Mahindra may not yet be a household name, but the Indian conglomerate wants to be. In fact, the eventual goal is for it to be as well known as companies like Apple or Ford.
That’s a process that will take time, and before that happens the automotive arm (the company builds everything from tractors to houses and aircraft) has the XUV500 to enhance its profile, with a new petrol engine to help boost appeal where the previous diesel version could not.
Rural buyers are the primary aim for Mahindra, with the company already establishing a reputation through its range of agricultural equipment and hoping for a flow-on effect for the automotive division, although more urban areas aren’t entirely out of the question.
To help give the XUV500 (pronounced five-double-oh, not five-hundred) a leg up, the company has switched away from the previous mHawk 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine and replaced it with a new-to-Australia 2.2-litre mHawk turbo petrol.
The old diesel engine was good for 103kW at 3750rpm and 330Nm from 1600–2800rpm, whereas the petrol engine delivers 103kW at 4500rpm and 320Nm from 2000–3000rpm.
Nope, not a typo. Apparently the reason for the similar specifications comes down to a desire to make the two engines drive and perform in a similar way, with both sharing a common block but different turbo, cylinder head, and resulting compression ratio.
Where Mahindra has really tried to set itself apart in a crowded medium SUV marketplace is its standard seven-seat layout, along with interior dimensions the brand says apes those of cars from the large SUV class.
Let’s break that down a little: you can buy an entry-level XUV500 W6 from $25,990 drive-away, standard with a six-speed auto and front-wheel drive. A similar specification in a Mitsubishi Outlander will cost you $30,500 plus on-road costs, a Nissan X-Trail asks $32,490, and a Honda CR-V (only available in a more upmarket trim level as a seven-seater) starts at $38,990.
The XUV500 comes standard with features including cloth trim, six airbags (but with curtain airbags that only reach the first two rows), remote central locking, rear park sensors, a cooled centre console, cruise control, static cornering halogen headlights, auto wipers, and six-speaker audio with digital radio, Bluetooth, CD and MP3 capabilities.
The XUV 500 also covers comfort with a dual-circuit air-con system (front and rear) and ventilation piped to all three rows. The driver gets a tilt- and reach-adjustable steering column and height-adjustable seat.
A higher-spec XUV500 W8 variant is available from $29,990 drive-away with front-wheel drive or $32,990 with all-wheel drive. It adds a 7.0-inch touchscreen display with satellite navigation and reverse camera, leather seat trim for all three rows, folding exterior mirrors, and a tailgate-mounted LED camp light.
It’s an intriguing proposition. Sure it’s cheap, but Mahindra has enough confidence to back it with a five-year warranty. On the other hand, it only scored a four-star ANCAP rating in 2012 – not particularly brilliant for a car aimed at young families.
However, the XUV500 is pitched as a credible alternative to a second-hand car, in which case it has a greater warranty and may, or may not, be safer depending on which second-hander you had in mind.
It also has the benefit of being designed to survive in the gruelling conditions of rural India – not unlike those of rural Australia. Take a look at that engine – 103kW from a 2.2-litre turbo is paltry. In other words, it’s massively understressed to ensure longevity, in theory.
Climbing aboard reveals a genuinely roomy interior, but you won’t find any particularly first-class touches. The dash and doors are covered in unusual wood-patterned plastics, with a soft-ish feel on the doors only.
Plastics quality seems reasonable, but after jumping in and out of a few different cars there were some variances in fit, particularly around the dual gloveboxes. The cloth trim of the W6 looks and feels sturdy, and the leather may be easier to wipe off but it neither looks nor feels particularly upmarket.
Then there’s the smell. A deeply pungent plasticity that assaults the nasal passages every time you get in, although these were box-fresh cars on a day nudging 35 degrees, so here’s hoping it's not so bad every time.
On the upside, the interior is genuinely roomy. The front seats will fit occupants of most sizes, and there’s no shortage of knee room or head room in the middle row, plus a trio of ISOFIX and top-tether points to mount child seats.
Best of all, as a seven-seater the third row is actually roomy. Mahindra has given what are usually penalty seats real knee room and even enough head room for adults up to a decent size. No, you won’t fit the local basketball squad back there, but it’s unlikely the kids will complain too much from the rear.
The downside of all that seating room is a minuscule boot. With all three rows up, a laptop bag and a backpack were a questionable fit in the super-slim 92-litre space. Drop the third row and a much more useful 702 litres of boot space becomes available.
On the road, the XUV500 petrol was just as mixed. The six-speed Aisin automatic works well. It can’t be hurried, but it’s smooth and unobtrusive. The 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine also does a decent job of keeping noise and vibration to itself, but again, don’t expect it to rocket the crew around with any particular urgency. Compare it to the 1.5-litre turbo petrol in a Holden Equinox, for instance, and the Mahindra is down by 24kW but up by 45Nm.
There’s a satisfying pull from standstill, but the engine quickly feels outpaced at anything over a light canter. Worse still, rolling response is woeful with a full-throttle kickdown barely encouraging any kind of accelerative urge.
Trust me, you won’t want to attempt any kind of passing manoeuvres without kilometres of safely marked overtaking lane ahead of you, and even then it might be better to tough it out behind whatever’s in front of you.
Even Mahindra’s own executives joked about the terrible condition of India’s roads, but that’s only good news as the XUV500 rides out some of Australia’s rough-and-tumble tarmac with comfort – and wheel travel – to spare.
That ride comfort comes at the expense of handling, though, inaccurate steering devoid of feedback, huge lean in corners, and plenty of early understeer dominate the drive, yet somehow the XUV500 still manages to feel stable and secure on straight roads, so the news isn’t all bad.
The brand also backs its automotive products with a five-year warranty and five years roadside assist – good luck getting that from Holden, Toyota or Mazda. There’s three years of capped-price servicing too, although pricing for the petrol engine has yet to be announced.
Could we recommend the XUV500? You’d have to be on a really tight budget for a seven-seater to make this work. Yes it’s roomy, quite comfortable, and not badly equipped, but there’s a big question mark over resale, and frankly most competitors in its class are much better to drive, live with, and look at.
Click through to our photo gallery for more images of the XUV500.
NOTE: Due to a limited supply of photos provided for the 2018 XUV500, we have included a selection of photos from our earlier diesel review. The vehicle is unchanged inside and out, so these images provide an accurate view of the model's design and features.