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Female touch for Indian SUV

Feline by design: A crouching cheetah was the design inspiration for the Mahindra XUV500, with raised wheelarches resembling the big cat's haunches.

Mahindra’s newest model may be a big SUV, but it was designed by a woman

18 Jun 2012

THE only female design chief in the world was responsible for creating the cheetah-inspired styling of the vital new Mahindra XUV500.

Ramkripa Ananthan is a petite 40-year-old petrolhead who heads the 20-strong design team responsible for designing the distinctive SUV entirely in Mumbai.

It was designed just before the company moved into its new Mahindra Research Valley R&D complex – constructed on 125 acres of land and at a cost of $US130 million – which company executive Ruzbeh Irani told us last week was “essential to develop global products”.

Before commissioning the new SUV, Mahindra surveyed 1500 customers in India, Italy, Spain, South Africa and Australia to learn what they wanted from such a vehicle, and came up with “style, power and toughness”.

Ms Ananthan and her team created nine concepts before the company’s board selected the winning theme, which was drawn by team member Sridhar Mahadevan.

“During the initial stages of design, almost the entire team was involved,” Ms Ananthan told Indian design magazine Pool in a recent cover story.

“Then, on the basis of best fit to the brief, we chose one design. For the exterior, we had this powerful side view, distinct and evocative, which was inspired from a crouching cheetah.

46 center imageFrom top: Mahindra design chief Ramkripa Ananthan a sketch of the XUV500 SUV.

“This really touched a chord in our team and we felt it would evoke a similar response in the customer.

“We went that extra distance and actually made a trip to Kenya to get a feel for the cheetah’s habitat and that influenced the design.

“The interiors had to match this external exuberance and go that extra mile towards delivering luxurious comfort and global standards. We chose the design that was truly edgy, with concept car-like floating vents and cluster pods, integral flowing console, taut form with contemporary detail and getting into details like font design and graphics for touchscreen display.”

The most obvious external design links to the cheetah are the raised rear wheelarches, which are like the big cat’s haunches.

Other cheetah elements are the grille, the bars of which are meant to be whiskers but perhaps look more like bared teeth, and the unusual door-handles that are styled like cat’s paws.

Inside, the centre console was designed to flow from outside to in “like the central nervous system of a beast”.

‘Kripa’ Ananthan joined Mahindra & Mahindra as an interior designer in 1997 after graduating in mechanical engineering and then completing a post-graduate degree in industrial design.

“Once I decided to study design, I was drawn to cars,” she said. “Car design seems to have that aura. Maybe it is the challenge of designing very complex forms.”

At Mahindra, she worked on designing the interiors of the company’s popular Bolero, Scorpio (sold in Australia as the Pik Up) and Xylo light commercial vehicles before becoming head of design and leading the XUV500 program.

She was well qualified for the task, not only because of her engineering and design degrees, but because she is an outdoors type who rides a motorcycle, cycles long distances and has run a half marathon.

Before tackling this project, Ms Ananthan spent three months in late 2006 at the famed Royal College of Arts in London, which she said gave her the confidence to take on the responsibility of designing an entire global vehicle in-house.

“My tutor would take me to the Tate Modern or National Art Gallery and talk to me about balance and proportions in the various exhibits, then we would discuss the same principles in cars.

“Along with some grounding in the basics of car design, I think it gave me confidence.

“Another memorable moment was the first scale model of the XUV500 that was milled on our new five-axis CNC machine – seeing the form evolve out of a block of wood was quite magical.

“Telling a design story is difficult – it’s a short rush of creativity and a long hard road to realisation.

“From drawing board to road is a long, long journey, and to keep the sometimes fickle designers motivated during the course of four years is an uphill task.”

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