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Mahindra is a company that was battling an identity crisis until recently. The release of the monocoque Mahindra XUV500 (pronounced XUV five-double-o, not five-hundred) was the first vehicle in the brand’s modern resurgence.
The XUV500 broke from the traditional mould of vehicles designed for a very specific market of people that arguably didn’t care for modern car design. The XUV500 is the company’s global SUV product and shows that with a bit of effort, it’s possible to create vehicles to cater for global supply.
Mahindra’s chief designer is a woman — one of the few female chief car designers at any brand. Ramkripa Ananthan aimed to design a car that matched modern SUV products from other western brands, but retained a unique Indian design flair.
While that design flare was more prominent in the original XUV500, the latest version, which benefitted from a mild styling update in 2015, blends the car into a modern version of itself.
But, the biggest change to the revised XUV500 is the gearbox. The vehicle was only available with a six-speed manual initially. That offering has now expanded to a six-speed automatic gearbox from Aisin, which should arrive locally in May 2016.
The gearbox should have been here a while ago and the originally intended gearbox from Australian company DSI was in the works until Chinese manufacturer, and Volvo owner, Geely purchased DSI. Geely terminated the Mahindra project and the brand was forced back to square one.
Under the bonnet of the XUV500 is a 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine that produces 104kW of power and 330Nm of torque. The mHawk engine, as it’s known, is used in both the front-wheel and all-wheel drive versions of the XUV500. The XUV500 has a rated towing capacity of 2500kg with a braked trailer, while fuel efficiency sits at a combined 7.3L/100km (automatic not ADR tested locally).
While pricing for the new six-speed automatic hasn’t been announced locally, the six-speed manual in two-wheel drive form is priced from $29,900 locally (drive away) and $32,900 for the all-wheel drive manual variant. We expect the price to include a $2500 premium once the automatic becomes available locally around May 2016.
To better understand the XUV500 and where its roots lay, we jumped on a plane and flew to Mumbai, India to test the XUV across hundreds of kilometres of Indian countryside.
If you’ve never been to India before, you’re in for a shock. Complaints of traffic congestion locally pale in comparison to Indian traffic. Painted lines on the road mean next to nothing, likewise traffic lights and pedestrian crossings.
Also, mind the stray animals and cattle that share the road with trucks, cars and motorcycles. You will also never be further than 10m from somebody sounding their car horn.
Once you’re over the traffic, you begin to realise where the definition of ‘poor quality road’ comes from. The roads are riddled with potholes, unfinished sections and in some cases even live road works with no worker protection.
Before we get onto the drive, let’s talk about the XUV500’s external styling. The Mahindra vertical grille slats feature on the front end, while revisions to the headlights now add an LED daytime running light strip in the shape of an ‘s’.
The blank plastic plate beneath the headlights has been replaced with the addition of a fog light and cornering lamp. Around the side a rising beltline features a hump over the rear wheel arch, while the door handles are uniquely shaped as 'claw' grab handles.
At the rear, tribal markings vertically stacked on the taillights have been removed and the boot handle has also been changed. Ground clearance remains 200mm, which is about average for an SUV of this size.
Inside the cabin, the layout has been tidied with a new infotainment system and a new proximity-sensing key for keyless entry and start (on the W10 model). The textured dashboard looks good and is soft to the touch. The XUV500 is one of the most affordable seven seat vehicles in its segment.
In general, build quality inside the cabin is good. But, simple things like the edges of the glove box still containing plastic shavings need to be addressed. These small items aside, the interior is a comfortable place to be.
We spent around 15 hours in the XUV across three days riding both in the first and second rows, along with a short stint in the third row. The seats are comfortable with the first row offering plenty of bolster and side support.
Second row occupants get ample leg and toe room, along with a decent amount of headroom. The third row is accessed courtesy of a fold and tumble seat on the passenger side. The second row uses a 60:40 split-folding configuration with an adjustable angle backrest.
Surprisingly, the third row is quite commodious and happily carried two adults for a short journey. Cargo capacity is rated at 93 litres with the third row erect. That space increases to 702 litres with the third row folded and 1512 litres with both the second and third row folded.
The other thing that also surprised us was how impressive the air conditioning system was.
With temperatures reaching the high 40s in southern India, Mahindra’s vehicles need to cater for all climates. There are air vents in the first, second and third rows. The rear two rows even get their own air conditioning condenser to ensure cooling capacity, with the third row featuring individual blower controls.
The infotainment system is a 7-inch colour touch screen with satellite navigation, USB connectivity for audio and video and Bluetooth connectivity for audio and telephony. The infotainment system also comes with the ability to add apps for personal connectivity.
The satellite navigation is very easy to use and features fast swipe features, along with an inbuilt e-manual and voice recognition, which can also read SMS messages.
Built in four specification levels — W4, W6, W8 and W10, locally we will receive the W8 specification, which comes with satellite navigation, projector headlamps with cornering lights, automatic headlights, automatic windscreen wipers, six airbags, ESP, black leather interior, reverse camera and rear parking sensors, 8-way manually adjustable driver’s seat, automatic climate control, electrically folding wing mirrors, cruise control and power windows.
So far, the XUV500 has ticked all the right boxes for specification and comfort levels. But, what’s it like to drive? Our drive route covered a trek from the heart of New Delhi through to Agra, then to Jaipur and back to New Delhi.
The roads included a stint at Mahindra’s test track, silky smooth roads, new toll roads, second-rate main roads and barely complete cobbled back streets.
Mahindra’s test track was our first stomping ground. The short circuit features two straights, two banked corners and a small twin figure-eight handling circuit. Along the smooth straights, it quickly became clear that the XUV500 is quite refined at speed.
Reaching speeds of around 130km/h, the XUV500 remained stable and compliant. Several emergency stops from that speed showed a straight stopping trajectory, along with impressive car control. The figure-eight circuit elicited a compliant body with predictable body roll and understeer.
Things became unstuck on the banked turns, where mid-corner bumps produced a considerable amount of rack rattle and steering kickback. I would be surprised if Mahindra’s engineering team had ever driven the XUV along this banked corner given how prominent the rack rattle was.
From Mahindra’s test track we ventured on to some lower quality roads. The first thing that surprised us was the ride quality. For a company that has been building rugged, tough commercial vehicles for most of its life, the XUV500 is incredibly well sorted.
The suspension absorbs everything thrown at it and damps any sudden impacts with aplomb. Us five burly blokes rode in the XUV500 with the boot crammed full of luggage over a five hour stretch from New Delhi to Agra and found the ride consistently soothing.
The only ride-related issue that came up was a delayed settling from the rear end over consecutive bumps. But, that issue only presented itself with a full complement of passengers and luggage. We also noticed that the steering wheel would visibly shake slightly at idle.
During acceleration, engine noise can intrude into the cabin, but it settles once the car reaches cruising speeds. Brake pedal feel is good, but steering feel could be a little more communicative. It’s a hydraulically assisted steering unit that lacks feel at times and can be a vague about centre.
While the engine won’t set the world on fire with a 0-100km/h acceleration time of around 12 seconds, it works well with the six-speed Aisin gearbox to deliver quick and smooth gearshifts for overtaking and getting off the line.
In terms of competition locally, the Mahindra is up against the revised Holden Captiva, which is now available with a 2.2-litre diesel and 2.4-litre petrol, the Nissan X-Trail (only available as a front-wheel drive petrol with seven seats), Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento and Mitsubishi Outlander.
How will it fare in Australia? The jury is out on that one until we get the chance to test the XUV500 locally in automatic trim. Hopefully, by that time Mahindra will have sorted the troubles we found with the vehicle’s steering.
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Videography by Glen Sullivan.