Venturing off the tarmac might not be everyone’s cup of tea but, cocooned inside a luxury SUV with all the bells and whistles, you have nary a worry, says Gaurav Nagpal
I love to drive, and for me, a low-slung, sporty sedan is it! Hugging the tarmac, pedal mashed to the floor, speedo needle continually moving clockwise, occasionally punctuated by the smell of smoking tyres and the screeching of brakes – nirvana could be described thus. Plonk me in one such car, and I’ll be off to find my heaven.
But what happens when my path is interspersed with rocks, ruts, ditches, stones and all manner of obstacles? Or, I have to swim through deep waters or trudge through fresh snow? Does that mean my nirvana is gone forever? Would that be the end of my dream? Not quite – if I were to be sitting at the wheel of a luxury SUV, a category that has gained a lot of traction in India in recent years. From the US to Europe to Asia, the best of what the SUV world has to offer is now available on our shores. I recently had the chance to experience three outstanding specimens from this category, and I sure was pleased as punch at the end of it.
I kicked off my experience with the Mercedes-Benz GLC, the newest addition to the company’s impressive SUV lineup in India. Need anything more be said if the three-pointed star adorns the car I drive? The GLC certainly is one of the best-looking SUVs in its class, a true thing of beauty. The slightly squat stance is somewhat at odds with “traditional” SUV design cues, but design is – by definition – continuously evolving, and the GLC fits in neatly with the appreciation for fine, curved surfaces balanced with muscular lines. I cast a glance at the familiar Mercedes-Benz face, let my eyes wander around the sides, past the flared wheel arches, and to the back of the SUV, with the glorious stainless steel twin-pipe exhaust system. Ah, the spoils of luxury! And it continues inside too, with every inch spelling quality and aesthetics. The seats are encased in Artico leather, and are fully power-adjustable in the front, with lumbar support as well. And, when I want the wind-in-my-hair feeling, or just want to admire the stars in the night, I push a button and the sunroof slides open. There is no third row of seats, though, so I cannot carry more than four passengers along with me.
I thumb the start/stop button, and the GLC wakes up, with a muted sound from under the bonnet. On the road, it is quick to accelerate, with that petrol engine delivering a satisfying growl. The stance and the suspension and handling setup also means that it handles very well on the road, with quick turns and direction changes not unsettling it or causing any discomfort to its passengers. Go off the road into SUV territory, though, and it is not quite so smooth. It manages every climb, decline, and obstacle with alacrity, but a rough surface peters right through the tyres to my body, and makes for an off-road ride that is slightly uncomfortable. A smooth carpeted ride this does not offer off the tarmac, and that is a bit of a turn-off.
The next SUV I have a date with, comes from a brand that has possibly the strongest credentials when it comes to off-road prowess – Land Rover. The Discovery Sport is instantly recognisable as an SUV, with its tall, upright stance and impressive ground clearance. A walk around the Disco gives me the impression of neat design language – this SUV does not go for the in-your-face look with multiple curves and edges, preferring clean lines with some edgy hints thrown in for good measure. It certainly looks impressive when I view it from a distance. Even before I get in, when I unlock the car via the remote, the lights under the sideview mirrors switch on, illuminating the patch of road just outside the door; these also stay on for a little while when I turn off the Disco. Thank you, Land Rover – I am definitely not going to be stepping into any puddles or ditches as I enter or exit the Disco. I step inside – nay, climb inside – to a commanding view out the front windscreen, and the air of luxury all around. The funky bit that instantly catches my attention is the rotary drive mode selector knob, lying recessed in the centre console. When I thumb the start/stop button, it rises from seemingly nowhere – definitely cool! The Disco gets extra props for its two-seater third row of seats, folded away neatly into the floor. Yes they are not comfortable for tall adults, but at a pinch, I can squeeze in more people if I need to.
The engine itself is quite sporty, and the snarl from under the bonnet is addictive, encouraging me to rev it hard. Picking up speed is easy; what is not, though, is a quick overtaking manoeuvre, because of the slow-shifting automatic gearbox, and gearshifts are not much quicker in Sport mode. So I can forget about scooting ahead of a slow-moving vehicle in front before another excitable driver beats me to it, as most drivers are prone to. And high-speed turns are a tad disconcerting, because there is a fair bit of body roll. Venture off the road, though, and the Disco is in its element – there is not one obstruction that can faze it. “Magic carpet ride” does not quite capture how good the ride quality is, with the Disco just pummelling away every obstacle to keep me ensconced in comfort. And I can make a choice from among different off-road settings for grass, gravel and snow, mud and ruts, and sand, along with a raft of other electronic aids to aid my ride.
I round off my SUV experience with one of India’s highest-selling luxury SUVs, the Toyota Fortuner. The first generation was a hot-seller, and the recently launched new Fortuner seeks to continue that glory. It’s tall stance is in line with a proper SUV, though gone with the design update are the very bits that appealed to me personally. The bold, boxy, in-your-face look is gone, in favour of edgy styling that does not really stand out in the crowd. Acres of space are on offer inside, with fine leather and metal accents giving the luxury touch. And yes – there is a tight two-seater third row seat, to carry the brood.
The Fortuner’s competence off the road is well known – it performs excellently where the road ends and the ruts begin. Every surface becomes smooth as silk, and I can feel the power at my command (in both petrol and diesel variants) – nudge the accelerator and it surges forward. To aid me on less-than-perfect surfaces, I can call on downhill assist control, hill assist control, and low- and high-range four-wheel-drive modes. On the road too, the Fortuner makes for a good experience, though the tall stance means there is a lot of body roll when I go fast around turns.
There is so much choice available in luxury SUVs now – “spoilt for choice” captures it perfectly, and these three are among the best. Pick the GLC if you want stunning looks and a car-like experience that you might not want to take to the worst off-road surfaces; go for the Disco if you want a piece of heritage from one of the best brands in off-roading; and drive away in the Fortuner if you wish to own one of India’s highest-selling and relatively affordable luxury SUVs. Tarmac or no tarmac – here I come!