We all know the XUV500: a stylish, softly sprung, diesel-engined, seven-seater. The XUV has no pedigree; its platform is Mahindra’s first crack at a monocoque; it is natively front-wheel-drive; and Mahindra themselves have no rallying history save for the time Farad Bhathena won the Great Desert Himalaya Raid successively in 1988 and 1989 in a works Mahindra MM540.
And yet, at the first round of the 2013 INRC, the XUV wiped the floor clean. They got the best driver in the business — Gaurav Gill, a guy who set more fastest stage times in the APRC last year than WRC regulars Chris Atkinson and PG Andersson. Next they roped in the best tuner in the business, Leelakrishnan and his Red Rooster Performance team. And, most importantly, Mahindra Adventure kept the faith. Even when the car broke down, and when their drivers vented steam publicly, Mahindra Adventure stuck to the programme and kept the big picture in mind, all of which has now yielded results.
So how do you turn an XUV into a Super-XUV? Like any rally car, the XUV is first stripped of all non-essential bits and bobs — seats, carpets, roof lining, air-con, stereo, door pads, navigation, everything. Once stripped bare, the shell is re-welded to improve its stiffness and torsional rigidity, and the all-important roll cage is installed. The roll cage specifications laid down by the FMSCI have become increasingly strict over the past few years and this is a big improvement on the safety front. It ensures that even if the car rolls multiple times, the cage remains intact and the driver and co-driver can walk out unhurt.
The XUV has been built to T1 regulations which, unlike production-spec Group N regulations, allow plenty of modifications. One of the visible changes are the lightweight fibre doors, hatch and bonnet, all in an attempt to lighten the XUV and lower the centre of gravity. The car still weighs over two tons — the kilos taken out are more than compensated for by the weight of the extensive steel tubing of the roll cage.
The XUV runs 17-inch MRF Wanderer all-terrain tyres, which have stiffer sidewalls and a tweaked compound. But these are essentially road tyres, and the fact that the XUV can handle a rally stage is a strong endorsement of their quality. And to make it do what it does in a rally, the XUV runs Reiger suspension, among the world’s best when it comes to rally suspension, to a custom specification laid out by Red Rooster Performance. Suspension is by far the most important component of a rally car, costing as much if not more than the car itself, and all the front-running Cedias, Polos, Grand Vitaras and now the XUVs in the INRC run the distinctive magenta springs and dampers.
There are two forms of rallying: cross-country Rally Raids like the Raid-de-Himalaya and Desert Storm; and stage rallying, which is the INRC. Rally Raids require four-wheel-drive SUVs. These need to be built like tanks to take a pounding over dunes and mountains. The cabin, as you’d expect, is vast and even the roll cage snaking all over doesn’t close it in. Visibility is non-existent at the back and particularly compromised by the A-pillar. The crew sits high up, the diesel engine sounds weird to somebody accustomed to petrol rally engines, and the suspension is super-pliant for a rally setup. And then Gaurav Gill takes off and every preconceived notion goes flying out of the window. Initial acceleration is actually quite strong, accompanied by a loud whistle from the turbocharger, and with every gearshift you feel the surge in torque pinning you to the seat. The engine is standard except for a diesel tuning box, which means around 150 horsepower and the strong torque delivers a nice kick in the back. The key to harnessing the performance is to keep it in the so-called happy zone, where the turbo is on the boil, and to not over-rev the engine.
The Super-XUV actually handles pretty well. Gaurav is so relaxed behind the wheel and so economical with his actions that he makes those crazy speeds look easy.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was nervous sitting next to Gaurav. Accelerate, marvel at the smart turn of speed, brake for the corner and lock up and nearly run wide. Next corner, gentler with the brakes, turn it in and whoa, the tail snaps out. This isn’t easy. How does Gaurav do it then? For starters, he steers with the brakes and throttle. Difficult to get your head around to this: he uses left foot braking and the throttle to turn the car and his steering input is never more than half a turn. Even for a hairpin, he never uses more than half a turn of the steering, using the brakes to slide the tail out and throttle to pull the car out of the slide. Of course, this is what we all attempt to do in our rally cars, but the difference with the XUV is that all the size and mass (and consequently momentum) means you have to be super accurate with corner entry speeds and the line. All the size also means there’s no option but to swing the car around and use that swinging tail to change direction. If you don’t drive like Gaurav Gill, you can’t get the time out of the XUV. Once you know what you’re doing, a rally car is easier to drive, more forgiving, more immediate and more responsive. You can make mistakes and get away with it