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Mahindra says the KUV100 is a ‘young SUV’. Young it may be, but how much of an SUV is it, really?

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I must confess, I don’t believe in crossovers. They may be big, bulky and some of them may even manage to look good, but most lack the charm and some lack the sheer ability of a bare-knuckled SUV. Don’t get me wrong, they work pretty well in the way they’re meant to, but in my mind, an SUV must be able to go off-road. And when I say off the road, I mean off. So it’s not much of a secret that I look at this new breed of compact super hatches being turned into SUV-lookalikes as total hogwash. These are essentially hatchbacks on a mild protein diet with lots of vitamin supplements. Wait, let me rephrase that. These are hatchbacks with a few millimetres of added ground clearance, which possibly makes them too tall for their own good, and are wrapped in excessive amounts of plastic cladding to make their chests look a bit hairy.

So imagine my surprise when the Ed decided to drop a line and tell me about Mahindra’s latest ‘SUV’ – the KUV100. To be fair, they’re only calling it a ‘young SUV’, whatever that means. So, does the one-double-O manage to be any different from the rest of its kind? You know, with it being woven from the same fibre as a great big line-up of SUVs, and simply belonging to the Mahindra family. In my mind, if there was one manufacturer that can afford to throw around nomenclature like that, it is Mahindra, and hopefully the KUV will manage to live up to its billing.

Words: Debabrata Sarkar; Photography: Himanshu Pandya

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To let you know that we aren’t tooling around about this, let me tell you where we’ve taken the KUV: 19 Degree North. No, not a flat stretch of tarmac on an arrow straight highway on that same latitude, but an adventure park outside Aamby Valley city. It is several hundred acres of jungle trails and dirt tracks which zig-zag up and down the valley through some incredibly rough, rocky terrain. The park has played host to the ‘Great Escape’ for a number of years now and has bits of various Mahindra SUVs strewn around for proof. Will the KUV disintegrate or earn its stripes on this playground that its siblings have mastered over the years? Only one way to find out…

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But, before we take the plunge, let me tell you a bit about the KUV, having spent some time with it under normal circumstances. There’s one thing that really stands out about this all-new piece of kit Mahindra has put together, and as much as all of you would like to point out the styling, I am leaning towards the 1.2-litre, 77bhp diesel engine. This plucky little motor works really well with maximum torque available from as low as 1,750rpm. You’re never really waiting for the turbo to kick in to get going. Power delivery is pretty linear and it is fairly refined, too. The five-speed manual ’box (operated via a little joystick-like lever sticking out of the dash) works quite well with its short and precise throws.

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The styling is eye-catching for sure, but it is one of those love-it-or-hate-it sort of designs. There are an incredible number of lines, creases and elements to look at, and somehow, they work. You can see people turning around to take a look as you drive along. You can see curious onlookers readying a questionnaire in their minds, and it’s not just because it has daytime running lights. The square-ish wheel-arches, a ribbed roof with rails running alongside and even a scuff plate under the chin try their best to breathe some SUV life into the KUV, but I’m not sold.

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Inside, however, it is pleasantly surprising. Apart from – what has now become standard equipment at this price point – an infotainment system offering Bluetooth connectivity, there’s a button to deactivate start-stop functionality and another to switch between Power and Eco modes. There’s a fair amount of room, more, in fact, than you’d find in some of the larger, older Mahindras, and storage bins have been smartly carved out so they don’t look out of place at all. There’s space under the co-driver’s seat, under the floor in the rear and the back rest cushion for the middle seat flips forward to form an armrest with cup holders.

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The sixth seat, however, is something I don’t really agree with, because the person has to either have toothpicks for legs or be a child. The former is highly unlikely and the latter faces the risk of meeting the massive centre console face-first in case of a collision as there’s only a lap-belt available. If I were thinking about getting this car, it would be the five-seater, although the novelty of six seats may be a clincher for a great number of folks in smaller towns.

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The KUV works well when you’re tootling along. The high-set seats (with the adjustable driver’s seat providing the option of sitting even higher) gives you a great view in traffic. It would’ve been great if the shoulder line was slightly lower and the placement of the rear door handles didn’t hamper the view out of the car. The wing mirrors, too, could’ve been broader as I found myself constantly leaning forward to get a better view while changing lanes, but then, for most of our driving populace, it’ll remain a fact they’ll never notice. Push it hard, and the KUV doesn’t feel good at all. There’s a huge amount of body roll courtesy the soft suspension, the cabin gets pretty noisy, and the engine hits a bit of a flat spot at higher revs.

The suspension, which works well over small road irregularities, is caught out by more significant undulations with the car bouncing around. The steering, too, has a massive dead zone off-centre, which is enough to allow you to twirl it like an ’80s movie star without making much difference to the direction the car is headed in. Quite SUV-like.

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Right, so it does all right on the road, as long as you stay calm about it and it has more space than some of its elder cousins. Moreover, it certainly has the appearance to make some people believe it is merely a compressed go-anywhere car. So, what happens when you take it off-road?

Back to the trails around Aamby Valley, then.

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In case you think I’ve gone a bit bonkers, trying to take the KUV trail-hunting, be assured I have thought this through. Well, sort of. We agreed that asking it to deal with slush would be an unfair challenge, and therefore, made sure the track was nicely dried out. It’s true… we got the sun turned up and everything. Fair playing field in place, we set off. The first bit was all downhill and I was fairly sure the KUV would manage this just fine as long as I managed to keep it from wedging itself on a rock or a hard place.

Picking our line carefully through the massive rocks, with Himanshu acting as my spotter, we managed to navigate through the wide SUV tracks till the KUV got stuck on some particularly big rocks. We came close to losing some plastic bits as the soft suspension compressed every time we went over one, but we gritted our teeth and carried on without actually breaking anything.

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It was a nail-biting drive downhill, and all I could think of was how we would ever get back up.  But at that point, there was plenty of light and not a lot of animals had crept out. We did not have much of a plan apart from seeing how far the KUV would go. At some point on every trail, we hit an incline too steep or a rock too big to get past. For a small hatchback, the KUV wasn’t doing too bad. After all, it has as much ground clearance as a Maruti Swift. Somewhere along the way, the trail flattened out, and we had a fair bit of fun, powering through the trail pretending it was a small rally course. The wide track of the KUV kept it surprisingly stable as we slid our way through the soft, dusty track.

Eventually, the sun dipped behind the mountains and we had to find our way back. Light was fading and we were running out of options. What would we do when night fell? Would we be stranded if the KUV couldn’t find its way back up? Luckily, we found what looked like a fairly manageable climb. Having walked the track and done my ‘due diligence,’ we pointed the car uphill and set out. Half way up, though, there was another short patch of deep ruts and big boulders, and the KUV wouldn’t climb any further.

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Ordinarily, you’d floor it and scramble over them, but that wasn’t really an option here. We did want to get out and we wanted to make it back to the gates with the car in one piece after all it had managed to do. So, we got out and moved a couple of rocks and Himanshu spotted a line that would just about let us through. The excellent bottom-end torque allowed me to control the pace as we made our way to the top without inflicting too much damage. And so, the punchy little KUV clambered back up to the gates of the adventure park in fading light and I couldn’t help but admire the fact that it did.

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It does have its flaws. The top half of the dashboard isn’t particularly well finished, the plastic cladding on the wheels arches are already turning white, it has no parking sensors and isn’t particularly fun to drive. It also has its pluses. It uses space well and there are plenty of cool little bins to smuggle booze out of Goa, wait, I did not say that, and it has an app you can download to control certain functions and a bench seat that lets you slide out from whichever side you feel like after you’ve parked an inch clear of a wall alongside. But let’s face it, the KUV isn’t exactly cheap.

The six-seat K8 retails at Rs 6.8 lakh (ex-showroom, Mumbai), offers a fair bit of equipment, and hats off to Mahindra for offering ABS as standard fitment through the range, but it does miss out on a few features compared to a Grand i10, and is way heavier on the pocket than the Kwid, which has a similar tall-ish stance, apart from the gaggle of Marutis breathing down its neck. Will the novelty value of a six-seater and a tag line that states the KUV’s SUV lineage be enough to win buyers over? I’m not so sure anymore. It is more off-road ready than the rest of its kind, but it is no SUV.

Maybe if Mahindra had concentrated a little less on the SUV bits and a little more on the compact hatch bits – which is what the KUV actually is – the story would’ve been a bit different. For now, it seems to be stuck in the middle without being great at being either.

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Pros: Good amount of space, smart storage bins, diesel engine, ABS standard across the range.

Cons: Quality of plastics, blind spots caused by rear door handles, no parking sensors.

Bottomline: A reasonable small car trying too hard to be an SUV. Diesel engine and space management are great, and you’re better off with the five-seat variant.

Specifications
Engine: 3 cyl, 1198cc, turbo-diesel
Power: 77bhp at 3750rpm
Torque: 190Nm at 1750-2250rpm
Gearbox: 5M, FWD
Dimensions (LxWxH): 3675x1715x1655
Price: Rs 6.8 lakh (ex-showroom, Mumbai)

Score: 6/10

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