The true-blue 4x4 is a fast-disappearing species. With the electric invasion all but certain, the ICE-powered, conventionally-constructed, and hard-as-nails off-roader won’t be around for much longer. So, to celebrate what we have left, we gather a bunch of true-blue 4x4s every year and give them hell!
Welcome to the CarWale Off-Road Day, and to mark this year’s festivities, we have brought together a diverse lot. We have everything from petrol to diesel and manual to automatic. But the one thing stringing them together is their capability off-road.
Meet your 4x4s
We have the small and affordable Maruti Suzuki Jimny; the popular and butch Mahindra Thar; and what is in actuality a road-going, full-sized premium SUV that more than doubles up as a proper go-anywhere vehicle, the Gloster. Then we have the legendary Toyota Hilux - the vehicle you want if your plans include toppling a dictator in a remote area of the world.
Speaking of legends, we also have the Land Rover Defender, but in its new-age, polished, and tech-laden iteration. Its predecessor was the very epitome of a go-anywhere vehicle, and this one lives up to that expectation. And finally, we have the Mercedes G-Wagon. It is the most expensive - and one with an endless waiting period - in this company. It is not just brilliant to look at; it has a back story so strong, it would have given Stan Lee a writing complex.
The aim here is to celebrate the joy of driving a 4x4 and indulging in tomfoolery one wouldn’t even dare to in a regular car. But, because we are CarWale, and because we love objectivity, we have decided to put our six off-roaders through some basic but telling tests.
There are five tests, four of which are designed to understand the off-road prowess of each of the SUVs. But, not in the wheel-in-the-air dramatic kind of way, but more around how the powertrain, mechanicals and electronics come together to make it easy for the driver to negotiate difficult off-road trails. Think of these as exercises to test the off-roading capabilities of SUVs which we take for granted.
The fifth test is simply there to put a smile on our faces!
The idea here is to see how quickly these SUVs can cover 40m from a standstill in gravel. This will tell us how good the respective 4x4s are at handling a difficult hill climb when all they have is a short run-up to gain the momentum these will need to go up say a dune for instance.
The G-Wagon drove away with the quickest time here, but only just. The bigger story here though is the Jimny. It clocked the same time as the jointly second-placed Defender even though it has HT tyres and no real electronics to speak about. Maybe its light weight suited the terrain better.
In fact, over 40m, the difference between the first and sixth-placed 4x4 is less than a second. In our book, that’s a thumbs-up for all our contenders.
Hill Descent Challenge
The difference between the SUVs was a lot more telling in our Hill Descent challenge. When off-roading one must drive as slow as possible and only as fast as necessary. And no better situation embodies this than coming down a slippery slope. In our case, the slope isn’t exactly very slippery but it will still give us a good idea of what these SUVs are capable of. The idea here is to come down as slow as possible; so the slower, the better.
The Defender was a clear winner here. It was so slow, in fact, that we could walk out, grab a coffee, and get back in before it reached the end of the run. It was doing 1kmph down the slope. One can choose to go down quicker too because the Land Rover offers speed adjustability for its Hill Descent control, which none of the others do.
The G-Wagon was the second slowest, followed by the Hilux and Thar, which were closely stacked together. The Gloster was the quickest, putting it dead last in this run.
The Slalom Run
Now, on an odd chance you get chased by an elephant or a rhino while driving on a forest trail, you will need a 4x4 that’s quick, agile, and easy to outrun the four-legged mammoths through a maze of trees and rocks and shrubs and what have you. Ergo, the Slalom Run.
As was the case with the Acceleration Test, the G-Wagon clocked the fastest time around our slalom course as well. And here again, the timing of the top three finishers was shockingly close. The Jimny and Defender were separated by hundredths of a second, with the former clocking the faster time. The Mercedes was less than half a second quicker than the Jimny. And this is over a 150m, slippery slalom run.
The Gloster again finished last courtesy of its length and road-biased tyres. The latter struggled to cope with changing grip levels between grass and gravel.
The Beaker Test
Then came the Beaker Test, and the MG Gloster redeemed itself by winning it quite comfortably. Now, off-roading is a great sport. But, why should anyone have to do it in discomfort? And so to find out which of these SUVs can handle the rough without bothering their occupants much, we will take them around a bumpy, winding track.
We have added a reluctant co-passenger to the mix as well. Reluctant because we have handed him a beaker full of water, and instead of taking things easy, we will gun the SUV through the bumpy, rutted track. Whichever SUV has the most amount of water left in the beaker, wins!
The Gloster had only lost 170mL out of the 600mL it started with in the beaker. The Defender with air suspension, not surprisingly, finished second, losing only 10ml more than the Gloster. The Hilux finished last. Its leaf spring setup at the rear - and the lack of load - meant it kept hopping about, and in turn, spilling more water.
The Timed Lap
This test has no real scientific bearing on how a 4x4 will do off-road. It is - like we said at the start - there to put a smile on our face. So, we will leave these 4x4s in Road mode, turn off the ESP, and take on a fast trail with enthusiasm. And since we are at it, we will time the SUVs to see which is quickest.
We started the run with the Jimny. And we did it in the two-high or 2H mode because we wanted road settings. And the reason it finished last is because its ESP refuses to stay off. As a result, exits out of slippery corners and climbs were excruciatingly slow. The Thar, on the other hand, in 2H, did much better because its ESP stayed off for the most part. It was the same with the last of our rear-wheel drive SUVs. In fact, the Thar and the Hilux clocked near identical times!
But the Timed Lap belonged to the all-wheel drive gang. The constant shift of torque between the wheels meant putting the power down on gravel and through slush was never a challenge for the remaining three. But the shocker was the Gloster’s performance. It won. With its ride, its engine response, and its unashamed ability to keep sending the power even though it was killing the tyres on gravel meant it beat the G-Wagon by a hair’s breadth.
Forget the tests. Forget the results. This was a celebration of adventure, invincibility, and the potential these 4x4 creatures bring to our motoring lives. That we had tremendous fun putting them through the tests, is just incidental.
Speaking of fun, the Jimny’s small size was never a bother. In fact, its size vs ability equation makes it truly endearing. It might not have a lot of tech, turbocharging, or even proper all-terrain tyres. But, show it a dirt track, a trail, or rocks even, and it will motor along with heart and gusto.
The Thar on the other hand is boisterous and fun. It too isn’t packed with tech, but what it lacks in electronics, it makes up for in sheer grit. This thing is unstoppable. And loads of fun, mind you. It might not have topped any of our tests, but it was always there, on the heels, never failing to impress.
The Gloster has our utmost admiration as well. It is a road car first. But, its potent engine, and the ease with which it hustles its bulk off-road, was pleasantly surprising. It was the underdog here, but its ride, steering, performance, and the ability to handle the abuse we threw at it, made us appreciate it more.
The Hilux, as time, TV shows, and wars have shown, proved to be indestructible here too. Yes, its size did slow it down, and its steering can be a handful at times. But, when you don’t have to care about rocks, ruts, or anything at all, one doesn’t mind. Plus, with the control, predictability, and robustness it offered, it was our default choice to slide around the oval with!
The Defender did exactly as we had imagined. It was fast, comfortable, and very capable indeed. It was good fun to throw around the track too; seemingly unbreakable. Now, if it had a mode with more rear-bias power delivery - and if the ESP could be completely switched off - it would have been so much more fun! This is no garage queen for sure.
Speaking of garage queens, one would be tempted to treat the G-Wagon as such, given its multi-crore price tag. But that would be a mistake. In this 400d trim, it is outstanding. It looks great, sure, but even in the way it drives - the steering feel, the way it gathers speed, braking, and the overall comfort levels even on our badly rutted track - just begs that one take the G out and explore the world.
Pictures by Kapil Angane and Kaustubh Gandhi