Mahindra XUV500: from awesome to average in one test drive.

In-your-face honeycomb grille: loud with loads of attitude
(Vehicles are made for actual customers. This review is based not on a test track drive with perfectly tuned vehicles; but on an actual test drive at a dealer. It does not go into the depth of technical specifications and features - for that you have websites and catalogues to refer to. This is more a journey into my mind when I was immersed with the Mahindra XUV500 over a weekend.) 

21 November 2011: At first glance, it's jaw dropping. As it zips past, you can't help but admire its awesome road presence, muscular stance and impressive styling. A few years back it was unimaginable to think that an Indian manufacturer known for its tractors and rugged SUVs could build a vehicle this impressive. Put it on the road anywhere in the world, and it is guaranteed to get a second glance.

The XUV500 has been launched in India between Rs.10.8 lacs to Rs.12.8 lacs (ex-showroom Delhi). That's roughly $21,000 to $25,000. Compare this with the US, where you get a Mitsubishi Outlander for $18,000, a Volkswagen Tiguan for $22,000 and a Ford Explorer for $28,000. Shell out some more, and you get an Audi Q5 for $ 35,000.

A quick comparison will tell you that the XUV500 is a couple of notches below the other cars mentioned, as far as tech specs are concerned. But priced in between. Why? One might argue that's the US market and this is India, and tax structures vary. I don't understand. Aren't we living in a global economy where products are competing across markets? And for a country that prides itself for cheap input costs, labour, and is a global auto hub, shouldn't we be better placed to offset the tax differential and challenge the prevailing price norms, which are so anti-consumer.

On that note, let me share my thoughts on the vehicle which has wowed the industry and consumer alike (me included!). Of all the vehicles launched in 2011, the Mahindra XUV500 clearly stands out. It created a buzz in the auto world the moment its pictures were leaked online, and ever since everyone has been all praise for this handsome SUV. Sorry XUV.

Built on the monocoque technology similar to most modern SUV’s around the world; the vehicle has a better power to weight ratio, and a stable ride and performance. The front has a very in-your-face look, and that is no way bad. The honeycomb front with the snarling grille can however look messy to some. The LED lights at the bottom of the headlamp cluster look good from a distance, but when you look closer, they could have been a tad smaller and closely knit. This would have given a more seamless glow and blended well with the overall design flow.

The rear is a neat piece of design and I specially like the wrap around tail lamps. The insignia on the lamps are also a nice touch. Overall, the vehicle has an aggressive stance, and the hugely flared wheel arches with the 17" alloy wheels add to that muscled up look. The side profile is inspired by a 'leaping cat', but frankly I didn't really see the connect. Nevertheless, a brilliant design, which feels even better when you know it's all Made in India!

We walked in to the dealer for a test drive, and tragedy descended. The smiling receptionist told us that the test drive vehicle was not available. No fuel, you see. And tyre pressure also needs to be checked. And we are short of staff. So it cannot happen today. This on a Sunday afternoon, after we called and confirmed. And aren't dealerships meant to be geared up for the weekends when most families find time to do such things? Anyway, I had to meet the Manager and introduced myself (and it worked!) - he got into the act and miraculously the vehicle arrived and the test drive was arranged.

Customer Service Rating: 4/10.

Swiss knife inspired ignition key
The flip key of the XUV500 is impressive; more like a swiss knife. The vehicle from up close reveals a few flaws when you look through the sheen of brilliance. Maybe my expectations were too high from what I saw on the road and all the brilliant reviews I read, but clearly the interiors failed to match up to all the hype. It was like opening a brilliantly wrapped birthday gift, only to be disappointed by a recycled gift inside.

The panel fit, trims, the flimsy grip of the door handles did not give a good feeling. Although the vertical door handles look different, they were not the most practical. And how I missed the reassuring clunk when the door closes! How do the German cars perfect it? This just didn't have adequate finesse and at best felt like a step-up Scorpio. Remember, at Rs.15.0 lacs+ (Delhi on road) for the top model, I am not being too demanding to expect a bit of luxurious indulgence.

Impressive instrument panel
There are a few good things going for the XUV though. For someone who wants a feature rich vehicle, the XUV provides almost everything. But someone who is fickle about quality is certain to raise some questions. The center console with the 6" LCD touchscreen infotainment system is nicely placed and all buttons are within easy reach. However, the array of buttons can get a bit daunting and needs getting used to. The infotainment system feels like a quaint Atari game with poor resolution when compared to LED and super amoled screens on smart phones and tablets these days. The software and graphics look dated. The touchscreen responsiveness is average - feels like operating an ATM machine and not an iPad. There is a GPS navigation system and Driver Information system that warns and assists when required. All good, but again softwares do feel dated. The instrument panel is bright and impressive and throws up some useful information.

A very busy central console
The quality of plastic, fit and finish is average to good. Not WOW. The dual tone is dull and not the most innovative combination. It may look good in a super car, but not here. The deep tones actually make the interiors look smaller. The seats felt a little hard and stiff and were not the most comfortable when compared to other similarly priced sedans. Driving position was good and the perfectly sized steering wheel had a good grip and was responsive; giving a commanding, in-control feel (that's what Dad said). But the gearshift at the lower levels were not very smooth. This I have heard is a problem with the Mahindra Scorpio as well. The cabin isn't exactly noisy but could have been better insulated.

6" LCD touchscreen infotainment system 
The XUV500 is a full size 7-seater, so space for a weekend getaway is not a problem. But I still don't think I can get my bike in at the back. The middle row is spacious and there is plenty of storage all around. The chiller is huge and nicely placed within reach for both the front and middle row.

The back row seating is an excuse and meant only for kids below 10 or pets. Difficult to get in, and certainly not a great place to be in. Anyone with a mind of their own would refuse to sit in there. The view is restricted due to the high middle row seating and that makes it quite suffocating in fact. Individual AC vents are of little comfort. Anyone buying the XUV500 should therefore be mentally prepared that this is a 5-seater with lots of luggage space, which can transport seven people over short distances, if required.

The XUV500 does offer some standout features that include touchscreen navigation with voice commands, bluetooth compatibility, climate control, leather seats, individual AC vents for each row, rain & light sensors, and power ORVMs that fold automatically. What I didn't like was the mood lighting which is such a tacky red LED, that one would be embarrassed to use it. A sunroof is also sorely missed.

Safety features include 6 airbags, ABS, ESP and hill descent control. The 2.2 mHawk engine is the same as the Scorpio, but here it makes more power at 140bhp. Torque is rated at 330NM and the engine has enough grunt to catapult the car forward. The 6 speed gearbox is neat and can make a significant difference on highways.

Many would say the XUV500 scores on its aggressive pricing, relative to other vehicles in the Indian market. I may be in a minority, but give it a thought – is this the benchmark pricing we have come to accept in India? Are we getting too used to high prices without really pondering deeper over what we are getting in return?

The on road (Delhi) price ranges from Rs.12.5 lacs for the base model to Rs.15.0 lacs for the top end 4WD variant. The W8 FWD model, which I tested is priced at Rs.13.5 lacs. A vehicle with comparative specs in the US would be atleast 30% cheaper.

If you compare the XUV500 with its segment competitor Tata Aria, it may have a clear head-to-head advantage. But I think segments are created by manufacturers. Consumers like us make much wider choices. What else could I do, if I didn't buy the XUV500? Go on a world trip maybe, and still save a lot of money? Save for education? And if I have to buy a vehicle, why not the Volkswagen Jetta or Chevrolet Cruze? Or better still, why not buy two - a Volkswagen Polo and a Verna within the same price.

So the question is, does the XUV500 give me a compelling reason to own it? Before the test drive, it did. But now, maybe not. Coz it tries too hard to do everything, does everything, but doesn't do it all perfectly.

Final Verdict: An awesome vehicle to envy, but an average one to own.

Vehicle Rating: 7/10.
Mahindra XUV500: from awesome to average in one test drive. Mahindra XUV500: from awesome to average in one test drive. Reviewed by raghav sarma on Monday, November 21, 2011 Rating: 5
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