Not for the faint-hearted

Everyone in the automobile sector wants a slice of the SUV pie, whether it is for urban or off-road use. With many me-too vehicles labelling themselves as SUVs, how does one know which machine is a real all-terrain vehicle? Some of the answers were clear after a harrowing drive in Force Motors' new Gurkha.

"Keep accelerating gradually and don't worry about the ditches," intoned the Force instructor. If you saw the raw, rocky track, with ditches and hillocks, you wouldn't be too optimistic about the Gurkha successfully crawling its way out of the specially created track, designed to show the Gurkha's capabilities. At the end of the ride, the Gurkha had muscled its way through without much fuss. One way in which we achieved the near miracle was by activating the rear differential, which channelised the full torque to the wheel, which in turn improved traction.

Driving on a terrain reminiscent of bombed-out Iraq, I did manage to bottom the floor. But I was quickly reassured that there was nothing to worry - all the important areas of the vehicle, like the engine, fuel tank and shaft joints, were well protected by a shield to prevent under-carriage damage. Before I could even take a breather, the next obstacle loomed up: a 40-degree incline. This was turning out to be more like a rollercoaster ride. I gently stepped on the accelerator and the machine started climbing. You have to be in the driver's seat to realise how sturdy and well-balanced the Gurkha felt. All you had to do was keep the steering straight and the brake pedal depressed. The brakes are slightly spongy, so don't feel shy to put some weight on the pedal. The Gurkha also comes with a crawler feature to help with climbing steeper inclines. Just select 4-low gear and let go of the gas pedal and the SUV clambers up on its own.

The independent front suspension and the rear leaf springs make sure that the ride quality is not compromised on challenging terrains. On tarmac, it does tend to wallow but not enough to make the ride uncomfortable. The Gurkha is powered by a 2.6-litre TD2650 Mercedes-Benz OM616 diesel engine. The vehicle does not use the common-rail diesel technology, so it lacks punch with a mere 81 BHP. But then, it more than makes up with a massive 230 Nm torque pulling power.

The Gurkha would be at home in a Mr Universe contest, and might even win a medal. But put it in the Miss Universe pageant, and it would look gawky, gauche and grungy. Force Motors insists that it wanted the interiors simple, functional and comfortable. It has scored on all these points, but did the Gurkha have to look so bare-basic? Actually yes, the company executives said, else its price would have escalated by a minimum of Rs 2 lakh. The idea behind the Gurkha is to make it the most capable off-roader and only the third car for someone looking to have some serious fun. The quality of the plastic fittings does take you back to the early 1990s; there are also gaping panel gaps. Though it comes with power steering, it could have been more responsive. Shifting gears is also an effort, but look at the bright side - you can develop your biceps. The gear shift can be counter-intuitive as I found when I often ended up slotting it in the wrong gear.

Many people may not know this but the Gurkha has been around since 2008. It was and still is based on one of the most formidable SUVs in the world - the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon. From 2008 till 2010, only 40 of these super SUVs were sold in India, the rest were exported. But in time many people took up off-roading as a serious sport and the demand sent Force Motors to the drawing board, where it came up with a new and improved Gurkha. Force calls it an EOV (Extreme Off-road Vehicle) 4x4x4. The string of 4s means the Gurkha has the four-wheel drive capability, is drivable in all four seasons (well, snow and ice, if you are wondering what season requires special capacities) and four kinds of terrain.

The manner in which the Gurkha calmly countered all obstacles thrown at it - stones, water, mud, depressions, inclines - will make you a firm believer of its skills. It also comes with impressive and standard off-roading equipment like the snorkel exhaust to ensure clean-air intake and high water-wading ability of up to 550 mm, the mechanical differential locks for the front and rear axles, low gear ratio and imposing all-terrain tyres mounted on macho alloy wheels.

The Gurkha may look boxy and comes across as a poor man's G-Wagon but as a serious off-roader, its vigour is unmatched in India. What makes it a great catch is the attractive pricing. The top-of-the-line 4x4 hard top comes for Rs 8.5 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), while the soft top 4x4 costs Rs 8.35 lakh. For those who just want to show off the rugged looks of the Gurkha in their driveway, there is the third option - the soft top 4x2, for Rs 6.25 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi). Whichever variant you buy, keep in mind that this vehicle is made for wild drives, not for the relative tameness of urban roads.
FORCE GURKHA
Engine: TD 2650 FTI BS-III Turbo (diesel)
Engine displacement: 2596 cc
Max. power: 81bhp@3200rpm
Max. torque: 230Nm@1800rpm
Price: Rs 6.25 lakh - Rs 8.5 lakh
(Ex-showroom, Delhi)