IT is generally accepted that most SUV are bought because of the butch looks, and elevated driving position of this type of vehicle, and the fact that the SUV has very much become a status symbol.

We’re not sure how much of a status symbol the Mahindra Scorpio will become, but in four-wheel drive guise it is a pretty competent off-roader at a much lower price than the competition. However, there is an even more affordable two-wheel drive model, and it is this variant that brings the large SUV within reach of many more buyers.

The 2wd model looks exactly like its 4wd sister (tested in December 2004), right down to having the same high-rise appearance, and this even extends to having the same arrival and departure angles, ground clearance and Bridgestone Dueller H/T tyres. The only way to distinguish between the two models, without looking underneath, is the badging. If you only venture off-road occasionally, and don’t indulge in serious bundubashing, neither you nor your friends will know the difference. You’ll even end up with a small performance advantage, as we’ll explain later…

The number of changes required to turn a 2wd vehicle into a 4wd model are highlighted by the mechanical differences between these two models. The 2wd vehicle has no transfer gearbox, because drive only goes to one pair (in this case, the rear) wheels. The front suspension layout comprises the more normal coil spring and antiroll bar set-up, rather than the torsion bar layout generally used on the 4wd front axles, because the coil springs encroach on the space needed for the driveshaft. The front hubs have the usual stub axle and angular contact wheel bearing units instead of the fully floating bearing layout that is preferred on four-wheel drive vehicles. The result of the simpler mechanicals is a mass decrease of 64 kg in the “as tested” condition.

The AVL - designed diesel engine is identical to the one fitted to the 4wd version. It is a direct-injection unit but does not utilise a common-rail or any other device to increase the injection pressure, so the maximum output of 81 kW is fairly low. This should, however, result in a lightly stressed unit. Maximum torque is 255 N.m, developed at a nice and low 1 800 r/min.

Power is transferred to the rear wheels by the same five-speed manual gearbox used in the 4wd model. The gear ratios are also unchanged.

Comparing performance figures, the improvements one can expect by opting for the 2wd model are clear to see. The advantage is partly as a result of a slightly lighter vehicle, but mainly because of a reduction in drivetrain frictional and inertial losses. Interestingly enough, the acceleration figures amount to an average improvement of 12,5 per cent. However, it must be kept in mind that some of the differences will be due to other causes, such as variations in atmospheric pressure, ambient temperature and production tolerances, so will be most noticeable if both vehicles are driven under identical conditions.

The 2wd Scorpio has the same personality as the 4wd version – old-fashioned but friendly and competent. The engine is noisy at low speed, but at close to cruising speeds the general noise level rises so that the engine becomes less obtrusive. Overall, the noise level is not unlike what you’d experience in a ten-year-old diesel Land Rover (so it is quite noisy).

The brakes are a lot better than one would expect after looking at the specifications, because the wheels grip well during an emergency stop, in spite of not being controlled by ABS. The average stopping time of 3,39 seconds from 100 km/h is good for this kind of vehicle, and is identical to the time recorded for the 4wd version, showing that the good performance is not just a fluke. Of course, these days, it should really have (the admittedly costly) ABS as standard…

Steering has very little lost motion, so freeway cruising does not require constant steering correction of the kind that one often gets on older commercial- type vehicles. Power assistance and the steering box ratio are just about right, so one is not conscious of having to wind the wheel when parking, or over-correct on the road.

The fairly compact external dimensions hide a surprising amount of interior space. With all the seats in place, the boot measures 528 dm3, and this can be expanded to 592 by folding away the rear jump seats. With the middle row also folded, the total utility space is a cavernous 1 664 dm3.

Seats offer a fair amount of comfort, but the driver’s is not height-adjustable. Front chairs offer a reasonable rearward adjustment, and incorporate fold-down armrests. A bench seat is fitted behind the fronts, and it has a bench seat is an option replacing the adult-sized jump seats.

Accessories and other fittings are identical to what you would find on the 4wd model, since they both carry the GLX trim spec. The list includes front and rear foglamps, rear window wash/ wipe, remote central locking, electric windows, aluminium side-sills, and a Kenwood stereo radio/CD. The faceplate of the latter is covered in buttons that are so small that they cannot be located easily, making any adjustment while driving a potentially hazardous procedure. Alloy wheels and leather seats are optional.

The lack of decent oddments stowage space is a disappointment.

Test summary

The 2wd Scorpio is an interesting newcomer to the market, and is probably more practical than some of the 2wd station wagons, because of the excellent ground clearance and seemingly rugged construction. The lack of refinement may deter some buyers, but the overall experience of driving it on dirt roads and freeways is not vastly different to what most of us would have found acceptable a few years ago. Just keep in mind that at this price (R180 000) you won’t get a driving experience that is on par with the higher-priced, more refined vehicles. For many buyers, the major drawback would be the lack of ABS brakes, as we said in the 4wd test. But, if the Scorpio proves to be as rugged as it looks, it should be a success.