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The Mahindra Super-XUV

16th May 2013 7:33 pm

An XUV500 flying off crests, being thrown sideways and thrashing rally cars on the national championship rally circuit! We find out just how it's done

We all know the XUV500: a stylish, softly sprung, diesel-engined, seven-seater. And it’s flying off the shelves for being stylish, softly sprung, diesel-engined and seating seven; attributes that should consign any notion of rallying to the rubbish bin. Okay, being good-looking is no drawback, but you get the drift – who rallies a 2.2-ton SUV that’s taller than the average Indian with a centre of gravity near his belly? Even by Indian motorsport standards, where we race and rally anything we can lay our hands on, a yumping, opposite-locking XUV500 is just wrong. The XUV has no pedigree; its platform is Mahindra’s first crack at a monocoque; it is natively front-wheel-drive; and Mahindra themselves have no rallying history save for the time Farad Bhathena won the Great Desert Himalaya Raid successively in 1988 and ’89 in a works Mahindra MM540.

And yet, at the first round of the 2013 INRC, the XUV wiped the floor clean, beating the best of the Cedias by over four-and-a-half minutes. That’s an eon in a championship where top drivers battle for fractions of a second in every stage.

Engine is standard save for a diesel tuning box and perofrmance air filter. Intercooler repositioned from top of the engine to the front, near the radiator, for better cooling hence the big red hose.

HOW DID THEY DO IT?

Well, to start with, they got the best driver in the business – Gaurav Gill, a guy who set more fastest stage times in the APRC last year than WRC regulars Chris Atkinson and PG Andersson. Next they roped in the best tuner in the business, Leelakrishnan and his Red Rooster Performance team. And, most importantly, Mahindra Adventure kept the faith. Even when the car broke down, and when their drivers vented steam publicly, Mahindra Adventure stuck to the programme and kept the big picture in mind, all of which has now yielded results.

So how do you turn an XUV into a Super-XUV? Like any rally car, the XUV is first stripped of all non-essential bits and bobs – seats, carpets, roof lining, air-con, stereo, door pads, navigation, everything. Once stripped bare, the shell is re-welded to improve its stiffness and torsional rigidity, and the all-important roll cage is installed. The roll cage specifications laid down by the FMSCI have become increasingly strict over the past few years and this is a big improvement on the safety front. It ensures that even if the car rolls multiple times, the cage remains intact and the driver and co-driver can walk out unhurt.

The XUV has been built to T1 regulations which, unlike production-spec Group N regulations, allow plenty of modifications. One of the visible changes are the light-weight fibre doors, hatch and bonnet, all in an attempt to lighten the XUV and lower the centre of gravity. The car still weighs over two tons – the kilos taken out are more than compensated for by the weight of the extensive steel tubing of the roll cage.

The XUV runs 17-inch MRF Wanderer all-terrain tyres, which have stiffer sidewalls and a tweaked compound. But these are essentially  road tyres, and the fact that the XUV can handle a rally stage is a strong endorsement of their quality. And to make it do what it does in a rally, the XUV runs Reiger suspension, among the world’s best when it comes to rally suspension, to a custom specification laid out by Red Rooster Performance. Suspension is by far the most important component of a rally car, costing as much if not more than the car itself, and all the front-running Cedias, Polos, Grand Vitaras and now the XUVs in the INRC run the distinctive magenta springs and dampers.

The XUV that Gill drove to victory was given its first proper beating by yours truly nearly two years ago on Mahindra’s Royal Escape in ◊ ∆Rajasthan. In fact, my gallivanting around Rajasthan delayed its build for the 2012 Desert Storm Rally Raid and all the off-roading had also worn out the four-wheel-drive clutch. So with no testing, this XUV had entered, broken down and just about managed to hobble to finish the 2012 Storm. Apart from victory in the 2012 Dakshin Dare, the MH14 DA0557 broke down at every rally it competed in until it came to Chennai and – defying all expectations and logic – won a rally it shouldn’t have won!

RALLY RAIDS VERSUS STAGE RALLYING

There are two forms of rallying: cross-country Rally Raids like the Raid-de-Himalaya and Desert Storm; and stage rallying, which is the INRC. Rally Raids require four-wheel-drive SUVs. These need to be built like tanks to take a pounding over dunes and mountains. They need to survive competitive stages that are over 100km, sometimes even 150km – events that go on nonstop for five, six, seven days. Rally Raids are more about endurance than outright performance. The XUV might be big, cumbersome and top-heavy, but it can be built to take an unimaginable pounding and thus survive Raids. Plus the diesel engine with its monster torque is great to demolish dunes.

INRC events, on the other hand, are about flat-out pace. No taking it easy, conserving the car, nothing of the sort; it’s pedal to metal from the word go. The INRC has 110km of competitive stages, as much as one stage of a Rally Raid. But every single corner, every metre of those 110 kilometres, are taken at full clip and maximum attack. Cars have never survived Rally Raids while SUVs have never been competitive against proper cars on INRC events. Except Gill turned accepted wisdom on its head. So who better to demonstrate the potential of the XUV than the man himself?

Rear doors, hatch, bonnet are all made of light-weight fibre to reduce weight and lower the centre of gravity. The Super - XUV runs MRF Wanderer tyres with a different compound and stiffer side walls. On the cards are proper 17-inch gravel rally tyres. 

GILL’S MASTER CLASS

The cabin, as you’d expect, is vast and even the roll cage snaking all over doesn’t close it in. Visibility is non-existent at the back and particularly compromised by the A-pillar. The crew sits high up, the diesel engine sounds weird to somebody accustomed to petrol rally engines, and the suspension is super-pliant for a rally setup. And then Gaurav Gill takes off and every preconceived notion goes flying out of the window. Initial acceleration is actually quite strong, accompanied by a loud whistle from the turbocharger, and with every gearshift you feel the surge in torque pinning you to the seat. The engine is standard except for a diesel tuning box, which means around 150 horsepower and the strong torque delivers a nice kick in the back. The key to harnessing the performance is to keep it in the so-called happy zone, where the turbo is on the boil, and to not over-rev the engine. There are, of course, far too many gearshifts and even Gaurav can’t make the stock XUV gearbox shift as quickly as my Polo. But this isn’t slow by any means; in fact, I’d wager that it’d get to 400 metres quicker than our cars.

Brake for the first corner and Gaurav chucks in the XUV like it were a small hatchback. For a moment, it seems like “hello, tree stump” and a million-hit YouTube video. But with a quick dab of corrective lock, the XUV is clipping the apex, the throttle is pinned and the XUV slides out of the corner in a perfect drift, all the while Gaurav talking me through what the car is doing. The Super-XUV actually handles pretty well. There is a little more roll than in a regular rally car, but it generates some amazing grip through the corners. Even the 90-degree corner leading to the jump ◊∆is taken in third gear at nearly 80kph.

Those are crazy speeds, made possible by the XUV’s setup and Gaurav’s precision, technique and extraordinary car control. He’s so relaxed behind the wheel and so economical with his actions that he makes it look easy. Plus the high seating position, relative lack of noise and plentiful torque masks the speed. I remark as much to Leelakrishnan when we pull in after two laps, to which he makes me stand outside and watch Gaurav in action. And, good lord, the XUV looks jaw-droppingly dramatic; on the very limit, looking for all the world like a big accident waiting to happen.

TIME TO SWAP

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was nervous sitting next to Gaurav, but neither do I want to seem like a half-wit. Accelerate, marvel at the smart turn of speed, brake for the corner and lock up and nearly run wide. Next corner, gentler with the brakes, turn it in and whoa, the tail snaps out. This isn’t easy. Wide-eyed now, I brake earlier for the ninety-right, downshift (which requires too much effort), turn in, catch the slide (a bit late), gas it, turn-in for the fast left and Gaurav hollers at me to take it easy, that we’d flip at this speed. Back off and I’m all over the place for the next corner, catching the slide while fighting the vicious steering feedback. I’m scaring myself – and Gaurav! – now.

The next section through the eucalyptus trees is bumpy – too bumpy to take flat-out in our rally cars. But the XUV’s Reigers, built to handle the pounding of a Raid, help us simply glide through it. It’s freaky, the manner in which you can flat-line the bumps, suspension soaking up the ruts and holes, landing softly, and staying planted and pointing in the direction you want to go. Even over the big jump at the end of our test stage, the XUV is airborne for nearly 15-20 metres and lands without any drama. It is astonishing over the bumps and crests, but everywhere else it demands 100 percent commitment and is surprisingly difficult to drive.

Only essentials retained on dash, everything else is chucked out. Therratrip on the left essential while navigating on Rally Raids. Check out the clutch pedal, cropped to make left foot braking easier. 

How does Gaurav do it then? For starters, he steers with the brakes and throttle. Difficult to get your head around to this: he uses left foot braking and the throttle to turn the car and his steering input is never more than half a turn. Even for a hairpin, he never uses more than half a turn of the steering, using the brakes to slide the tail out and throttle to pull the car out of the slide. Of course, this is what we all attempt to do in our rally cars, but the difference with the XUV is that all the size and mass (and consequently momentum) means you have to be super accurate with corner entry speeds and the line. Too slow and the tail won’t come out, the car will understeer and just won’t turn. Too hot and there’s no coming back – there’s just too much momentum barreling into the corner and the car will bite back hard. All the size also means there’s no option but to swing the car around and use that swinging tail to change direction. If you don’t drive like Gaurav Gill, you can’t get the time out of the XUV, as was amply illustrated by Gill’s team-mate’s times in the Chennai rally.

For me, it is way too much hard work. I’d be quicker in a rally car than in the Super-XUV; happier too. Once you know what you’re doing, a rally car is easier to drive, more forgiving, more immediate and more responsive. You can make mistakes and get away with it. The Super-XUV is bloody quick, of that there’s no doubt. It can out-accelerate cars; despite its size and weight it corners like a maniac; and the suspension dismisses ruts and bumps without a murmur. It’s an astonishingly quick rally car but,  ultimately, without the mad skills of a driver like Gill, I doubt you’d see it fly.

With no requirement to seat seven, the rear compartment is stripped out and bracket installed for easy removal of the spare tyre.

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