The Mahindra Genio: You don’t know whether to love or laugh

For some people, 2012 is the year when the world as we know it will come to an end.

For me, 2012 will be marked down as The Year of Great Surprises, one of which was a Mahindra vehicle.

If the world actually does end, that will be another (stop laughing at the back, please, this is not funny).

The Mahindra brand is back in the country and out in full force to do battle with Japan, and possibly Europe (I said stop laughing. I am serious). They have a whole line of vehicles to do this, with more to come, and within their stash of secret weapons is something called M-Hawk, which I will discuss shortly (for the last time, will you cut out the tittering back there?)

The Mahindra Genio

I have had a chance to sample one of their new products, and I must say the prognosis thus far is very promising. The vehicle in question is the Genio 4X2 single-cab pick-up, and it is quite unlike a lot of other pick-ups you may have seen.

To put things in perspective, I will compare it to the usual suspects that dominate the market, the output from the other automotive corner of Asia that is not India. Or China. Or Korea. Or Malaysia. Japan, in other words.

1. Physical Appearance:

The Genio looks a bit odd in the face. It is not as critically pretty as the Toyota Hilux or the Mitsubishi L200, nor does it have the conventional robust handsomeness of the D-MAX.

It actually looks a little bit like Hyundai, which is forgivable for a company that has not been in the game long enough to master car design.

Nevertheless, Mahindra is getting there, especially when you see what else they have to offer. The cabin is taller than the Japs’. However, and this gives the Genius — sorry, Genio — a driving feel akin to that of an SUV; a feeling that most of us desire, owing to the generous view outside.

It also has a short stubby bonnet, so threading the front end into and out of tight spaces will not be a hassle. However, threading the back end into and out of tight spaces might be a hassle because of…

2. Carrying Capacity:

Look carefully and you will notice that the payload area of the Genius — sorry, Genio — is a little longer (at 2.4 metres) than that of the D-MAX and the Hilux, which are already quite long (at two metres).

While the rest are classified as one-tonne pick-ups, the Genio is rated at 1.25 tonnes, with the capability to stretch to two. Therefore, either Mahindra as a company has a lot of insight into the thought processes of Kenyan businessmen, or they are trying to sell us a lorry and are calling it a pick-up. I am vouching for the former because of…

3. Price:

The Genius — sorry, Genio — 4X2 diesel will cost you Sh2.2 million, which you can negotiate down to Sh1.95 million, so let us just say that it costs about Sh2 million flat.

This is clearly not lorry money, so the Genio is definitely a pick-up. However, even as a pick-up, that is quite cheap, far cheaper than all three members of the Japanese Triad. Some of you might call that China money, so you might be getting a China-grade vehicle. I disagree, because of…

4. Build Quality and Amenities:

That SUV feeling comes about again. The cabin, in beige, looks a bit too fancy to be on a commercial vehicle.

It is not exactly a Volkswagen Touareg in here — panel gap consistency is still one or two degrees off and there might be a bit of plastic — but the execution is stupendous.

The steering wheel is chunky and feels nice to the touch. Talking of steering, the rack has been tightened up a bit. There is no play whatsoever (on the road, so instantaneous is the response to tiller twirling that it feels like you are driving a Golf. Yeah, I said it).

The controls are just where you want them, and there are one or two (actually four) little touches that people take for granted but will come to appreciate in the long term.

The air-con actually works as it should (Toyota Hilux, please pay attention), heating and cooling as instructed. There are cup-holders within sight and within reach. There are arm-rests (yeah Japan, you never thought of that, did you?) and what is more, there is a good-looking, crystal clear stereo that will play CD, MP3, and has a USB slot for those who cannot afford iPods and still walk around with flash drives full of pirated music.

One particularly fancy touch I liked was the cubbyhole on the left, also called the glove compartment in American English. While in most cars the lid drops open like the jaw of a hand puppet, in the Genius — sorry, Genio — it appears as a sliding door, and not just your typical French window style portal.

No, this door is made of flexible plastic, so when you slide it open, it opens wide as the plastic disappears to God-knows-where. You can have a full width gap, enough to push a wheel spanner through. Or even a whole wheel, though it will not fit into the box itself. That SUV feeling does not end with the interior. It is also felt through the…

5. Ride Quality:

I have driven the new Hilux 2.5, and I have driven the D-MAX. I have also driven the NP300 Hardbody, and I am sorry to say none of these holds a candle to the Genio in terms of comfort. Yeah, I said that too.

The Hilux is too hard to the point of being uncomfortable. Its stiffness is to such a degree that one is afraid it will oversteer dangerously if driven hard on a loose surface. Many call that stiffness an advantage. A visit to the chiropractor is not an advantage.

The D-MAX, on the other hand, is soft to the point of wobbliness, and it actually does oversteer, even on tarmac. There is a YouTube video as evidence of this dynamic infidelity (where it eventually overturns and pours out a mass of humanity off its bed).

The NP300 is both hard and bouncy, somehow managing to combine the two wrong qualities of the preceding pair. I will concede, the hardness and the bounciness of these three Japanese commercials arise from tropicalisation, but the Genio is also tropicalised (so they say), itself coming from an environment very similar to ours, and yet it rides well.

On the highway, it does not feel like a ship on the high seas (D-MAX), nor does it feel like the suspension has been set in concrete (Hilux). On rough roads, it will not grind your teeth to dust (Amarok, base model).

The clutch weighting is just right (again, base Amarok), though the gear lever seems to have been borrowed from the Scania, which I reviewed a few days ago. Mis-shifts are not on the menu, thank God. The brakes feel right and the accelerator pedal is easily modulated. This complements the magic ingredient of the whole setup, the…

6. Engine:

Mahindra calls it M-Hawk, which sounds like a currently fashionable (and questionable) hair-do common among both men and women below the age of 25. It is a 2.2 litre 4-cylinder common rail diesel, turbocharged and intercooled, good for 120 bhp and 295 Nm of torque.

So proud of it Mahindra is, that they use the exact same engine in the XUV 500, their idea of what a BMW X5 should be, only that in the XUV it has been tweaked to 140 bhp (you cannot keep up with an X5 if you only have 120 bhp; that is obvious).

There is some art behind the science of the Mohawk engine. Rather than having a front-mount intercooler in the style of a Lancer Evolution, the heat exchanger is located on top of the engine block, like a tea tray, as seen in a Subaru STi.

This setup would call for a bonnet scoop, but again the artists take over from the engineers: instead of an ostentatious scoop, the intercooler is fed by ducts, which start from the grille and feed into a pair of externally invisible plastic nostrils, which then force the air into air-ways carved into the underside of the bonnet.

These terminate halfway up the bonnet on top of the intercooler. To keep it airtight, the air-way terminus is lined with a rubber seal where the bonnet meets the fridge.

As with front-mount intercoolers, this arrangement reeks of potential cooling problems because the radiator has been robbed of precious airflow by the needs of the turbo-intercooling kit, and that is why the Genio has such a wide face. The top side of the grille (on the bonnet leading edge) feeds the heat exchanger, while the rest of the face provides the airflow channels for the radiator. All is well.

All is well because the turbo and the intercooler work in tandem with the 2.2 diesel to provide grin-inducing low-end torque and high-end power. Wheel-spin is possible in first and second gear (!!), even on tarmac, and overtaking in fourth is not a gamble with the idiocy of the person being overtaken and/or the bravado of the person coming the other way. Or even your own.

Seven times out of 10, all my overtakes along Mombasa Road were made in fourth: it was as simple as changing lanes and stamping the accelerator. No discernible turbo lag (Volkswagen Amarok), the torque band is quite wide (again Amarok, and the Hilux) and no mis-matched gear ratios (Toyota Hilux double-cab).

I have never enjoyed driving a pickup as much as I did this one. Mahindra claims fuel economy in the region of 12kpl. I believe them.

Sum-Up: The power of reputation

From my ramblings, it is easy to assume that the Mahindra betters its Japanese competition in almost every aspect that matters, and the quick answer is yes.

I know most readers will be cagey about buying something Indian over something Japanese, and this is down to the power of reputation: How can the Indians, makers of the Mahindra jeep that threw egg on the face of our police force, master, in a few short years, what has taken the Japanese, makers of the most reliable vehicles on the planet, decades to master?

I do not know, I honestly do not. But this is how good the Genio actually is: my fellow test driver, with whom I have test-driven the Hilux, the Range Rover Evoque, the Scania truck, and several other cars (in other words, whose opinion I trust) was so impressed that he suggested we take a Genio to Meru and pit it against the grand-daddy of toting miraa, the Hilux, to see if it will beat the Hilux at its own game.

That is how confident he was of the Genio’s abilities. And no, he is not a shareholder at Simba Colt, owners of the Mahindra franchise.

And no, he is not the fellow you saw at the Car Clinic Live event.

I, however, prefer a more cautious approach: let us not be so quick to draw conclusions from a single road test of a new model of car. A long-term test is called for.

While the Genio is a step above China-spec, it is still a step below Japan-spec for now, especially seeing how longevity and reliability is yet to be confirmed. Japan has been in the game for a while, let us not forget that; and the tall cabin and increased ride height might not gel well with the high-speed application that is the transportation of perishable narcotics.

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