The most hard fought battle in the market today is in the compact SUV space. Here are the four main contenders – the newest challengers take on the (now) old guard. As the Rolling Stones said, time waits for no one...
What’s the one segment that’s completely recession proof? Well that’s easy, it’s the crossover segment. Regardless of what happens to the rest of the market – it could be sinking like a submarine – but the sales graph of crossovers will keep growing. So, it’s no real surprise that everyone wants to get in on the action.
Hyundai has launched the brand new Creta. Maruti Suzuki has brought in the S-Cross – and even set up an all-new dealership network – in the hope of getting a piece of the pie. Renault has all but established itself in India on the back of the Duster, while Ford virtually set up the segment a couple of years ago with the Ecosport. To give you some sense of its popularity, the Ecosport got 60,000 booking in its first month of launch – and has since sold 2,00,000 units built at the Ford plant in Chennai (1,12,000 of those in India, and the rest in the export markets).
After all these years, the Ecosport still looks pretty sharp. It’s the only sub-four metre car here, so it certainly appears tightly packaged. But that also means that it’s the most affordable. In fact, you could get two base level Ecosports for the same price as a nicely equipped Creta. Our test car was the 1.5-litre petrol engined Ecosport with an automatic gearbox – the only autobox in this test.
Now, the take rate of automatic transmissions is rising in the country – which isn’t surprising considering the growing volume of traffic in our big cities. The two models here that offer automatics are the Ecosport and the Creta – the Ecosport only with the 1.5-litre petrol engine, while the Creta automatic only comes with the 1.6 diesel. So, expectedly, you could drive a small SUV through the price gap between the two. And so not only is the Ecosport the most inexpensive crossover you can have, but it’s also the most economical automatic that you can purchase in this segment.
Fortunately, the engine and gearbox combo is actually pretty good. 81bhp doesn’t sound like much, but the gearbox is responsive and the Ecosport goes down the road pretty well. It certainly has no trouble keeping up with the diesel power units here. Of course, I would take the 1-litre three-cylinder Ecoboost – multiple ‘Engine of the Year’ winning – motor, but it doesn’t come with an automatic. And, since it’s quite an engaging little motor, I would likely drive it like I stole it all the time. So, in my hands, unfortunately, it wouldn’t be very economical. It’s best, then, to be more sensible and settle for the more mundane drivetrain options in the range. And, certainly the 1.5 diesel and petrol on offer are quite mundane. Let’s just say that this is not a car in which to carve through your favourite back road. It has plenty of roll at speed, and doesn’t feel as sharp as you would expect from a Ford.
The driving position, though, is spot on – full credit to Ford for providing a telescoping steering column! The only other car here to do so is the S-Cross. As a result of which, finding the perfect driving position in the Creta and Duster can be a little more challenging – since the steering wheel only adjusts for height, and not reach. The other area in which Ford deserves credit is in regards to its Sync infotainment system. I had constant trouble with the Bluetooth connectivity in the Maruti and Hyundai, but no such trouble in the Ford. In fact, one of the leading source of complaints from customers today is in regards to in-car Bluetooth connectivity. I, for one, can’t wait for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to become a global standard so that automakers can go about doing what they do best – which is build cars – while technology companies do what they do best, which in this case at least would be to provide connectivity options and usable interfaces. But that’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, Ford does it best with its Sync system – especially Sync 2, which we’ve featured in the Endeavour elsewhere in this issue.
On another note, one aspect a crossover must posses is some level of off-road ability. And while we’ve undertaken plenty of road trips in the Ecosport with no trouble at all, it’s not exactly comfortable climbing boulders and getting its feet wet. With the autobox especially, it’s much more of an urban runabout than a willing adventure seeker. If it’s proper all-road ability that you’re after then the only option that you have amongst this group is the Renault Duster. Not only is the Duster the most rugged of the bunch, but it’s also the only one that comes with the option of all-wheel drive.
A couple of years ago, I used the two-wheel drive Duster 110 as my service and recce vehicle for a rally in the foothills of the Himalayas. Well, over that extended weekend, it proved that it was extremely durable and very comfortable off-road – even in two-wheel guise. And so we thought the all-wheel drive Duster would sell like hotcakes. But it’s nowhere near as successful as the front-wheel drive variants. So, it just proves that these cars are bought mainly to cruise boulevards rather than chart a course through that unexplored trail in the mountains. Well, in this case, you can at least be safe in the knowledge that the Duster AWD will be happy accompanying you to the ends of the Earth if need be. We shot this feature off-road during the monsoon, and the Duster was the only car here that we knew wouldn’t get beached in the mud.
On the road, it’s pretty good too. The 1.5-litre, 108 horsepower motor is very strong. The gearbox is a joy to use and its road manners are excellent. Well, that’s if you ignore the strong kickback from the steering – I’m shocked that the engineers from Renault haven’t been able to sort this out by now! Nissan has managed to soften it somewhat by making the steering lighter in the Terrano, but all that’s done is make the steering vague and unresponsive. Moreover, in this company, the Duster feels the most unrefined of the lot. You begin to notice the basic cabin – with the exception of the touch-screen in the top-of-the-line variant – far more when compared to the likes of the S-Cross and the Creta.
The cabin in the S-Cross feels like a luxury car when compared with the Duster – which is a good thing because Maruti has gone to great lengths to point out that the S-Cross is a premium product. In fact, they’ve even gone so far as to set up a brand new up-market dealership network to sell just the S-Cross – for now anyway! And from within the cabin, the S-Cross certainly delivers. It feels well screwed together, and is pretty straightforward. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the touch-screen. Fortunately, though, it has buttons on the steering wheel too for the basic functions. The steering feel itself is the best of the lot here. The 1.6-litre diesel engine sourced from Fiat is refined and punchy, and the driving experience certainly feels the most car-like of this bunch. And I mean that in a good way, but ironically that could be its biggest drawback. You see, it doesn’t feel particularly SUV-like – and it certainly doesn’t look it either. It looks more like a large elevated hatchback rather than a shrunken SUV. And while that may make it, perhaps, the most practical in the city – which is where most of these vehicles will spend most of their time – it also means that it doesn’t have any of that butch appeal that buyers in this segment so covet. Personally I like the S-Cross quite a bit, but I think Maruti will have an uphill struggle on the sales front since it’s priced at par with the Creta and is only available in a few dozen Nexa outlets for the moment.
The Creta, meanwhile, would win hands down if this were a beauty contest. With its large three-bar protruding chrome grille and swept-back headlights it certainly looks the most striking of the lot. The interior too is the most stylish, and feels the most upmarket of the bunch. The driving experience isn’t quite as direct and communicative as the S-Cross, but Hyundai has made such huge strides over the past few years that it carries all these learnings into the Creta. The drivetrain is buttery smooth, like all their new cars, and extremely capable as well. The engine is strong, the transmission is as smooth as they come, and the high-speed stability extremely impressive. It certainly feels every bit the smaller sibling of the Santa-Fe, and that’s exactly what that market seems to be demanding at the moment. Qualitatively, there isn’t actually that much to separate the S-Cross and the Creta. Like I said before, the S-Cross may even come out on top in many ways, but it’s the small things that make all the difference. Take, for instance, the door handles in both cases – on the S-Cross they feel light and tinny, while in the Creta they’re covered in chrome and are well damped. Hyundai has certainly mastered the art of creating a certain image in the minds-eye of the consumer – and they’ve taken all of this insight and implemented it in the case of the Creta. It feels the most complete car here!
The Ecosport is the one to have if you’re on a budget – it continues to provide impressive value. The Duster is the only one to choose if you have an adventurous gene in your body. The S-Cross is still a great buy if you’re a Maruti loyalist – it’ll certainly serve you very well indeed. But it’s the Creta that hits all the right notes when it comes to what the buyer wants and expects in this segment. The results from their customer clinics must be very insightful indeed. Or is it just that they’ve become very good at listening to the customer? At any rate, they’ve got another sell-out on their hands here...
- Ford Ecosport
- Renault Duster
- Maruti Suzuki S Cross
- Hyundai Creta
Engine: 1,499cc / 4-Cylinders / DOHC / 16 Valves
Transmission: 6-Speed Automatic / Front-Wheel Drive
Power: 81bhp @ 6,300rpm
Torque: 140Nm @ 4,400rpm
Price: Rs. 9.77 lakhs (Ex-showroom, Delhi)
Engine: 1,461cc / 4-Cylinders / DOHC / 16 Valves / Turbocharged / CRDi
Transmission: 6-Speed Manual / Front-Wheel Drive
Power: 108bhp @ 3,900rpm
Torque: 248Nm @ 2,250rpm
Price: Rs. 13.50 lakhs (Ex-showroom, Delhi)
Engine: 1,598cc / 4-Cylinders / DOHC / 16 Valves / Turbocharged / CRDi
Transmission: 6-Speed Manual / Front-Wheel Drive
Power: 118bhp @ 3,750rpm
Torque: 320Nm @ 1,750rpm
Price: Rs. 13.75 lakhs (Ex-showroom, Delhi)
Engine: 1,582cc / 4-Cylinders / DOHC / 16 Valves / Turbocharged / CRDi
Transmission: 6-Speed Manual / Front-Wheel Drive
Power: 126bhp @ 4,000rpm
Torque: 260Nm @ 1,900 – 2,750rpm
Price: Rs. 13.57 lakhs (Ex-showroom, Delhi)