First Drive: New Mahindra Thar In The Thar Desert
A rookie 4x4 driver recounts his first-ever dune-bashing and off-roading experience in Rajasthan
Referring to 2020 as a 'tough year' would almost always be an understatement. So when I was offered the chance to go for a 5-day work event to break my 10-month run of restricted movement, I did not think twice before saying yes. The event, in question, was the 'Royal Escape' which was a drive through Rajasthan in the all-new Mahindra Thar. While the car has already been thoroughly tested by those more experienced, I had a different challenge for it. Can the Thar, a car that is supposed to represent the spirit of freedom with its go-anywhere reputation, quench my thirst for the open road after being stuck at home all these months?
The 2020 Mahindra Thar seems to have been very well received, as evidenced by the waiting period that currently extends up to nine months. It is the second generation of Mahindra's lifestyle SUV with 4WD as standard. It’s more practical than ever with its creature comforts and the option of an automatic gearbox. It has even captured the interest of many of my peers and colleagues as a lifestyle/adventure vehicle that won't break their banks with prices ranging between Rs 12.10 lakh and Rs 14.05 lakh (ex-showroom Delhi).
As someone who's not particularly excited by the proposition of a rugged SUV, I had my apprehensions about the Thar. But I was curious to understand the hype and the love for the Mahindra jeep and drive on some dunes. Besides, the idea of driving the Thar in the area it was named after, was a cool opportunity itself. So I packed my bags, loaded up on sanitiser and face masks, and headed to the airport.
A brief note on my experience travelling during the pandemic:
Check the state-wise regulations in case you might need any COVID-19 test results on arrival.
Temperature is checked at the time of entering the terminal and face mask is mandatory.
The airline provides you with a face shield, an extra mask, and some sanitiser sachets.
If you happen to have the middle seat, you have to wear an additional gown of sorts to protect you from the people sitting on either side as there is no scope of social distancing in that scenario.
The Journey Starts
The 'Royal Escape' kicked off in Udaipur, the city of lakes. Nine top-spec LX variants of the Thar were lined up in the resort’s parking lot. Eight of those nine cars were hard-top versions with the 2.2-litre diesel engine with a mix of manual and automatic gearboxes. The odd-one-out was the 2.0-litre turbo-petrol engine, mated to the 6-speed automatic which also featured the convertible soft-top. Despite the odds, I was hoping to get the petrol-convertible Thar for my first jeep experience in the desert.
The handover was pleasantly COVID-19 safe. Each car had been sanitised inside and out with the keys in the door and a basket of essentials on top of the bonnet. Climbing into the cabin, I discovered mine was the diesel-manual variant. We flagged off from the resort past noon but Mahindra had organised a small meeting at a private airstrip with Udaipur-based Prince Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar who is also a long-time fan of the brand's jeeps and the previous-gen Thar.
Following the short interaction, we got to see a few of the kitted-out Thars in his collection. The lineup included a 2020 Thar as well but Price Lakshyaraj said he was yet to test the car's limits. He also invited our convoy to stop by the city’s vintage car museum which included some very old Rolls-Royces, a Buick, some victorian-era motor cars, and some classic Mercedes too. After a quick peek at the pricey collection of antique cars, we hopped back into our modern-day Mahindra SUVs and headed out of the city.
As someone who predominantly drives hatchbacks and sedans, the high and upright seating position of the Thar felt quite odd at first. But thanks to the driving dynamics, it didn't take long for me to get used to its proportions and the driving view. Also, one is quick to realise the sheer presence of the Thar as other motorists would quickly give way to it while ogling at it in wonder...or, perhaps, envy?
Our first stop was described to us as a location near the Jawai dam on our way towards Jodhpur, around 160km from Udaipur. We ended up doing a spot of mild off-roading before driving up a large, smooth rock for an off-road activity quite bluntly called a "rock crawl". It was like a large boulder the size of a hill with a smooth enough surface to drive on. An off-road enthusiast in our group equated it to the Lion's Back ridge in Utah, in the US, which posed a similar off-road driving challenge. This was my first real-world experience in a 4X4 vehicle as all previous experiences were man-made courses. After the initial bit through the undergrowth and rocky pathways that would cause most so-called-SUVs to admit their crossover truths, we were faced with the challenge of the climb.
The Uphill Challenge
The instructions were simple: switch to 4WD-low, stick it in 2nd gear, and just follow the straightest line possible. In case you were as clueless as I was about operating a transfer case, here's a quick guide of how it works in the 2020 Thar:
There's a second shift-stick left of the gear selector with the following labels: 2H, 4H, N and 4L.
You normally drive in 2H (2WD-High) wherein the engine drives the rear wheels only since you don't need all four wheels for the added grip and it's more efficient too.
4H (4WD-High) allows you to switch to 4WD without any change in gear ratios or how the power is delivered and you can do it on the move.
4L or 4WD-low holds the revs in lower gears allowing the car to make the most of limited traction. To engage it, you need to be at a complete stop, push down on the stick and THEN pull it towards the 4L label. It goes from 4H to N and then to 4L.
After I figured that out and had the Thar in the right settings, I was gripping the steering wheel with clammy hands. I saw only the sky ahead with the car slowly but surely making the ascent up the large rock. It's one thing to be facing skyward momentarily while getting up a steep incline and a different feeling to be in that position and see the route ahead as you climb even higher. But the Thar did it with no problem whatsoever and that's what surprised me the most. How easy it was, even for an absolute beginner like myself. Once the climb had been conquered and the rest of the Thars made their way up, I could confidently say the view was worth the experience. From the water bodies on one side of the rock to the plains on the other side, you had a top-down view of the landscape and the beautiful setting sun.
The next trick for the car's 4-low system was driving down the massive rock. This time, we were told to hold 1st gear and touch nothing except the brake pedal to control our descent. I still can't decide which felt more unsettling -- feeling gravity push you back in your seat as you drive up or resisting gravity to maintain control while driving down. Either way, the Mahindra Thar's 4x4 system made short work of it with ease. The final stop in that area was a tourist spot near the Jawai river for some tea to watch the sunset before heading off to Jodhpur for the night.
On The Open Road
After reaching our accommodation past midnight, I was relieved to learn that we'd have a late start. From Jodhpur, we headed 300km west towards Jaisalmer, most of which was just driving on the highway. The landscape got sparser and flatter as we got closer towards the desert. Travelling in a convoy at highway speeds, the 2020 Thar was a very comfortable place. With my phone connected via Android Auto, I was able to enjoy my tunes via the clever speaker system and I even used cruise control on the rare bits without much traffic.
I noticed that as we neared Jaisalmer, it was easier to find more and more places with Thar in the name so this Mahindra SUV felt even more at home. Once we neared the city, we took a slip road that was barely two-cars wide which often meant taking half the car onto the rough bit off the tarmac to let others pass. From experience, doing that in the Thar was much easier than doing it in something less rugged. Overall, it was a pleasantly uneventful drive to our accommodation in Jaisalmer.
Our Day In The Dunes
On our third day, we'd finally be heading towards the dunes to test out the new Thar on soft sand. Waking up earlier than most, a fellow correspondent and I took a Thar to go check out the nearby Jaisalmer fort. Some had gone out even sooner and were able to drive to the top of it. We had to settle for some shots from the outside but it was cool to see how the Thar's stance went perfectly with the historic structure in the backdrop. We were able to get out just as the tourist mobs arrived by the busloads, giving us a taste of navigating the SUV's proportions through crowded spaces.
We did have a couple of checkpoints along the way such as the ruins around Khaba fort and our lunch stop where we were briefed about the plans for the dune driving. This was the first time we'd be using 4H and were told that momentum was key to driving on a loose surface. While we were being briefed, the support team had lowered the tyre pressures of our cars from 32psi to around 20psi (could not verify that number). After a short journey on some tarmac, we took a 90-degree turn off of it to head for the dunes. Once there, I got a surprise passenger: one of the off-roading instructors. Unfortunately, he gave me advice opposite to the instructions we were given over the radio from the lead instructor of Mahindra's off-road academy.
To give my passenger the benefit of the doubt, I slotted my Thar into 2H before my first attempt to drive up a small dune. The instructions were simple: keep your foot down and hang onto the steering wheel. On a smooth surface, I would have no issues with sticking to that. However, when driving on an uneven surface where you can't see over the top of the dune, my regular driving instincts kicked in and I eased off the throttle just a bit. That was enough for me to lose momentum and get stuck. After spinning up a fair bit of sand in my attempt to regain traction, I remembered the tip on how to get unstuck in the sand: reverse and try again. Unfortunately, I was too delicate with this as well and had to hand the wheel to the instructor. He backed up a long way, rushing like a madman, slotted it into 4L and made quick work of the small dune. Slightly embarrassed but keen to redeem my dignity, I made sure not to get stuck again. While the instructor kept giving me contradictory directions to what we were being told over the convoy radio, I did my best to not get stuck. That was the last time I was delicate with the Mahindra Thar and for the rest of the evening, it kept taking the punishment. Yet, it did not falter even once.
Tougher Than I Thought
The instructor took over again, briefly, to prove his earlier point that the Thar could tackle the same route as everyone else was doing in 4-low as in 2H, as long as you knew what you were doing. While I did not attempt the feat myself, I made a mental note of how capable the 2020 Thar really is. His demo gave me a newfound confidence in the Thar and I made the most of it in my solo stints around the dunes, even making my own routes to keep up with the lead car ahead. I even had a few hard landings as stray patches of hard sand allowed me to drive over their crests at speed and the Thar just kept going without even an error message flashing up on the MID.
As dusk approached, most of us parked our Thars while the more experienced off-roaders from Mahindra took some beauty shots on the untouched dunes further away. The setting sun seemed to have set the sky ablaze in a fiery red hue with the clouds lighting up like embers. As I sat atop a small dune, taking in the magnificent view, I understood the appeal of something like the Mahindra Thar. It was far from the refined urban SUVs one could buy for around Rs 16 lakh, nor was it particularly practical with its limited rear space. But it was the SUV to embrace a sense of freedom. It granted a sense of being free of restrictions and responsibilities, even if just for one weekend. And there aren't many new cars, if any, that can offer that feeling for that price.
To end our day at the dunes, the Mahindra crew had arranged a cookout for dinner on a different dune, closer to civilisation. Those were the fleeting hours of feeling free, warmed by the fire with dinner lighting from the massive light-bar fixed atop the customised old Thar. A reminder that like most off-roading hobbies, there was a sense of community when it came to the Thar.
On the final night of the Mahindra Royal Escape, we were invited for a hearty farewell dinner at the Jodhpur resort. Having travelled for work for the first time in a long while and socialising safely with people after a 10-month hiatus was also a special feeling. As I bid adieu to everyone, I saved my final goodbye for the Thar I'd been driving. As I stared at its slightly dusty body with some scratches that I picked up by driving too close to some desert foliage, I couldn't help but think that the car looked ready to head out on another 1000km adventure the very next day. There are comfier cars to do road trips in, but there are not many alternatives to do that kind of mileage through places with no roads whatsoever. It makes sense too, that the Thar would do well in the territory it was named after. After all, I'd been driving an SUV that was simply in its element.
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