Tackling the rough road

Two soft-roaders are put to the test

IN ‘ROUGH MODE’, I slowly begin to make my way up the 75 degree incline. Aatish is ahead in the AWD Duster and seemed to struggle a little before disappearing over the crest. This is the first time I’m behind the wheel of the newest addition to Tata Motors’ SUV line-up, the Hexa, and as the resident off-roader, the task at hand was to find out if soft-roaders can actually cut it off-road.

Now Tata Motors has been in the business long enough with the Safari, the first lifestyle SUV in the country and the one to introduce the shift-on-the-fly 4WD concept. And with low-ratio the Safari could really move when you head off the road. The Renault Duster on the other hand is a revelation. No low-ratio here but the size, the weight, the overall make up of the Duster means it can do stuff you wouldn’t think possible. On our Duster Border Challenge series I have traversed the length and breadth of the country driving through snow in the Himalayas, wading through the Indian Ocean at Rameshwaram at the southern tip of India, dune bashing in Rajasthan and even making our own way to get to the Chinese border, only to find ourselves staring down the barrel of a jawan’s gun. The AWD on the Duster didn’t help us with the soldier’s rifle but for everything else it pulled us through without a hiccup. It will literally go through anything.

Back to the view through the windscreen – basically open sky! – and the Hexa’s 400Nm of torque (backed up by nearly 50bhp more power than the Duster) powers the Hexa up the incline with ease. On the dusty trail the Hexa handles exceptionally well with great ride comfort and a perfectly setup suspension to tackle the undulating path without jolting your back every time you hit a bump. With lesser body roll and a more planted stance the Hexa is more controlled, predictable and quicker than the Safari. And, of course, is lighter thanks in part to the deletion of the heavy low-ratio drivetrain (the Hexa is on-demand all-wheel drive). But off-roading is not only about driving on dirt, it is also the ability to tackle various obstacles.

So, we turned off the dirt trail and headed towards the quarry for some hardcore off-road action. Since the Hexa sits 10mm lower than the Duster AWD’s 210mm ground clearance, it did scrape its underside a few times. You got to be careful but there are no traction issues whatsoever. But this is where the Renault comes alive. Driving through trenches, the Duster, because of its compact size and more importantly the short overhangs (where the bumpers don’t stick out too much) makes it through with relative ease. Where the Hexa has to crawl carefully, the Duster hustles gleefully.

Pleasing the rock gods is not one of Hexa’s strongpoints then. Driving over boulders is all about the suspension travel, articulation and tyre placement. With the Hexa’s large footprint and weight, clambering over boulders was a lot more challenging than the Duster, which bounced off boulders quite happily, thanks (again) to is lighter weight and compact size. I, on the other hand, had to keep looking out of the window, to make sure my tyres were placed correctly, before driving over every boulder.

After a tiring day of off-roading in the scorching heat, the more luxurious and spacious Hexa turned out to be fun to drive. It is the first 7-seater I’ve driven off-road and it handles really well while the supple suspension ironed out bumps without a hitch. But for the serious off roader the Duster AWD clearly has the upper hand. No wonder at the recent Desert Storm rally there was a Duster taking part in the Xtreme category and even at the incredibly difficult Dakar rally raid there was a (fully blown) Duster running strongly in the mid field. No other SUV manages to blur the lines between a soft-roader and an off-roader as effectively as the Duster AWD.

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