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With sixty-something new car brands competing in a local market that is becoming increasingly aspirational towards premium brands, the introduction of the budget Mahindra XUV500 may seem like a sales-proof shuffle.
Yet popularity in every pricing spot of the SUV market, and in particular at the affordable end with models such as the Holden Captiva 7, means that Australians clearly have an appetite for high-riding vehicles that can seat seven for nix.
As we go to press you can buy a Korean-built Captiva 7 LS automatic for $28,990 driveaway, with a 2.4-litre petrol four-cylinder, three rows of seats, and even an electric sunroof and five-year warranty.
The Indian-made Mahindra XUV500 costs $29,900 driveaway as a front-wheel-drive version with seven seats.
But it scores a 2.2-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine producing 103kW of power at 3750rpm and 330Nm of torque between 1600rpm and 2800rpm.
You need torque in a heavy SUV and the Mahindra looks to have it where the petrol Holden definitely doesn’t, while you’ll need to spend many thousands of dollars more on a diesel Captiva 7.
A six-speed manual transmission is the only option on the Mahindra (an auto is standard on its rival), which will affect its popularity in our auto-loving market.
The upside is claimed fuel consumption of just 7.6 litres per 100 kilometres, better than either the Holden petrol (9.0L/100km) and diesel (8.1L/100km), and matched on our mixed urban and country road loop. A 74-litre fuel tank also ensures you won’t have to get your hands diesel-grimy often.
It may surprise you that the Mahindra comes standard with stop-start technology, but that isn’t where moments of amazement stop either.
When you hit the unlock button on its flip key, the mirrors electrically unfold and at night you’ll notice they have puddle lamps to cast light beneath each front door.
There is possibly the brightest LED map lights we’ve seen casting light over all three rows, and – is lighting a theme here? – when you’re on the move bright bi-xenon headlights with cornering lights.
The leather is nice, though the woodgrain centre stack won’t be to all tastes and fit and finish is an issue for this emerging brand; both the central and passenger’s side storage lid feeling flimsy in the hand with uneven shut lines.
The interior isn’t a write-off, though, with every storage bin covered in furry lining.
Other unexpectedly neat touches include a flexible string in the door map pockets to hold paper – just like in a Skoda Yeti – and lights inside each door handle and front footwell that can be switched on and off; red-light-district-coloured, so the option of flicking them is a welcome one.
A 6.0-inch colour touchscreen isn’t the last word in infotainment savvy. The screen resolution is low and some of the navigation’s inputs are fussy. But phone connectivity is a simple affair, there is easy music streaming and a USB input, and the audio controls (alongside the cruise controls) on the steering wheel light up.
You even get a Mahindra app to download to change the climate controls or check servicing via a Bluetooth connection.
When you put the XUV500 in reverse you’ll note a standard back camera in addition to rear parking sensors. The camera even tells you how many centimetres you have to go before hitting a wall – just like in a Tesla Model S.
That said, the rear sensors are confused by rain, thinking droplets are something you’ll crash into. Otherwise tempering the safety-first stance is a four-star NCAP safety rating and six airbags that don’t fully extend to the third row (though the latter is disappointingly common in the Captiva class).
You sit high in a classic SUV driving position, the manually adjustable seats are comfortable, and unlike the Holden you won’t have to blast the air conditioning from the front all the way to the back row.
The Mahindra XUV500 gets B-pillar-mounted air vents for its very roomy second row, plus side vents and a manual fan control for the sixth and seventh passengers.
The ‘40’ part of the middle row’s split backrest is on the kerb side for Australia (as India is a right-hand-drive market too), unlike some rivals that force kids to pull forward and flip the mega-size ‘60’ portion of the row when climbing into the back.
After flipping down then tumbling the middle seat, access to the third row is impressive. Even more remarkable is the space afforded back there, with excellent foot room and knee room for the class. The noggin of this 178cm-tall tester brushes the rooflining, but even with legs extended the seat base remains thickly padded and comfy, with ample under-thigh support.
In addition to the vents and map lights, there is softly damped grab handles for all outboard passengers.
If you don’t need all seats up, each back one folds down into the floor individually at the touch of a lever. The space that remains is roughly the same as what you’ll get from a compact SUV rather than a medium one, however, and there’s barely enough width for an iPhone when every seat is being used.
For a smidge under $30,000 on the road, there is simply no roomier SUV or even new people mover available on the new car market, and we tend to think buyers may care more about that than the odd ill-fitting storage bin.
In a similar fashion, the diesel engine in the Mahindra beats every petrol-engined rival in the class.
It is a great engine even in the lower reaches of the rev range, pulling decently from 1000rpm and strongly from 1500rpm. The nasally sound turns couth and refined as revs pile on, though it runs out of puff past 4000rpm and calls it quits by 4500rpm.
The manual is rubbery but direct and is no chore to throw around, but the extremely high clutch can lift the driver’s leg clear of the seat base. It isn’t on the same (lower) plane as the brake and throttle pedal either.
Otherwise the Mahindra XUV500 is surprisingly pleasant to drive.
The ride on chubby 65-aspect 17-inch tyres is softly absorbent without lacking control, though the Bridgestone Duellers deliver low grip levels in the wet. This SUV isn’t alone with this problem – we’ve tested CR-Vs and Foresters with the same issue – and the stability control in the Mahindra is disciplined but not aggressive.
We’d still think about upgrading to the$32,900 driveaway all-wheel-drive version, however. That may also help if you've optioned a towbar, because the 2500kg braked towing capacity is better served with extra traction.
Otherwise, the hydraulic power steering shivers over some bumps but is acurate and nicely light for easy urban manoeuvrability.
The body feels strong and vision is perfectly fine, though a lack of refinement comes through in odd hisses and groans from behind the firewall. The stop-start system also essentially stalls the engine, flashing up ancillary lights on the dashboard when the engine is turned off and momentarily blanking out the headlights when the engine switches back on.
It is these refinement and quality shortfalls that Mahindra needs to work hard on, because the XUV500 is otherwise pleasant to drive and intelligently packaged, and is primed to add at least a point to its score when its issues are addressed.
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