SOME people seem to think that the lifestyle of a motoring journalist is one of pure indulgence made up primarily of expensive cars and fancy hotels, not to mention aircraft boarding cards that always feature single digit numbers.
Indeed, some refer to the “the life of Wiley” when they clearly mean “the life of Riley!” Naturally, I must refute this association with an excessive lifestyle by informing any detractors that having just handed back the keys to an Audi R8 Spyder with V10 propulsion, I received a set of keys carrying the brand name Mahindra.
For the uninitiated, this brand is headquartered in Mumbai, India, and happens to be the biggest manufacturer of tractors in the world. But no, the keys were not for a tractor but for a compact Mahindra SUV carrying chrome badging proclaiming it to be a TUV300 T8.
Compact is the right descriptor as this rather upright vehicle occupies little more than 4 metres of real estate from front to back yet still contains 7 seats, two of which fold out from the sides of the luggage area where they are retained by very rudimentary straps. What caught my eye first though was the visual quality of the ivory paintwork.
Regular readers of my epistles will know that I am obsessed with paintwork, so happy to report, a fine job has been done in producing a really glossy finish with minimal orange peel on the vertical surfaces. Panel gaps too are fine with the exception of a very slightly misaligned driver’s door. Having said that, the doors don’t sound especially solid but be under no illusions that the external detailing of the Mahindra is as good as any SUV in its price range.
Alloy wheels are also on the standard menu and they carry unusually-sized tyres – 215/75R15. The deep side walls suggest that Mahindra is searching for extra pliancy or this may be the only way to defeat potholes in India ….. and Zimbabwe. More about that in a tick but I should mention that the spare is externally-mounted on the tailgate where it’s housed in a smart, moulded protective cover.
For sure the most distinctive bit of styling is found on the nose where upright gills mimic those of a Jeep. Otherwise, the rather vertical disposition of the cabin liberates quite decent lateral space inside such that three adults can squeeze onto the very flat one-piece rear seat while their counterparts in the front enjoy separate seats complete with lumbar adjustment and centre arm rests. The view out from all seats is excellent, even around the rear window which is integrated into a one-piece door that is side-hinged.
A decent quality coarse-weave beige fabric, broken up with patterned brown cloth inserts, makes up the seat covering while acres of beige plastic clads the rest of the interior. That doesn’t sound good so let me assure you that although everything except the door armrests is hard, Mahindra has endeavoured to disguise the plastic with heavy graining and an avoidance of gloss surfacing. A self-patterned black insert in the dash relieves the pervasive beige as does some rather nasty “painted silver” detailing but there’s also well-executed chrome detailing on parade around the analogue instrument cluster and around some of the switchgear, most notably the simple-to-use rotary air con controls.
A small infotainment screen adorns the central dash and is home to a radio and to a Bluetooth phone set-up which is activated, along with volume controls, from the steering wheel. Just alongside the long gear lever, which falls nicely to hand, is a multiple-switch cluster for the four electric windows. Doubtless this is positioned centrally to save costs and although not ideally placed, it’s better than having to use calories to wind the windows up or down.
Two airbags are on board but much more visible are the plethora of cup holders and useful receptacles for oddments. You’ll also find a headlight height adjuster, two power sockets and a USB port plus AUX socket, switching for the electric mirrors and a switch to operate the otherwise recalcitrant auto stop/start for the engine. For the record, the floor is covered throughout with charcoal carpet of no better than average quality.
The interior of this vehicle won’t win any awards for its tactile or sensory qualities but within its price category, it projects a perfectly acceptable image helped by the fact that it seems well screwed together – no rattles or squeaks to be heard – and to boot, its equipment levels are rather good too. Luggage space, by the way, is 384 litres, expandable to 720 litres
Now, let’s get behind the wheel and turn the key to activate the 240Nm/73.5kW (note the half kilowatt!!) 1.5 litre turbo diesel motor that features just three cylinders. Hot or cold, combustion clatter at idle is acceptably restrained while under load, a rather pleasant three-cylinder thrum is evident. The tone is more petrol than diesel but despite the presence of a two-stage turbo, the mHAWK 100 motor is workmanlike rather than thrusting.
Truth be told, throttle response is rather lethargic which creates a false impression that the engine simply doesn’t have enough grunt on tap to cope. It actually delivers well enough on the cruise when relative peace can be enjoyed in the cabin, but do not challenge anyone at the lights. Rapid getaways are not part of this Mahindra’s repertoire and nor should they be as this is unashamedly a practical vehicle offered at an accessible price.
As for economy, the makers claim a combined figure of just 5.4l /100km so even if 6.5l/100km is more realistic, the 60-litre tank capacity will get you a long way.
A five-speed gearbox transfers power to the rear wheels only. Shift action is deliberate and precise and in combo with a light, smooth acting clutch, makes smooth gearchanges very easy to achieve, not something that can be said about all diesel-powered vehicles.
Braking is achieved via a disc/drum set-up with ABS and EBD and although I never tested outright stopping power, retardation in normal use was just fine and feathered stops were easy to achieve.
Now for something of a bugbear – ride quality. Swanning along the motorway, all is sweetness and light – although strong winds do rather buffet the high-sided structure – but get off the straight and narrow and you’d swear you were driving a bakkie as the Mahindra responds with a disconcerting shuffling movement which is an entrenched characteristic of ladder-frame, leaf-sprung vehicles.
Truth is that although this Mahindra is equipped with a double wishbone front end and a multi-link rear with coil springs, it does indeed ride on a ladder frame and it shows. Even the deep side walls of the tyres don’t mask the lack of pliancy but having said that, I’m assuming a good load of passengers may quell the restlessness. Initial body roll too is rather evident but that is soon reined in to acceptable levels.
On the plus side, the power steering proved to be surprisingly pleasant. Weighting is uniform from lock to lock, responses are not over-damped and there is a decent level of feel coming through the helm.
In conclusion and with due regard to the competitive purchase price, I have to say that the TUV300 delivered beyond my expectations, especially in terms of equipment levels and external body finish. A visit to www.mahindra.co.za will reveal the full extent of the kit on board. In dynamic terms, the lofty ride height and knobbly ride on poorer surfaces mean the drive is somewhat compromised and the engine’s power delivery seems a tad restrained, but thanks to the presence of turbocharging, further losses at altitude will be eliminated. For anyone looking for a new and practical compact SUV with 7-seat capability, this one’s worth a test drive and could well be a better bet than a used vehicle carrying a more familiar brand name.