BABY DRIV­ERS

Evo India - - FERRARI PORTOFINO - WORDS by AATISH MISHRA PHO­TOG­RA­PHY by GAU­RAV S THOM­BRE

These com­pact SUVs may have big-car as­pi­ra­tions, but they drive like gen­uine small cars. We like that a lot

IT DOESN’T GET ANY SMALLER THAN THIS WHEN IT comes to SUVs. In fact, you can’t re­ally call them SUVs with­out a ‘com­pact’ dis­claimer. These cars are the prod­uct of a coun­try’s ob­ses­sion with big cars, and its in­abil­ity to back it up with money. Car mak­ers did what they do best. No, not just make cars but find loop­holes in laws and then make cars. All these com­pact SUVs sit a hair’s breadth short of 4 metres in length, deny the gov­ern­ment some ex­tra hafta and fuel the masses’ For­tuner fan­tasies.

Want to know some­thing cool, though? The fact that they’re so tiny means they drive less like For­tuners and more like the low-slung cars they are based on. This ex­cites the bunch of us at evo In­dia a lot. It blud­geons your senses into con­fu­sion — you see a tall car, your bum is a whole foot higher than it should be but throw them around a bend and they ac­tu­ally corner! They are no Cayennes, but they can hold their own on a twisty road. Heads up, this isn’t a story about prac­ti­cal­ity, space, mileage, comfort or any­thing else that would put you (and me) to sleep — I could re­di­rect you to a few other mag­a­zines and web­sites for that. We are look­ing for some­thing in­tan­gi­ble, but far more exciting. The Thrill of Driv­ing.

Kick-Starter

The Ford EcoSport is the car that took the rule­book, and made it into a warm bon­fire. While ev­ery­one was shrink­ing sedans, Ford knew that SUVs were go­ing to bring in the moolah. They launched the Ford EcoSport in 2013, and it re­ally took off. Then every­body else wanted in.

The EcoSport has al­ways been at the fun end of the en­thu­si­ast spec­trum. This one is the S – Ford claims it looks ‘sporty’ but it just looks like it’s been spend­ing a lit­tle too much time do­ing Goth make up. Blacked-out grille, smoked head­lamps, black al­loys, black roof – you’ll know one when you see one. How­ever, the changes are more than just skin deep. Ford claims to have tight­ened up the steer­ing and stiff­ened up the sus­pen­sion too.

Let me tell you what I like first. The 1.5-litre un­der the hood is not the most pow­er­ful motor here, mak­ing a shade un­der 100bhp and 205Nm of torque. But it’s got a turbo that kicks in very lin­early and pulls well. It’s a nice motor to push hard. One of the nicest touches are the pedals — per­fectly spaced and fin­ished in brushed metal so I can pull off (or at least at­tempt to) some Wal­ter Rohrl foot­work.

THESE CARS ARE THE PROD­UCT OF A COUN­TRY’S OB­SES­SION WITH BIG CARS, AND ITS IN­ABIL­ITY TO BACK IT UP WITH MONEY

The Ford will corner too, draw­ing on all that it can from the Figo plat­form and its en­thu­si­ast-fo­cussed ap­proach but there’s one slight hitch. The ESP. It’s way too ag­gres­sive. Now I’m not one to go de­mand­ing cars go com­pletely ana­logue — elec­tron­ics mean less teenagers send­ing their cars fly­ing in to ditches, and I’m all for that. But not when the ESP acts like my para­noid mother, con­stantly be­rat­ing me for hav­ing a lit­tle fun. It can get frus­trat­ing. And there’s no way to get ei­ther of them to switch off.

Strik­ing Gold

Any­thing that Maruti Suzuki touches, turns to gold. When they launched the Vi­tara Brezza, it was so pop­u­lar that peo­ple had to wait months to get one, de­spite Maruti’s mas­sive pro­duc­tion ca­pac­i­ties. The best part? It ac­tu­ally drove well. C V Ra­man and his boys did well to not dial the soft­ness up to the max to make it more palat­able to the masses. This was no Alto, and they didn’t build it like one.

The driv­e­train is the high­light here. The en­gine is the fa­mil­iar 1.3-litre diesel, mak­ing it the smallest one here, but no less fun. What it lacks in num­bers it makes up for in hi­lar­ity. There’s lag, but then the turbo spools up and gives you a firm kick in the back­side all at one go. Suzuki know how to en­gi­neer a gear­box and the 5-speeder here is the slick­est in this com­pany by miles. Even the steer­ing has ac­tual weight to it, and while it turns the car quickly, it is rather vague.

The Brezza is cer­tainly one of the more driver-fo­cussed Marutis out there, but it strug­gles to de­liver thrills when you line it up with this bunch. The driver’s seat is too high, and even in its lowest set­ting you feel like you’re on top of the car. That’s still some­thing that can be lived with, but the Brezza doesn’t take too well to quick di­rec­tional changes. The sus­pen­sion is set up on the softer side and while it has good ride qual­ity, it doesn’t do quite well when be­ing thrown around en­thu­si­as­ti­cally.

An­other Step For­ward

Ev­ery new car of Tata’s is an im­prove­ment on the last. The Nexon is no dif­fer­ent. It has got one of the most sorted ride-and­han­dling set ups in the SUV business, this side of 20 lakh at least. It is so flawed, but if you fo­cus on what’s im­por­tant – how the car drives, and how it feels un­der you – it shines.

The steer­ing on the Nexon is re­ally what does it. So di­rect, so sharp. It’s the most com­mu­nica­tive of the lot here too – the hy­draulic sys­tem telling you ex­actly what’s go­ing on with fi­nesse. It cor­ners flat­ter than the rest, and you can re­ally hurl it at cor­ners that no SUV this size should be hurled at. I sus­pect that some of this abil­ity is down to the tyres — the Goodyear Ex­cel­lence is a grip­pier com­pound than the econ­o­my­max­imis­ing tyres the rest of this bunch comes shod in. Still, the Nexon feels sure­footed on a fast road and has no ESP at all to rain on the party.

The en­gine is great too. The 1.5-litre unit makes 108bhp and 260Nm, and it was the most pow­er­ful in this seg­ment till Mahin­dra dropped the XUV300. It may not be the most re­fined motor around but it can get the car to move prop­erly.

But the Nexon is a hard car to rec­om­mend to some­one. The ride qual­ity is stiff. The cabin’s de­sign needs a se­ri­ous re­think. The gear­box isn’t quite close to what you call slick. It’s hard to find a com­fort­able seat­ing po­si­tion. The ma­te­ri­als on the

THE XUV300 IS BASED ON THE TIVOLI AND YES, ONE MR GAU­RAV GILL IS GO­ING TO BE HAM­MER­ING IT

AROUND RALLY STAGES VERY SOON

in­te­rior are just not up to what the com­pe­ti­tion is dol­ing out these days. There’s a fair bit that needs work on the Nexon, but it has nailed the im­por­tant bits. The bits you’d need to have a blast while ham­mer­ing it up a moun­tain road.

Third time’s the charm

Mahin­dra has tried and tried, and failed and failed. First came the Quanto, then the Nu­voS­port. Both duds. From where I’m sat though, it looks like things are about to change. The XUV300 is their lat­est stab at this seg­ment, and it seems the most promis­ing. It is based on the Ssangy­ong Tivoli and a cer­tain Gau­rav Gill is go­ing to be ham­mer­ing it around rally stages very soon. There’s some driver’s car cred for you right there.

Un­der the hood is a 1.5-litre diesel motor, the most pow­er­ful one here, mak­ing 115bhp and 300Nm. It’s the same en­gine in the Marazzo and where that runs out of breath, it has enough and more power in re­serve for the lighter XUV. It’s the fat and flat torque curve that’s most im­pres­sive; stick it in sixth and you can not only main­tain a high cruis­ing speed but also pull off quick over­takes with­out down­shifts. Where com­pact SUVs strug­gle on the high­way, the XUV300 ac­tu­ally has grunt in re­serve. The horse­power also makes the XUV300 the fastest com­pact SUV to­day and, by ex­ten­sion, the most en­thu­si­as­tic one you can buy.

And the chas­sis can cash the cheques the en­gine writes out. The steer­ing is sharp — it is elec­tri­cally as­sisted and lacks feed­back, but you get three dif­fer­ent set­tings for weight. In Sport, it gen­uinely tight­ens up the ef­fort and that leads to the car feel­ing more together, en­abling more pre­cise di­rec­tion changes. The sus­pen­sion is the real high­light. It’s not rock hard but pliant mak­ing it re­ally good over bad roads, and while this might seem like a bad thing for han­dling, it isn’t. That’s because though it might roll a bit more, the way it trans­fers its weight around is so pre­dictable that you can ac­tu­ally play around with it. The track is the widest of any of the cars here, mak­ing it feel planted too. It’s a lot of fun to throw around a bendy road and have the car com­mu­ni­cate ex­actly what it is up to.

The Nexon was the bench­mark when it came to what an en­thu­si­ast wanted but the XUV300 has pushed the game on. It feels less SUV-like and more car like. None of the oth­ers can be ham­mered down a rough road at the same speeds as the XUV300 and none of the other SUVs can be thrown around smooth tar­mac cor­ners like the XUV300. And it makes no com­pro­mises – the qual­ity, fit-fin­ish, de­sign, all be­ing way bet­ter than any other Mahin­dra we know. The fact that it’s go­ing to be all liv­er­ied-up in Mahin­dra Ad­ven­ture colours and flung round rally tracks by In­dia’s best rally driver only makes it more de­sir­able. It’s an oxy­moron, hav­ing SUV and driver’s car in the same sen­tence but this en­tire lot in gen­eral, and the XUV300 in par­tic­u­lar, man­age to hold them together quite well. ⌧

Top, clockwise from above: The Nexon cabin’s er­gonomics need a re­think; that dial ac­tu­ally works; Nexon still has the bold­est de­sign around. Be­low: XUV300’s cabin is the nicest place to be

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