JOHANNESBURG - Mahindra has made a name for itself by creating rugged vehicles of the kind you’d want for the trials and tribulations of farm life. Fittingly, agricultural is a word that comes to mind when describing the road manners of some of the earlier Mahindras.

But the times are a changin’ as Bob Dylan famously sang half a century ago, and the Indian brand has been gradually gravitating towards more refined and passenger-centric options. Vehicles like the XUV500 and KUV100 have been instrumental in this journey, but in my opinion, the XUV300 is the real turning point for Mahindra.

Granted, it still has a few niggles, as we’ll get to shortly, but in terms of its overall look and feel, this is a product that truly elevates the brand. 

The front-wheel-driven XUV300 is based on the Ssangyong Tivoli, thanks to the fact that Mahindra now owns the South Korean SUV specialist, but the Indian designers have put their own unique stamp on the styling, and it’s one that works very well in my book. Its lines are crisp and it’s got curves and creases in all the right places, but it’s not over-the-top or trying too hard to be different, it’s just easy on the eye.

The cabin feels light and airy, and the overall ambience is somewhat more upmarket than in any Mahindra that we’ve experienced until now. Sure, the plastics are still hard and I wouldn’t go as far as calling the cabin premium, but it’s certainly decent by compact SUV standards. My only concern is the beige synthetic leather seats in the W8 flagship model that we had on test - they’re probably going to get dirty quite quickly if you’re not careful and there doesn’t appear to be an alternative colour, although the W6 base model does at least come with black cloth seats, which is a better bet in this kind of vehicle. 

While Mahindra’s designers have done a good job with the aesthetics, the packaging is a bit compromised in my opinion - and this is largely because Mahindra couldn’t resist creeping below India’s lower tax threshold for vehicles that measure less than four metres in length. The result is a 3.99 metre long SUV that has a spacious interior with reasonably abundant legroom for rear occupants, but because it’s been cut off at the back for tax purposes, there isn’t really much of a boot.

When I first opened the XUV300’s tailgate I was disappointed by how small and shallow the boot area was, however, upon further inspection I discovered that it is in fact a split-level boot in which the foldable floor panel had been set on the higher level. I then slotted the floor panel into its lower position, and suddenly the boot had some depth to it. What I did find a little annoying, though, is that the parcel shelf is not strung to the tailgate. On the upside, Mahindra has managed to fit a full-sized spare wheel (albeit steel rather than alloy) below the lower boot level.

On the mechanical front, Mahindra can be commended for offering a choice between diesel and petrol power, both units turbocharged. The petrol option is a 1.2-litre unit that produces 81kW and 200Nm, but our test car was fitted with Mahindra’s 1.5-litre diesel motor, which is good for 85.8kW and 300Nm, the latter produced between 1500 and 2500rpm. Both engines are paired with a six-speed manual gearbox.

The 1.5-litre diesel is a fairly noisy engine, particularly on start-up, but this wouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker for me, or for anyone who enjoys diesel engines for that matter, as it does deliver decent performance, and it is suitably refined when you reach cruising altitude on the highway. In terms of economy, our car averaged 7.0 litres per 100km in an urban-heavy mixture of driving conditions.

The XUV300 also rides comfortably, and there’s little to fault the road holding. 

When speaking of the driving experience, there are a few ergonomic quirks worth mentioning however. Firstly the footwell is cramped, and the lower dashboard protrudes further than it should, which can make your legs feel a bit claustrophobic. 

There’s also an irritating voice prompt that says “please select the parking mode if you need assistance” every single time you put the vehicle into reverse, and muting it on the touchscreen only shuts it up until the next time you start the vehicle. I eventually got fed up and did some menu digging on the screen, and I found that it can be permanently deactivated by selecting ‘Car Information’ and then ‘Rev Cam’, where you’ll find an off button for the voice guidance. You’re welcome.

This 17.8cm touchscreen infotainment system is fitted to both the W6 and W8 models, although the former makes do without Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, while also forgoing the navigation and reverse camera. For the record, the W6 base model comes with manual air conditioning, central locking, electric windows and mirrors, adjustable-strength power steering, dual front airbags and ABS brakes. 

The W6 has got all the basics, then, but there's nothing extravagant. For that, you’ll want to stretch to the W8 flagship, which adds dual-zone climate control, an electric sunroof, cruise control, voice control, a leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel, start-stop button, auto headlights, ESP stability control as well as side, curtain and driver’s knee airbags.

The W8 also trades the base model’s 16-inch steel wheels for a set of two-tone 17-inch alloys.

VERDICT

The Mahindra XUV300 has its fair share of quirks, but none of them are deal-breakers in my book. Sure, if you want a big boot then you might want to look elsewhere, but if style and luxury are your priorities then the XUV300 W8 models (which cost R304 999 in petrol guise and R324 999 as a diesel) actually offer a lot for the money. And if you’re happy sticking to the basics, the W6 versions make a good case for themselves too, starting at R249 999.

IOL Motoring