Mahindra’s relationship with the Willys Jeep dates back to the 1940s when the company began building the vehicle under license in India. It wasn’t until 2010 that the company rebranded the vehicle and called it the Mahindra Thar.
With next to no modern safety features, we’re never likely to see the Mahindra Thar on local roads. But, there is hope yet, with the Indian manufacturer suggesting there’s a chance it could arrive locally under a low volume import license.
So, with that in mind, we wanted to jump behind the wheel of Mahindra’s most rugged vehicle for a quick drive at the company’s test track within its manufacturing plant in Chakan, India — around one hour from Mumbai.
While the short track measures around two kilometres in length and includes two banked corners and a small handling section, it’s devoid of off-road facilities. With that in mind, our time with the car was unfortunately limited to just 20 minutes behind the wheel at this track, but it was enough time to give us a feel for the Thar.
The Thar is available on the Indian market under three guises. There’s the top-spec CRDe you see here, the two-wheel drive DI 2WD and the four-wheel drive DI 4WD.
The Thar CRDe features a 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine that produces 79kW of power and 247Nm of torque. The engine is mated to a five-speed manual gearbox and a four-wheel drive system that operates in two-wheel drive high range, four-wheel drive high range, four-wheel drive low range.
In terms of off-roading credentials, the Thar CRDe uses a mechanical locking rear differential and features 27/44 degree approach/departure angles — some of the best in the business. Ground clearance is rated at 200mm and there are front discs and rear drum brakes.
At the front, there is independent front suspension with stabiliser bar and torsion bar, while the rear features leaf springs. There’s a Borgwarner transfer case and power steering and the Thar CRDe has a 1700kg load capacity over the rear axle.
The interior is best described as minimalistic. There’s no radio, digital displays or electric windows, but it does seat six (we spotted these with over 10 people on Indian roads, so the seating figure is conservative to say the least) and the roof comes off, making it a sweet convertible 4WD — you could call it a rugged version of the upcoming Range Rover Evoque Convertible.
With the air conditioning blaring, we hit the Mahindra test track to put the Thar through its paces. Performance from the 2.5-litre engine is far from brisk, in fact it’s incredibly slow off the line. Once you’re moving it feels a bit more lively.
The engine can strangely be revved out to almost 6000rpm, despite the fact it runs out of puff at around 3000rpm. It’s also very noisy. If you’re not getting engine noise intruding into the cabin, it’s the canvas roof cover flapping about as wind passes over it.
The steering feels disconnected from the car, but progressively loads up during cornering. The handling is very predictable and can be likened to the Land Rover Defender in the sense there is plenty of body roll, but it’s always accounted for.
Given the lack of ABS brakes, the brake pedal feels very natural and requires a considerable amount of load before the brakes lock up. That’s partly due to the sizeable 235mm wide four-wheel drive tyres on each corner.
Rugged rear leaf spring suspension makes the ride a bit bumpy at times, but it gets better with a load of passengers in the car.
Arguably the best part about the Thar is that if it does end up coming to Australia, you will be able to order it with customised Mahindra off-road parts, like the Thar we spotted at the 2016 Delhi motor show.
The Mahindra Thar won’t set the world on fire in terms of ride and handling. But, it doesn’t need to. This is a rugged four-wheel drive that’s normally driven at low speeds on Indian roads and even lower speeds off-road.
Surprisingly it’s a car that puts a smile on your face and ensures the old automotive world isn’t forgotten. Should Mahindra bring the Thar to Australia as a low volume import that can’t be used on public roads? Hell yes!