Power Packages

From luxury to performance to value-for-money and everything in between, Meraj Shah checks out the best new SUVs in the market right now

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DRIVER’S DREAM

Lexus RX450H Sport

The biggest compliment one can give the RX450H is that it would be an outstanding vehicle even if it wasn’t a Lexus. The premium Japanese brand has always been about craftsmanship, technology and differentiation: those who typically buy a Lexus don’t want to buy a car; they specifically want to buy a Lexus. And everything that’s associated with the brand holds true for the RX 450H: cutting-edge hybrid technology, handcrafted leather interiors, the famous soft, light feel to the doors, handling which would give a much smaller car the blushes, and absolute isolation from the road and the elements. Exactly what you expect from a Lexus.

But, for the sake of objectivity, it helps to forget that for a bit. The first thing that strikes you when you get behind the wheel of this, for lack of a better word, SUV, is the silence. Shift into Drive and the RX stealthily glides from standstill, propelled by the electric motor, its motion barely perceptible, and certainly not audible. The petrol and electric power plants work together like old friends—watching each other’s back, and standing in for the other whenever required. Lexus’s lineage in hybrids—it was making them much before anyone else—is amply evident in the seamlessness with which the motors switch duties. The overall result is that there’s an inherent lightness to the RX that belies its size; it feels nimble and more like a compact sedan than the full size SUV that it is.

The cabin, as expected has world class fit and finish, and the rear seat is the roomiest in this class (a result of Lexus not trying to fit a third row of seats). The benefit of it not being a seven-seater means the RX has so much more space to play with: the rear seats are reclinable, and the 453 litres of storage space is more than adequate. If needed the rear seats can be dropped to increase the load bay area.

Audiophiles will love the 15-speaker Mark Levinson Premium Surround System: this is one feature where the RX unarguably rises above the competition. The sound fidelity is just in a different league from anything else out there and features a neat trick: it unbundles MP3 files and restores them to full fidelity of the kind you’d expect from a compact disc.

At standstill, with its angular rakish looks, the RX looks rather aggressive and the Sport variant that we drove adds to those credentials with sport seats, pedals, and even a G-Force sensor. But make no mistake, the RX is prejudiced toward refinement: both from itself and the driver. You can throw it about—certainly the 300-odd horses provide more than enough gusto to zip about—but this car is not for juveniles.

Lexus RX450H

Engine 3.5 litre, V6, petrol hybrid

Power 313 bhp

Torque 473 Nm

Price 01.07—1.10 crore

AIN’T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH!

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Audi Q7

If you’re surprised at the Audi Q7’s inclusion in this round-up then you share that with your writer, who certainly did not intend to take this premium luxury SUV on terrain that would present any serious rigour. I mean, it’s a bit like trying to ascertain the top whack of a family sedan: just plain folly to put a car through a grind it’s not been built for.

Or so one would think: in the Q7’s context that turned out to be a prejudice borne out of taking things at face value. But you can’t blame anyone for assuming that the latest iteration of the Q7 is a plush urban SUV by looking at it: Audi’s flagship SUV screams class, discretion and luxury even before you set foot inside its appropriately grand living space. That’s not hyperbole: the cabin, lit up by rays streaming in from the full-length sunroof, upholstered with fine-grained leather and dark wood, feels like a European living room. The dimensions are prodigious to the point that occupants can hold separate conversations without interrupting each other, and the sense of isolation from the world outside is absolute. Looking out of the window from the rear seats feels a bit like watching television. From the outside, the Q7 looks more compact than its outgoing version, but that’s only a visual cue and interior space is in fact enhanced. This is not a flashy car by any means, but it’s not minimalist either. For those who like a dignified looking, yet sporty ride the Q7 nails the look.

Coming to the inadvertent rough-and-tumble we ended up taking the Q7 through: the route-map to the frontier Kumaon village of Sarmoli, 650 kilometres from the Capital, was lined with excellent, albeit narrow, roads. Nature had other plans, and a series of hailstorms and snow on the upper reaches meant that we encountered a number of diversions through dry riverbeds where fragile bridges had given way, or the road had simply caved in. Ergo, the air suspension that raised the Q7 just enough to surmount all, but the most imposing rocks. We began by navigating these stretches gingerly, careful not to scrape the underbelly, and then got more nonchalant along the way when it became apparent that not only was the ground clearance adequate, but the suspension—the best I’ve ever see on any Audi yet—remained not just composed, but so comfortable that rear seat passengers were lulled to sleep. You cannot overstate the balance of stiffness, balance and comfort in the Q7. The three-litre diesel engine seems more powerful than you think, aided by the smart eight-speed automatic. Owners of the previous generation’s 4.2-litre-powered Q7 would be hard pressed to feel the difference except in the weight, which as Audi puts it, is ‘equivalent to a grand piano.’

These considerable virtues apart, the one thing that really sets the Q7 apart is its incorporation of technology. The eight-speed gearbox has a coasting feature that disengages the gearbox when you’re not pushing the pedal to the floor, throwing up some spectacular mileages. The virtual cockpit, a fully digital instrument cluster couches the driver within a smorgasbord of information and real-time stats. Pre-Sense, a proprietary technology makes its presence felt not in some amorphous invisible way, but genuinely assists driving. Powered by a battery of cameras and sensors it constantly monitors your driving and the road and traffic conditions. Swerve left or right to make an overtake and the warning lights on the corresponding rear view mirrors and LED door panels light up to warn you of oncoming traffic. At over 60kmph on the highway at night, the car detects pedestrians who might be trying to cross the road, and adjusts the beam to warn you (and them) of each other’s presence. Buttons in the boot raise and lower the third row of seats; a 23-speaker Bose sound system converts the cabin into a virtual concert hall; and music tracks can be pulled up using a touchpad with handwriting recognition or just by voice commands.

Obviously I’m gushing, but the new Q7 sets a new benchmark for application of usable and tangible technology. The SUV has been the most popular ride for industry leaders and cine stars alike for a while now, and, if this drive was any indication, then it looks unlikely to be unseated from that podium anytime soon.

Audi Q7

Engine 3-litre V6 diesel

Power 245 bhp

Torque 600 Nm

Price 072.9 Lakh onward

(ex showroom delhi)

GOING PLACES

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Jeep Wrangler

It’s a bit like stating the obvious. I mean what can you possibly say that will add to the repository of existent knowledge about a Jeep’s off-road abilities—transcending the brand, ‘Jeep’ is eponymous with the four-wheeled equivalent of trail running. And no model in Jeep’s line-up bears this mantle more than the Wrangler. Given that weight of history and expectations, the world’s ultimate boy-toy wears its superlative tag rather easily. That comes from decades of R&D during which the American company has fine-tuned the art of taking motoring to terrain that most vehicles wouldn’t dream of traversing. If you take the Jeep Wrangler’s off-roading abilities for granted, then you’re smart—that is pretty much the Wrangler’s raison d’etre. We won’t harp on that.

What the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited—the version that your writer drove about in the Western Ghats—is truly unique for, is the ease with which it goes about its business. Even more crucially, how easy it makes it for the man at the wheel. It might not seem like such a big deal, but I’m not talking about taking a weekend jaunt on the dirt tracks in the Ghats. The Wrangler can cross enthusiastic streams, climb precipitous gradients with so much slush that you’d be hard pressed to even stand on two feet, and clamber over self-respecting boulders with no more than a hint of wheel spin.

Unlike the Jeeps of yore, you don’t need to be particularly skilled in off-roading to be able to helm the action. The automatic transmission makes sure there’s appropriate torque applied for the situation; the traction control keeps an untrained left foot in check, and hill descent control means things will never really get particularly hairy. Worse case scenario: switch to the four-wheel drive and the Wrangler will extract itself out of literally any mess you’ve got the two of you into. Plus, as a lovely hark back to the old days, the roof can be brought down manually in a matter of minutes. Point and shoot.

Goes without saying that a number of hot-blooded alpha males will buy the Wrangler not because they love going off-road, rather for the sheer presence of the thing. The instantly recognisable grille, the unmistakable butch stance, and the iconic shape make precisely the impression that you expect. For the townies the Wrangler makes the sort of allowances you would not expect from a ‘Jeep’: plush leather seats (that are heated if you please), climate control, and even a pish-posh infotainment system with Bluetooth and telephone connectivity to boot. These may not seem like much if you compare the Wrangler to luxury road-runner SUVs but that would be a disingenuous comparison. This is an off-roader first, that can tool around quite happily in the city. On the highway, when you floor the accelerator it grunts up to a 100kmph in ten seconds and feels planted at much higher speeds. You’ll be able to keep up with most other SUVs on the road, but, when you leave the asphalt, none will be able to keep up with you.

Jeep Wrangler

Engine 2776 cc; turbo-diesel

Power 200 bhp

Torque 460 Nm

Price 071.59 lakh

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

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Toyota Fortuner

Muscular. That, in one word, has been the crux of the Toyota Fortuner’s appeal since it was launched in India. There was just no getting past the high stance and clearance, the commanding driving position, and the grunt of the three-litre diesel as it devoured pretty much any kind of terrain you decided to throw at it. Toyota’s legendary reputation for durability was upheld in no small measure by the Fortuner that looked the part—indestructible.

In that context, the new Fortuner, launched at the turn-of-the-year, appears to be an entirely new animal at first glance. It’s almost like the neighbourhood goon who’s reformed, cleaned-up, got a job, and quit the vices. The ruggedness of the old Fortuner is gone, replaced instead by a genuine sophistication manifested in a new shape, new platform, and a new engine. The features list includes seven airbags, pedestrian protection on the bonnet, LED lamps, puddle lamps, leather seats, paddle shifts, cruise control and even park assist.

Driving the manual and automatic diesel variants (there are corresponding petrol-engine variants as well) of the Fortuner around the slushy hillsides of Vagamon in Kerala, it becomes apparent quickly that for all its suaveness this SUV is not squeamish about getting its hands dirty. On the contrary, the new Fortuner, with a chassis derived from the legendary Hilux, is extraordinarily composed through the rough stuff. Even if you don’t engage four-wheel drive, the electronic stability control (ESC), downhill assist control, hill assist control work in sync to effectively tackle the rough-and-tumble. The ability to shift to rear-wheel drive only, is new (unlike the outgoing version which was all-wheel drive), and makes the car more frugal on gas. The off-road abilities of this SUV are marginally better than its predecessor, but the ride and cabin comfort while traversing that terrain are significantly enhanced.

On the road, you won’t be blamed for forgetting that this is a bona fide off-roader. Three driving modes—Eco, Normal and Power calibrate the engine, gear ratios and suspension collectively for the kind of driving you’re in the mood for and traffic conditions. The cabin is a huge upgrade from the older Fortuner (that seemed dated and plasticky). A plush long dashboard, some faux wood, a large touchscreen, and funky instrument panel accentuate the sense of luxury that just wasn’t there earlier. If the older Fortuner was about exterior-looks and capability, this one has added genuine premium-ness to the pot.

The new Fortuner is no facelift, but rather an entirely new vehicle, with no more in common with its predecessor than ability and brand values. The Fortuner has grown up—and like most rakish youngsters who grow into refined adults, it’s a much more evolved version of its previous iteration. Heck it’s even attractive—no one could have accused the older Fortuner of that.

Toyota Fortuner

Engine 2.8 litre turbocharged diesel

Power 177bhp

Torque 420 Nm

Price 027.12 lakh – 31.42 lakh (ex-Delhi)

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