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Updated: Nov 17 2012, 09:19am hrs
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Even a decade ago the choices for anyone looking for a seven-seater were few and full of compromises. On one hand there were basic, outdated and crude utility vehicles, and on the other youd probably have had to settle for an SUV. The launch of the Toyota Innova in 2005 changed things. Here was a vehicle with seven seats, car-like comfort and ease of use, and decent performance too. A runaway hit with large families, the Innovas versatility and reliability also drew many buyers away from similarly priced saloons.

Fast forward to the present and todays multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) buyers are almost spoilt for choice. The Innova remains on sale and there are also MPVs from Mahindra, Tata, Maruti and Nissan vying for your money.

Where the Mahindra Xylo has space as its USP, the Tata Aria seeks to win you over with its part-MPV, part-SUV design. And while Marutis Ertiga offers the flexibility of seven seats in a not-so-big package, the Evalia promises great versatility and practicality from its tall design. With five MPVs, each with their own set of strengths, zeroing in on just one was never going to be easy. We pit the rivals against each other to help you make the right choice.

Performance

Xylo ****

Ertiga ***

Evalia ***

Aria ***

Innova ***

Big as it is, the Evalia comes with a relatively small 1.5-litre diesel engine. But dont go by the engines size alone, because theres quite a lot to like about this motor. Its responsive, has smooth power delivery, and theres also sufficient pulling power for city conditions. However, the 84bhp motor lacks the grunt needed for sustained high-speed cruising.

In comparison, the Ertiga, with its smaller but more powerful 89bhp, 1.3-litre engine, feels a lot more suited to highway use. Key to the Ertigas good cruising ability is its meaty spread of power above 2000rpm. But, within city limits, you spend a lot of time at lower engine speeds, which is where this engine feels weak.

After driving the Evalia and Ertiga, you will appreciate the power advantage the larger engines the Xylo, Aria and Innova come with. The Xylo E9 has a 122bhp, 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine, which feels particularly peppy. Theres easy access to the power from the word go, and even out on the highway you wont be left wanting for more grunt.

With a power output of 138bhp, the Arias 2.2-litre motor is the most powerful here. While the ample pulling power does make the Aria a happy cruiser, performance within the city is not particularly special. Thats got a lot to do with its near-two-tonne mass.

The Innova, with its large, 2.5-litre diesel engine, feels at its best in the urban environment. Driveability is very good, so you can get away with staying in a higher gear than what is ideal, at least in city conditions. But out on the highway, the engine loses steam above 100kph and gets quite noisy too. Speaking of refinement, the Arias engine runs the quietest at all speeds. The Evalia, Xylo and Ertigas engines get progressively noisier as the revs rise.

Ride and handling

Xylo ***

Ertiga ****

Evalia ***

Aria ***

Innova ****

The Xylo, Aria and Innova use a ladder-frame construction where, as the name suggests, the body is bolted to a ladder-like frame. While this layout has its advantages for load-lugging trucks (which use a similar construction), here the heavy set-up actually works against how these MPVs drive. In comparison, the Evalia and Ertiga that use lighter monocoques (where the body and chassis are one single unit) have very car-like driving manners.

The large Evalia may not look it, but it is really easy to drive in the city. Its got a light steering, manoeuvrability is surprisingly good and the handling is within safe limits, so long as you dont drive it faster than you should.

In terms of ride comfort, the Ertiga is far better than the Evalia, and does a really good job of shielding occupants from surface blemishes at all speeds. Also, by virtue of its relatively low height (its not much taller than a Tata Nano), it feels very sure-footed on the highway.

This lot of buyers will also take well to the Innova, which is quite car-like to drive. Its well-weighted steering, good low-speed ride and composed high-speed manners make it quite comfortable.

Ride comfort-wise, the Aria is really good too. The manner in which it irons out undulations of all sizes and at all speeds is impressive. Sure, the front end tends to bob at high speeds, but its very comfortable on long journeys.

The Xylo may be slightly easier to park into a tight parking spot than an Aria, but it still doesnt offer the user-friendliness of the Evalia, Ertiga or even the Innova. The steering requires more effort, theres a constant vertical movement at anything above city speeds, and theres more body roll than whats acceptable.

What are they like inside

Xylo ***

Ertiga ***

Evalia ***

Aria ***

Innova ****

Apart from making a vehicle better to drive, a monocoque body also allows better use of vertical space (theres no separate frame under the body as with ladder-frame construction). You can see the benefit of this set-up in the Evalia, which is very spacious, despite being shorter in length than the Xylo, Innova and Aria (in that order). Theres a good amount of head, knee and shoulder room in the first two rows, and space in the third row is the best here.

Given its small dimensions, the monocoque-bodied Ertiga is also quite roomy, but even that cant disguise the fact that it is half a size smaller than its rivals. Limited shoulder room in the middle row means the seat is best suited for two occupants, and you will have to slide this seat far forward to make legroom for the last-row occupants. But since it sits quite low, it is really easy to get into the Ertiga. In comparison, you have to trek your way into the Xylos high-set cabin. Once inside, youll find the cabin really spacious and its only the somewhat restricted headroom for the last-row passengers that make it lose out to the Evalia. The Arias comfy too, but its best as a five-seater, because the rearmost seats are quite cramped. On the other hand, the Innova is easy to get into and feels large on the inside, but the knees-up seating position in the last row marks it down on comfort.

For their part, the Innovas seats are fairly comfy, but theyre nowhere near as supportive as the Xylos class-leading, leather-clad seats. Interestingly, buyers can configure the Innova and Xylo as per their requirement with either a three-seat bench or two individual captain chairs for the middle row. Seat comfort is good on the Aria and Ertiga too, but the Evalias flat and thin seats dont feel all that nice over long stints.

In terms of design, where the Evalias dashboard leans more towards practicality than stylistic flair, the Ertiga offers a nice blend of both. The Ertigas dash is a straight lift from the Swift Dzire. Mahindra didnt change the Xylos cabin with the recent update so, as before, the protruding vents on the dashboard top give it a unique look, but cabin quality is still not up to the mark. The simple lines on the Arias dash work well and the Innovas revised centre console is neat too.

All five MPVs offer sufficient storage for small items but, unusually, the Evalias glovebox comes without a lid, leaving stored items exposed to prying eyes. The Evalia does win huge points when its time to load it with heavy luggage. Even with all seats in place, it can accommodate two large suitcases, and the low floor only makes loading it up easier. The Aria, Innova and Xylos high floors make loading luggage inconvenient. The Ertiga is naturally down on space.

Will they break the bank

Xylo ***

Ertiga ****

Evalia ***

Aria **

Innova ***

These MPVs span a wide price range; theres a R7 lakh difference between the base Ertiga LDi variant and the top 4x2 Prestige trim on the Aria! To simplify matters, we have zeroed in on the variant of each MPV that gives you modern-day essentials like power windows, central locking, an audio player with Aux, rear air-con vents, ABS and airbags. In order of price, the top Maruti Ertiga ZDi at R8.38 lakh gives the maximum bang for your buck. You do miss out on reversing sensors though.

Our pick of the Evalia range is XL that costs R9.49 lakh. For R50,000 more you can buy the XV version, where you get a handy reversing camera and alloy wheels.

The 2.2-litre mHawk engine is only available in the top E9 variant of the Xylo. Priced at R10.54 lakh, it comes with leather seats and additional features like cruise control and voice-operated headlights, wipers and door locks.

We found the Pleasure variant a happy compromise in the Aria 4x2 range. Save for alloy wheels, it comes with plenty of kit, but at R13.20 lakh, it is very expensive. But haggle and you can get discounts to the tune of R50,000.

Innova buyers will like the top VX trim. It costs a steep R13.89 lakh but comes with premium features like a touchscreen interface for the audio system, Bluetooth telephony and automatic climate control. Forego these features and the alloy wheels, and you could save yourself big money by opting for the GX variant. It still costs R11.89 lakh but you also get a 36-month/1,00,000km warranty, just as on the Aria. The Evalia and Xylo come with 24-month/50,000km warranties, while Maruti offers a 24month/40,000km warranty on the Ertiga. But given Marutis widespread service infrastructure, you shouldnt have trouble finding assistance in the event of a breakdown. Tata and Mahindra also have a large service footprint in India, while Toyota and Nissans backup is restricted to larger cities and towns at present.

But perhaps the bigger deciding factor for many will be these MPVs fuel economy. Weight and engine size have a bearing on the figures, so it comes as no surprise that the Ertiga and Evalia are far more fuel efficient than the Xylo, Aria and Innova. Within city limits, the Ertiga and Evalia delivered an identical 12.8kpl. You can expect the Xylo, Aria and Innova to return 10.1kpl, 10kpl and 10.3kpl, respectively. On the highway, the Evalia stretches each litre of diesel the furthest with an economy of 17.5kpl. We got 16.8kpl from the Ertiga, 14.4kpl from the Xylo, 13.9kpl from the Aria and 13.8kpl from the Innova.

Our verdict

The Innova is still the best

Ertiga a close second, but loses out for lack of space.

Lets start the elimination process with the Xylo, which still gives you a lot of MPV for the money. It is spacious, comes loaded with features, and the new engine is impressive too. But, just as before, the Xylo is let down by poor dynamics, a choppy ride and unimpressive cabin quality.

Tata has taken a serious step up with the Aria, and it makes for a pretty accomplished highway cruiser. Sadly, the Aria feels quite ponderous to drive within the city, durability is still nowhere near Toyota or Maruti levels, and Tata, uncharacteristically, has priced it too high and out of contention.

The Evalia seems far more realistically priced. It has loads of space for seven passengers, and for versatility the Nissan is second to none. The Evalia is also easy to drive in the city, which makes it a nice option for self-drive buyers. But the small rear windows, average seat comfort and mediocre cruising ability mark it down on long highway drives. Its van-like shape is sure to be a deterrent for many too.

Marutis Ertiga is not only easier on the eye, it also has a wider suite of strengths, and thats aside from its competitive pricing. It is really easy to drive, ride and handling are good, and it also comes with a smart and well-put-together cabin. But scratch a little deeper and youll find the Ertiga isnt perfect. The engines non-linear power delivery isnt all that nice in the city and at times the small engine struggles to cope with a full load. But the Ertigas biggest weakness is the relative lack of space. The Ertiga feels half a size down on its rivals and, correspondingly, when the need to ferry seven arises, passenger comfort is compromised.

Which brings us to the Innova, which holds on to its position as the best MPV you can buy in India. For starters, it is a genuine seven-seater, with decent space for all occupants, and the cabin is nice too. And while the engine may not score on performance or refinement, it has enough power to haul the big Toyota. Its also very car-like to drive, which continues to be one of its main strengths. Yes, the Innova does cost serious money, but then you also get an MPV about which youll have little reason to complain. And theres no doubt it will hold on to its value the best.