Many believe that ‘they don’t make them like how they used to,’ and for a long time, I too was under the same impression, i.e. new cars no longer have the charm and excitement of cars of the past that epitomised the man-machine connection; instead, they now increasingly feel more like everyday appliances. Thankfully, I have now come to realise that this notion of categorically painting all new cars with the same brush is a bit of a hogwash. Sure, not every modern car out there is capable of offering an exhilarating and exciting driving experience, but to claim that new cars are not fun and engaging to drive, well, that’s quite misleading.
A vehicle that backs up my case wonderfully is the Maruti Suzuki Jimny. Without beating around the bush, let me tell you straight away that it’s FUN – bold and in uppercase, it’s that good! Ever since its launch, I have been smitten by it. Be it its appearance, charm, size, boxy shape, off-road capability, four-door practicality, or all the modern bells and whistles that it packs, the Jimny, to me, is a complete SUV that can do it all. It’s so damn hard to resist its allure!
Now, the other day in the office, I made my feelings for the Jimny public and even went on to claim that it’s the most entertaining and the best driver’s SUV under ₹20 lakh. Expectedly enough, my claim caused quite an uproar among my colleagues. They accused me, rather falsely, of becoming a blind Jimny fanboy and claimed that I had lost all my objectivity.
So, naturally, a long debate followed, at the end of which it was decided that only a comparison test, involving other SUVs under ₹20 lakh that are also fun and engaging to drive, can settle the argument. The SUVs that made the list were the Hyundai Venue N Line, Volkswagen Taigun GT, and Kia Seltos Turbo. Now, I know what you are thinking – where’s the Mahindra Thar? Well, it’s a fun SUV, no doubt, but it doesn’t quite cut it as a do-it-all SUV, since it doesn’t have enough doors, so we skipped it.
With all four SUVs assembled, we decided to embark on yet another road trip – this time to the picturesque mountain roads of Uttarakhand to settle the score and determine what’s what.
The Blue Thunder – Hyundai Venue N Line
The Venue N Line is the same size as the Jimny – they are both sub-4m SUVs. But that’s where the similarities end, for they are as different as chalk and cheese. You see, while the Venue classifies as an SUV in today’s terms, it is essentially a hatchback on stilts. But then, that’s the case with 90% of the SUVs on the market today. So, for the moment, let’s leave the technicalities aside and get on with the task at hand.
Now, what makes the Venue N Line a fun-to-drive SUV? You see, for the most part, it’s a feature-loaded and practical family SUV, but thanks to the N Line treatment, it gets a lot more pep. It has stiffer springs for better handling, tauter steering for better control, and a juicy exhaust. Sure, the engine is bone stock, just like in the regular Venue – a 1.0-litre turbo unit that churns out around 118bhp of peak power output. That said, it’s no slouch, especially in comparison to the Jimny’s 1.5-litre NA motor.
From behind the wheel, the Venue N Line is a totally different game altogether. Let’s begin by comparing its steering feel and precision to that of the Jimny. While the latter’s steering is vague and requires constant corrections even on straight roads, the Venue’s steering has the right amount of heft and precision – it feels properly sporty. And the way it handles isn’t disappointing either.
Show it a winding stretch of tarmac, and the Venue N Line brings its A-game to the fore. Thanks to its dampers, which are 34% stiffer than that of the regular version, the Venue N Line navigates through corners with spectacular poise. The steering, as mentioned earlier, is precise and makes driving on a twisty section of the tarmac quite fun. The grip levels are pretty good, and the body roll is well-controlled. If you drive the Venue N Line and the Jimny back-to-back, the difference between the two in terms of ride-and-handling balance is like night and day. While the Venue hugs the tarmac during high-speed cornering, the Jimny tends to rock and roll like a ping pong ball. This exhibits that monocoque SUVs will always have an edge over those with a body-on-frame construction – at least on the tarmac – regardless of the excellence of the latter.
What’s more, the Venue’s all-disc setup offers a more composed and confidence-inspiring braking performance. On the downside, the ride quality is a bit jarring at low speeds, allowing you to feel the road’s imperfections more than you would in the Jimny or any other SUV on our list. However, given the kind of handling and composure that this taut suspension brings to the table, I would say it’s a worthwhile trade-off.
Once you step inside, the Venue N Line impresses you even more. While the cabin retains the practical aspects and modern features of the regular Venue, it gets a sporty theme with red accents, aluminium-covered pedals, and red stitching all around. The driver’s seat comes with electric adjustments. The Jimny, on the other hand, doesn’t even get a height-adjustable driver seat, let alone electric adjustments. Overall, the N Line’s cabin is a premium, spacious, and nice place to be and offers much better quality and finish levels than that of the Jimny.
When it comes to engine performance, the N Line further stretches its lead. The N Line’s 1.0-litre turbo motor offers steady acceleration with solid mid- and top-end performance. There’s some lag below 2,000rpm, but once the turbo starts, well, turbo-ing, you find yourself riding a linear wave of torque that continuously builds until about 6,500rpm. The acceleration is quick by all standards. And when you compare it with the Jimny’s, you may even call it blistering. That said, while the engine performance is great, it doesn’t enjoy being thrashed. After 5,000rpm, you will notice that it starts to protest and sounds coarse. There’s no drop in performance per se, but it feels as if you are trying to strangle this puny three-pot unit. The sport exhaust it comes fitted with makes no difference to the life of the driver, for you barely get to hear it on the move – even with the windows rolled down, you won’t hear a thing. Plus, the high NVH levels at high revs don’t really help its case either. However, if you are outside and see an N Line zipping by, you will hear some pops and crackles.
My biggest grouse with the Venue N Line, though, is its gearbox – a 7-speed DCT transmission. It’s smooth and seamless if you drive it normally, but it’s a bit slow to respond when you drive enthusiastically, which is actually the point of this N Line derivative. If you leave it to its own devices, it goes into a sort of deep slumber – the kickdown is delayed, as it holds on to a higher gear for way too long. There are paddle shifters, thankfully, and they are a saviour.
The Red Riding Hoot – VW Taigun GT
If a manual transmission is a must for you as an enthusiast, the Taigun GT is the one that will keep you grinning from ear to ear with its impeccable 1.5-TSI and six-speed manual drivetrain. And if you are a petrol-head who is a firm believer that the engine and transmission are the heart and soul of a vehicle, well, you now have another reason to opt for the Taigun.
The Taigun’s 1.5 TSI motor is a powerhouse. With close to 150 horses on offer, it’s not just plenty fast; instead, its performance and acceleration simply blow the Jimny – as well as most of its rivals – out of the water. The Taigun gathers pace ferociously from a standstill. The engine, however, is a bit hesitant below 1,800rpm, but once it starts spinning faster and the turbo has fully spooled, it turns into an unstoppable force. The power delivery is strong, albeit linear and measured – very German, I would say. And unlike the Venue, this turbo motor loves to be revved. It’s so addictive that you will find it almost impossible to lift off or upshift before the tach needle is banging against the redline. What’s more, being a four-cylinder unit, its refinement levels are exemplary – no unwanted noise filters into the cabin. You only hear a deep baritone as you bury the throttle to the floor. I have said it before, and I will say it again – this 1.5 TSI motor is one of the last great petrol engines on the market before things completely go electric or hybrid. It’s just too pure, period.
Not to mention, this 1.5 TSI motor is proof of the significant difference that a turbo can make – the Jimny and Taigun both have the same cubic capacity, but the difference in performance is colossal, thanks to the forced induction in the latter.
That said, it’s not perfect in every way as a driver’s SUV. The manual tranny isn’t the best in business; the shifts aren’t the slickest, and the shifter has long throws. The clutch pedal is a bit springy in action, and the gearing is too tall – something that’s quite evident when you’re driving uphill. But is it a deal breaker? Hell, no! – for the simple reason that there’s no better alternative around.
The great news is that the Taigun isn’t just quick in a straight line. It’s an equally able SUV when you approach a twisty section of the road. The handling is taut, grip levels are amazing, and the damping is spot-on. Plus, the steering is direct and precise. Again, if fun for you as a driver means going around corners at the limit of adhesion, the Taigun is definitely the one that will suit you the best. Its chassis/platform has unmatched adjustability for an SUV in its price bracket. The overall composure and driver engagement are simply delectable.
Now, while it doesn’t get disc brakes on all four corners, the braking performance and pedal feel are the best on the list. That German engineering, that finesse, and that seat-of-the-pants driving experience – only the Taigun can give you all that here. And, above all, what’s even more remarkable is that it rides beautifully, soaking up bumps confidently – the suspension is a bit taut, but the ride isn’t objectionable at all. And given its bigger footprint than that of the Jimny or the N Line, it is more spacious and comfortable for your family. The seats, too, are the best in terms of side support and cushioning. Plus, in terms of features and creature comforts, it gets virtually everything that you or your family would need in an SUV. Earlier the manual version wasn’t available in the top-of-the-line trim, but that’s not the case anymore, as you can now have it in the top-spec GT Edge variant – in a menacing blacked-out avatar no less.
The Sleeper Cell – Kia Setlos GTX+
There are good-looking SUVs, there are sporty SUVs, there are fast SUVs, there are premium SUVs, and then there’s the Kia Seltos – a melting pot of all. Not too long ago, I wouldn’t rate the Seltos as an exciting or involving SUV to drive. I have always thought of it as a good-looking premium SUV that happens to be quick, feature-rich, and decent to drive. It never appealed to me as an enthusiast’s choice. But all that has changed when I drove the latest 2023 version. Because, good lord, it’s a hoot and then some!
The star of the show here is the new 1.5-litre turbo petrol engine, which develops 158bhp and 253Nm – these are segment-best figures, by the way. Again, it’s got the same displacement as the Jimny, or the Taigun for that matter, but this engine feels the most potent in terms of outright acceleration. Kia claims that it can do the 0 – 100km/h sprint in under 9 seconds, and that’s quite quick. I remember the moment when I stepped out of the Jimny to drive the Seltos – and trust me here – the grunt, the performance, the power delivery of Kia’s turbo motor simply left me speechless. I can only say that it made the Jimny’s acceleration feel pedestrian in comparison. In fact, I would go on to claim that this engine feels the strongest throughout the rev range even when compared to the Taigun’s stellar 1.5 TSI unit – and that’s high praise, indeed.
Kia offers the Setlos 1.5 turbo with either a 7-speed DCT or 6-speed IMT (Intelligent Manual Transmission). We had the former at our disposal for this comparison because the latter, I think, doesn’t quite offer you the joy of rowing the gears yourself, given the missing clutch pedal. The DCT, meanwhile, is snappier and very well-calibrated. The shifts are super smooth, and unlike the Venue N Line’s unit, the gearbox is always alert – it drops gears almost immediately as soon as you demand more performance. If you want to take control, you can do so with the help of the paddle shifters behind the wheel, which aren’t just responsive but are also nice and chunky to hold. What I love about the gearbox is that it’s tuned in such a manner that it effectively masks the engine’s weakness – turbo lag at low rpm – as it does its best to keep you in the meat of the powerband instead of shifting up and dropping revs. In other words, you never really struggle for power, as it’s always at your disposal.
What makes the whole experience even better is its impeccable road manners – it handles as well as it looks. The front suspension of the updated Seltos is stiffer than that of the outgoing version. Plus, you also get 18-inch alloy wheels in the top-spec GTX+ trim. The steering, too, is well calibrated, and when all of these elements come together, the Seltos is jolly good fun to drive. You can attack corners aggressively, with so much grip and bite from the front end that you can’t believe it’s a sensible family SUV. Its wider track and large wheels shod with wide 215-section low-profile tyres give it a firm footing when you are hooning it. The steering is well-weighted, quite direct, and offers enough feedback to inform you about what the front end is up to.
However, like all things in the world, it isn’t perfect. Its low-speed ride is jittery, and it’s not the most agile SUV here, given that it’s a size bigger than others on the list. For example, when you come across a tight and twisty section of the road with quick direction changes, the Seltos’ size and weight work against it. Plus, there’s a fair bit of body roll, and it doesn’t seem as willing to change directions as quickly as, say, the Taigun or the N Line. But, then, that’s not the case when you compare it to the Jimny – it, then, feels as good as a sports sedan in terms of handling.
Back to Square One – Maruti Suzuki Jimny
To prove its worth as the ultimate driver’s SUV, or the most fun and exciting SUV under ₹20 lakh, the Jimny surely has its work cut out here. Objectively speaking, all the other SUVs here are better all-rounders than the Jimny. They are great fun in their own right, and they also double up as family SUVs without any real compromises.
However, if I had to pick the winner here, it would still be the Jimny. And that’s purely because it’s a matter of the heart rather than the head. You see, all three contenders are sublime and spectacular as a driver’s SUV, but they don’t seem to have a personality quite like the Jimny. They don’t seem to have been engineered or designed or tuned for just having fun. They are all designed to be practical SUVs with a heavy dose of fun added on top. The Jimny, on the contrary, seems to be built around the idea of having fun, and everything else is an added bonus. For instance, if you want to go on a short trip with your family, it will do that. If your kids need a ride to school, it will do that as well. If you need to pick up your friends from the airport, it will again oblige. But at the core of it, it’s meant to do just one thing – make you feel special, forge a bond with you, tug at your heartstrings, and make driving cars, or SUVs for that matter, great again. It’s a car that speaks to the child in you. It’s a toy car for grown-ups.
And if you’re still not convinced that the Jimny is the best driver’s SUV under ₹20 lakh, well, here’s a kicker – it’s the only true-blue SUV in this quartet. It’s safe to say, then, that they haven’t completely forgotten the way they used to make an SUV before…