ROAD TEST: Mahindra XUV500 - the Indian take-away
CASH-strapped families being romanced by the SUV phenomenon are suitors for Indian brand Mahindra and its new seven-seater.
Priced from $25,990 drive-away, the turbo petrol model sets a price benchmark for the segment that can carry a netball team.
Mahindra is using the XUV500 as the platform to launch into the hearts of budget-conscious Aussies, but it must first gain brand recognition.
There are plans to double its dealership spread from 40 to 80 by 2020, with a compact SUV to launch within 18 months - which the Indian brand forecasts will help deliver between 3000-5000 annual combined SUV sales.
The XUV500 will be joined by an updated pick-up, Scorpio large SUV and a Jeep Wrangler-style Thar off-roader within three years. About five new or updated models are scheduled to bolster the Mahindra nameplate.
"We have enough stuff in the pipeline over the next three years to expand the portfolio,” Mahindra international operations chief Arvind Mathew said.
"The aspiration...we are driven by being a recognised brand. We are not chasing numbers.
"We have been building vehicles for 70 years, so as long as we stick to our core we have dealt with competition around the world. We compete with the Chinese, with the Europeans, with everyone globally.”
For now, Mahindra is focusing on its prized seven-seater range that tops out at $32,990 drive-away for the all-wheel drive W8. The XUV500 sits between medium-size rivals like the Honda HR-V ($38,990) and Nissan X-Trail ($32,490) and large competitors including the Toyota Kluger ($44,500), Kia Sorento ($42,990), Hyundai Santa Fe ($40,990), Mazda CX-9 ($43,830) and Haval H9 ($40,990).
Helping raise the brand profile is former Australian batsman Matthew Hayden. The marque's ambassador is regularly stopped and asked: "What is that?”. While the company's research shows brand recognition is building, the hierarchy recognises a lot of work is still required.
Surprisingly swift off the line, the turbo petrol is a zesty unit.
Partnered to a six-speed automatic sourced from Japanese manufacturer Aisin, the Indian-built engine works well in tandem.
Slow steering means it doesn't have the prowess of the benchmark setters like a CX-5, and we also experienced some unsettling tugs at the wheel during mid-corner bumps and undulations.
The price-point dictates it's not perfect, but the XUV500 sits with reasonable confidence on the open road and responds well to linear acceleration, along with smooth cornering.
Boot space is large with the third row stowed, yet near nothing when they are in use. Adults will fit in the third row courtesy of reasonable leg and knee room and there is also walk-through access.
Inside, the base W6 model is basic yet functional, armed with air-con vents in all rows, a six-inch LCD screen with CD stereo featuring digital radio and four speakers, rain-sensing wipers and cruise control.
Range-topping W8 variants offer all-wheel drive, and add leather trim, electric folding rear vision mirrors, seven-inch colour screen with satnav and a reversing camera.
There are no smartphone mirroring apps, just the basic Bluetooth connectivity.
Six colours are available: white, orange, red, grey, silver and black.
Platform changes to the XUV500 are in the works, which the Mahindra hierarchy expects will deliver five-star safety ratings. For now it has only four stars based on the diesel tested in 2012. It has curtain airbags, but they don't extend into the third row.
Equipment includes rear parking sensors, anti-lock brakes and stability control, but no autonomous emergency braking.
It's hard to fault the value package. Being a Mahindra you know it's going to be tough and able to handle the rigours of family life. Compared to rivals, it's not the greatest drive, but not horrible either. The strong warranty and roadside assist is added peace of mind.
AT A GLANCE
PRICE $25,990- $32,990 drive away (cheap)
WARRANTY AND SERVICING 5yr 100,000km wty (good) service average $465.
ENGINE 2.2-litre turbo petrol 103kW/ 320Nm (torquey)
SAFETY 4 stars, 6 airbags, 3 Isofix points, reverse parking sensors (not the best)
THIRST 11 litres/100km (pretty thirsty)
SPARE Full size (excellent)
BOOT 702 litres (good), 2.5-tonne towing (one of the best in this size)