Typically we start the year in the hunt for snow. This time we’re searching for something a little harder to find – tranquillity!
Starting a new year by heading to the hills in a bunch of SUVs has become something of a tradition here at AutoX. And this year was no different. In fact, this time, perhaps we had even more incentive than in years past.
You see, the new year coincided with the implementation of the odd-even rule in Delhi – so it was going to prove to be a little difficult to test and shoot four vehicles together in the NCR anyway. Of course, you may also notice that you can’t really buy any of these vehicles in the NCR at present because of the Supreme Court ruling that temporarily bans the registration of all diesel passenger vehicles with an engine capacity of over 2.0 litres.
Fortunately that doesn’t include one of our ‘Best of 2015’ winners, the XC90 – which sneaks out by the skin of its teeth thanks to its 1,969cc displacement. If either the Endeavour, Q7 or X5 catch your fancy though, and you happen to live in the National Capital Region, it seems that you’ll have to wait till March 31st before you can put any of them in your driveway.
At the outset, and at the risk of being politically incorrect, I can’t help but urge you to be patient because each one of these machines has a lot going for it. After all, I’ve been dying to drive the Q7 ever since I read the first set of reviews in the middle of last year. You may have seen Siddharth Patankar’s review, which was rather complimentary (and rightfully so), in our July 2015 issue. Meanwhile, in September last year, we brought you our first drive review on the Ford Endeavour from Thailand, and I’m happy to report that it’s more than lived up to its initial promise. And what about the X5? Well, suffice to say that we’ve put it in a half-dozen features since it was launched in mid-2014 – for the simple reason that we just can’t seem to get enough of it! We’ve raced it on the dirt against the Desert Storm winning Polaris RZR 900. We’ve pitted it against the Range Rover Sport at the BIC, and we’ve taken it into the snow with a Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG. So, clearly, we’ve had a lot of fun with it over the past year-and-a-half – and it remains the benchmark for driving dynamics on tarmac for an SUV (with the exception of the Porsche Cayenne and Macan perhaps).
So, with the cars lined up it was time to settle on the location. The last three years have each taken us to Mashobra in the lower Himalayas in the hunt for snow – needles to say it was time to try something new. We found the perfect setting, and hospitality, at my father-in-law’s mountain cabin in the village of Koti in Uttarakhand. One of the many Koti’s in the region, this one is 30 kilometres North-West of Dehradun in a completely secluded part of the state. We literally had an entire mountainside to ourselves – not to mention the roads leading to and from. So we could enjoy seclusion and tranquillity when we needed it, while also indulging in some play in these incredibly capable machines when we felt like it. What could be better?
The route we chose to get there was via Dehradun, which meant going through Meerut and Muzaffarnagar in UP – well, bypassing them anyway. We even managed to bypass Roorkee thanks to the use of some clever shortcuts en route. That being said, it wasn’t exactly a pleasant drive – despite the machinery. We ran into some pretty severe fog just outside Delhi, which is inevitable at this time of the year I suppose. This negated our early morning start, but a long (and quite filling) breakfast stop at the Cheetal Grand dhaba certainly made up for the delay though.
I started out in the Endeavour, and had no trouble whatsoever keeping up with the Q7 on the highway. With just under 200 horsepower courtesy of the 3.2 litre, 5-cylinder turbo-diesel, it may have been about 70 horses shy of the 3.0 litre V6 in the Audi, but it certainly didn’t feel down on power on the open road. The Audi and BMW (with its Twin-Power turbo 3.0 litre in-line six) would shoot off into the distance, and the Endeavour would immediately be on their tail. It has to be said, though, that the Volvo had to try pretty hard to match the pace set by this trio. Sure, its 2.0 litre turbocharged four delivers 225bhp seamlessly via an 8-speed gearbox, but it does have a little lag under 2,000rpm. Let’s just say that the reduced cylinder count and displacement was quite evident in this company. In isolation, the powertrain seems as refined and powerful as any. But some shortcomings were certainly exposed when trying to stay in convoy with this lot. That said, I still found that it offered the best driving position and has by far the best cabin in the industry – despite the Q7 running it quite close actually. And once you get used to turbo lag, you learn to compensate for it by carefully planning your overtakes on our single lane highways. Keeping the car in ‘Dynamic’ mode helps as well. And, for a 2.0 litre four (sorry, sub-2.0 litre), it’s certainly creamy smooth and extremely refined. Steering mounted paddles to change gears would help though. And while I found the touch-screen interface to be extremely intuitive and responsive, I can see how explaining the various functions to your chauffer could be a bit of a challenge.
None of this, however, takes away from the fact that everything in the cabin is a work of art. The seats are the most comfortable and supportive in all of autodome. If I could only carry the Volvo drivers’ chair around with me, I would have no use whatsoever for the can of Volini that I keep in my bag. And it’s no less impressive on the outside either. Thor’s hammer, which leads the way, is yet to lose its novelty – and the entire car just looks like it’s wearing a perfectly tailored Armani suit.
The Endeavour, on the other hand, looks like it’s come to the party in its gym gear. It’s big, butch, and it means business. If you’re going to get into an argument with a mountain, this is the machine that you want on your side. It’s 225mm ride height, 80mm wading depth, and approach and departure angles of 29-degrees and 21-degrees all give it some pretty serious off-roading cred. Supplementing this mountain goat character is a distinctly Land Rover-esque Terrain Management System, plus Hill Descent Control, Hill Launch Assist, an active transfer case with a low range gearbox, and an electronically locking differential. We did actually get the opportunity to engage four-low and put it in its ‘Rock’ setting, which enabled us to drive straight up what is actually a raging rapid in the monsoon. Our setting for the cover shot of this issue is really a riverbed for much of the year. And the road that we blocked for the better part of an hour to get that perfect shot is completely washed away during the monsoon. But the Endeavour paid no heed to the conditions, and simply went wherever we pointed it. The MRF Wanderer tyres, which it’s now shod with, has obviously done very little to dampen its inherent off-road capability that we first sampled in the paddy fields of Chang Rai in Northern Thailand in 2015.
That notwithstanding, this two tonne ladder-on-frame SUV is surprisingly comfortable and refined. Sure, the quality of plastics and materials in the cabin are no match for the others in this quartet – but then the asking price is less than half that of the other machines here. So you can be assured that you’re getting a LOT of car for your money. The ride quality on tarmac is incredible – as it is, frankly, for the rest of the machines here. But they use any manner of air suspension trickery to make it happen. The Endeavour does this despite having a solid rear axle. It also has sound cancelling technology that makes it very quiet in the cabin. This variant, which is the top-of-the-line, even has a panoramic sunroof, as well as a powered tailgate and split folding third row. Ford has, however, removed the 230-volt plug point in the second row of the Indian variant – which I wish they hadn’t. That apart, if I had to choose one machine for the daily commute over the week as well as the weekend trip to Leh – this would be it!
On the road, of course, it’s no match for the X5. But, then, not many machines are – SUV or otherwise. The balance and poise of the X5 continues to impress every time you get behind the wheel. It certainly feels like all the car you’d ever need. But, in this company (that of the new Q7 and the XC90 to be specific), the interior doesn’t feel quite as special in comparison. It’s functional, luxurious even, and impeccably executed with materials of the highest quality, but it doesn’t make every journey feel an event – like the Audi and Volvo manage. Fortunately, all that is forgotten the first time you encounter a bend in the road.
On the way back, we chose to return via Paonta Sahib, Yamuna Nagar, and Karnal. Just before we left Uttarakhand, we encountered a beautiful and perfectly surfaced ribbon of tarmac twisting through the forest – and how I wished I had been in the X5 during that stretch. But I wasn’t exactly seated in a slouch by any means. You see, the new Audi Q7 is so refined that it doesn’t feel like it’s powered by anything as pedestrian as an engine and gearbox – it feels like it’s powered by the Force (an appropriate reference at present I suppose, since the new Star Wars movie has just been released). Add to that the fact that the new Q7 has shed 325kgs from the previous generation – making it far more agile than ever before. So, no matter how hard the X5 tried, it simply couldn’t shake off the angular-faced Audi. I couldn’t help think that the driver in the BMW was perhaps having a bit more fun though!
But I found myself in a far more inviting cabin. The horizontal slats in the dash really make it look very contemporary indeed, and even more Teutonic than usual. The materials are as good as ever, and the layout is just really inviting. And Audi’s virtual cockpit – the digital TFT screen that masquerades as an instrument cluster – is so much more convincing than any of its competitors, whether it’s Jaguar, Land Rover, or Volvo. There’s a level of excellence and engineering that’s just hard for any other manufacturer to match. However, I think all the lead engineers were off duty when someone designed the spare wheel restraint, which holds a space saver spare wheel upright in the boot. The trouble is that you can’t use the third row with the spare wheel in place. That apart, the Q7 really is a marvel of engineering – and the new generation machine shrinks around you when you’re on the road, which is something that couldn’t be said for the previous generation model.
But as incredible as each of these machines really are – and they are, all of them – they can’t hold a candle to star gazing at a clear mountain sky, sipping something aged carefully for 18 years, and sharing stories around a bonfire.
What do you know, we actually found some of that tranquillity that we were after. Nope, not a bad way to start the year! And thank you Audi, BMW, Ford and Volvo quartet, you’re not too shabby either…