Southern Gazette (South Perth) - - DRIVE WAY - Bill Buys

MAHIN­DRA could soon be­come a much big­ger player in Aus­tralia's medium SUV mar­ket than it has been in the past.

So far, the gi­ant In­dian com­pany's SUV sales have been hob­bled by the ab­sence of an au­to­matic trans­mis­sion for its oth­er­wise quite im­pres­sive seven-seat XUV500.

But that has been fixed with the lat­est ver­sion of the 'chee­tah-in­spired' model, due in Aus­tralia in May, with a new six-speed Aisin au­to­matic and loads of good gear that should have class ri­vals wor­ried.

There's a new grille in a re­designed nose and a neater tail too, to re­move the ear­lier one that looked as if a pair of bull's horns had been painted across it.

Also stan­dard are swiv­el­ling 'see around cor­ners' headlights, up­rated sus­pen­sion and new 17inch al­loy wheels.

The dash gets a 7.0-inch touch­screen, a new in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem with GPS, USB, Blue­tooth au­dio, hands-free call, voice recog­ni­tion and iPod con­nec­tiv­ity, and auto-on headlights and wipers.

Mahin­dra says other bits of chee­tah can be seen in the black ac­cents around the headlights, which repli­cate the lithe cat's tear ducts, and the car's door han­dles are curved and ver­ti­cal, like a chee­tah's claw.

The en­gine is the same 103kW/330Nm, 2.2-litre four­cylin­der turbo-diesel as used in the man­ual model.

We put in a few laps of Mahin­dra's test track at its vast new and largely au­to­mated Chakan plant, 100km from Mum­bai – which has the ca­pac­ity to build 500,000 ve­hi­cles a year – and rather liked the slightly quirky new trans­mis­sion.

We also took the tallish (1.78m) ve­hi­cle on some of In­dia's new ex­press­ways, where it ran along eas­ily at 100km/h, with the rev counter show­ing only

around 1700rpm. It's a smooth unit that will make up­shifts from about 1500rpm, un­less you have a heavy foot, in which case the tacho will run to close on 4000 be­fore go­ing into the next ra­tio.

En­thu­si­asts can also lit­er­ally switch to man­ual shift: a thumb but­ton on the gear lever knob does the job.

And the lever it­self has a neat sports-style gate.

Ac­cel­er­a­tion is strong and an eye needs to be kept on the speedo, which, like the rev counter, is in a sunken cowl in the dash, where the red nee­dle is hard to see.

It cruised com­fort­ably at around 140km/h on the In­dian ex­press­ways, but in Aus­tralia, such speeds would send Mul­tanovas into a frenzy.

But the 2.5 tonne SUV is not so chee­tah-like in the han­dling depart­ment, where it un­der­steers through fast cor­ners and has a fair bit of steer­ing kick­back.

The sus­pen­sion, Mac­struts in front and a de­cent multi-link sys­tem at the back, has been re­tuned and, while still com­fort­ably firm, is no longer brit­tle.

The diesel is not the world's qui­etest, but its not too in­tru­sive and it doesn't need much fuel. Av­er­age con­sump­tion is 6.7litres/ 100km.

Ac­com­mo­da­tion front and rear is more than gen­er­ous, even with three adults in the se­cond row. There's a lot of head and legroom, but the rear­most pop-up seats are re­ally for kids; and if they're in the 'up' po­si­tion, there's next to no cargo space.

For on-board stor­age there's a cool­box in the con­sole, a glove­box, nets be­hind the seats, and bot­tle hold­ers and ex­tra space in the doors.

The new Mahin­dra XUV500 gets a black leather­trimmed in­te­rior with an all-plas­tic dash, but fit and fin­ish has been im­proved and the touch­screen's many func­tions work a treat.

Safety bits in­clude six airbags, hill holder, hill as­cent and de­scent con­trol, and the usual brak­ing and sta­bil­ity elec­tron­ics.

Mahin­dra builds XUV 500s in seven dif­fer­ent mod­els, all sim­i­larly pow­ered, but with dif­fer­ent spec­i­fi­ca­tions.

Aus­tralia cur­rently gets the se­cond-from-top W8 mod­els but the top W10 ver­sion is also a pos­si­bil­ity. The man­ual mod­els are still priced at $29,900 drive­away for the 2WD and $32,900 for the AWD, and while fi­nal pric­ing for the auto ver­sions has not been fi­nalised, Mahin­dra says they'll be “un­der $35,000”, which would make them about the best in class in terms of stan­dard equip­ment and an at­trac­tive propo­si­tion.

Mahin­dra's hand­some XUV500 has had a mild facelift and a con­sid­er­able equip­ment upgrade.

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