Motoring

Battle of the affordable off-roaders: we put a trio of 4x4s through their paces

We pit the Mahindra Thar, Renault Duster and Suzuki Jimny against each other

31 March 2019 - 00:10
Clockwise from left: the Suzuki Jimny, Mahindra Thar and Renault Duster all have price tags under R350k.
Clockwise from left: the Suzuki Jimny, Mahindra Thar and Renault Duster all have price tags under R350k.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Since the advent of the horseless carriage as we know it, manufacturers have had a thing for zoomorphism. There are countless examples.

Consider old Sir William Lyons, co-founding an entire brand built around the mystique of a South American cat species. Or the Ram pick-up trucks subdivision, whose presence in the US is far from sheepish.

Come to think of it, that nation never held back with the animal-derived names. Mustang, Barracuda, Bronco, Impala, Thunderbird, Hellcat, Cougar.

Germany gave the world a best-seller named after a winged insect. Ferrucio Lamborghini loved his fighting bulls. And most exotic marques have a Spider or a Spyder crawling around the family tree.

You could spend your Sunday compiling a list of these linguistic convergences of cars and creatures.

The trio of off-roaders in this article struck us as the wheeled equivalents of mountain goats. They are compact and endearing. And they are relatively affordable - every livestock shopper knows that goats cost less than their bigger counterparts.

If your prerequisites are: must be new, must have a sticker price below R350,000 and must have four-wheel drive, then look here.

The Mahindra Thar takes its title from a Nepali antelope. The Renault Duster, on the other hand, is named for an item in your cupboard. And while the Suzuki Jimny might call to mind the chatter of a talking cricket, its etymology is said to be traced to a lapse in translation.

Regardless of whether their names are suitably rugged, what really matters is how they cope with rugged terrain. Here's what happened when we took them off-road at the ADA Training & Outdoor Centre: 

MAHINDRA THAR

Next time you are traversing certain outlying areas of Gauteng, you might notice the ubiquity of the Mahindra brand. Particularly near the borders of the North West, where our outing took us, many a fully laden Bolero was seen.

Locally, the brand has earned a sound reputation as a purveyor of rudimentary but reliable workhorses. This word, rudimentary, is very much emphasised in the Thar.

No coincidence, of course, that it looks like a cut-price Jeep Wrangler. Remember that Mahindra assembled the iconic genesis to that model under licence as far back as 1947. The seven-slot grille is still shared between these contemporaries today. You will not find central locking, nor an audio system, nor an on-board computer, nor virtually any convenience expected as a motorist in 2019.

SPEC SHEET: Mahindra Thar

• Range starts at R228,999

• This model: R293,999 (Adventure Series)

• Engine: 2,488cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged-diesel

• Power and torque: 79kW and 247Nm

• Claimed consumption: 8.9l/100km

• Transmission: Five-speed manual

• Ground clearance: 200mm

• Low range: Yes

• Mechanical differential lock: Yes

• Wading depth: 500mm

• Weight: 1,745kg

• Drive: Four-wheel drive, switchable on-the-fly manually

Get in, get it started and go. There is not much in the way of insulation and things get quite noisy in the Thar.

After driving through water we noted how laissez-faire the approach was to build quality: their solution to keeping the rear quarters dry was to plug the little holes in the metalwork with black stickers.

And its composure - or decided lack thereof - at freeway speeds, is an experience our lensman Waldo Swiegers described as religious.

Think of the experience offered by a product like the now-dead Land Rover Defender and you get the gist. So, not a car you would want to cruise from Johannesburg to Cape Town in.

But what if you felt adventurous and set yourself the proviso that you would dispatch that journey off the national roads? The Mahindra excels on the rough stuff. It sauntered over the obstacles at our chosen test facility, little mechanical sympathy required from its helmsman.

Age-old, off-road wisdom is to be as slow as possible and as fast as necessary. The perceived toughness of the Thar means you can plod over pretty much anything with abandon. You would have to be really committed to such a Spartan lifestyle, though, because this is a challenging one to use daily.

TO SUM UP

What we liked: Rough-and-tumble feel inspires confidence off-road, harks back to a simpler time.

What we disliked: Rough-and-tumble feel is less fun on road, its simplicity will prove tough to live with daily.

RENAULT DUSTER

The Mahindra Thar made the Renault Duster feel like a Rolls-Royce Cullinan by comparison. Oh, what a bounty of luxuries: icy air-conditioning, electric windows, a touch-screen infotainment system with navigation and ergonomics from this century.

You might think the inclusion of the Duster makes for an unfair match-up, suited better to the ilk of the Hyundai Creta and Ford EcoSport. Fair enough; but neither is available with four-wheel drive. And the few contenders available with 4x4 in the compact crossover-cum-sport-utility vehicle category fall well out of our R350,000 cap. 

SPEC SHEET: RENAULT DUSTER

• Range starts at R255,900

• This model: R327,900 (1.5 dCi Dynamique 4x4)

• Engine: 1,461cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged-diesel

• Power and torque: 80kW and 250Nm

• Claimed consumption: 5.2l/100km

• Transmission: Six-speed, manual

• Ground clearance: 210mm

• Low range: Not per se, low first-gear ratio simulates low-range instead

• Mechanical differential lock: No

• Wading depth: 350mm

• Weight: 1,205kg

• Drive: Four-wheel drive, switchable on-the-fly via electronic rotary dial

The Duster has earned its stripes as a rugged adventurer, with a sound reputation forged by its 2013 predecessor. Though with a smidgen more refinement in 2019, the model retains its exploratory persona.

Just take a gander at how impressive the ground clearance is in relation to the other two here, which are decidedly more hardcore in off-road constitution. That said, one is aware of its obvious, softer and road-biased nature when tackling the rough stuff. You must finesse the Duster in a gentler fashion over ruts and through dips. Lining up to wade through a sizable mud pool was akin to the final scene in the 2004 Starsky & Hutch remake.

Colleague Bruce Fraser looked me in the eye, as if to say, our time working together had been great. And then with enough conviction, I went for it. You know what? There were no embarrassing rescue calls to fish out a beached Duster.

The plucky Renault managed to venture as far out into the wilderness as the other duo. And when the time came to head back to civilisation, it was the vehicle we drew straws for, with its virtues of sure-footedness and comfort. Logically, you are going to want to spend your money here if most of your time is spent on tarmac. But as it proved, that does not mean foregoing the occasional weekend odyssey over terrains less travelled.

TO SUM UP

What we liked: A spacious, well-equipped and comfortable steed for most motoring requirements.

What we disliked: That short first-gear can be tiresome in slow traffic - shift to second no sooner than you start moving.

SUZUKI JIMNY

Applaud the engineering efforts of Suzuki for their authentic modernisation of its classic template. Not dissimilar to what Mazda achieved with the current ND generation of the MX-5: a faithful distillation of the spirit that made the original great, while ticking the boxes of present-day legislation.

We might be embellishing here, because the Jimny lineage is rooted in an austere-looking thing called the LJ10, built in 1970. Anyway, like with followers of the famed roadster, the Jimny fraternity is close-knit. We smiled and reciprocated the high-beam greetings of fellow members.

SPEC SHEET: SUZUKI JIMNY

• Range starts at R264,900

• This model: R319,900 (1.5 GLX 4AT)

• Engine: 1,462cc, four-cylinder, normally-aspirated

• Power and torque: 75kW and 130Nm

• Claimed consumption: 6.8l/100km

• Transmission: Four-speed automatic

• Ground clearance: 210mm

• Low range: Yes

• Mechanical differential lock: No

• Wading depth: Unspecified by the manufacturer

• Weight: 1,110kg

• Drive: Four-wheel drive, switchable on-the-fly manually 

Do we really need to expound on its terrain-conquering capabilities? Look, you know that it can clamber over most - nay - all hurdles with alacrity. Battling the untamed was made even easier with the convenience of an automatic transmission.

While the bare-bones Mahindra is uncompromising in its scant approach to amenities and the Renault boasts a plusher character, the Suzuki strikes a (fairly) agreeable middle ground.

This GLX model grade features all the expected goodies. Needless to say, you will have to master the art of packing light for those getaways. It is no space champion. Nor is it one to be hurried along on the freeway. Life is best enjoyed at 100km/h, because crosswinds and curves are no friends of the Jimny.

Heaven forbid a stray elk wanders in your path while cruising along the M1. Interested parties will tell you that these are not deal breakers. And there are plenty of customers with wallets wide open: try getting yourself a new Jimny tomorrow morning and you will be told to wait a bit. No matter, the manufacturer intends on pandering to this demand with surplus stock from June. Off-road prowess aside and regardless of its inherent dynamic deficiencies, the Jimny has an emotional appeal that is undeniable. The lovable bijou off-roader makes muscled men and women coo with affection.

TO SUM UP

What we liked: Cuddly persona, irreproachable off-road reputation, owners' camaraderie.

What we disliked: Limited interior space, roly-poly handling.

MISSING IN ACTION

We tried to get our paws on a Fiat Panda Cross 4x4, but the PR manager from the company said demonstration examples were nonexistent.

This is an endangered animal in SA, basically. What a pity, because its inclusion would have been meaningful, especially with the lowest sticker price of the lot at R270,900.

One would think that proposals for awareness-creation around the slow-selling brand would be met with enthusiasm. Alas, that was not the case.

Feel free to write in with your experience.


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