Johannesburg - Think Mahindra and you’re likely to envision a range of SUVs and bakkies that are more closely related to agricultural machinery than swanky, pavement hopping suburban runabouts.
But even Mahindra is doing the urban migration thing nowadays and the XUV500, first introduced in 2011 and recently polished up to impart a more upscale vibe, is the brand’s first real crack at the modern softroader market.
With its unitary construction and independent multi-link rear suspension, it sure looks to have the modern softroader goods, on paper at least, and that thankfully hasn’t translated into exorbitant prices. Despite being a mid-sized SUV with seating for up to seven, pricing starts in Renault Duster territory, at R262 995 for the 2WD base model, and creeps into entry-level Rav4 turf if you want the fancy W8 version, which costs R339 995 in front-wheel-drive form, as tested, or R359 995 if you want all-wheel drive.
Yet after spending some time with this facelifted W8 model, it became clear that it ultimately lacks the sophistication of other modern softroaders, although the upgrades are certainly a step forward.
Most of the external changes take place at the front end, where the headlights, grille and bumper have been redesigned, giving it a cleaner and more modern appearance, although it’s also lost a bit of its rugged charm as far as I’m concerned.
DECENT, SPACIOUS CABIN
Inside the W8 model receives a dark grey and black interior treatment with silver accents as well as stylised leather seats and it’s clear that Mahindra’s interior designers have at least put some effort into making it look smart inside.
You’ll find plenty of stylish details, such as the classy vertical seat stitching pattern, chrome surrounds on the rotary switches and sporty, deep-set instrument cowls to name a few, and while there are still quite a few cheap-looking bits lurking around, and a few unsightly panel gaps on the dash, overall build quality is decent and Mahindra is certainly moving in the right direction.
It’s also keeping with the technological times, with facelifted W8 models receiving a handy and easy-to-operate 18cm touchscreen infotainment system with integrated satnav, reverse camera, voice command and Bluetooth connectivity.
The vehicle I drove did have one build quality issue, though. At times, if the tailgate was not slammed hard enough, it would fail to lock into position, but would still appear to be closed, resulting in the tailgate swinging open a few metres up the road.
Also, you don’t really have a boot unless you fold the third-row seats down, and they only fold to an almost-flat position, but at least you have ample luggage-stashing space.
When used for seating, the third row will fit two adults at a squeeze, once you’ve gone through the effort of tumbling the smallest middle row seat, but the very back row is still more suited to kids if you have long trips on the agenda.
By contrast the middle row offers loads of legroom and there’s a recline function too, but due to the ‘theatre’ style positioning, headroom will be tight for taller adults.
As for on-the-road comfort, the Mahindra’s independent suspension at all corners doesn’t translate into the smooth ride you’d expect from modern softroaders.
While the damping is soft enough to prevent it from being harsh or uncomfortable, the suspension has an almost bakkie-like crashiness in that it likes to wallow and bounce through absolutely every imperfection in the road’s surface.
The 2.2-litre turbodiesel engine is also lacking in finesse, at least relative to more modern offerings, although it does tick over rather placidly at highway speeds. Here the chassis noise is more of an issue, although it’s by no means overly intrusive and despite this SUV’s few rough edges, you’ll still be able to cover large distances rather comfortably, as I discovered on a 700km round trip.
The engine is mated to a six-speed manual ‘box and produces 103kW at 3 750rpm and 330Nm at 1 600rpm, which is enough to haul the XUV’s large body at a decent pace, provided you don’t have any real performance ambitions. Drop a cog or two and it’ll overtake reasonably quickly, but I’d stop short of calling it effortless.
The XUV500 is painless enough to live with on city streets, but there are a few things to get used to, such as the slow-witted idle-stop system, which caused two of us to stall the vehicle frequently while becoming acquainted with the vehicle, but it is something that you soon learn to live with ... or switch off. The gearbox also has a rather long throw and there is a bit of play on the steering at dead centre, but these are only minor irritations in the greater scheme of things.
It all boils down to metal for money and if you can live with this vehicle’s rough edges, it provides a great deal of family space and luxury for the money. You also get a five-year/150 000km warranty and five-year/100 000km service plan. Yet if you don’t need all that room, there are plenty of smaller five-seat softroaders waiting to give you a more refined driving experience for similar money.
MAHINDRA VS ITS RIVALS
Mahindra 2.2CRDe XUV500 W8 7-seater
103kW/330Nm, ground clearance 200mm, R339 995
GWM 2.0VGT H5 Lux 5-seater
110kW/310Nm, 180mm, R284 900
Hyundai 1.7CRDi ix35 Premium 5-seater
85kW/270Nm, 170mm, R376 900
VW 2.0TDI Tiguan Trend&Fun 5-seater
81kW/280Nm, 200mm, R436 400