The KUV100 (pronounced ‘one double oh’) is the latest addition to SUV maker, Mahindra & Mahindra’s (M&M) burgeoning model line-up. M&M may market the KUV100 as a compact SUV but in reality think of the model as the Indian manufacturer’s first indigenously developed ‘car’. The KUV100’s 3.6 metre length, front-wheel-drive setup and monocoque construction broadly puts it in the same category as hatchbacks such as the Maruti Celerio, Maruti Swift, Hyundai Grand i10 and the Tata Bolt.
A rival to conventional hatchbacks it may be, but there’s nothing conventional about the way the KUV100 looks. Like the template-busting Renault Kwid that was launched last year, the KUV100 too relies on SUV-like cues to distinguish itself from the crowd. The final product gets your attention though not necessarily for the right reasons. The styling may be too over the top, but like the Nissan Juke this is a car you simply can’t ignore and for many that may be reason enough to buy it. There’s a mishmash of styling elements, the proportions are awkward and there’s a general lack of cohesiveness to the design; the SUV-like front and the hatchback tail could very well belong to different cars.
View the KUV head on and it will certainly catch your eye. The front is similar to what we’ve seen on newer SsangYong concepts (remember Mahindra owns the Korean SUV maker), but there’s a hint of Range Rover Evoque to the pinched grille and the acutely swept back headlights which extend almost all the way to the A-pillar. The detailing in the headlights is superb and the LED strip is particularly distinctive, especially at night. There’s beefy cladding on the lower portion of the bumper and a scuff plate at the bottom to announce the KUV100’s SUV credentials.
However, it’s in the side profile that the KUV looks particularly disproportionate. Also, there are too many design elements such as the pronounced crease extending from the headlights to the front doors, and another one originating at the rear door that rises to the tail. The oversized wheel arches dwarf the 14-inch wheels which are small even by hatchback standards. Look closely and you’ll notice the rear door handles sit aft of the rear window (à la the Chevrolet Beat) rather than on the doors. From the rear, the KUV gives the impression of being a tall hatchback with crossover detailing in its blackened bumper base. The protruding tail-lamps, again, look distinctive. Just wish the good folk at Pininfarina (recently acquired by Mahindra) could have been involved when the KUV was in its design stages.
What’s it like on the inside?
Where the KUV100’s exterior design will take time getting used to, its cabin is immediately likeable. Ingress and egress is convenient thanks to the relatively high-set seats, there’s plenty of space in both front and rear rows and the design of the ‘bowed’ dashboard with drooping edges is quite distinctive. Note the dash doesn’t extend all the way to the floor and that the gear lever comes positioned on the centre console. This has allowed Mahindra to cheekily fit the KUV100 with an optional front bench seat and increase seating capacity to six, something that is sure to catch the attention of buyers with large families. It’s a clever arrangement and will work well for small kids but with no airbag (in the centre) and just a lap belt as a restraint, the middle seat is not a safe place to be. Also, three abreast for adults is too much of a squeeze but manageable for very short runs. Folding down the middle seat backrest forms a large arm rest for the driver and co-passenger and, in our books, that’s the only way you should use it. Also, the bench seat is flat and offers little by way of lateral support. The standard five-seat version’s individual front seats are more contoured and far more supportive. The space freed up by removing the middle seat allows for a very useful storage console. The parking brake, also located in the centre console, is a bit fiddly to use especially for hill starts and will take some getting used to.
Rear seat passengers have it really good in the KUV100. Firstly, getting in and out is easy, and there’s a good deal of knee and headroom, very generous under-thigh support and enough width for three. Thanks to the flat floor even the middle passenger will be comfortable. What’s also nice is that all three occupants get adjustable headrests and the back rest angle is just perfect. You can also make use of the well- positioned centre arm rest when the middle seat is not in use. What is an irritant though is the blanked-out space after the rear windows (there to accommodate the exterior door handle), as it cuts outside visibility.
In terms of storage, the KUV is very well thought-out. There’s a bottle holder on each door, a reasonably spacious glove box, cup holders on the arm rests, a large storage bay concealed under the front passenger seat and one even hidden in the floor at the back. However, with the middle seat in place, there’s no proper place to store your phone and if you need lots of space to store knick-knacks then opt for the five-seater version which has a well-designed central console with multiple storage slots between the seats. The 243 litres of boot space is useable and can be extended by folding the rear seat's backrest down, but the high boot sill and narrow loading lip are spoilers here.
The KUV100 is available in four trim levels and what’s commendable is that all versions come with ABS as standard. Dual airbags are available as an option from the base variant on, and are a standard fit on the top-spec K8 cars, though how much protection the front middle passenger gets remains a question mark. Top-spec KUV100 K8s also feature alloy wheels, power windows, power steering, internally adjustable mirrors, audio player with Bluetooth, USB and aux, steering-mounted audio controls and fuel economy-enhancing auto start/stop (Micro Hybrid in Mahindra speak).
Cabin quality is pretty good by class standards with certain bits like the dashboard top feeling premium, but lower down, plastic quality isn’t as good. The switchgear feels fairly chunky but the small screen with its monochrome display in today’s touchscreen age looks a bit old-fashioned. However, its quite intuitive to use and the steering mounted controls make things easy too.
What is it like to drive?
The KUV100 is also the launch vehicle for Mahindra’s new mFalcon line of petrol and diesel engines, so there’s lots to talk about. Let's focus on the petrol engine first. Christened mFalcon G80, it’s an all-aluminium three-cylinder, 1.2-litre unit with four valves per head and a double overhead camshaft with variable timing on both intake and exhaust valves. It produces an impressive 81.8bhp at 5,500rpm and 11.7kgm from 3,500-3,600rpm, which is on the higher side for this class of vehicle.
Driving the KUV around Mahindra’s test track at its Chakan plant, the initial feeling is that the petrol engine is good but not special. While the engine responds well to throttle inputs and driveability is fine, it offers little to excite. Power delivery is flat and the build up of revs isn’t particularly urgent either. It’s only post 4,500rpm or so that the engine gets a fresh wind and revs with more vigour. However, it’s unlikely KUV users will really stretch it so much. The engine also sounds thrummy when revved hard and we were disappointed with the refinement. However, the petrol works quite well on part throttle and the KUV can gamely keep up with the flow of urban traffic. The engine comes mated to a five-speed manual gearbox and we’re glad to report the location of the gearshift, placed on the centre console, falls nicely to hand, the shift action has a short throw and is remarkably crisp. In fact, the gearbox is one of the best bits of the KUV100. To top it off the gearshift knob is also superbly finished. The clutch is light too but could be a touch smoother to engage.
Mahindra’s past experience with diesel engines seems to have helped when developing the new D75 diesel engine that comes across as the more rounded of the mFalcon motors. Like the petrol, the diesel engine is also a three-cylinder, 1.2-litre unit though this one uses a cast iron block and aluminium head. This turbocharged engine makes 76.4bhp at 3,750rpm and a strong 19.37kgm between 1,750-2,250rpm. Also worth highlighting is that the D75 motor offers two drive modes – Power which is the stock mode and Economy – and adjusts fuelling accordingly.
The D75 motor is fairly responsive from the get-go, but like most small-capacity diesel engines comes into its own once the turbo has spooled up which is past 1,900rpm. Post that mark, you can feel greater pulling power at your disposal, but there’s no spike in power delivery and the engine doesn’t rev all that quick either but what you get is a linear and friendly build up of power that many will like. In fact, slipping the diesel KUV100 into Mumbai revealed how easy it is drive. You can ride the nice and flat torque curve and you don’t need to constantly change gears. A small flex of the throttle gives you enough overtaking ability in town. Refinement levels are also good as small-capacity diesels go. You can hear the distinct three-cylinder clatter at idle but noise levels are overall well contained. Gearshifts are superb and the short lever is a joy to operate but once again the clutch could do with a more progressive action.
Mahindra claims a fuel economy of 25.3kpl for the diesel KUV100 when driven in Eco mode. As you switch from Power to Eco, you can feel performance take a serious hit. Not only do responses get duller, the engine also doesn’t rev beyond 3,600rpm in the mode. As you’d have guessed, Eco is not the mode for anyone in a hurry but quite useable in the city.
The mFalcon pair of engines is a great effort by M&M and we were particularly impressed with the user-friendly character of the 1.2 diesel.
As for the suspension, the KUV100 uses a traditional front MacPherson strut and rear torsion beam configuration. The KUV is set to the softer side, especially at the rear which has a gentle pitching motion. Driving it around on the streets of Mumbai the KUV smothers potholes well and deals with speed breakers with far more aplomb than its 170mm ground clearance would suggest. The steering is light, the turning circle is small and the general feeling is of being in a light and nimble hatchback.
At higher speeds though the KUV moves around a fair bit. There’s a bit of body roll around corners and the tall stance doesn’t help here. The steering may not be super quick or bristling with feel but it has a consistency and weights up nicely to give the driver lots of confidence at the helm. The brakes could do with a bit more bite and servo assistance. Also, what we did notice was wind noise around the A-pillar and it’s enough to make you think you’ve left a window open.
Should I buy one?
The styling will surely split opinion amongst potential owners but if you can digest the oddball proportions and styling, the KUV100 actually offers plenty. It’s got road presence which sets it apart in an ocean of conventional hatchbacks, as well as a well turned-out and spacious cabin with plenty of equipment on board. Commendably, safety has been given due importance too except for the sixth seat. The KUV’s engines, though unexciting, are also up to the job with decent everyday performance and more importantly promise to deliver on fuel economy. It’s an easy car to drive as well and this only helps the small Mahindra’s case.
The KUV doesn’t have any of the go-anywhere characteristics that you’d expect in an SUV and even its 170mm ground clearance is just par for the course, but remember this is an SUV only in marketing speak.
In true Mahindra tradition, pricing is keen with the base petrol K2 starting at Rs 4.42 lakh (ex-showroom, Pune) and the Rs 6.76 lakh diesel K8 topping off the range. These prices put the KUV in the heart of the hatchback segment where competition is the most intense. But its unique positioning as a hatchback-turned-SUV or vice versa could make the KUV100 the disruptive cat amongst the pigeons.