Mahindra Bolero Invader - Country Cousin

With the success of the Scorpio, Mahindra & Mahindra are clearly entrenched in the urban-consumer car game. And to their credit, they haven’t been sitting back twiddling thumbs. Proof of that is the new Bolero Invader, a two-door soft-top MUV that is being made available in rear-wheel-drive as well as 4WD versions. Car manufacturers deem there is a burgeoning segment of consumers who want a ‘leisure vehicle’. Such a vehicle would ideally be the second, or even third car in the family, and if the marketing spiel is to be believed, it would be taken out when the family wants to go out surfing, snowboarding or picnicking in the wilds. The truth might be closer to a bunch of dull old couch-potatoes wanting to project an active ‘outdoorsy’ image by driving a butch-looking 4WD truck, but then again, as long as the damn things sell, who cares!

Coming back to the active-lifestyle vehicle scene in India, there’s the Maruti Gypsy, which of course has been around since time immemorial. The car is very competent off-road, but its peppy little 1300 CC engine has an abundant appetite for petrol (partly due to the overall low gearing of that car), and for most people, the ride is a too stiff and bouncy on tarmac. Mahindra had the superb little CJ 340 (later re-badged as the ‘Classic’) which was a worthy competitor to the Gypsy. This 4WD short-wheelbase ‘Jeep’ was a great off-roader and scads of fun to drive, but flagging sales meant it was axed from the M&M line-up some five years ago. And since then, there has been little else in this segment. Until now, that is. Enter the Invader.

In the last few months, we’ve seen a raft of high priced foreign SUVs come into the Indian market. This brigade of Pajeros, Vitaras, Foresters and MLs are not only very refined, they also certainly have what it takes to chomp mud for lunch. Only, they are terribly expensive. The Invader is different – it’s the everyday, cheap-n-cheerful 4x4 which the average salaried-class Indian can buy and take for a romp on the beach or the mountains or wherever catches his fancy. And the ingredients are made to match. Styling is boxy, vaguely Jeep Wrangler-ish and definitely Bolero-derived. Though the wheelbase is a full eight inches shorter than the Bolero’s, we think the wheelbase (and hence overall vehicle length) could’ve been shorter still. Rear overhang seems more than what would be appropriate on a 4x4 with sporting aspirations, and from some angles, the Invader manages to look like one of Mahindra’s own single-cab/crew cab pick-ups. 

Part of the reason why the Invader doesn’t look sporty enough could also be that the vehicle seems too tall – shorter dimensions would have certainly looked better. Tyres are suitably meaty 215/75 Bridgestone Dueler H/Ts, but the Invader’s 15-inch wheels (alloys are optional) look a mite smallish for the car’s overall stance. There’s still hope though. Taking the Invader’s nylon top off helps – the car definitely looks better without it, and the process is only a five-minute job. Just undo the dozen or so velcro straps inside the cabin, slide the top out of the metal liner that holds it in place, and there you are! Putting it back in place will be more difficult (I haven’t tried yet), but things would probably be okay with some practice.

If the Invader’s styling does not break new ground, the choice of engines follows suit. The Invader GLX gets a familiar Peugeot-derived Mahindra workhorse, the XD-3PH IDI diesel. This slow-revving, low-stressed 2498 CC mill produces a leisurely 72.5 horsepower at 4000 revs. This, given the Invader’s 2,300 kilo (gross vehicle weight) heft, is only sufficient to let the car lope along at a relaxed pace. During testing, the car only did an indicated 119 kph and while it was at it, complained audibly (and rather loudly at that) at being subjected to such indiscretion. Frankly, the Invader feels slow and sluggish at all times, and NVH levels go up dramatically as you get into triple-digit speed zone, so if you want to hold a conversation with your passenger, it’s best to trundle along at a relaxed pace in the Invader. For those who would rather buy a more rough-and-ready machine, there’s also the Invader DI, which is fitted with Mahindra’s own MDI 3200 direct-injection diesel engine. That 2523 CC engine only manages to churn out 58 horsepower at 3200 rpm, so let’s not even think about how that would perform, but some people I spoke to at M&M tell me that the Invader DI is actually outselling the GLX by far! Personally, I find that very surprising, but then the consumer is king. 

Fair enough, speed is not the Invader’s forte, but the torquey XD3PH IDI is well-suited to chugging along in traffic, or indeed, chugging up rocky, muddy inclines over broken terrain. I happened to take a 2WD Invader GLX to a remote resort situated near the Jungarli dam in Lonavala, near Mumbai. For this, I had to go over some pretty badly-broken, boulder-strewn,narrow mountain ridges over the Pangoli Hills, and the car never complained. The 2WD Invader’s suspension – leaf springs at the back and independent coil springs at front – handled a profusion of deeply corrugated ridges quite well, and the ride was not as stiff and bouncy as the Gypsy. What is disappointing is that the 4x4 Invader, which is where the real action is, does not get coil springs at the front and has to make do with old-fashioned leaf-springs.

Still, the 4x4 Invader is quite capable off-road, and does not shy away from large doses of mountain-bashing. Select 4L (the 4WD Invader has a traditional short, stubby 4x4 transfer lever which is marked 4H, 2H, N and 4L) and the Invader crawls up inclines that you would have trouble climbing on foot. On tricky terrain, the car slithers around in a fashion that’s mildly alarming, but all you have to do is keep your faith pinned to the Invader’s abilities, and more often that not, it will get you up there. 

One thing though – I still missed the inimitable CJ 340, a veritable mountain goat if ever there was one. But I suppose we all have to move on... 

On the road, the Invader struggles somewhat. With power-assistance (only on our 2WD test car), low-speed steering is effortless, but at higher speeds, the steering is vague and the wheel just doesn’t transmit enough information about what’s happening between tarmac and rubber. While testing, we tried some high speed lane-changes and the results were less than satisfactory, with the car bobbing around, losing composure and the steering requiring major arm-twirling corrections. Some amount of increased steering feel and precision certainly wouldn’t go amiss. The Invader’s on-road behaviour was notably better in 4WD mode, though our test car (the 4x4 Invader did not have power steering) did not want to take low-speed U-turns in that mode – the steering would kick back viciously and tyres would grate and squeal. Conclusion? You’re best off using 4H mode either on the highway or when taking the Invader off-road, coming back to 2H in the city.

The Invader’s brakes – discs at front and drums at rear – do haul it up in time, but the pedal goes down a long way before things really start happening. The car slewed slightly sideways when I tried mashing the brake pedal from 80 kph. Nothing very dramatic, but the whole thing is not very confidence-inspiring. Panic-braking from high speeds could easily catch out the unwary – especially in wet weather conditions. More progressive pedal modulation and better feel would really help.

Officially, the car is a 2(front)+6(rear) seater, but 2+4 is more like it if you ask me. The front bucket seats are not at all comfortable, and do not invite long-distance driving. Traditional bench seats at the back are as comfortable (or not) as they’ve been on various Jeep-clones for the last two decades. Instead of these benches, I wish M&M had given us the option of two bucket seats at the back, and 6-seater capacity be damned. This is supposed to be a sport-ute, isn’t it? I am also cribbing about the quality of the long-throw gearshift, which is rather rubbery and imprecise. And finally, the facia looks cheap and dated. 

Bad-quality plastics, a plethora of blanked-out switches, bare-basic instrumentation and inconsistent fit and finish just add to the Invader’s woes. Surely, M&M must have learnt a lot during the development process of their Scorpio – couldn’t that learning be applied on the Invader? 

As you can probably make out by now, all is not well with the Invader. But is there a flip side to the coin? Let’s see now. In Mumbai, you can take the Invader home for around Rs 4,25,000 (for the base 2WD version) to Rs 4,60,000 (for the 4WD version). For the money, you get a car that will tackle all the bad road you can throw at it, return about 8 to 8.5 kpl, accommodate six people (okay, eight, if you insist) and their luggage, lets you take its top off when you are in the mood for some cabrio-style motoring, can be worked on in any remote corner of the country and is as rugged as they come. These things do make it something of a unique prospect, but for now, the Invader simply needs more work, more powerful engines and more refinement. If your heart is really set on acquiring a poverty-spec go-anywhere 4WD workhorse, test drive the Invader GLX and see if it’s for you. For the rest of us, let’s just hope M&M put those Scorpio thinking hats on again, and has another go at refining the Invader – the car deserves it.