Wise men say the world is flat. It is indeed very true when it comes to the automotive industry. Today, with access to technology and knowledge available easily, the only thing stopping a manufacturer from delivering a well-engineered, quality product is perhaps a lack of budget. Of course, that isn’t the only reason. The bigger and more important one is a serious lack of vision. For a home-grown business entity like Mahindra & Mahindra, with its strong focus on the bottomline, it could have been easy to make an SUV that “meets the Indian customer’s expectations.” After all, other global manufacturers are doing just that with many of their new products for us. But for Mahindra, it’s the other way round. If it has global ambitions, then it has to make a product that meets the global customer’s expectations, and not just us Indians who can sometimes be easily satisfied.
For a manufacturer focussed on making traditional UVs, SUVs and MPVs — that use body-on-chassis architecture and rear-wheel drive — the new XUV500 is a great leap forward. That’s because for Mahindra, it is exactly the opposite of what it has been doing for all these years — the XUV500 features a monocoque structure and front-wheel drive. It calls for a huge difference in the way the SUV is put together, and for Mahindra called for completely new learnings. Remember, not too long ago, seeing a curved window glass on a Mahindra product was a novelty. Or door hinges that were hidden rather than exposed. Or ergonomics that required you to be a strong gymnast with sharp fingernails. Or front suspension that was independent rather than the independent-minded leaf spring set-up. Or dynamics that were more suited to off-road terrain than butter-smooth roads. Mahindra has been learning rapidly; it has unveiled a new product it can justifiably be proud of.
Amongst all the carmakers in India, I find Mahindra to be the most passionate. Away from the glare of the spotlights and the flashbulbs at the launch event, I met the key people in engineering who, over four years, surmounted challenging odds to bring this SUV to life. I also spoke to a few in validation, who subjected the XUV500 to extreme tests — 250 prototypes cumulatively covered 2.35 million kilometres across the world, in temperatures ranging from -30°C in China to over 50°C in West Asia. I also met the designers who agonised over the most minute and excruciating details on the outside and the inside. To all of you and to those behind the scenes who were instrumental in making this SUV, take a bow. The brickbats follow.
Styling has never been Mahindra’s strong point. Compared to its existing range of products, the XUV500 is dazzling. It has several signature design features that make it stand apart from the rest of the SUVs anywhere in the world. The proportions are beautiful and the stance is perfect. The pictures don’t do justice; in the flesh, it is a good-looking car. Criticisms? I would say that there is an excess of honeycomb plastic at the front, while the rear too is a bit overdone.
Inside, the flowing central console is elegant and the buttons/ switchgear (and the superb fonts) contribute by giving it a classy look. It is the instrument nacelle that is the highlight of the dash design. The dials for the speedo and the tacho, with another two circular displays inside, are beautiful and they stand out, especially with their gorgeous lighting at night. The seats are comfortable, there is adequate leg room for the middle row passengers and the last row seats fold down pretty easily to accommodate luggage. There is mood lighting on the inside and there are enough lights and aircon vents for all passengers. Even the ones on the last row. All perfect then? Well, no. The six-inch touchscreen is beautiful to look at, but during the day, despite setting its brightness to maximum, cannot be seen well. The fonts are a bit tiny for adult fingers and the sensitivity of the touchscreen is more Samsung than Apple. Unlocking the doors from the inside requires more than just opposable thumbs. Quality of a few plastic sections, like the storage-bin cover atop the dash and glove-box cover for instance, is a bit iffy. Finally, the grain pattern on all the plastics is boring.
What however cannot be denied is that the W8 version is stupendously loaded. All other SUVs in India, even those several segments above, pale in comparison to the comfort and safety features the XUV500 comes loaded with — they are too numerous to mention here. Christmas has come early this year and Santa has shifted loyalties to Mahindra.
I have never seen a Mahindra vehicle’s engine bay so tightly packed. The four-cylinder 2,179cc mHawk diesel engine is mounted transversely. Again, it’s a first for Mahindra and allows for better packaging and crashworthiness. Using a variable geometry turbine, in the XUV500 application, the motor produces 138 bhp at 3,750 rpm and 33.6 kgm of torque between 1,600 and 2,800 rpm. Power is fed to the front wheels via a six-speed manual transmission. On the outside, you can barely hear the engine idle, but inside the cabin the sound is quite apparent, even more when you rev it. There is a balance to be achieved when it comes to the engine noise; here, I would say that Mahindra has to work on it. Shifting gears and driving away, the XUV500 exhibits excellent composure. I use the effortless output from the engine to overtake large container trucks on narrow roads and squeeze between them. The ability of this large SUV to behave like a sedan is a huge positive attribute. The gearing is spot-on for both the city and the highway, and the steering feedback is quite good as well. However, the tip of your left shoe tends to foul with the base of the steering column.
The XUV500 attains 100 kmph in 13.7 seconds, which is pretty decent. Performance from the motor is strong and it pulls from low speeds even in fourth gear. But the big issue is the shift quality of the gearbox. It is notchy and not very precise. The shift action is not smooth and flowing, while sometimes instead of shifting to fifth, you end up in third. It could be that the vehicle we were driving was really new and maybe about 3,000 km on its odo should settle the gearbox issue. But for now, you need to be conscious when you’re shifting rather than doing it intuitively. Another issue we had with our vehicle was that while cruising on the highway, 110 kmph and beyond, the steering started vibrating. Not a good sign. The next day, we checked the tyre pressure and tried it on tarmac instead of the ribbed concrete of the highway. It was marginally less this time around, but it was there. This is not acceptable, and it shouldn’t happen.
Barring this sore point, the XUV500’s dynamics are quite good. As mentioned earlier, the car-like handling will be easy for most drivers. That apart, body roll is not too pronounced and it sticks to the intended path very well. Bad roads don’t unsettle it either. And the brakes? In most Mahindra vehicles, panic braking usually causes panic all around, but in this one, the braking is terrific.
Verdict? The positives: it is attractive inside-out, is loaded with an array of features, has a powerful engine that makes it quite driveable, has brilliant ride and handling attributes and of course, for its now-world-famous price tag, offers incredible value. The negatives: sore ergonomic points on the inside, iffy plastic bits, a recalcitrant gearbox, intrusive engine noise and of course, that mysterious steering vibration. Attending to this could make the XUV500 get closer to being a 100 per cent global SUV.
If it were not a flat world, I would have said that the XUV500 is a terrific job by an Indian manufacturer.