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The SUV of today

Are today’s SUVs actually worth their salt or meant only for the tarmac?

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 11:22 IST
Grease Monkey

They may have started out as roofless and pillarless wonders, but the SUV of today has evolved from the Jeep and original Land Rover to something that can cross continents comfortably — so long as no true off-roading is called for, that is. An SUV today needs to drive well on tarmac, because that’s where it will be driven most of the time. The BMW X5 was the first of this well-mannered breed, and it has filtered through to almost all SUVs today.

In fact, some ‘SUVs’ defy all logic by being better driver’s cars than cars themselves, the Honda CR-V being a case in point.

The CR-V manages to do this by being built on what is essentially a car chassis that has been modified to accept what is essentially an estate car on stilts. More surprising is the Toyota Innova; this MUV is built on a traditional ladder-frame chassis like all old off-roaders but still manages to put a smile on any driver’s face when presented with a challenging set of corners. Some SUVs use a hybrid of a ladder frame and monocoque to get the best of both worlds.

Drive options
Besides the good tarmac driving manners, the SUV has to have four-wheel drive, else it wouldn’t qualify for bragging rights at the pub, at the very least. The Mercedes M-Class and Audi Q7 have permanent all-wheel drive, the 2.4-litre Honda CR-V puts its power down to the front wheels, and the car’s computer automatically sends power to the rear wheels when it detects slip.

The Mahindra Scorpio, when specified with four-wheel drive, has selectable modes — it normally sends power to the rear wheels, but power can be sent to all four wheels by manually selecting the option on the rotary dial near the gear shift lever.

Some off-roaders offer three options, not two. There’s ‘2H’, which means that power is sent to two wheels (usually the rear, since we’re talking off-roaders) with the usual gear ratios; ‘4H’, which means power goes to all four wheels, and ‘4L’, which is the low ratio option that is usually used when crawling along through mud or a stream.

Other useful add-ons
In simple language, it’s a second, larger, gear that is placed after the normal gears in the gearbox. It makes the wheels turn a lot slower for the same engine speed, thus multiplying the force going to the wheels. So there is no need for slipping the clutch and wearing it out, but you do lose speed in that gear. The closest thing I can compare it to is the different-sized sprockets on a mountain-terrain bike — not the small sprockets at the back, but the big ones near the pedals.

Among the useful things you will find in an SUV are things like a compass. The Mitsubishi Montero even has an altimeter. A satellite navigation system would be useful too, but the maps on such systems are usually better in cities — the great outdoors remain untamed. An extreme offroader will have other modifications like an air intake placed high, so that water doesn’t get sucked in while fording a stream, and mud and snow tyres for use in that kind of terrain.

The most gruelling off-road race in the world used to be the Camel Trophy series — do have a look at the vehicles that used to participate. Additions like high-lift jacks, two spare wheels and an onboard water supply are standard!