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Having at it in old-school SUVs – the ladder frame, 4WD behemoths that started all this madness in the first place
The Ed would have my head on a stake for saying this, but those other cars on all the pages before this? They aren’t SUVs. They’re imitations of the real thing — hatchbacks and cars that have been injected with a heady dose of testosterone and ground clearance. Phonies, if you asked Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. They’re a travesty, built in the image of the beasts you see on these pages, but come nowhere close to giving you the same domineering status that they should. SUVs are about maxi-everything — size, space, engines, man-parts — but they’ve turned it into a farce. Sub-four metres? How are you supposed to own the road if you’re driving something that is doing oh-so-much to comply with norms instead subverting them?
No, real SUVs are anything but a compromise. The Toyota Fortuner is the king out here — it sells the most, and if you want to intimidate someone on the road, one in white would be your weapon of choice. Want to really scare them shitless? Tint the windows and put an orange flag on the bonnet. It is old-school cool, and the fact that every politico worth his bad karma swears by it has made it the bonafide badass of Indian roads. The Endeavour has been around a while too — the Ford has evolved over time in to easily the best-looking SUV here. Butch, broad shouldered and unapologetically American — less Donald Trump, more Frank Castle — the kind that doesn’t just scream freedom, but actually hands it to you. It has been around for a while, but has recently been facelifted (new grille, yay!) and that technically makes it the newest car here. Flush technicalities down the crapper though, and the newest car in this company is actually the Mahindra Alturas G4. The Alturas is actually a disassembled Rexton G4 that gets shipped across in a box from South Korea and put together in India with a tiny grille and badge swap. What it does though, is take Mahindra into an all-new space to battle it out with the big boys.
That’s exactly what you can get with the Fortuner. Toyotas are known to be indestructible — Innovas run 3-4 lakh kilometres as taxis without breaking a sweat, Corollas are notorious for never breaking down and the Fortuner is no different. It is properly solid. This particular example we had on test had run a good 38,000km, most at the hands of auto journalists who aren’t exactly known for their mechanical sympathy and, yet, there wasn’t so much as a rattle or a squeak from anywhere. Saying they were built to last would be underselling them — they could probably survive the apocalypse. And that is exactly why Fortuners sell so much. They come with the promise of bulletproof reliability and Toyota’s large network and phenomenal service quality to go along with it.
The Fortuner is also built to go far off the road. It feels the most comfortable when you throw it into the deep end of a slush pit, even in this company. The Fortuner has a transfer case that will allow you to run it in rear-wheel drive primarily, but also four-wheel drive with a low ratio gearbox for the tricky stuff. More impressive is the confidence and feedback it gives the driver when off-road — you’re acutely aware of what the chassis and wheels are doing at all times. Amongst all three here, it feels the most connected on the rough stuff, and is the most intuitive to control. If you had to pull a Bear Grylls in an SUV, you will want to be in the Fortuner and nothing else.
But the Fortuner is flawed. It isn’t the most comfortable on the road — the ride is stiff and jumpy, undulations in the road can unsettle it very easily. The engine is pretty vocal and too much sound permeates into the cabin. The gearbox is a bit confused and can be caught out, making the driving experience on the road somewhat of a mixed bag. It isn’t just that, though. The interiors look a generation old and are in need of an update. It’s low on features — no sunroof, no dual zone climate control, no CarPlay or Android Auto. Space isn’t lacking, it is a big car after all but it is the most limited in this company. The Fortuner can’t be called a driver’s car, and neither does it pamper occupants too much. However, turn off tarmac and into the mud, and it puts the biggest smile on your face. And it will never squeak or rattle. Ever.
Let’s be real. How many of these SUVs actually ever go into the wilderness? The only mud they get on their boots are when two wheels go off the tarmac to let another one of their kind pass by. The Alturas is very aware of this, so it has trained its attention to keeping its occupants happy as it parts a sea of rickshaws on their daily commute. If there’s one interior here that screams opulence, this is it. The Alturas’ insides are the most welcoming of the three SUVs here, and for good reason. The dash and doors are draped in an expensive-looking brown leather, good quality plastics and faux metal and wood finishes. It pampers you with cooled seats and an infotainment system that doesn’t look like it was designed in the ’90s. It also has the most spacious seating, be it the second or the third row. It’s clear that the Alturas is the most passenger focussed of the three, and going by the number of chauffeurs you see in these SUVs, Mahindra just might be on to something.
The focus on comfort doesn’t end there. The Alturas has really good ride quality and noise insulation from the outside. It’s got the smallest engine here that probably works the hardest to keep its bulk moving, but it remains nicely insulated in the cabin. At slower speeds, the Mahindra does well to iron undulations in the road — the setup is soft and floaty, keeping things fairly plush. The powertrain is actually quite nice too — the 2.2-litre turbo-diesel makes 178bhp and 420Nm, and is enough to hustle the SUV. The Mercedes-Benz-sourced gearbox works well and it covers ground on a straight road with ease.
What catches the Alturas out is a squiggly road. The soft setup means things can get a bit messy when you chuck it around a bend — it rolls and wallows, and you’re better off taking it easy as soon as you see a vanishing point. The Alturas has the capability to go off-road, but it doesn’t necessarily enjoy it. It has got four-wheel drive, low ratio and Hill Descent control but it just feels so much more comfortable on tarmac. The light controls make it feel a bit disconnected under you and a little hard to place exactly where you want it.
The Alturas G4 is very clear about its strengths — keeping its occupants happy, and shoving its massive badge in a tailing car’s face. It is easily the most plush car here, and if you want to feel good about where you’ve sunk 30 lakh rupees, this is where you want to be.
Set these three loose on any road, and the Endeavour will hunt down and overtake the other two with a vengeance. It’s got an extra cylinder — the 3.2-litre motor is the most powerful here making 197bhp and 470Nm. Compound that with a more responsive gearbox and the most sorted dynamics, and the Endeavour feels the most comfortable being pushed hard on the road. Yes there is roll, these are tall ladder frame SUVs after all, but it is controlled and the steering is direct. It doesn’t bounce around and doesn’t skip over bumps in the road. It feels the most monocoque-like in terms of its manners on the road, and that’s a good thing.
That said, it doesn’t compromise on off-road performance. The Endeavour gets a full-time AWD system, but can also switch to a lower ratio for the sticky stuff. It gets a fair amount of tech to help it off-road — it gets terrain modes with four different settings that alter throttle, gearbox response, traction control and ESP, depending on the terrain setting. It also gets Hill Descent Control, and a locking rear differential for really tricky situations. It mollycoddles you the most off-road, but doesn’t feel as connected off-road as the Fortuner. That said, pushing these SUVs to their limits to find out which one breaks first generally involves broken bumpers and JCBs for recovery, so we chose not to.
It’s comfortable too. It doesn’t scream luxury, but provides you with a more sombre comfort that you get from a nicely designed, well-finished cabin. The seats support you well, and the cabin feels spacious — helped in no small measure by the light colour interiors and panoramic sunroof. The only real grouse I had with the Endeavour was the really tight third-row space. It also doesn’t feel as indestructible as the Fortuner — it has the ability to take you far, but these SUVs also need to be able to bring you back.
It’s hard to choose an outright ‘winner’ of this comparison story. No, this isn’t me just being diplomatic — each one is genuinely bloody good in its own right, and they all have their flaws. The Fortuner is the best off-road and takes the cake with reliability, but comfort is a compromise. The Alturas is the most luxurious and most passenger focussed of the three, even though that very softness compromises its driving dynamics. The Endeavour is probably the most complete with its good on-road dynamics and off-road capability, but simply doesn’t communicate with you as well off-road as the Fortuner does. If you are an enthusiast, and are looking for an SUV that you can actually enjoy driving, the Endeavour would be the pick of the lot. It promises The Thrill of Driving, that’s for sure. But again, it depends on what you want from your SUV.