Indian car buyers just cant seem to get enough of big and brawny SUVs, and with good reason. These big beasts provide a degree of protection in our difficult driving conditions, their imposing size makes them impressive to look at and the hardy suspensions and high ground clearance mean they are ideal for our poorly maintained roads.
The Toyota Fortuner, since its launch in 2009, has simply demolished whatever little competition it faced. At one point Toyota even had to put bookings on hold to clear the large backlog of orders. The combination of burly SUV looks, immense road presence, a torquey diesel and Toyotas efficient after-sales service and dealer network made the Fortuner the success story it is today. To keep the momentum going, Toyota gave it a facelift this year and plonked a new two-wheel-drive automatic variant into the range.
Another contender in this segment is the rugged Endeavour, which is based on the tough-as-nails Ford Ranger pick-up truck. It may not be as fresh looking as a Fortuner and may not have had the same amount of success, but this all-but-indestructible SUV has such strong fundamentals that it has plenty of tough, go-anywhere appeal.
The latest addition to this segment comes in the form of the new Rexton, the first product from Mahindra-owned SsangYong to be launched in India. M&M is betting big with its latest SUV and is looking to break the Fortuners stranglehold on this segment. The SsangYong promises a lot; it comes with a much cheaper price tag than the Toyota (in true Mahindra fashion), this RX7 version comes loaded with features to keep its occupants happy, and this car has some amount of pedigree tooits based on the first-gen Mercedes-Benz M-class.
But which is best, the attractive and popular Toyota, the strong-as-a-stone-house Ford or the new Rexton
What are they like to drive
These cars are expected to deliver more than adequate performance and, with big, hulking diesel engines under the hood, none of them really disappoints. On paper, the Fortuner and Rexton are much more powerful than the Ford, and this gives them a big advantage right off the bat.
The Rexton is powered by a 2.7-litre, five-cylinder, Mercedes-Benz-sourced engine, mated to a five-speed automatic gearbox. SsangYong has improved the motors refinement and, on the move, it feels almost as smooth as an in-line six-cylinder engine. Its the most relaxing of the three to drivethere is a linear surge of power when you put your foot down, and the long gearing allows the engine to pull and pull. Its when driving through city traffic, however, that you notice the one weakness in the Rextons performance armoury. The gearbox is slow to downshift, and trying to hurry it up by kicking down hard on the throttle makes little difference. Stop-start driving in the city can get to be a bit frustrating as a result, especially if you want to make that gap in traffic. Despite the slow gearbox, the Rexton managed to post some impressive times. Flat-out, 0-100kph takes 10.63sec aided by the all-wheel-drive traction off the line, but in most driving conditions, you will need to learn to drive around the lethargic throttle response.
In contrast, the Fortuner feels more on the ball. It responds readily to taps on the accelerator pedal, and even though its got just four speeds, it feels more eager to downshift. Its also noticeably quicker than the Rexton at swapping gears and there is little turbo lag, so it is easier to drive in traffic.
The 3.0-litre Toyota engine may be bigger than the Rextons, but it is the SsangYong that is faster, the Toyota taking 11.8sec to 100kph. Fords Endeavour also houses a common-rail diesel motor that displaces 2953cc. By the numbers, the 153bhp it produces is the lowest here. Weighing in at almost two tonnes, the Endeavour is a big, heavy car, but the responsiveness and pulling power of the engine camouflage this. Put your foot down and the Endeavour lunges forward almost immediately, from engine speed even as low as 1200rpm. It has massive low-speed grunt and, once youre past 2000rpm, both power and torque ascend rapidly, delivering a strong and sustained surge. However, the motor starts running out of steam at about the 4000rpm mark. Despite its weight and power deficit compared to the other two, the Endeavour manages to set some decent times. The 100kph mark takes a respectable 13.7 seconds and it reaches a top speed of 171kph.
The Ford isnt very refined and the Toyota is a bit disappointing as well. The Endeavours engine feels noisy past 2500rpm, and considerable road and tyre roar seeps into the cabin. The Fortuner is quieter than the Ford and feels more muted in general.
But the engine note is gruff, especially when extended. The Rexton, with its good sound insulation and more refined motor, wins at refinement.
Equipment & safety
The top-of-the-line Rexton RX7 comes with a Kenwood touchscreen infotainment system with a DVD player, USB and Aux inputs, and six speakers. The system supports MP3 audio and DivX, MPEG and MPEG-2 video formats. It also has a navigation system with preloaded MapMyIndia maps. However, the Rexton doesnt get a reversing camera, even on the top-spec variant, which is a bit disappointing. Its an almost essential feature on a car this big, and cameras are available on both the Endeavour and the Fortuner.
In addition to the reversing camera, the Fortuners touchscreen-operated audio system also comes with Aux-in and USB ports, an MP3 CD changer and six speakers. It may look like an aftermarket piece, but the Fortuners touchscreen system is very easy to scroll through and the unit works really well. It even doubles up as a DVD player.
Of the three, the Endeavour is the only one to come with a built-in, roof-mounted video display unit on the top-spec 3.0-litre 4x4 variant. It too gets a touchscreen audio system with Aux-in, USB and iPod support, a DVD player and a reversing camera.
The Rexton has the most safety kit. The SUV comes loaded with ABS, Active Rollover Protection, Electronic Stability Program (ESP), Anti-Slip Regulation, Hill Descent Control and dual front and side airbags.
The Fortuner doesnt pack in quite as much in the 4x2 auto variant. It only gets dual front airbags, ABS and a Vehicle Stability Control system to protect its occupants in case of a loss of control.
The Endeavour gets dual front and side airbags, ABS with EBD and an anti-theft alarm. For off-road use, it also has a limited-slip differential, which makes the Ford marginally better equipped than the Fortuner.
Ride and handling
Smooth surfaces and low speeds bring out the best in the Endeavours suspension and it feels nice and pliant. Increase the pace, however, and the Fords ride quality will disappoint. Theres lots of vertical movement at the front, and the constant bobbing and pitching on a rough road is enough to make you feel like you are captaining a boat.
The Toyota rides flatter and does not pitch and roll as much, but still theres certain lumpiness to the Fortuners ride over rough surfaces. Its at higher speeds that the Toyota feels markedly better than the Ford, the suspension and big tyres absorbing just about everything. The softly-sprung Rexton has the best low-speed ride of the three, but sharp bumps do thump through. And, as you go faster, you will find plenty of body movement. There is also considerable body roll when you corner the Rexton hard, and with its light steering, it isnt particularly confidence-inspiring to drive either. The same can be said for the Ford. The Endeavour has a much nicer steering, but body control is sloppy and it is pretty clear the big Ford prefers straights to corners. At higher speeds, its the Fortuner that feels the most composed and more stable during emergency manoeuvres. The slight firmness in the suspension translates to much safer high-speed handling and its pretty clear that this car feels the most comfortable around corners too.
None of these cars have exceptional brakes, but compared to the others, the Fortuners brakes feel the best. But even they dont have sufficient bite, and braking performance is only adequate at best.
What are they like inside
Of the three, climbing into the Rexton is by far the easiest, thanks in part to the very convenient easy-access system where the powered seat and steering wheel move apart to make getting in and out easier. The cabin is plush, the piano black wood finish looks great, and the leather seats offer plenty of comfort with good thigh and back support.
In the Endeavour, the absence of seat height adjustment makes it difficult for shorter drivers to see past the vast bonnet, so you sit much lower than in the other two SUVs. The dash, though minimalistic, manages to look attractive enough and is well laid-out, and the touchscreen infotainment system keeps things modern. However, the rotary knobs for the air conditioner really look out of place in a car of this segment. Other grouses are that the front seats which, although comfortable, are not powered; also there are no steering-mounted audio controls.
The Fortuner does well in this light. It gets powered seats, steering-mounted audio controls and plenty of goodies to keep you entertained. The centrally-mounted touchscreen is easy to use, but looks like more of an aftermarket add-on and doesnt gel with the dash. The overall fit and finish is good but what marks it down compared to the other two is that the interior, especially the dashboard, feels quite similar to the significantly cheaper Innova, and thats despite the recent update.
The Rextons middle row might not be the best here, but its well cushioned and comfortable, with plenty of legroom. The third row, however, is almost unusable. The seat-base sits on the floor and the seat-back is very short, making it very uncomfortable.
The Endeavours second row isnt too impressive either. The seat is placed low and this marks the middle row down for comfort. The third row too is, at best, suitable for children. In comparison, the Fortuners middle row offers much better support, comfort and space, and two adults can sit in acceptable comfort in the last row.
With all its seats up, the Toyota has the most boot space here and the low loading lip helps. The Rextons boot space is decent, but it is not as flexible as the Endeavours fully removable last row.
Buying & owning
At R19.75 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), the Rexton RX7 we tested is more than R2 lakh cheaper than the Fortuner 4x2 A/T, and its loaded with a lot more kit. The Rexton comes with a two-year/50,000km standard warranty, which isnt as generous as the Fortuners or the Endeavours. The Rexton also comes in a lower RX5 manual-transmission variant that costs R17.75 lakh, making it the cheapest here and a terrific value-for-money buy.
In comparison, the Fortuner 4x2 A/T, at R22 lakh, is the most expensive SUV here. The Toyota also comes with a standard warranty of three years/1,00,000km which, coupled with the companys vast dealership network and service centres, will mean a hassle-free ownership experience.
Endeavour buyers can choose from three variants, starting with the base 2.5-litre 4x2 manual-transmission variant at R18.25 lakh. We drove the top-of-the-line 3.0-litre 4x4 auto variant that comes for R21.20 lakh. Ford sells the Endeavour with a two-year/1,00,000km warranty.
In terms of efficiency, the Fortuner managed to return 7.8kpl in the city and 12.7kpl out on the highway, making it more frugal than the Endeavours 7kpl in the city and 10.6kpl on the highway, and the Rextons 7.2kpl in the city and 11.8kpl on the highway.