Will the real SUVs please stand up?

The rule books in India, or what some people would call the holy grail of the automotive industry–Central Motor Vehicles Rules or the Motor Vehicles Act– dont have it. The manufacturers are either confused themselves or pretend that they are. It suits them as they want to keep consumers guessing as well. The industry body Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers is clueless, often seeking the answer from ignorant scribes like yours truly. And consumers, secure in their minds that they would never go off road, perhaps only have a vague idea. Most will buy anything that is big, has a loud horn and plays louder music and a threatening presence on the road, and plaster it with a big black 4*4 sticker at the side.

But as the frenzy for these big burly macho looking vehicles transforms itself more into an epidemic, it becomes more imperative to settle the dispute somewhere. How does a vehicle qualify as an SUV? How do you know whether you actually need one? Is there a specific skill set required to drive one? Some of them like the Endeavour and Fortuner for example, have an extra lever– one that allows you to choose differentials. I am not sure many of us including those who own these vehicles really understand what a differential means. And what it can do between one mode and the other. And I am confident a vast majority of the owners, in their ignorance, have rarely if not never, used it.

On an invitation to an ‘exclusive’ preview attended by 3 dozen other people from my own ilk, of the new Tata Safari, something they call the Storme, I ended up chatting with Mr Karl Heinz Servos, head of joint projects and the utility vehicle division at Tata Motors. As the evening panned out, it became clear to me that Mr Servos was perhaps the most knowledgeable person in that hall.

After discussing with him at length about various kinds of cars, steering columns, differentials and suspension systems…basically boring jargons mostly, the question that forms the basis of this post found its way into my mind. And I promptly carried it over to him at the breakfast table the next morning. I expected at least a 15 minute discourse on various kinds of technical nitty gritties. What I got instead over dour yogurt and pineapple juice was a one liner….an SUV needs to have a four wheel drive, at least as an option.

I was quite content with that answer, for long I also believed the same. But the sheer number of vehicles in India that brandish the SUV tag and yet are power driven through two wheels made me ask the question to another nuts and bolts man from another company. And lest some of you accuse me of a colonial hangover or a pseudo colonial intellectual entrapment, this gentleman is every bit a desi. The head of engineering at Maruti Suzuki, Inala Veerabhadra Rao popularly known as IVR, also concurred that an SUV without 4 wheel drive is like a camel born with hoofs. It can gallop all right but cant sink in and slush through.

If we take this for a fact, a lot of vehicles on the road today will find mud on themselves…and not at the right places.

Mahindra Bolero
A super success from a company that prides itself as the largest utility vehicle manufacturer in India, Bolero only gets better with age. This year, it has been the fourth largest selling vehicle across all categories clocking sales of over 8,000 per month regularly. Mahindra does not shy away from garnering the accolade either. Very regularly, Bolero is hailed as the best selling SUV in the country.

SUV? Really? Yes it used to be an SUV once. But last year, Mahindra discontinued the 4*4 versions of the vehicle when it got a minor facelift. And with it, it should have lost the SUV tag as well. True it is built to last. Very correct that it has the high ground clearance that is required to conquer all terrains. And agreed it will still have the answer to almost everything that you will throw at it. But take a gleaming new Bolero to one of Mahindra’s own rallies and you will know it is not a SUV anymore. You will need a Hari Singh in his customised Mahindra Thar to rinch you out of the hole.

Toyota Innova/Maruti Ertiga/Mahindra Xylo
These are highly successful vehicles and are great machines in their own right. And to be fair to their parents, these are not sold as SUVs either. But very often people confuse these as SUVs simply because they are big and can seat more than what a small car can. The ilk of Innova, Ertiga, Xylo and Tavera are what is called people moving utility vehicles. Their main USP is space and the ability to transport a mini truckload of people from one place to the other. Day in day out and without creating any fuss. Expecting it to shed the tarmac and shred the hinterland instead would mean tearing the vehicle apart into pieces…bit by bit. An SUV they are not.

Tata Sumo Gold, Grande Mark I, II, III, IV whatever
The good old Sumo…is that a SUV? After a near death experience (obviously I am exaggerating) in the 1st generation Grande Sumo in 2007, I had no doubts it is not. But Tata still believes it is. Read this :

Ready for any terrain, no destination is out of reach with monstrous 3 L Gold CR4 engine. Ride in style and utmost comfort as you drive over the most difficult roads, thanks to the double wishbone suspension. And with a fuel economy of 14.7 kmpl your journeys are much longer than before. So, get ready to conquer the roads – with the all new TATA Sumo Gold.

This is what Tata itself claims on its website. Which is ironical, because the tag line for the Storme — ‘the Real SUV’ — obliquely takes a pot shot at the other so called SUVs. The Sumo may have double wishbone suspension but that cannot be a substitute for an all wheel drivetrain. A 190mm ground clearance and endless victories at desert rallies notwithstanding. And unlike the Bolero, which had a 4*4 option till last year, Sumo never had it…Grande or otherwise.

Mahindra XUV 5OO
These days, mention XUV in front of any Mahindra official and automatically their chest puffs up by at least 2 inches. Almost like airbags. Such is the charisma of this vehicle. With sales of 35,000 units in its first year, you cant really fault them either. And it is still going strong in its 2nd year. I had myself thought that beyond the fetish for the macho looking jazzy front facia, the obsession with the vehicle will dry up after 6 months. I still believe it will eventually. But for now, I stand corrected and humbly plead guilty.

But all this while, there is something that has changed with the XUV. Launched with many variants including 4*4 versions, problems crept in with the latter. As of today the 4*4 version of the XUV is not for sale and there is no clarity if it will ever come back. My hunch is that Mahindra is not even concerned. If you already doing 4,500 units a month and are constrained for capacity why would you worry about a version that will, at the most account for just 5% of your sales. Till then though, the XUV is no SUV. It is a different matter that even with the four wheels churning there would have been doubts about its off roading capabilities.

So where are the real brutes?
Well look around and you will still get them. The cheapest would be the Thar though a Mahindra sales person would try to make you believe that the Quanto has zebra stripes too. Move upwards and you will get the Safari and Scorpio. Yes Tata Motors, I do agree it is a real SUV. The real true blue deal however, comes in for a price at a certain Mitsubishi Pajero. Keep moving further and you will get Montero, Prado, any of the Range Rovers, a Cayenne or a top of the line Mercedes G Wagon. Or simply rush to Bhopal and get your hunting Jeep. All have four wheels. All of them work. All of them are SUVs.

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