Mahindra's all-new flagship, the XUV5OO, is a serious attempt at developing a global product with a local appeal

Think local, go global. The XUV500 (pronounced ‘five double-oh') which is Mahindra & Mahindra's (M&M) most ambitious SUV since the hugely successful Scorpio, embodies this thinking. This model is a quantum leap forward by the home-grown auto major

Mahindra's XUV500 is a hugely ambitious product for the Indian carmaker. The SUV has been designed and developed completely in-house and is M&M's first serious attempt at developing a global product that would be as much at home in Melbourne as in Mumbai.

The XUV platform, which will spawn a range of products in the future, is also a leap into unfamiliar territory for M&M. For the first time in its 60-plus-year history, the automaker has moved out of its comfort zone of body-on-frame vehicles (like the Scorpio, Xylo and Bolero) to develop a far more sophisticated monocoque construction, front-wheel drive and transverse engine for its new SUV.

With the base front-wheel-drive model priced at Rs. 10.8 lakh and the sole AWD model costing Rs. 12.6 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), M&M has clearly scored big on the price front to get off to a brilliant start.

There's no doubt the XUV500 turns heads. It's got a muscular stance, strong road presence and looks every bit a proper SUV. A shade longer and slightly taller than the Honda CR-V, the XUV distributes its mass rather well, and the overall proportions are pretty good.

Daytime-running LEDs are part of the standard kit and look terrific. We especially like the rising window line and the blacked-out B-, C- and D-pillars which give the XUV500 a very modern look. However, we feel Mahindra designers went overboard with the detailing.

While the styling may be too enthusiastic for mature global markets where a ‘less is more' design approach often works better, in India, where owners want to flaunt their SUVs, the XUV500 seems to do the job.

The XUV comes equipped with MacPherson struts up-front and a luxury car-like multi-link rear suspension. Interestingly, the seven-seater does without a load-bearing dead axle at the rear, which would have been a simpler and maintenance-friendly system.

A soft-roader in essence, the XUV does not come with hardcore 4x4 kit like a low-range transfer case. However, you do get hill-descent control and hill hold on top-end variants and a differential lock on the AWD model for limited off-road use. What is truly impressive is the manner in which M&M has packaged all the mechanicals to achieve a flat floor, to make good use of passenger room. In terms of safety, the XUV is generously equipped, with dual airbags standard across the range with the top models additionally featuring ESP, rollover mitigation (essential in the U.S. market) and curtain airbags.

Loaded cabin

The cabin makes serious efforts to pamper you. To say the XUV500 is well-equipped is an understatement, but the interior is anything but understated. The instrument cluster, with chrome-ringed dials and circular centres, looks great. These circular pods carry information such as engine temperature, trip/odometer and gear selection, and the way the speedo and tacho needles do a full sports car-like sweep when you switch on the ignition is a neat touch. But the instruments are not that easy to read.

Other nice bits include smart, high-quality air-con vents that work well to direct air flow, the chunky steering that's quite nice to hold, and the air-con and audio system dials on the centre console feel high quality. However, that can't be said about the other buttons on the centre console, which feel like Scrabble tiles, and the wood finish looks tacky too.

The front seats come with generous bolstering and adjustable lumbar support and are incredibly supportive, almost overly so. The cushioning is on the firm side and making the seats a touch softer would have done wonders for comfort. Middle-row passengers will simply love the space on offer. There is enough legroom for six-footers to stretch out, even with the front seat pushed back. The seats themselves are very generously cushioned and the flat floor makes this SUV one of the best for travelling three abreast.

Third-row passengers don't have it as good though. Leg- and knee room are severely limited right at the back and headroom is quite tight too. But what makes it particularly uncomfortable is the near-vertical backrest, which makes you sit bolt upright like an army cadet. Also inconvenient is the fact that you can only access the third row from the left side.

With all seats in place, there's practically no luggage space — just a sliver that's good enough for a couple of laptop bags. However, the last and middle rows do split and fold flat to convert the XUV into a serious load-lugger and the relatively low floor makes loading easy. The biggest plus point of the XUV is its phenomenal list of features, which makes SUVs twice its price feel underequipped. The W8 variants get a colour touch-screen that has a garish red background and a fiddly-to-use interface (the tabs and fonts are too small for large fingers). It displays GPS data, radio and AUX/USB settings and also doubles up as a DVD player. All models feature steering-mounted controls for the audio system, rain-sensing wipers, light-sensing headlights, parking sensors and even cruise control. It just doesn't get more loaded than this.

The XUV shares its 2.2-litre mHawk engine with the Scorpio, the key differences being the motor's transverse placement to drive the front wheels via a transaxle (another first for M&M). Power jumps from 120bhp to 140bhp, thanks to a new ‘S-vane' BorgWarner variable geometry turbocharger and a higher-pressure fuelling system. These changes have also bumped up max torque to 32.63kgm available between 1600-2800rpm.

The mHawk engine is known for its responsiveness and there is more of the same here. There is a hint of lag under 1500rpm at which point the turbo kicks in. Thereafter, there's a strong and pretty linear surge all the way to the 5000rpm redline. Driveability is very impressive too. In fact, the XUV is pretty quick by SUV standards thanks to its relatively light body. If there is a weak link to the powertrain package, it is the transmission. The box feels notchy, especially when selecting second gear, and gears are difficult to engage without an extra push. The clutch is quite heavy too and the release action pretty jerky, which makes driving in the city hard work. The XUV is a serious step forward for the company in terms of ride quality. Low-speed ride is pretty good and the XUV has a soft edge you don't always find in an SUV. Sharper bumps can rattle the XUV which crashes through potholes. However, for the better part, the XUV's ride is largely pliant.

Handling is a marked improvement over the Scorpio but it is still a work in progress for M&M, which aspires to compete with world-class monocoque SUVs. No doubt, the XUV is quite nimble and light on its feet, especially in town, and on the highway it tackles sweeping bends quite comfortably with the steering offering decent feedback.

The big problem, to the point of being a flaw, is the way the front-wheel-drive XUV500 behaves under hard acceleration. There's a fair amount of torque steer when you floor the right pedal and on a rough surface, the steering kickback can be pretty vicious. Also, the 235/65-R17 tyres squealed without too much provocation and could do with more grip.

Strong brakes

The XUV features disc brakes all around while ABS and EBD are standard across the range. What is slightly disconcerting, though, is the slightly wooden feel of the brake pedal in the first few millimetres of travel. But depress the brake pedal further down and you will realise the strong brakes are more than up to the task.

The XUV500 scores well in this crucial department, returning 10.2kpl in the city and 14.3kpl on the highway. The relatively low kerb weight, tall gearing and some clever engine tuning have made the XUV the most fuel-efficient vehicle in its class. This only adds to its affordable and down-to-earth appeal.