The Mahindra XUV500 is a pivotal vehicle for the Indian marque, Mahindra. Until late 2011 the company says it made cars and tractors for the domestic Indian market and exported them to other countries.

But now it proudly says the XUV500 has been made for global markets, but will also be sold in India. Mahindra has been assembling tractors in its Brisbane facility since 2005. In 2007 it started importing the Pik-Up, a diesel-powered ute aimed at the rural market and tradies.

Explore the 2012 Mahindra XUV500 Range

At present Mahindra has 25 dealerships with a goal of increasing this to 50 by the end of 2012. It is at present in talks with potential franchisees in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and is already represented by tractor/Pik-Up dealers in rural areas of the eastern states.

Value

Drive away pricing starts at $26,990 for the 2WD and $32,990 for the AWD. The vehicles are highly specified in terms of equipment usually found on the options list with other makers.

Some of the standard goodies include automatic temperature control over the three seating zones, high-tech media, satellite navigation screen, tyre pressure monitoring, smart rain and light sensors, reverse park assist, power charging points in all three seating rows, remote keyless entry, leather seats and concealed lounge lighting. Mahindra comes with a three-year, 100,000km warranty.

Technology

Two variants are available, a 2WD and AWD. Both have a 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine made in-house by Mahindra, that’s linked to a six-speed manual transmission. At this stage only the manual transmission is available and the XUV500. The 2.2-litre turbo-diesel develops 103 kW of power at 3750 rpm and 330 Nm of torque between 1600 and 2800 rpm.

Safety

Despite all its active and passive safety equipment it rates only a four-star ANCAP safety rating, the loss of the coveted fifth star being the result of vehicle deformation issues in a severe head-on impact.

"These are our two important issues which we will be addressing as a matter of importance," said Makesh Kaskar, Mahindra's business manager in Australia. “An automatic transmission is 18 months to two years away while engineers hope to elevate the XUV500 to a five-star rating.”

The safety suite is impressive: six airbags, stability control, ABS brakes, EBD, rollover mitigation, hill hold, hill descent control and disc brakes. A reversing camera is an option as are tow bar and bull bar. While the bling and goodies are impressive, it's not all rosy.

Design

The exterior design of the XUV500 will not be to everyone's taste, particularly the rear where a non-functional wheel arch impedes on window space.

The marketing gurus at Mahindra tell us the XUV500's design was inspired by a cheetah in the about-to-pounce position. The grille represents the animal’s fangs, the bulging wheel arches the shoulders and hips and the doorhandles the cheetah's paws.

The interior fit and finish leaves room for improvement with variable gaps where the doors meet the dashboard and on the dash itself. Like the exterior the interior could be polarising. It's as if the designers have tried everything to make the interior look luxurious with contrasting plastics and different coloured leathers. It's a busy place.

Driving

The centre stack waterfalls all the way from the windscreen down to the gear shift in shiny imitation woodgrain that is highly reflective creating glare and a driver distraction. We also heard rattles while driving over uneven road surfaces.

The third row of seats easily fold almost flat, as do the second row, creating a large cargo space. The second row are a 60/40 split and the third row is really suitable for kids, but at a pinch could take a couple of grownups on short trips.

A full size matching alloy spare wheel is housed under the boot area and uses a typical 4WD wind-down system. The driving position is similar to that of a genuine 4WD - high, upright and giving a commanding view over the bonnet. The front seats are comfortable with manual height adjustment and lumbar support.

The steering wheel has height adjustment. The instrument binnacle is almost retro in appearance, enhanced by chrome circles around the dials. We found the engine's torque smoothly usable from low revs, where it matters, in second, third and four gears. Fifth and sixth are fairly tall highway fuel-savers. At 100 km/h the XUV500 cruises in sixth gear at a lazy 2000 rpm.

The suspension is on the soft side and won’t endear itself to anyone who enjoys driving. Mahindra's AWD system automatically transfers torque between the front and rear wheels at a variable rate depending on traction needs. There's a lock button that manually engages AWD. There is no low range transfer box. There were no 2WD XUV500's for us to test at the media launch.