointing. The gearbox doesn’t slot crisply enough, while the gearlever is also an ergonomic wonder – it has a knob which is rectangular, like in the new Mahindra Bolero... not something that aids good shifting. The CR-V’s auto’box is quite a good match to the powerplant. Though it’s a bit slow initially in D mode, especially for the traffic signal drag, once the revs build up, it’s whoa! time. On the road, the CR-V really is a wonderful machine to pilot. The steering is weighted well to make you feel that you are driving a substantial machine. Above 2500 rpm, the motor is really in its element and in no time you are doing 100 kph. For all its bulk, shifting lanes or manoeuvring the CR-V is effortless – it’s amazing how car-like an SUV can get. Okay, to me the benchmark is the Forester (sob, sob) when it comes to handling, but the Subaru is not as tall, well-appointed, luxurious and well-damped as the CR-V is. Keeping the rough stuff right back on the road is something the Honda does very well. And while at it, sticks to the road well too, corners and all.

The GV, on the other hand, is not up there when it comes to ride quality. And this is where it reminded me of the Gypsy. Even on good roads, it is slightly bouncy and I think it needs to be filled up with passengers and luggage to improve ride quality. Damping is nowhere near CR-V levels. The reason, as I see it, is the new architecture that the GV debuted with, a merger between the traditional body-on-chassis construction used typically in capable 4x4s and monocoque construction that allows for car-like handling attributes. The GV features a built-in ladder frame joined to a monocoque body – a unique attempt to marry the advantages of both types of construction – but the net effect is that it doesn’t do anything well. Well, it’s not that bad actually when it comes to taking corners, it stays firmly planted and doesn’t have a tendency to roll, no problems on that front. It’s just that if you give me a long stretch of highway to cover in comfort, it has to be the CR-V for me. 

On gravel, slush and muddy conditions, again, the GV is somewhat Gypsy-like. I don’t know about you, but I kind of like it – but for that you should have experienced the Gypsy. Instead of crushing the terrain like the CR-V, the GV seems to tiptoe over it, like a mountain goat and those Gypsy genes mean that it’s not uncomfortable in offroad or no-road conditions. The CR-V, on the other hand, is like a lost lamb over such surfaces, just like its predecessor. Electronics play overtime to ensure it gets traction and it just about manages to keep its wheels from slipping. It was almost as if the CR-V was indicating to me that it would rather head out to tarmac as soon as possible.So, is it decision time, yet? Yes, but the question is when you are paying anything above Rs 15 lakh for an SUV, will it make people acknowledge that fact? With the
CR-V, it does. Its sheer mass and the way it looks ensures just that. More than this black one, I like it in silver, which highlights the stylised greenhouse that seems to have been lifted from the Porsche Cayenne. But that’s not a bad thing. The front-end looks pretty nasty, like a school bully, which goes with the SUV format, but is kind of unusual for a friendly Honda. The GV, on the other hand, takes ‘inspiration’ from the Range Rover, right from the clamshell hood, the little vent where the hood ends, and the overall boxy appearance. But I like the design of the GV and its dimensions too. To the average, wealthy petrol-powered SUV buyer, size is important,so that’s where the GV loses out and the CR-V wins, but for me, the size of the Suzuki is just perfect. And that also means the CR-V is vast as a canyon inside compared to the Suzuki.

So it is indeed decision time now. I think the Grand Vitara will do decent numbers, it comes from Maruti Suzuki after all, who nowadays seem to sell everything that they make. It is priced pretty well, though I am not too satisfied with the kit on offer. I mean, who wants to see Swift bits in a car that costs three times as much? So even if it is substantially more expensive compared to the Grand Vitara, the CR-V makes you feel as if you have bought something substantial. And it also reflects that you’re wealthy... if that’s what you want. If the difference does not pinch you too much (in all probability that’s the case or else why would you buy an SUV that wants unleaded), it has to be the CR-V. I am sure you need it either for the office commute or for the occasional highway drive, which makes it a brilliant proposition. Just don’t go Raiding in it, that’s all.