Most vacations begin like this. You plan a nice long holiday to an exotic destination and then your mum plans to drop in to visit her favourite son right in the middle of the holiday. So seven days become six. Rather than spending two whole days out of those six travelling, you decide to holiday at a destination closer to home. Then the dentist calls and is ready to probe your mouth on the fifth day of the holiday. You don't reschedule either your visit to the dentist or your holiday because you don't know when either will happen again. So you modify and now all you have time for is four days of peace and tranquil and the special massage you've been dreaming about since the last six months. The same evening your son's school decides to hold a 15-minute PTA on what would have been the second day of your holiday, attendance will be marked and absent parents can't run to their parents for a sick note. By now the local amusement park is your best bet for a vacation.
Turns out, that was pretty much how our big automatic SUV comparison drive ended up. We planned on going to Goa for a nice long drive and a couple of days of fun in the sun. Circumstances shortened it to Ganpatiphule, then it was cut again to Tarkarli. We finally ended up traveling 20 kilometres away from my house in Mumbai to an open field, of course lots of sun, but nowhere as much as fun as Goa would have been. Yet we made the best of it - when you have five SUVs and a wide open field you bet we can find ways to entertain ourself!
Introductions then, first up is the Santa Fe, Hyundai's flagship automobile for the Indian consumer. It is the most expensive vehicle in the Hyundai range but is also the finest. Despite a slightly rocky start because Hyundai couldn't deliver on initial demand sales have picked up aided by CKD assembly in Chennai, the new automatic gearbox and product placement in the movie Don 2 in which both the Santa Fe and the new Sonata feature in some well shot chase sequences. And we all know just how well the Shah Rukh Khan connection has worked out for Hyundai. But to us the Sanata Fe, Overdrive's Import SUV of the Year in 2011, was always a well-engineered product that did everything it had to remarkably well. Has time allowed the competition to make a dent in the Santa Fe's armour?
Then we have the Renault Koleos, the SUV that Renault builds in association with Samsung (their partners in South Korea) and based on the Nissan X-Trail platform - a thoroughly global vehicle then. The French gave it a mild face lift last year after which it made its Indian debut.
We liked it so much that we drove it up to Ladakh but that left us a bit disappointed. It was like taking soccer mom to watch her children play against the New Zealand All Blacks, it would make her breakdown in tears every few minutes. The Koleos we learnt the hard way was made for the concrete jungle, she felt perfectly at home there. But are the French better at this than the Koreans?
Up next is the new Fortuner, not so new when you realise that the changes are cosmetic, save for the new automatic 2WD version. The Fortuner's claim to fame was its off-road prowess built as it was on the incredible Hilux platform, a pick-up truck that has conquered the vast treacherous expanse of the South Pole. But a 2WD packed in a different set of qualities, yes the immense size and ground clearance retained the imposing stance and personality but the drivetrain also allowed it to be a bit more efficient. The automatic may not make much sense where efficiency is concerned but as an SUV that is targeted at an urban user it makes life much easier.
Then we have the BMW X1, the smallest and most affordable premium German SUV offering in the market. It is an extension of the 3 Series and in that sense comes across as more car-like than SUV. Yet it brings the BMW brand closer to a lot more people. It has worked wonders for BMW's volumes pushing them into a comfortable number one spot in India but it has never been in a test of this sort yet, and in the face of old and new competition from literally every corner of the globe does it have the X factor to trump all else?
Finally we come to the oldest SUV in this test, the Outlander. It has been around for nearly five years and just last year it got the Evo X snout as part of a makeover exercise. The Outlander was the first crossover from Mitsubishi developed by combining their rich 4WD experience with the comfort and feel of a car. Coming from one of the world's foremost off road specialists the Outlander is pretty impressive in almost every condition. Does it have the lineage of those international rally winning cars? No! Unlike the Pajero, the Outlander was developed to cater to those who did not want to attend the Dakar. But despite its age and being saddled only with a petrol engine its pedigree has held it in good stead and even today finds acceptance among those who worship Mitsubishi.
Why is the Santa Fe doing as well as it is? It's not hard to realise why once you get in and drive it. The Santa Fe is, by a small but critical margin, the most comfortable SUV in this segment. It's critical because the Koreans are now churning out cars that are significantly on par if not better than their Japanese and European counterparts. Voices might rise in protest as to how could a Hyundai match up to the BMW in terms of quality but it does, take my word for it or take one out for a drive.
So the Santa Fe has the most well thought out cabin, cleverly managed spaces with lots of storage bins, well-cushioned and supportive seats and ample space to keep every occupant thoroughly satisfied. This cabin does feel special and while the styling may polarise opinion, there is no denying that the quality of materials used and the fit and finish is better than this segment deserves. The luxurious interior benefits from the supple and well-cushioned ride and if it's good enough for corn-fed Americans, that is primarily where the Santa Fe was targeted, it's good enough for us.
The Santa Fe is also one of the two SUVs in this comparison to offer a third row of seats, the other being the Fortuner. However in either case, the space they have to offer is best monopolised by kids, nevertheless it is an option that is definitely a big advantage.The Santa Fe also adds a well-planted stance to its list of positives, though it's largely restricted to straight line stability. Also unlike some of the other Hyundais the steering does not feel over sensitive and light. It has weight and balance with none of the vagueness we've experienced otherwise from Hyundai.
Yet another strong selling point in the Santa Fe is its engine, the 2.2-litre turbocharged diesel is immensely torquey. With a 6-speed automatic transmission the generous torque really does not make much of a difference to driveability. But this standard torque convertor is also very impressive in operation, it shifts gears rapidly and this gives the Santa Fe great performance. Turbo lag is also significantly low while the boost which kicks in around 1700rpm puts it past 100kmph in just 10.28 seconds. That same boost gives the Santa Fe best in class acceleration times, 40-100kmph for instance takes just 8.07 seconds which is way, way faster than anything else in this test.
The Santa Fe is also a highly rated SUV where safety is concerned and the prompt braking system with awesome stopping power, ESP, six airbags and a host of other aids are testimony to its 5-star rating.
On the other side of the scales there's very little to discourage anyone from buying the Santa Fe. The two odd hiccups are largely ones that would keep enthusiasts away rather than the average driver. The handling isn't phenomenal but it would take an absolute idiot to beat the electronics and flip the Santa Fe over in a corner. The second hiccup is in the drivetrain. The 4WD system is an on-demand system that transfers torque to all four wheels only when it detects wheel slip, all the other times torque is directed only to the front wheels. So while it can safely and comfortably travel across mud, ruts and some rocky surfaces it isn't a hardcore off-roader.
There is however one aspect that is its weakest chink in its armour. The Santa Fe despite its phenomenal engine and the transmission with slightly tall ratios isn't as fuel efficient as expected. Its best figure achieved on the highway is 13.4kmpl, in the city it's a dismal 8.4kmpl and overall that's just 9.81kmpl. Look at the spec table and it shows that the Santa Fe is second from last in this very critical aspect.
The Fortuner's immense size and the lofty stance is its biggest draw. Consumers wanting to buy an imposing SUV with a slightly mean and hefty image haven't looked any further than the Fortuner. The remodelled and refreshed Fortuner is different to say the least. I don't like it but obviously the flare in sales clearly indicates that a lot of people do like it. The Fortuner is still large enough to dwarf the Santa Fe, so parked next to the Outlander or the Koleos, both simply wilt in its shade. The BMW X1, lets not even go there. The tall stance and overpowering personality are an absolute boon in the city especially in convincing slow moving motorists to move aside willfully.
Inside, the Fortuner is spacious and roomy and thanks to the large glass areas, bright. The seats are comfortable over any distance and I have covered quite enough in a day to vouch for their comfort and support. Build quality is benchmark for the class with simplicity the watch word here, it's not going to take more than a few minutes for any one to figure out just how everything including the sound system inside this cabin works.
The Fortuner has the most ground clearance so clearing large obstacles is easy as long as there is enough traction to support the rear wheels. The steering is light without being excessively sensitive and the commanding views from the front windscreen making it a fairly simple SUV to drive in urban areas despite its cumbersome size.
The Fortuner is also pretty competent at ironing out road defects. Its ride quality is adequate for most conditions be it on or off road. The front double wishbones and rear 4-link suspension tuned for Indian conditions allows the Fortuner to bulldoze its way through anything, a trait thats further complemented by its large 265/65 R17 tyres.
The 2982cc common rail engine is the Fortuner's biggest ace in the pack. It's torquey. though not as immensely as the Santa Fe and is lighter than its 4WD sibling thanks to the two wheel drivetrain so power to weight has improved. This reduces engine stress allowing it to provide fairly decent efficiency. In fact with 16.3kmpl recorded on the highway and 9.6kmpl in the city the Fortuner's 11.8kmpl overall is light on the pocket.
The one critical factor that works well above all else in favour of the Fortuner is its price. At just Rs 21.53 lakh it's one of the cheapest and probably most value-for-money SUV you can buy. Weighing this SUV down then are very few concerns. The ladder frame chassis of the Fortuner is a big advantage when it comes to its off-road abilities. But take away the 4WD and what you get is a SUV whose on-road dynamics come under question. The inherent characteristics of the ladder frame construction make any vehicle more unwieldy than the modern monocoque. Over and above which the Fortuner's tall stance, high ground clearance and soft suspension give it a lot of dive, bounce and body roll under braking or hard cornering. So essentially what you are left with is just this image of a tremendously capable SUV and nothing more. The new look doesn't appeal to me and almost all the changes have touched the exteriors only, apart from the new stereo the insides are the same and too similar to the Innova. It was always boring but now it's beginning to catch mold.
The Fortuner also makes even less sense if it's an automatic with just 4 speeds which, makes the engine work harder thus making it noisier (the turbo whine and engine clatter are also strong contributors) and impacts efficiency.
The X1's car-like feel is its strongest appeal. It drives like that, you don't feel the size is cumbersome not that it's large but despite the tallish stance and the elevated view from the driver's seat, the X1 is as nimble, agile and easy to maneuver in urban areas as a small sedan. But let me go back to the beginning again, the X1's biggest appeal is not just its car-like feel but its badge. This is the cheapest BMW you can buy, entering the hallowed premium German car owners club isn't easy and the X1 is the ticket everyone is hankering for. So there it's not as much the BMW X1 as much as it is the propeller on that hood that makes all the difference.
Mechanically this car makes all the right noises. The steering focuses on comfort cruising over incredible dynamics so it finds a balance between light and heavy. The dynamics are another strong suit, BMW have reduced body roll and what you get as a result is a taut well-oiled machine that can tackle corners as competently as a car that you'd pay a lot more money for. The X1's stance is also nicely tailored to optimise handling, with the wheels suspended as far ahead and close to the edges as possible. This leaves very little overhang and as a result little scope for dive and pitch. And contrary to the lean and compact look, the X1's wheelbase is longer than the Fortuner but its track width is just about 10mm shorter.
The engine is effortless, refined and punchy. The single variable geometry turbo spins up quickly so you don't get a sense of turbo lag. The responsiveness is just juicy and it makes the X1 the quickest SUV in the segment, 0-100kmph is dispatched in just 8.9 seconds. This is despite it having the smallest displacement engine in the segment, though it does make adequate power and torque figures. What gives it the strong performance though is the six-speed automatic transmission and its low 1.6-tonne kerb weight. It's the also the lightest SUV compared to the others, 40kg lighter than the next lightest the Outlander.
The X1 is available in just rear wheel drive configuration, which is fun if you aren't looking at doing any off-roading. Overall the X1 is a comfortable SUV to be in, it's got the traditional BMW design language inside which is a comfortable simple language to decipher. It also retains the focus on the driver and getting familiar with this cabin and the many controls takes just a few minutes.There is very little ground clearance and that's the one worry you have with the X1 especially since the long wheelbase means there is a lot of undercarriage area exposed to the elements. The other is the lack of 4WD either full time or on demand which means you are restricted from taking it off tarmac. Unless you're us and find a field to work out the RWD in which case it's a lot of fun but potentially dangerous for the oil sump!
The X1 is also stiff to the point where long distance driving can get tiring and stressful. This may give it benchmark dynamics but driving to those twisties is just going to make your back ache. That stiffness is also enhanced by the run-flat tyres that are standard equipment on BMWs which are made of a harder compound. One disadvantage of this is that in a country like India punctures happen consistently, probably not as frequently in urban areas as on the highways. It then from first hand experience is a fair challenge to find a remedy especially if you are far away from any service centre.
Yet another critical concern is the steering, it is impossibly heavy. We do like well weighted steering units that give ample feedback but adding a level seven bicep workout on the way to work will leave you with little strength to pick up a pen.
Compared to the Santa Fe, Fortuner and to some extent even the Koleos and Outlander, the X1 does not have similarly generous accommodations. And for some people like me the compact dimensions can also be a deterrent because when you talk SUV you want it to mean big, imposing and intimidating, which is exactly the opposite of what the BMW is! The X1 aspires to be an SUV but can never fully realise that dream.
In a word, chic is what you'd describe the Koleos as. It's also where most explanations of why you should invest in one ends. Its biggest claim to fame is its novelty factor of being a very unique SUV to look at especially given its sharp front end character. The French interpretation of automotive design isn't exactly subtle and classy, elegant yes, a little shouty, tick that too! What the Fluence has going for it is its soft unintimidating look, it's neither imposing nor aggressive. It's actually very well proportioned and warmly inviting. And fortunately it received a significant face lift that makes looking at it a lot more pleasant.
The interiors are comfortable and snug and well designed to optimise comfort and space. The boot is the most generous area inside the cabin with a split tailgate making loading easy. Quality of materials is impressive as is the build quality which you discover as you start fiddling with the various gadgets and comfort features offered. It has also got a phenomenal audio system courtesy Bose though I don't know why exactly it needed to be badged on the exteriors.
The Koleos has an on-demand 4x4 system which despite its lack of commitment is still quite competent at handling some of the really rough stuff. What makes the system more acceptable is that it can resort to front-wheel drive when it senses the rear tyres aren't loaded or scrabbling for grip, in the interests of efficiency. It is quite competent off-road, probably the only one in this test to have as much equipment as it does to help it stay mobile off-road. You get hill descent and hill start assistance and you get a lockable centre differential. The steering is another plus, it's light where required and adds weight as speeds rise providing the required confidence and assurance.
The 2.0-litre diesel with 320Nm of max torque is refined at low revs and feels adequately powered for the city commute. The six-speed transmission is geared to maximise fuel economy. In urban driving cycles with a mileage of around 9.3kmpl the Koleos is second best where this parameter is concerned.
Accepting the Koleos is difficult on so many levels. First there is the styling, its Parisian chic is quite different from the European fare that the Indian consumer digests very well, and it hasn't found wide acceptance here. The interiors lack the premium feel experienced in the Santa Fe or the X1 and there are just too many oddities in the design. The controls for the various creature comforts need a desperate rethink as well because they're just too small and difficult to operate. And the interiors don't feel as upmarket as you'd expect it to be.
Put aside the cosmetics and the mechanicals show some signs of weakness. While the engine itself is punchy and responsive the sluggish six-speed transmission and the slow-to-spool turbo lets it down. As a result performance is lacking, 100kmph for instance takes the Koleos over 12 seconds, just a fraction quicker than the Outlander. Even where fuel efficiency is concerned it's a middle of the order SUV returning 10.43kmpl overall. Get past the engine and transmission and you realise the handling isn't as sharp as the X1 nor as agile as the Outlander. There is a lot of body roll but in all fairness it's well controlled. The steering feels light in the city and weighs up nicely as speeds increase on the highways but has little or no feedback.
You'd buy it for that new nose, the very aggressive mean looking snout derived from the legendary rally bred Evo X. The Outlander may be many things but the one thing that gets it attention is the way it now looks. Overall I admit this is the most handsome SUV in this segment, where the BMW looks lean and the Koleos nicely proportioned, the Outlander has this dependable, solid and self assured persona.
The interiors are comfortable and despite the sloping roofline, spacious. Its proportions are comfortable to manoeuvre in the city and crowded places and parking isn't an issue. Large glass areas also offer clear views all around. The boot is generous and it too like the Koleos has the split tail gate.
The Outlander will largely appeal to those looking for a more sporty rugged SUV, and it does not disappoint. The handling for instance is delightful, like almost every other SUV here except for the Fortuner it has a monocoque construction which makes it feel stiffer, more composed and secure. A lot of the underpinnings are either shared or derived from the Evo, especially the bracing and the shock absorbers. Chiefly the aluminium roof makes a lot of difference as this helps lower the centre of gravity which means there is less roll. Sure it's not as small as in the X1 but it's still much less than the others. The suspension is also nicely tuned to Indian conditions so you can just drive over everything without wincing and wondering who won the pothole vs suspension battle.
The suspension articulation is another plus and the Outlander despite being a crossover can handle a lot more of the rough stuff than the others. Another juicy carrot to hang in front of the enthusiasts is the engine. The Mitsubishi 2.4-litre MIVEC petrol shares the same architecture as the DOHC engine of the Evo X. It's got variable valve timing and is coupled to a six-speed CVT transmission (it's also the only one to sport enormous aluminum shift paddles behind the steering wheel which are also incredibly good looking bits). In normal conditions the Outlander is front wheel drive in the interests of fuel efficiency though you can lock it into four-wheel-drive for when the conditions get tricky.
If there is one thing that will keep you away from the Outlander is the fact that it's dated and whatever equity it had is slowly being eroded in the face of stronger more contemporary competition. The biggest deterrent is the engine, it's a petrol and with fuel prices being what they are it makes no sense whatsoever to anyone. You could probably accept it if it was efficient but the figures we achieved on our tests are totally unacceptable. 6.5kmpl in the city and an overall of 8.6kmpl is a bitter pill to digest.
Even if you choose to ignore the engine then you just cannot ignore its transmission. The other big hurdle to leap past is its CVT transmission, it's quite hard as it is for Indians to accept automatic transmissions and then to accept one that is as noisy and whiny is just too much to ask. It isn't a very responsive gearbox either.
Then there are the interiors which though excellent in fit and finish don't feel modern. The buttons and dials are a generation old and the cabin does not feel as rich, tactile or luxurious as the competition. On the flip side it does have a sensational Rockford Fosgate stereo which rivals the Koleos' Bose system in sound quality.
So between the good and the bad whose purse is the heaviest and who gets to wear a crown? Well the answer to that would not have been simple if we had not taken all automatics. But that was the one common binding factor because some of these SUVs do not offer a manual option at all.
Fifth in the pecking order is the Outlander and not because it isn't capable. It may be lacking in a few areas but there is a new Outlander coming soon. We saw it in Geneva and it promises to change things for the better (if it comes to India!). The present one however has grown old and investing in it at this point of time may not be the wisest move you could make even though at Rs 21.29lakh it is the cheapest SUV you can buy in this lot. A bit more appealing overall then is the BMW X1. It is a fantastic vehicle, and I'm not saying it because I recommended it to my boss (and Shereen!), but because it is truly an awesome car.
And that is its problem - it's just too car-like to pass off as an appreciable SUV. It's an option worth considering over the 3 Series I admit, but as an SUV, it hardly qualifies. If its brand appeal then the BMW is definitely the one to pick, you just can't get that badge for any cheaper than what the X1 costs (entry price is Rs 22 lakh for the petrol and diesel isn't too far off at Rs 23.9lakh).
And in the middle of the pack you'd but obviously find the SUV that does everything well but not exceptionally - the Koleos. Despite sales hitting rock bottom in several markets around the globe Renault still thought it was a good idea to offer the Koleos to India. Unfortunately the Koleos does not seem to be working out as well as they expected. You'd have to be a die-hard Renault fan to actually go buy a Koleos because it's just too unassuming and bland. Not to say it isn't good at what it does, it's just that there isn't a single parameter at which it is better than the others.
That leaves us with the Fortuner and the Santa Fe and without mincing words let me say that the Santa Fe is the better choice by a fair margin. You'd buy the 2WD automatic Fortuner for the Toyota badge of reliability and quality. You'd buy the Fortuner because its personality is intimidating, because its engine is bulletproof and because of its torque! But to me a Fortuner is not the same beast sans 4WD, even though I'd probably use that just once a year.
So the Santa Fe it is and it convincingly puts all arguments to rest. The Hyundai is clearly a well-rounded SUV, it may not take you far off the beaten path but if you really wanted to do that you'd pick the Fortuner 4WD. But stick to the road and the Fortuner can't match the Santa Fe's pace in a straight line and especially around corners. The Santa Fe has better ride and better handling, though I admit the Fortuner is almost as good at ignoring potholes that come in its way. Overall the Santa Fe just feels a bit more easier, pleasant and civilised to drive than the Fortuner and isn't that just what anyone looking at this segment is really after.