The June-July period in my part of the world is one where once the monsoon sets in, transforms the area all around the western belt of Maharashtra into a lush green playground. I use the term playground because the myriad possibilities of tackling diverse terrain, whether on foot or horseback, not just to take in the terrain and the exercise but also experience the joy of soaking in the stunning vistas of countryside is unparalleled. However what is even more intoxicating for petrol heads like us all, is the sense of adventure once the rains thunder in gets magnified and you do want to get off the road and tackle the rough and tumble countryside, hill and dale, stream and rivulet.
Mahindra's Great Escape at Lonavala last month was a major catalyst in steering me towards doing more than the official escape from the humdrum regular. Held in the lush game park slam bang in front of the high profile Aamby Valley, it was all about hitting the forest trails with the rains pouring down, making it ultra slippery on rocky terrain and slushy in the muddy sections while also deep and dangerous in streams which had transformed into raging rivers. Ideal situation tailor-made for dedicated off-roaders armed with a variety of Mahindra’s - Scorpios, CJs of various hues and also of course the ubiquitous Thar.
My former colleague Bijoy Kumar Y who now heads the very successful Mahindra Adventure outfit tasked with putting the company's hardy vehicles in environs conducive to their intended application for lay persons to experience had been badgering me to really get off the beaten path. He not only promised me a most adventurous sortie out into the wilds where the rain is one of the heaviest there is in the country but just as importantly a very involving experience with a properly sorted out Thar. Now I had driven the Thar quite extensively at the time of its launch and while I had found it capable to get off tarmac, I had found it rather harsh and not too comfortable for the daily grind in the urban jungle.
I was therefore surprised when Dilip Desai and myself trooped into the Great Escape boot camp at Lonavala and Bijoy was there with a butch and beefy Thar, obviously breathed upon and looking its part, not just with its day-glo orange paint job but also because of the big boots it wore, the substantial roll cage it sported along with other off-road accessories. Now I have seen and experienced many Jeeps and off-roaders from other makes with just this sort of cosmetic makeovers so I was not about to burst into applause, simply for the fact that if not thought out the car’s handling deteriorates and is a liability instead of an asset over the rough and the difficult. However, to further brighten my spirits on a day with dark clouds and the rain steadily beating down, this orange Thar was the only open-to-the-sky vehicle in the Great Escape, I knew Bijoy has that impish sense of humour and who better to lay it on then yours truly!
All worries about handling or the lack of it along with heavy and cumbersome steering effort all flew out of the reckoning when the engine fired up and the Thar started to show what it was capable of. Ever since this vehicle had been re-invented in the mind so to speak by the product think tank within Mahindra, the back to basics approach of a honest mechanically activated 4 x 4 system has brought back the capability of such a frugal simple vehicle for the outdoors. A capability which was honed first on the battlefronts during World War II and then applied to more enjoyable and less violent pursuits like sport and pleasure.
The vehicle I was driving couldn’t be said to be stock standard at all but then it was just right for the task intended. First off the large and purposeful Maxxis Bighorn 764 LT245/75-R16 rubber wrapped around equally large alloy wheel rims set the tone. To get these large tyres to do their stuff without getting the modicum of handling into a tangle, the ride height had been increased and there was also enough done for the suspension lift. These bits were the only details necessary from the performing aspect needed to get this Thar Escape-ready and they worked, as we shall find out. Of course a full roll-cage was a necessity and though it did take away from the purity of this off-roader’s classic lines, on many a heart-in-the-mouth occasion I was glad that it was bolted on to the vehicle.
And then were the headlight protectors and the chaff grille along with revised front and rear bumpers, rudimentary cut-away doors to enhance visibility while crawling through the narrowest of gullies. This Thar also came with custom rock sliders, another small but vital detail to press on regardless in the trickiest of situations and of course to help with the deep fording so integral a part of an off-roader’s repertoire there was a snorkel air intake for the engine to breathe without gasping for oxygen. And finally, we also had a Bush Ranger 12,000 pound electric winch up front which was to prove most handy in hauling out many a stricken vehicle during the event.
Tackling the Great escape route itself in Lonavala set the smiles rolling on our faces and even our ace snapper shot Kunal Khadse was in the groove trying to take in the sight of this day-glo orange Thar smashing its way over thick shrubs to begin with and then slither up and down rocky pathways slick with the on-going rain. The large Maxxis Bighorns tried to do their manly best and for most of the time they were up to it until we slithered into near waist deep mud and it was only the massive torque from the 2.5-litre CRDI engine and that Borg-Warner four-wheel drive gear that saw up come out of it every time we tackled quagmires.
Heck it became so good that every time we saw many sinking into gooey mud we just dived into it and the Thar just dirty danced its way to glory. And while we were at it, there was the small aspect of a near 90-metre rivulet to be crossed and with water flooding in to the cabin and that too with a gusto that had me thinking of the recent fury of nature that had so much of Uttarkashi washed away. With the drive in four wheel low, the Thar gripped and chugged itself through the river, the short approach angle helping it to get back on to the slushy banks without digging in though it made for tough calls not to look behind as the river raged with a ferocity forcing me to remember that I am a hopeless swimmer!
What I forgot while I was doing all this was the fact that what we take for rudimentary basics in our everyday machines was just not there at all in the Thar’s cabin. The steering wheel was grippy no doubt and the pedals seemed to need just that li’l bit more effort while the shift actuation was a revelation. However the rest was minimal to downright ludicrous – the wipers were hardly up to the task and with no top above us.
We think that serious off-roaders should also have a set of wipers on the inside of the windscreen to allow for a clean up-ahead visibility. The switch stalks were just about OK but devoid of any tactile feel and the knobs on the dashboard for the air con controls were falling out one after the other in the course of a strenuously enjoying day of off-roading.
It just got better and better though for we had rain the entire duration of the day and the Thar’s mechanical ability to deliver had us smiling throughout, the upper body might have been protected with out rain gear but our lower limbs were soggy wet but hell did we care? So much so that we asked for the Thar to be loaned to us for a couple of days so that we could go to our familiar hunting grounds for more of the same. From Lonavala to Pune on the expressway in pouring rain we drove back, making a ridiculous sight for the others as this big jeep was thrumming its way on tarmac.
Suddenly rammed home the point about the dynamics not having been upset with the fitment of the large wheels purely because of the suspension and ride height changes! But the electrics were another aspect altogether – while we had lost one headlight and one rear light (stop working and not damaged mind you) in the Great Escape, steadily by the time we got to Pune we lost another tail light. Then the next day while hurtling on the banks of the Varasgaon lake we had the remaining headlight blink off and then the horn went away – brilliant ingredients which only added to the cheerful grin factor! I am sure in any other situation I would have been cursing the stars but when having fun this only added to that enjoyment!
So what is the takeaway here then? For starters I think that there would be a market for a properly sorted out Thar Great Escape edition with the big wheels and the suspension and ride height mods. Throw in the roll cage but with a semblance of soft roof protection, better electrics and also a cleaner more sanitised interior replete with a return to the original flat metal dashboard, I think there would be a market for such a vehicle provided there was only a marginal price justification. Throw in a free training session at the Mahindra Adventure Off-Road Training Academy into the list price and you would have another mighty product extension for a vehicle that one could use for work and pleasure in the true sense of the term.
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