A spotter! I call him a ballet dancer of sorts. Reason? A spotter dances to a different tune (revving engine) while simultaneously guiding the driver off an obstacle with gestures (hand signals). And, as an off-road spotter, I had to be aware of each vehicle’s potential and plot the course accordingly. Moreover, on an off-road trail, the driver of the rig is barely in a position to see what lies ahead, let alone what lurks underneath the vehicle. So, to get the car out of the rut without damaging it, trust between the driver and the spotter is of utmost importance as the latter functions as the set of eyes for the person behind the wheel.
And unlike rallying, where speed is important, off-roading is all about traversing through obstacles without damaging the vehicle or getting stuck, which ultimately decides your fate in the end. A good and experienced spotter further helps your cause and gets you one step closer to winning the off-road challenge. And, this is the sole reason why I had an opportunity to be a part of the 2019 edition of the CarWale off-road day.
Now, off-roading is all about teamwork. The rules here are pretty simple; the 4x4 that goes the farthest earns the most respect. This year, we had five different 4x4 vehicles, with their own unique characteristics and personalities, namely the Renault Duster, Honda CRV, Jeep Compass Trailhawk, Isuzu MU-X and Audi’s flagship SUV, the Q7. My job here was to ensure that each one of the five cars reached the end of the day unscathed.
Just like how trust is important, the right communication with the driver is paramount. This includes hand-signals and voice commands. While navigating through the trails, the driver might not be able to apprehend certain instructions due to the loud engine noise; hence, it is crucial that your hand signals are clear and easy to understand. On the other hand, the driver might sometimes not be in a position to spot the spotter (err) and is bound to get confused by voice commands. For instance, go right could mean both, the driver’s right and the spotter’s right. To avoid such confusion, the driver needs to be informed beforehand that the go right command means the driver’s right and go left means the driver’s left or vice-versa.
Experience with each of the five cars
So, here below is my experience with each of the five cars that we had for the 2019 CarWale off-road event –
The 4x4 Renault Duster, being the lightest of the five cars, had the weight advantage. Moreover, manual transmission allowed the driver to modulate the power output as required. Although the car has what it takes for mild off-roading, its modest ground clearance (as compared to the other four) of 210mm required me to exercise extra caution while navigating it through trails and hill climbs.
Sure, there is nothing too exceptional about the road spec 215/65 R16 wheels, but they do the job just fine. Factoring its limitations, I had to ensure that the Duster did not attempt something extraordinary to avoid damage to the low hanging front bumper. And with a little effort, the Duster did manage to overcome almost all obstacles that were thrown at it.
The Honda CR-V is definitely a brilliant handler on regular roads, but then, its low riding stance and the lowest ground clearance of 208mm does not work in its favour off the road and only limits its potential. Moreover, the road spec 235/65 R18 tyres and body weight of 1,742kgs does not make things any easier. This is where the experience of the driver and the spotter were put to test.
Now, the air-curtain under the front bumper risked getting damaged particularly while hauling the car up with momentum. And to avoid such untoward damages, I had to ensure that the CR-V avoided the ditches on its path the other cars managed to gobble up comfortably. That said, I personally believe that a good set of off-road tyres will improve its drivability to a great extent. Sure, the vehicle did struggle a bit on the slope, but the AWD powered all wheels with sufficient traction to clear the hill climb. Also, with its well-judged suspension setup, the CR-V shone in the trail test.
At first glance, it is not hard to say that the Isuzu MU-X is on the heavier side. To counter that, it comes with a massive ground clearance and abundant torque that make it a good off roader. Yes, the weight did pose a problem and while plotting maneuverers for this vehicle, I had to ensure that it did not lose its momentum, particularly during the hill climb. Moreover, considering its steering has four turns lock-to-lock, I had to choose a path that helped the driver clear the obstacle with lesser inputs. Additionally, the MU-X has a hill-hold feature, which was particularly helpful when the vehicle slid around because of its weight and had to be redirected to its actual path.
Jeep Compass Trailhawk
This truly is the off-road oriented version of the Compass which offers a higher ground clearance as compared to the standard model. Loaded with intelligent driving aids, the Compass Trailhawk drove through most of the obstacles effortlessly. And with those off-road spec 225/60 R17 tyres, loads of torque and bounty traction, the vehicle sprinted up the mountain without breaking a sweat. Now, the firm suspension setup might not be the most comforting for the driver, but then, it is tuned to go places where there are no roads. Be it rocks, ditches or trenches, the Trailhawk tackled everything brilliantly to an extent where it’s safe to say that I had time to catch a glimpse of a langur sitting on a tree!
As mentioned earlier, a spotter needs to be aware of the vehicle’s limitations. The Audi Q7 is undoubtedly powerful, feature-loaded and would have cleared the trail test as well as the hill climb effortlessly. But then, the real question was, is it really worth risking damage to its expensive components? Now, as a spotter, my primary job is to help the driver clear an obstacle, but sometimes it is wise to make a decision and exempt selective cars from taking certain tests to prevent physical damage. Hence, I decided to exclude the Audi Q7 from the hill climb task. That said, it is not about doubting the vehicle or the driver’s potential, but it is about ensuring the safety of not just the driver but also the vehicle at all times.
Photo Credits: Kapil Angane and Kaustubh Gandhi.
Click on the links below to find out how these SUVs fared in our tests.