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Car reviews - Mahindra - XUV500 - range

Our Opinion

We like
Comfortable seats, spacious second-row seating, excellent economy, light gearshift, reverse sensors, cool box, equipment level
Room for improvement
Build quality, reliability issues, cheap interior plastics, interior style, crashing suspension, no auto transmission, harsh idle-stop

18 Jun 2012

VEHICLE production has moved around the world over the last half century and the rate of development in new regions has become more rapid as developing nations learn the lessons of the past more quickly, thanks to faster communication and closer collaborations with more mature manufacturers.

We’ve seen how the Japanese took decades to reach global standards, while South Korea and Thailand have fast-tracked their way to the top, and now we watch with interest how China is responding and developing almost in fast motion to become a global powerhouse.

Then there is India, which is quickly grabbing its slice of the massive worldwide automotive cake and clearly has aspirations beyond its current infancy, fed by its enormous domestic market and volume potential.

India is already the sixth-largest car market in the world, now growing even faster than China, and last year the country exported more vehicles than Thailand for the first time, so there is no doubting its size and importance.

One of the biggest players in the Indian automotive industry is Mahindra – whose diverse parent company Mahindra & Mahindra is one of the 200 biggest corporations in the world – and it has firm ambitions to expand quickly into the global passenger vehicle market, having concentrated for the past half century on tractors and commercial vehicles.

The company established itself in Australia only seven years ago when it started assembling tractors in Brisbane and in 2007 introduced the Pik Up ute here, which gained infamy for its poor crash test results rather than its modest sales.

Now Mahindra Automotive Australia is getting serious with the introduction of its first serious passenger vehicle, the XUV500 seven-seat SUV, which is built with monocoque construction rather than a truck-like ladder-frame chassis.

And the company has not taken short-cuts, electing to design, engineer and develop the vehicle entirely in India rather than jumping into bed with an established western car-maker and producing a localised version of a proven vehicle. Given the resources behind the venture, it’s not quite the gamble it might have been elsewhere, but is nevertheless a gutsy effort for a developing industry.

The big question is, of course, is it any good? After our first drive on local roads – the rough and potholed ones around Cessnock in the Hunter Valley, which frankly cannot be much better than those in India – it was not difficult to come to the unfortunate conclusion that it’s not.

First impressions are generally the strongest, and usually the best, and within 15 minutes of riding in the passenger seat of the XUV500 we were surrounded by at least three annoying squeaks and rattles, the suspension was clearly not coping with the rough surfaces, and there were lots of knocking noises and jolts coming from the suspension and steering.

Then, the faint whine of the engine turbocharger turned into a squeal that sometimes even drowned out the rattles. It sounded to us like a failing turbo bearing and, while Mahindra has not advised the results of the inevitable post-mortem, it hardly matters – the bottom line is that the vehicle failed on its first test when prepared for a media launch.

If nothing else, this provided clear evidence – along with the squeaks and rattles – to support the suspicion that Indian build quality is unlikely to yet be in the same league as the Koreans and Thais. It is going to take time for all these issues to be experienced, understood and rectified, and every buyer looking to save a few thousand dollars needs to go in with their eyes wide open. You pay your money, you make your choice.

And we had recognised all this even before taking our turn at the wheel, having shared the drive with GoAuto contributor James Stanford, who was already feeling bad about having been largely positive about the XUV500 after driving it last month in India. Our test car, he thought, did not feel or sound the same, though it exhibited the same steering-rack rattle on a mid-corner bump.

Having established that the engine problem was not terminal, we pressed on and my turn at the wheel only confirmed my feelings from the passenger seat – the suspension was no match for our (particularly) rough roads. We admired Mahindra’s choice of drive route for its bravery, but wondered if they realised it would show up the vehicle in a bad light.

The XUV500 simply crashed through sharp road irregularities, sending sharp jolts through the body, and the suspension joints and steering arms felt as thought they were not firmly connected or the bushes were not sufficiently compliant. It was certainly not through overly hard damping because the ride was perhaps on the soft side, slightly floaty but generally comfortable. Yes, a suspension that manages to be soft yet harsh.

On a more positive note, the steering feel gave no cause for complaints in normal driving conditions, being suitably light around town while providing weight at speed but not the deadness found in most modern electric steering systems.

And, while Mahindra will pay dearly in the showroom from not having an automatic available, the six-speed manual gearbox and clutch proved to be smooth and light, though hardly crisp and precise.

The 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine may have lost some of its edge as a result of the turbo problem so we are reluctant to pass judgement, but we suspect it is up to the task in terms of performance and, despite a little more diesel rattle than most of its rivals (before the problem arose), seemed to be acceptable.

Judging by the official combined fuel consumption figures – only 6.7L/100km for the front-drive model and 7.2L/100km for the AWD, making it unbelievably more economical than the similar-sized Holden Captiva 7 at 8.5L/100km – it seems to excel in the fuel-miser stakes.

While the interior scores points for space – there’s heaps of legroom in the second row and even the third row, with its own vents, is habitable by adults for short trips – and comfortable seats, it is hardly a nice place to be.

Occupants are faced with a vast sea of hard, cheap-looking plastic, much of it grey and moulded with a nasty streaked texture, but even worse are the ‘highlights’ designed to look like woodgrain but coming off as simply gloss plastic in an awful shade of brown.

Unfortunately, this brown tone is matched with the two-tone steering wheel and leather seats.

The information screen looks crisp and useful, but the instrument pods in front of the driver seem to point in the wrong directions, the handbrake is oddly angled and the heating vents look like sets of cookie-cutters.

There was no sense of build quality, with the top of the glovebox – which is thoughtfully designed to hold a laptop computer – being badly ill-fitting, rising from flush to 2mm too high, and knobs like the lumbar adjuster giving the impression they could fail at any time.

India will one day surprise us with a vehicle that really makes the developed nations sit up and take notice. This is not that vehicle.

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