The seven-seat SUV segment is loaded with competitors from almost every marque on the market. Most of these sales come from brands that only offer their vehicles with automatic gearboxes.
Until recently, the exception to the rule was Indian manufacturer Mahindra. The Mahindra XUV500 was only available locally with a six-speed manual gearbox and the option of either front- or all-wheel drive.
Earlier in the year, we drove the new six-speed automatic version on Indian roads, but were keen to try it locally. The vehicle impressed us in the subcontinent, but with only a limited time behind the wheel, the real test would be across a variety of local road surfaces.
Developed by Aisin, the six-speed automatic gearbox release was delayed due to the original contract with Australian company DSI being terminated when Chinese manufacturer Geely purchased it.
Starting from $29,900 (drive away) in six-speed manual, front-wheel drive form, the all-wheel drive model steps up to $32,900 (drive away). The six-speed automatic gearbox can be specified in both front- and all-wheel drive models for an additional $2000.
That pricing places the XUV500 well ahead of its diesel seven seat competitors in this segment. The Holden Captiva 7, for example, starts from $33,490 (plus on-road costs) in front-wheel drive guise and $38,490 (plus on-road costs) in all-wheel drive guise.
The Mahindra is loaded with standard features, including automatic climate control, leather seats, automatic windscreen wipers and headlights, fog lights, central locking, reverse-view camera with parking sensors, Bluetooth audio streaming and telephone connectivity, six airbags, electronic stability control, four-wheel disc brakes, satellite navigation and cruise control.
The specification offered in Australia is called the W8, with the brand looking to also import the higher specification W10 model locally in the future.
So as a cost comparison, the Mahindra XUV500 really stacks up. But what’s it like to drive?
We hopped into what was literally a brand new XUV500. It had less than 20km on the clock and was finished in a Tuscan Red metallic colour. It also came with side steps and a front nudge bar.
From the outside, the XUV500 looks respectable and doesn’t feature the cheap and cheerful design of some of its Mahindra siblings available both domestically and in other markets.
Exterior build quality appeared to be quite good on the test vehicle, with the exception of poor fit and finish around the tail lights, which didn’t quite sit flush with the body and had dent marks around their outer edge from factory fitment.
Inside the cabin, fit and finish, along with build quality, was quite pleasing. Trim changes throughout the cabin make it a pleasant environment to sit in.
The steering wheel is soft to the touch, as are the armrests and seat surrounds. Some parts of the cabin feel a little cheap, such as the dashboard surrounds and glove box, but in general it’s a great place to be seated.
One of the most impressive aspects is the infotainment system. While it misses out on Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which is available on the Captiva 7, it’s a high-resolution screen with decent clarity. Transitions between screens are quick and the interactive user manual is a handy feature only seen in more expensive cars.
The satellite navigation system is arguably one of the best in this segment. It offers an intuitive (although sometimes laggy) predictive search function, with a high-resolution graphical display showing the car and its trajectory on the map.
Included within the 7.0-inch colour touchscreen infotainment system are driving statistics, vehicle information and tyre pressure monitoring. There’s even an application that allows you to control the infotainment system by telephone using Bluetooth, which is great.
First row leg and headroom is excellent and the seats are quite comfortable, making it a great place to be for a long distance drive.
Surprisingly, the second row also offers a heap of leg- and headroom. There’s adequate toe room beneath the seats and based on more than 2000km spent in the car during our journey through India, the seats are comfortable for long distance journeys.
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.
There is enough room to happily carry two adults for a short journey in the third row. 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.
Second and third row passengers also get their own air vents, with the third row featuring an individual air conditioning condenser to help with really hot climates.
Powering the Mahindra 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 7.4L/100km for the six-speed automatic.
One of the first things you notice when you start the XUV500 is how loud the diesel engine is. It’s quite noisy from outside the cabin, but almost equally noisy from the inside. There’s little sound deadening and it can affect cabin comfort at times.
We tested the XUV500 across a variety of roads that included city driving, highway cruising and a stint in the country over poor quality sealed and gravel roads.
Acceleration and response from the four-cylinder diesel engine is good, but not breathtaking. The 330Nm of torque has to deal with a kerb weight of just under 2000kg, but it does manage to do well enough with the engine it has.
One of the highlights of the package is the gearbox. It’s willing to row through gears at ease and always manages to find the right gear for the situation.
Around the city, the XUV500 feels at home. It can struggle to get torque to the ground at times in front-wheel drive form, especially in the wet, but it’s overcome with patient throttle applications.
The car had a tendency to push to understeer quite quickly in the wet, but again it was a case of driving the car with that tendency in mind.
In addition to the gearbox, the other component of the drive that impressed was the ride. The softly sprung suspension setup makes cobblestones, speed humps and other city obstacles easy to overcome.
It’s a similar story on the highway where it glides along nicely (albeit slightly noisily).
One of the car’s biggest weaknesses is the high amount of noise, vibration and harshness. At idle, the steering wheel vibrates considerable and there is a noticeable vibration through the vehicle’s body while it idles.
On the move, at around 1800rpm in third, fourth and fifth gears, there is an audible drone that resonates through the cabin under light throttle. It can be testing at times and can make for a frustrating drive.
Brake pedal feel is good, as is steering feel. During our country loop, we found that the XUV500 felt most comfortable. Rutted roads and even stretches of highly rutted gravel were no match for the car. Sweeping bends exhibited a generous amount of body roll, but that’s only to be expected from a SUV.
In terms of ownership, Mahindra offers a three-year, 100,000km warranty with six-monthly service intervals.
So where does that leave us? The six-speed automatic gearbox is a marked improvement over the manual offering. It brings the car up to the standard of its peers in terms of driving equipment.
But all of its positives are offset by the lack of noise, vibration and harshness isolation. It’s an area that would affect vehicle ownership and potentially make the car hard to live with. It's also still only a four-star ANCAP safety rated vehicle, while many others in this segment boast five-star ratings.
If you are looking for a seven seat SUV with a reasonable price tag, though, and are happy to compromise on drive quality, the XUV500 could be up your alley.
It’s loaded with features and offers a pleasant ride and respectable towing capacity. If you’re happy to sacrifice on drive quality, it’s worth checking out for buyers after a big vehicle, without the price tag.
We will be testing the all-wheel drive version shortly to see whether the addition of a rear-drive axle helps with noise, vibration and harshness. Watch this space.