Images by Gaurav S Thombre and Kaizad Adil Darukhanawala
“You have the Compass! Can I come over the weekend to drive it?”
This is not an odd request. Not a new car or bike goes by that doesn’t have a dozen of my friends coming down to the office to sample it, but this request is different. This is from our contributing editors. Guys who drive 600bhp Lancer Evolutions on a daily basis, guys who test rally cars every other weekend. These are petrolheads who get hot and bothered by AMGs and GT-Rs, not compact SUVs, yet the needle of interest level in the Compass has gone so far into the red zone that everybody and their uncle wants to sample it. And buy it!
Fact: journalists do not spend their own money, unless it is something spectacular or there’s a great deal on offer (usually the latter). But next week my colleague is getting delivery of his Compass – at full price! – the only string being pulled is for early delivery. The verdict is unequivocal. After years and years in the doldrums Fiat – well, now Fiat Chrysler India – is back in the game and there’s no stopping the love. Only one dealer in the city? No problem, we will trek to the other end of town to stand in line for a test drive and throw our checkbook at the harried sales man. All the sins, the driving to another city to get your car serviced, all has been forgiven. Is it all justified?
Say hello to the Hyundai Tucson and Volkswagen Tiguan. The former we are very familiar with – we have clocked 15,000 kilometres on this particular example over the past five months, from the Himalayas to the Southern coasts, from our daily commute to dashing to the farm with tractor and generator parts – it has done everything and the verdict is unanimous. Not only is it the best Hyundai on sale right now but the first Korean car that we will recommend over a German.
That German is the Tiguan and I’ll admit to not having spent as many miles in one. On a short test drive last month I liked all the German-ness about it – the handling, the finish, the technical muscularity to the styling, the rock-solid stability honed during high-speed testing on the Autobahn. And then, after wringing the neck off its motor, I realised they’d put in a motor incapable of said high speeds. I must drive it more I said to myself as I grabbed the VW’s keys after we’d finalised the time and location of the shoot the next morning.
I’ve written about styling for years but at seven in the morning, parked up at our favourite dhaba, on our favourite road, sipping ridiculously sweet tea and ripping the one piece of cloth we’ve brought along to wipe accumulated monsoon grime off three SUVs, I realise it’s not style that matters, not for SUVs at least. It is presence. Nobody worries about how stylish their SUV looks; heck, nobody buys SUVs because they are stylish. People buy SUVs for road presence. And the Compass has presence.
That seven-slot grille, those squared-off wheel arches, the generous dollops of both butch-ness and macho-ness gives the Jeep the most prominent road presence of the three. And that’s despite the Jeep being the smallest of the three – shorter, narrower and lower.
The Tucson, without any off-road heritage to pander to has been styled. The rear, with its bulked up i20-ish taillamps and the nose with the slinky double-barrel-beam headlamps and Audi-ish grille are all on point. Hyundai have been making damn good looking cars off late and the Tucson is the best looking of them all – appropriately aggressive for men looking for that from their SUVs and appropriately unintimidating for women to use on their daily runs. It’s a marked contrast to the Jeep that is unapologetically manly (95 per cent of our customers will be male said Jeep India’s marketing head).
That leaves us with the Tucson that is typically Volkswagen. Classically handsome with crisp lines and tautly pinched bodywork that reinforces its German engineering roots. Nobody makes ugly or characterless cars anymore but truth be told it was the Compass that got our friendly dhabawala’s early morning business to go through the roof.
This is all a matter of pricing, so after much playing around with car configurators on various websites here’s the bottom-line – the Compass is very well priced. Prior to the launch we expected the Compass to be priced between the Creta and the Tucson because it is sized between the two Hyundai SUVs. What surprised us was just how close Jeep have managed to take the pricing to the Creta, despite it being closer to the Tucson on size (engine and space). So why don’t we have the Creta – which I’m sure our esteemed colleagues are pitting against the Compass?
Here’s why. Take base-spec petrols into account and the price differential between the Creta and Compass is a whopping six lakh rupees (though admittedly the Creta, in the E spec is really stripped down and the Compass has a nicer turbo-petrol that none of us have sampled to date). Most expensive diesels? The price differential is still five lakh rupees (though the Compass does have nearly 50 more horses). No matter how you spin it, you really can’t compare the two and so we will not.
What you can compare the Compass with is the Tucson. Here’s what you need to know about the Hyundai’s spec list: the fully-loaded GLS trim is only available with the automatic transmission and the all-wheel drive variant is still a few months away from launch. As for the Compass, it gets all-wheel drive but the automatic transmission will only come next year. What we are comparing here is the automatic transmission, front-wheel drive Tucson with six airbags and leather interiors to the manual, all-wheel drive Compass with six airbags and fabric interiors – and the price differential is a little more than three lakh rupees. I should also mention that the price differential between the manual transmission diesels drops to under three lakh rupees but the GL-spec Tucson doesn’t get six airbags, ABS and traction control, all of which the Limited-spec Compass does get.
Which brings me to the Tiguan. It is the poshest SUV in this test. It has all the bells and whistles, the three most important of which are the excellent twin-clutch automatic transmission, all-wheel drive and a full-length panoramic sunroof. And thus specced, the Tiguan is eleven lakh rupees more than the Compass and seven more than the Tucson. The sensibly-priced Tiguan is the Comfortline that knocks over three lakh rupees from the price tag while deleting the panoramic sunroof and parking camera from the options list. Thus specced, the Tiguan is four lakh rupees more than the Hyundai.
And now before my head explodes from analysing all these numbers (how do these website guys do it!), let’s hit the road.
Until political favours were curried to cut roads through the hills on the western fringes of Pune, to host the Indian round of the Asia Pacific Rally championship, there was no Lavasa township. I’m not sure where I’m going with the sarcasm because said politician did us a massive favour by laying roads that now form the Lap of Mutha – evo India and every Pune bikers’ favourite road. Ah yes, back to the point I was going to make; before the 2003 India Rally, these hills used to host another motorsport event – the Pirangut Hill Climb – and for years we’ve been using the old hill climb route as a shortcut to access the Lap of Mutha.
That was until the trucks that are chopping the mountains and mining mud from the dry lakebeds – I can’t imagine how either is legal yet it goes on in plain daylight! – discovered the road and f**ked it up. Now it is almost an off-road track that will do Mahindra’s Great Escapes proud. Time to put our SUVs through it.
Half the Indian grid for that 2003 India Rally ran Koni dampers and the Compass too runs Koni dampers, these being their new FSD (Frequency Selective Dampers) units that are astonishingly good. The damping is very good on regular Indian roads but over poor roads it knocks the ball out of the park. The way it flies over broken tarmac is phenomenal, I think it will even outdo the Hexa which, till now, was the benchmark on this front. And as far as off-roading is concerned the Compass is equally astonishing. We climbed slushy hills, forded small streams and clambered across log bridges in the jungles of South Goa on the Compass’ India launch and I can tell you it does things no soft-roader has any right to do. The Tiguan will run it close but it doesn’t feel as Jeep-like (or let’s put it this way, rugged) to give you the confidence to stick it off-road and its tyres too are more road biased than the Compass’ Firestone rubber.
We won’t talk about the Tucson’s off-road ability because it has no off-road ability. The AWD version is yet to be launched in India and, when the mud is wiped off its flanks, this is a road-biased SUV, a cross-over in the true sense of the word. It did get through the f**ked-up shortcut but we had to drive it gingerly.
Hit the Lap of Mutha though and the Tucson is nicer to drive than the Compass. With more car-like damping, and associated car-like dynamics, it doesn’t have the vertical movement that you get in the Compass over a typically bumpy Indian state highway. The Hyundai is more planted, has better body control and moves around less. It also has better resistance to understeer and the steering feel is better than the Jeep’s (even though, like all Hyundais, in isolation is nothing to write home about). It feels more car-like and you also sit much lower and together they give you more confidence to carry more speeds through winding roads. If I had to criticise anything it would be the brakes which, while not lacking in retardation, feel very soft and numb and take some getting to trust.
As for the Tiguan, like all Volkswagen’s, it is dynamically unimpeachable. There is strong front end grip, good resistance to body roll, and good feedback through the steering wheel and brake pedal. You can trust it (well, within the limits of what an SUV can do) and it won’t shake your confidence.
So you jump back into the Tucson to do the usual, note down the areas that the Koreans fall short of the Germans, and it dawns on you – the Tucson is as good as the Tiguan. The VW has better grip, a factor of the much better tyres it gets, but the differences are just marginal. In fact, the Hyundai rides better without getting wallow-y or float-y.
And it’s all the more exaggerated because the Tiguan makes lots of noise but not a lot of speed when you put your foot down. It’s inexplicable. The Tiguan gets the 140bhp spec of VW’s 2-litre diesel. I guess we can thank Dieselgate for this but that means the Tiguan gives away 42 horses to the Tucson and 30 to the Compass. And it weighs the most. No matter just how hard the twin-clutch automatic gearbox works, no matter how much confidence the Golf-based underpinnings deliver, the Tiguan is the slowest SUV in this test. And, by extension, the least exciting to drive.
The Compass is lighter, smaller and more powerful; there’s strong bottom-end torque and not much turbo lag; it has a manual gearbox; it is one of those rare SUVs that are fun to drive. Two wheels on the dirt, two on tarmac, an SUV that has been tuned specifically for the varied kind of roads you find in India. And Mumbai in the monsoons!
But you know what, the Tucson is the nicest to drive. This is the first test where those words are being written – at least in a magazine which is all about The Thrill of Driving – and the Germans ought to be really, really worried. The Koreans had sorted out their styling issues a long time ago. In short order they sorted out their engines that are now the most powerful and also the most silent. They lack a DSG but their regular automatics are getting better. Hyundais were always great value for money and their sales and service is second only to Maruti. Now they’ve sorted out their biggest bugbear, the ride and handling, and the continued popularity of the Creta means the day is not far off when we will overcome badge snobbery and spend north of 20 lakh rupees on a Hyundai.
How do they feel?
This is important. The Compass feels like a Jeep, or at least everything your mind’s eye would expect a Jeep to feel like – slightly heavy, slightly meaty, filling your subconscious with the confidence to hit that dirt trail that leads on to the beach. And then drive up and down the beach. This is a rare SUV that has been designed around the driver. The seats are lovely and supportive. The steering wheel is appropriately meaty to hold. The quality of the switchgear is beyond reproach and the design of the cabin is very pleasing. As for the passengers though… umm… it’s not all that great. The Compass is the smallest of these three and it feels it from the inside. You rub elbows with your passengers far more easily. Sticking three at the back is a proper squeeze. The rear seat back angle is far too upright for long journeys. And the glasshouse is shallow, making one feel cooped in. If you’re going to be equal parts driving and chauffeur driven then you’re better off in the Tucson that has slightly more space in every axis and in every seat. It also has leather seats with electric adjustment for the driver, both of which the Compass doesn’t get. The touchscreen infotainment is significantly more intuitive and responsive, the stereo sounds even more significantly better (it’s actually better than some Meridian setups I’ve experienced in luxury SUVs) and there’s Apple CarPlay. While all have electric tailgate opening, the Tucson opens on its own when you walk up to the rear with keys in the pocket and hands full of the wife’s shopping. The seats are the nicest with equal parts comfort and support while the two-tone colours makes the cabin feel more airy, a trick that the Tiguan doesn’t employ.
I know all-black interiors are supposed to be sporty but in the Tiguan it just makes it feel… overwhelmingly… black. You miss out on the details and fail to notice that it has the best quality of the trio. The panoramic sunroof does throw in lots of light into the cabin, and the cabin is also the most spacious of the three, but it only feels just so. Whoever configured the Tiguan for India needs to spend more time, driving India-spec competition.
Flash in the pan?
Without question the early euphoria over the Compass has more to do with the Jeep brand name and the pricing that has been well under our estimates. But this isn’t a flash in the pan. The way the Compass drives, that unique ‘Jeep’ feeling it exudes, it will sustain the euphoria over the long term. Unless FCA India really messes up with its sales and service network, upcoming rivals like the Renault Kaptur need to be really special to make an impact. So is the Compass the winner in this test?
If off-roading is at the bottom of your priority list and badge snobbery isn’t your thing then I’d recommend the Tucson. It has better on-road dynamics, it has an automatic that you just can’t do without in city traffic, the interiors are more spacious and is equally good to drive and be chauffeured in.
The Tiguan is more a thinking man’s rival to the Q3, GLA and X1 rather than an option to the Tucson and Compass. It is straight up more sophisticated, premium and even better engineered but how do you justify asking for significantly more money while being 40 horsepower down?
Which brings me to my colleagues, coincidentally both named Abhishek, both of whom are awaiting delivery of their Compass’. Good choice guys, can I borrow it over the weekend?