SUVs are marketed as adventurous, getaway lifestyle vehicles. But what type of SUV should you buy if you actually do want to get away? Do you really need a full-bore body-on-frame 4x4, or will a 2WD crossover do? We head on a road trip to find some answers…
Sunlight gently peered through the gaps in the trees, a nippy breeze rushed in through the open windows as I drove uphill through beautiful hues of green and blue. Now, this is an experience I’m all too familiar with. Usually, I associate this with a light and peppy petrol hatchback. For there is hardly anything that’s more engaging to drive on winding mountain roads. To understand what I’m really talking about, you must experience it – there’s no other way, really!
But things were different this time. No peppy hatchback, instead I was aboard the kind of large and burly SUV that’s associated with adventurous drives and long road trips. You see, we’re on a mission to find out what type of SUV is best for a road trip in India. Is it the full-size, adrenaline pumping, 4x4 flexing SUV or will a two-wheel drive crossover SUV prove to be just as capable? Of course, the four-wheel drive good ol’ ladder frame SUV appears to be the default choice, but how often do you use a 4x4 on a road trip? And bear in mind that crossover SUVs tend to be more comfortable and car-like to live with. So, let the journey begin…
The job at hand
For the purposes of this test, we summoned the newest SUVs of each type. Representing the crossovers was Honda’s new CR-V that is very competent indeed. Representing the prestige of the full-size SUV was Isuzu’s face-lifted MU-X. Now I’m no stranger to the MU-X – we did a mega off-road test last year, in which the MU-X performed very well. However, it lagged behind in terms of equipment and interior quality. But, not too long ago, Isuzu introduced a face-lifted model with redesigned bumpers, LED projector headlamps with automatic levelling, 6 airbags, hill hold assist, hill descent control and a really snazzy set of 18-inch alloy wheels, along with a few other updates. But I’m afraid that the MU-X still lags behind its rivals in terms of equipment and overall pizzazz, for the dashboard and infotainment screen continues to feel outdated, there’s no satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, and the MU-X also doesn’t get automatic headlamps or wipers.
Whereas the CR-V feels fairly contemporary with its large infotainment screen, which even has a ‘lane watch’ camera display to help eliminate blind spots, a digital driver information display, a huge panoramic sunroof and a nice dual tone colour theme, with faux wood and brushed aluminium inserts – all of which makes the cabin very inviting. And when you get inside, it surprises you with its spaciousness, especially for the rear seat occupants. It has acres of legroom, and you can literally stretch your legs in the back seat. The seats themselves are quite supportive too. This, combined with the large glass house, makes you feel very comfortable in the back. Also, if anything, those front seats are even more comfortable and are wonderfully supportive.
In comparison, the MU-X’s cabin feels a little drab with its all-black layout. But when you look closer, it’s just the dashboard that looks dated, for the new black leather upholstery for the seats and door pads feels premium and the faux aluminium trim on the door pads looks nice too. And there’s nothing to complain about when it comes to the driver information display, as the analogue dials are up for the job and the DIS (Driver Information System) provides you with all the information you need. But that infotainment screen is still a disappointment, especially the poor-quality rear-view camera display. But once you get used to the car, all you really wish for is a volume knob for easy control.
The MU-X’s seats also aren’t as comfortable as those of the CR-V, but there’s hardly anything to complain about here really, for they actually are quite comfortable and supportive on long trips. I especially love the high seating position of these ladder frame SUVs, as it gives you a commanding view of the road. Factor in the large dimensions, and the MU-X provides road presence that simply cannot be ignored. This is something that I hugely associate with an SUV. After all, the whole point of buying an SUV is all about street cred – isn’t it? Think about it, how many owners realistically use the full range of capabilities of an SUV on a regular basis?
Out in the wild
Jumping from the MU-X to the CR-V will instantly make you feel as if you’ve gone from a mammoth SUV back to a sitting behind the wheel of a sedan or a hatchback. For starters, the CR-V’s ride height isn’t very much (under 200mm), and its car-like seating position means that you sit at a height that’s really quite low for an SUV. And even when you fire up the refined 2.0-litre, i-VTEC petrol engine that feeling doesn’t change. The engine is mated to a CVT automatic transmission, which makes for quite a refined urban driving experience. The transmission is very smooth and initial throttle response is good too. Add to that the CR-V’s light steering and good visibility, and it feels like a great city car that’s very spacious and comfortable. Ride comfort is admirable too, and it truly feels very premium in every aspect.
Unfortunately, things tend to go the other way for the CR-V once you hit the highway. The 151bhp engine starts to get noisy past 3,000rpm, and throttle response becomes quite damp too. Now, it’s understandable that this setup has been retained to keep fuel consumption in check. So, I engaged Sport mode on the gearbox before attempting an overtaking manoeuvre. Sadly, while throttle response did improve, the engine and gearbox continued to wail for mercy as the tacho needle headed for the redline. The surge in power didn’t help, because the CR-V’s transmission ensures that it can never truly be a highway star. There just isn’t enough actual power, and the engine won’t rev as freely as it could with a different transmission. The CR-V, then, is great car for the city – and perhaps for some relaxed highway runs.
Speaking of relaxed, the CR-V really offers a brilliantly comfortable ride, with its McPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear setup that carpets road undulations with graceful poise. The underlying firmness of the suspension dismisses large potholes without bone-jarring results. And its limited body roll and direct steering setup mean that you can attack those mountain road switchbacks with plenty of confidence.
But if its confidence you’re after, the MU-X is the one that will make you stand tall. In the Ruby Red Mica paint shade, with the DRLs on, the MU-X is a vehicle that you simply can’t miss on the road. On single lanes, traffic coming from the opposite direction stays well out of the way of this large seven-seater – even trucks tend to acknowledge your presence. This is something that really comes in handy on our unruly roads.
The MU-X makes its intent from behind the wheel quite clear from the get-go. Its 3.0-litre diesel engine is hooked to a variable geometry turbocharger, and does a great job of ensuring decent throttle response – even when you’re off-boost. But once the full 380Nm of peak torque kicks in at 1,800rpm, it stays with you till 2,800rpm, making the Isuzu feel fairly powerful and refined. As you push harder, however, the engine starts to get quite loud – but the sound always remains refined and never becomes coarse. Push further, and the peak power of 175bhp kicks in at 3,600rpm. The five-speed torque converter automatic gearbox ensures that the throttle response is always on tap with smooth shifts. It’s quite difficult to find fault with the MU-X’s powertrain, and it’s not surprising, given the fact that Isuzu specialises in diesel powertrains.
It’s not just the powertrain of the MU-X that’s impressive though. Despite its bulky nature, the MU-X has very decent handling traits. Of course, there’s a fair amount of body roll at high speeds and around tight bends. But body control is very good, and the MU-X handles fairly well for a large seven-seater. But the real icing on the cake is its ride quality, which appears superior to any other ladder frame SUV – and even backseat passengers have little to complain about in terms of its suspension setup.
What about off-road manners?
The only issues with the MU-X’s driving dynamics is concerning its steering setup. It’s quite heavy at parking speeds. And once you pick up speed, it could have had more feedback in the dead centre position. Also, it becomes very light with little feedback when off-roading. However, when you switch to four-wheel drive, the steering offers better feedback at slow speeds over off-road obstacles. The 4WD system does a brilliant job of distributing power to all four corners – so-much-so that you won’t be able to break traction while traversing light off-road trails even if you want to. It’s that good!
The MU-X’s independent double wishbone front suspension and penta-link rear setup can also take quite a beating at high speeds over rough and rocky terrain – and it feels very confident while doing so. The CR-V, on the other hand, gets all shaken & stirred, and feels quite unnerved over rough terrain. The petrol CR-V is only front-wheel drive, so it doesn’t come with go-anywhere credentials. The diesel CR-V does have all-wheel drive, but even then it’s not very suitable for going off the beaten path the way the MU-X is. Why? Well, its precariously low fuel tank and exhaust manifold limit you and ensure that you remain very careful on the rough stuff. Let’s just say that it’s best you stick to dirt trails or, better yet, the tarmac.
But, then, how many times do we go off-the beaten path on a road trip? The MU-X’s 4WD system, as capable as it is, doesn’t really give it that much over the 2WD CR-V. What does give you added peace of mind, though, is the full underbody protection of the MU-X – which ensures that it can take quite a beating without breaking a sweat.
Apples & oranges
Comparing the MU-X and the CR-V may seem like comparing apples and oranges, but it gives you some insight into just how different these SUVs are. The CR-V will definitely make for the more premium and comfortable road trip companion. Also, it’s more comfortable to drive in urban conditions. On the way back home, though, there was a road block, and I had to take a detour over a pothole riddled single lane road. And it was here that the MU-X’s punchy powertrain and rock-solid suspension setup came to the rescue. And I could perform daring overtaking manoeuvres that I’d normally only attempt in a hot hatchback. Full-size diesel SUVs have now become that powerful, and their body control has improved to an extent where you can really start to push them. Now, had I been in the CR-V, I’d have come to a grinding halt every time I came across one of those a crater-like potholes. As it happens, then, it seems that these full-size SUV still have a lot going for them after all – if you want a little bit of adventure that is.
As for me, I love the road presence of the MU-X and its adventure-ready status. After all, isn’t that what SUVs are really about?
If its confidence that you’re after, the MU-X is the one that will make you stand tall. In the Ruby Red Mica paint shade, with the DRLs on, the MU-X is a vehicle that you simply can’t miss on the road.
The CR-V feels contemporary with a large infotainment screen, which even has a ‘lane watch’ camera display to help eliminate blind spots, a digital driver information display, a huge panoramic sunroof and a nice dual tone colour theme.
- Isuzu MU-X
- Honda CR-V Petrol
Engine: 2,999cc / 4-Cylinders / 16-Valve / DOHC / Variable Geometry Turbocharger
Transmission: 5-Speed Automatic / Four-Wheel Drive
Power: 175bhp @ 3,600rpm
Torque: 380Nm @ 1,800-2,800rpm
Price: ₹29.31 lakh (Ex-showroom, Delhi)
X-factor: Best ride quality in the business. Powerful and responsive powertrain.
• Tough & dependable
• Well priced
• Dashboard looks outdated
• Needs more features
Engine: 1,997cc / 4-Cylinders / 16-Valve / SOHC / i-VTEC
Transmission: Automatic CVT / Front-Wheel Drive
Power: 152bhp @ 6,500rpm
Torque: 189Nm @ 4,300rpm
Price: ₹28.15 lakh, (Ex-showroom, Delhi)
X-factor: Looks and feels premium, and is extremely comfortable.
• Spacious & airy cabin
• Well equipped