Mahindra, seeking to reintroduce its products to Kiwis, recently took motoring journalists on a day-long drive from Auckland to Rotorua, an off-road excursion in the Mamakau Forest and a dash to Taupo.
We're looking at Indian powerhouse.
With around 40% home market share in automobiles and slightly more in tractors, it's no surprise the company exports to 20 countries and plans to lift the brand's profile in Australasia.
So it brought to Auckland the 'big gun' – Praven Shah, president and chief executive (automotive) for Mahindra and Mahindra – to tell journalists where things are heading.
Shah cited two acquisitions – Ssangyong in 2011 and Italian design giant Pininfarina in 2015 – and recent joint ventures with Mitsubishi and Sampo Rosenlew as early indicators. And he pointed to the 2015 JD Power CSI customer satisfaction survey in which Mahindra tied in first place with Toyota.
Here at home, Mahindra NZ and Nichibo Japan Trading (best known for used car imports) have formed MD Distributors Ltd as the New Zealand distributor of Mahindra cars, utes and suvs.
Marketing manager Steve Vermeulen says until recently the focus had been on commercial and agriculture, with farmers accounting for 80% of the core business in tractors, utes (Genio, Pik Up and Thar) and lately a range of UTVs called M-pact. The company's new XUV 500 automatic (called 'five-double-0') follows its manual transmission versions, and should interest a wider audience. Once you get over any misconceptions about 'Indian-made', this car is rather good, at less than German autobahn-blaster prices.
Power is provided by a 4-cylinder, 2.2L turbo diesel, from AVL of Austria, pumping out 103kW (140hp) and 330Nm torque – as it says in the manual, without fuss except for a bit of induction noise.
The new transmission, supplied by Aisin, has six speeds, a thumb operated tiptronic function, and is smooth and pleasant to use.
Appearance-wise it's a matter of loving or hating the look: vertical door handles make it look a little different, but once inside you have to admit it's rather good. Cramming seven seats into an area best suited to five is balanced by the fact that in the XUV 500 the third row is more comfortable than most. With all three rows upholstered in good quality leather, first impressions are on a par with mid-priced European vehicles, and the 60:40 split for row two and 50:50 split for row three makes the space very useable.
In the centre console a 7-inch touch screen satnav system has neat features to make other manufacturers sit up. A drop map pin and 'pinch to zoom' function combines with a reversing camera for hooking up or parking, which also has a digital read-out of distance to objects.
Communications are via Bluetooth, and two neat touches are video tutorials on the vehicle functions and wireless monitoring of tyre pressures including the spare wheel.
Fit and finish is very good, but some of the plastic materials are a little hard to the touch.
Out on the road, a circuit of the Hunua Ranges was followed by a blast back up the motorway to Auckland, the vehicle quiet and making good progress, though the gearbox needed to be made more responsive by using the tiptronic system on the bendy sections.
Built around a monocoque chassis, the road handling was average and probably could do with a little work on damper settings and rebound rates, but nothing that made the vehicle uncomfortable.
Safety is said to be ANCAP 4-star rating, with six airbags, side impact beams, the rear view camera, and other features such as stability control with roll mitigation, ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution, hill hold and descent, and disc brakes all-round.
If you're in the market for a mid-sized SUV, and the likes of Captiva, Honda CRV or Nissan X-Trail are in your sights, the XUV 500 might not have the kudos, but it will have an attractive price; and who knows, if the march of the Indian auto industry maintains its pace we might be seeing the new Japan.