At this low price, is the Thar a true off-roader?
What you are looking at it is the most affordable 4×4-equipped SUV with low-range in the South African market. That is an important fact. South Africans love a good off-roading adventure and, when it comes to dust-filled exploits, a great number of people have a memorable story to share.
Originally starting with Jeep lookalikes under licence in India, Mahindra has been building capable off-road vehicles for a number of decades. Today, the Thar is still heavily based on these earlier models and, as part its current new-model initiative, the company has reintroduced it to the South African market.
The Thar looks pure Jeep Wrangler from every angle, which is a good thing – who doesn’t like the Wrangler’s rugged 4×4 design? That, however, is where any similarities with that well-known off-roader ends. The door opens with a regular key and, once you’ve climbed over an intrusive ridge, plastic-bedecked seats and a very basic interior await you.
Ergonomically, the cabin is poorly resolved. From behind the steering wheel, the rev counter and speedometer are partly obscured, and the gearlever is very close to the end of the handbrake lever. Selecting reverse painfully sandwiches your thumb between the gearstick and handbrake. The B-pillar mounting point for the seatbelt is also too far forward, resulting in a belt that doesn’t run over the top of your chest and shoulder like it should. Furthermore, should you wish to drive at night, the headlamps offer minimal illumination.
Although a very sturdy unit, there was a tremendous rattle coming from the canopy’s rear door. To be fair, though, Mahindra South Africa did inform us that this locally manufactured canopy is still in its prototype phase. The rear seatbelt-less benches face each other, although our unit came without the padding for the seats (possibly also removed by Mahindra as part of the canopy testing). On the upside, however, there’s an infotainment system with Bluetooth, USB and aux-in connections. But it’s an option…
Once on the move, the gearbox allows for fairly slick and direct shifts once warmed up, while the 2,5-litre turbodiesel pulls with sufficient vigour to easily stay with traffic up until about 100 km/h. Above that point, however, you need to abandon any ideas of overtaking traffic.
The ride is choppy and bumpy, but that is understandable given the Thar’s off-road-biased suspension and the resultant generous articulation. The live axle with leaf springs and short wheelbase don’t help, either. During our performance testing, great care had to be taken in our emergency-stop procedure from 100 km/h. Without ABS, the braking times were very poor and, on some of the stops, the wheels tended to lock up.
Up until this point, it may seem Mahindra has completely missed the mark with the Thar … but it would be wise to remember the vehicle has really been built with one thing in mind: formidable off-road prowess. And so we tested that remit.
Once on our off-road course of choice outside Stellenbosch (watch the video here), with low-range engaged via the manual lever sited a few centimetres to the left of the clutch pedal, and equipped with optional Cooper tyres, the Mahindra was ready for some extremely challenging rocky and muddy inclines. And it performed well. At times, it did bounce and hop excessively, but with measured driver input, it was able to get out of tricky situations and succeeded in traversing some terrain many thought it would not manage.
The optional rock slider and belly plate mounted underneath the Thar also helped to protect the drivetrain and underside of the car – a huge benefit, especially on the severe rocky sections of the 4×4 test route. One element that does need improvement is the handbrake, which didn’t do a sufficient job during the off-road course and at times even the brake pedal went soft. This could severely hamper an all-terrain trip.
We had no such complaints about the engine, though, and the mechanical-locking differential (automatically actuated when a speed difference of more than 100 r/min is detected between the wheels) was a welcoming addition when driving over obstacles.