Compact SUV shootout: Who’s the king of the little hill?

Compact SUV shootout: Who’s the king of the little hill?

An SUV doesn’t get any smaller than this. In fact, you can’t really call them SUV without a ‘compact’ disclaimer. They 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’ SUV fantasies.

The fact that they’re so tiny means they drive less like a big SUV but 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, you sit a whole foot higher than normal but throw them around a bend and they actually corner! They are no Cayennes, but they can hold their own on a twisty road.


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 cash. Ford launched the 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 makeup. 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.

The Ford corners 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 fewer teenagers diving into ditches with their cars, 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.

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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. CV 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 knows 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-focused 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 like 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 rides and handling setup in the SUV business, south of Rs 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 economy maximising 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 until 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. 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 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 downshifting. 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 like an SUV and more like a car. 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.

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