Mahindra’s fortunes in SA will be swayed by the KUV100’s reception. Does it rise to the challenge?
During the 2000s, a number of Indian and Chinese manufacturers entered the South African automotive market. A decade later, only a few have survived this challenging environment. Mahindra & Mahindra has done better than most, entering the marketplace soon after the start of the new millennium, weathering the economic downturn towards the end of the previous decade, and now launching what is its most aggressive new-model onslaught to date.
The car that this Indian manufacturer has placed most of its hopes on in the passenger-car market is the light crossover KUV100. We initially drove a derivative of this car in India (see June 2016) and now the full range is available in South Africa.
No assessment of the KUV100 can ignore the quirky exterior design. It seems the designers drew their inspiration for the wrap-around headlamps from modern sports sunglasses, while the 14-inch alloy wheels look comically small in the large wheelarches. It ultimately appears top-heavy and unresolved in places (no doubt compounded by the high 170 mm ground clearance), but there’s no concern it won’t draw attention…
It’s a far more conventional affair inside, where such luxuries as Bluetooth connectivity, an auxiliary slot and USB port complement the radio and CD player, air-conditioning system and electrically adjustable windows and mirrors.
In terms of practical use, the small mono-colour display screen for the audio system is difficult to read in low light, while its supplementary buttons aren’t intuitive. However, we found that, with a little acclimatisation, these functions soon became less confusing.
The driver’s seat is comfortable and set at an ideal height, while the gearlever – which protrudes from the facia – is perfectly sited close to the steering wheel. The result is that every gear-change is effortless thanks to such a short distance for your left hand to reach. The direct shift action is also a pleasure.
Likewise, we were impressed with the vehicle’s overall fit and finish. Mahindras have long had higher-quality cabins than their competitor Chinese vehicles, and the same applies to the KUV100. What is lacking, however, is some of the material cohesion present in a vehicle such as the Renault Sandero Stepway. Although compact (at 3 675 mm long and 1 715 mm wide, the KUV100 is only marginally bigger than a Volkswagen Up!), the height of the car sets it apart. Standing 1 655 mm tall, the KUV100 has a surfeit of headroom for front and rear passengers, even those taller than 1,9 metres.
Conversely, the boot is small (128 dm3) and utility volume compromised because, when folded forward, the rear backrest does not lie flush with the boot floor. Once on the move, it speedily becomes apparent that speed isn’t a major player… Like most triples, the 1,2-litre, three-cylinder revs freely (and noisily), but that doesn’t translate into much forward momentum.
During performance testing, a few of the KUV100’s positive and negative characteristics very quickly became apparent. The acceleration figure of 15,61 seconds is comparatively slow, but the engine manages to perform with some vigour in the first three gears between about 4 500 and 6 000 r/min. Thereafter, performance quickly tapers off. What’s more, bizarrely, the gap between first and second gears is too big; change into the latter and the revs drop by more than 2 000 r/min, nudging the powertrain out of a usable engine-speed range and requiring you to exercise patience until the revs crest 4 500 r/min again. A tighter set of ratios would be a worthwhile solution, or, if you require a healthy hit of extra performance, consider the diesel model and its torquey 1,2-litre turbodiesel engine that delivers 57 kW and 190 N.m from just 1 750 r/min.
The emergency-braking test revealed that the car’s stoppers, supplemented with ABS and EBD, do a commendable job. The average time of 3,10 seconds is slightly better than we normally achieve with budget vehicles, and there was only subtle body movement during the braking events. On highways and during town-bound journeys, what the KUV100 lacks in straight-line performance, it makes up for with a comfortable secondary ride that absorbs scars with measured aplomb. But, where you win on the ride-quality front, you lose out on resolute body control. There’s lots of roll during cornering and yawing and pitching during acceleration and braking exercises.
But what’s perhaps most irritating is the steering system’s near complete lack of self-centring. It affords the rack a woolly feel, and keeping a straight line at higher speeds is more of a chore than it should be.