Does the only proper SUV under Rs 10 lakh offer fitness of purpose?

When you think about SUVs you immediately think about the Tata Safari or the Mahindra Scorpio. Ladder-frame SUVs are a dying breed. When you look for an SUV under Rs 10 lakh, you are looking at hatchbacks on stilts. These pseudo SUVs offer better performance and fuel efficiency on account of being lighter, are easy to drive in the city and offer a better ride and handling package than traditional ladder-frame SUVs. They feel superior until you head to a remote village or an off-road location. That’s when you feel the need for a tough SUV and this is exactly where the Mahindra Bolero Neo steps in. It may be a rebadged TUV 300 but don’t discount it just yet. Besides a name change, the Bolero Neo features several updates to make it more liveable and present itself as an alternative to pseudo SUVs that cost almost the same money. How hardcore is it? We took the Bolero Neo on a set of trails to find out. 


The looks?

I think the Bolero Neo looks more palatable than the TUV 300 it replaces. One thing the eagle-eyed among you might notice is that the Bolero Neo does not appear as tall-bodied as the TUV 300. While Mahindra has kept the bodyshell unchanged, it has been lowered by 20mm. By doing this, the ground clearance does not change but the dynamics improve due to the lower centre of gravity. Visually, even the gap between the wheel and wheel arches has reduced.  


The Bolero Neo also gets styling updates to mimic the iconic MUV. It features a black strip that runs along the side similar to its larger cousin. While the TUV's boxy styling is retained, the front grille and bumper have been revised. The bonnet sits 40mm lower than the TUV which offers drivers better visibility. It retains the TUV 300's headlamp and tail lamp shape but features revised elements. The Bolero Neo gets SUV-esque styling bits including black cladding that runs around the vehicle and a spare wheel mounted on the tailgate. That said, I would have liked to see a more butch looking face. The Bolero Neo's face looks happy. That and larger 16-inch rims would look apt. The current 15-inch wheels look a size too small. 


The cabin?

The first thing you notice as you climb inside is how spacious and airy the cabin feels. However, the dashboard layout feels dated compared to the competition. The plastics are not as smooth or shiny but feel rugged enough to take a beating. Updates include a new instrument cluster lifted from the Thar. The feature list on this top-spec N10 (O) variant includes a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Blue Sense app, cornering lamps, rear parking sensors, electronically adjustable ORVMs and cruise control.  Safety-wise, the Bolero Neo gets two airbags, ABS and EBD. This N10 (O) variant also gets a mechanically locking differential. 

Compared to the competition, the feature list feels spartan but the Bolero offers something unique: It offers a commanding seating position where you can literally see above other sedans and hatchbacks. The transmission tunnel eats into the legroom and the high-set clutch pedal means your left leg spends most of its time hovering over the pedal.  The Bolero Neo can seat seven people provided the two people at the back seats are tiny. Folding up the rear jump seats liberates 348 litres of boot space. 


The drive?

Power comes from a 1.5-litre three-cylinder diesel engine. It has been tweaked and it now pushes out 100PS and 260Nm. It is a torquey unit with peak torque available from idle. There is enough torque to pull away cleanly from a standstill in second gear. In city traffic, you can drive all day in third gear. Out on the highway, the Bolero Neo ambles along comfortably at speeds of 90-100kmph. In fifth gear at 100kmph, you can overtake that slow truck with ease. Given its top-heavy stance, it is not very comfortable at three-digit speeds but if you want to know, it does 120kmph without any hiccups. You will not miss the sixth gear considering it does 100kmph at around 3,000rpm. At highway speeds, the engine feels refined. However, the engine really shines when you go off the road. 

The owner of the adventure park tagged along in his modified Mahindra Bolero, It features a lift kit and mud-terrain tyres though. We were keen to see how the Bolero Neo stacked up to his modified daily driver. As we went down the ravine, I braced myself for sounds of rocks scraping against the frame. The fear turned to be unfounded as the SUV's short overhangs and tall ground clearance cleared ruts and rocks with ease. The ravine lead to an uphill climb that according to Sunny, eats up newbie-driven Thars all the time. The Bolero Neo had enough grunt to climb up steep inclines in second gear but in this case, I stuck to first and followed the lines Sunny took with his lifted Bolero.  This N10 (O) variant gets Multi-Terrain Technology (MTT), a fancy name for a mechanically-locking differential. How does it work? If one of the rear tyres loses traction, the system locks the differential sending power to both wheels. As I climbed up the hill, the SUV felt sure-footed and did not seem to bog down despite running road-biased tyres. I caught up with the Blolero on top of the hill. The owner expressed his surprise at the ease with which the Bolero Neo made it to the top. 

Trails done, we head back home through a series of B-roads including the NH 48. I miss a couple of potholes and the Bolero Neo gobbles it up without us occupants being tossed around. I won’t term the ride quality as plush but the Bolero Neo offers a comfortable ride wherein you can simply drive over broken roads without wincing. As aforementioned, the ladder frame chassis makes the Bolero Neo capable in the rough stuff but then there are a few compromises as well primarily, body roll. In the Bolero Neo’s case, body-roll in corners is well contained. However, its ladder frame roots mean you won’t be flying around that bend at high speed.  The brakes offer a strong bite and the non-intrusive ABS keeps things civilised under hard braking. 

Pricing for the Bolero Neo starts at Rs 8.48 lakh, going up to Rs 9.99 lakh for the N10 variant (all prices, ex-showroom). We expect the N10 (O) variant to cost around Rs 20,00 more than the N10. For its price, the Mahindra Bolero Neo does manage to stand apart from the crowd of sub-4 metre SUVs. It offers proper seven-seats and can go places where the competition won’t dare. The ride quality is surprisingly comfortable despite its ladder-frame roots and it is easy to drive and park in the city as well. However, it does miss out on new features that come standard on its rivals. While the Bolero Neo will not feel as at home for everyday city use as its rivals, it does make sense as your second-weekend vehicle with which you can explore the countryside or drive up to your farm. It might well be the smallest true-blue SUV out there but it surely is as capable as the big ones.

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