The XUV500 and the Aria don’t look like the most obvious rivals. Even at first glance, they look fundamentally different and, so we assume, they must be. The long bonnet and strong SUV stance of the new Mahindra makes it look very different in profile to the cab-forward, MPV-like Tata. Look under the skin and the differences are greater still. The XUV500 is built around a car-like monocoque, it uses a transversely mounted engine, and drive is sent only to the front wheels. In total contrast, the Aria has a conventional body-on-frame construction and the rear wheels are driven by a longitudinally mounted engine but it’s a new platform (X2) which is hydroformed and lighter than the ageing ladder frame of the Safari.
But though their paths may differ, both the XUV500 and the Aria are targeted at exactly the same set of customers. Both these ‘lifestyle’ soft-roaders are built to carry seven passengers in comfort, both are designed to take poor roads in their stride, both are optimised for long drives and you can buy either of them for between Rs 11 and 14 lakh. The question is, which of these homegrown, everyday heroes is better?
Stand these two cars together and you’ll be instantly drawn to the XUV, with its stand-out styling and muscular stance. The Aria, you see, is part-SUV, part-MPV, and that unfortunately means it lacks the commanding look of a true-blue SUV. Its cab-forward design and gently sloping bonnet may be more practical and allow for a more spacious cabin, but this ‘crossover’ can’t quite turn heads like the Mahindra.
It’s not that the Aria lacks presence. The sleek headlights and high-set grille give it an imposing front that won’t be lost in the parking lot. The design also has an air of robustness and it’s hard to miss the battleship-sized Aria as it cruises by.
With the XUV, Mahindra has stuck to the SUV design rulebook. Its high bonnet, clearly distinguished greenhouse and muscular wheel arches give it much more ‘swagger’. It’s well proportioned too, with a wide track and hunkered-down look. Design elements like the rising window line and character lines on the doors look quite contemporary.
Unfortunately, M&M designers seem to have gone overboard trying to give the XUV some added flash. Bits like the faux air vents under the headlights and oversized wheel arches don’t work too well, but most people we encountered loved the car and we did get a lot of thumbs ups.
2011 SPACE ODYSSEY
Step inside the Aria and you’ll find the exterior’s robustness is carried over to the inside as well. The dashboard is simply styled but feels solid, and some of the materials are of pretty good quality too. This is easily Tata’s best interior yet. However, fit and finish are still not up to scratch and that’s most evident in the inconsistent plastic panel gaps. There are some ergonomic glitches as well. The steering, for example, is set too close to the driver and the audio controls on the steering wheel are also poorly positioned – it’s easy to accidentally press the buttones. A narrow footwell also means there’s no space to rest your clutch foot. But the spacious front seats are hugely comfortable and visibility is fantastic too.
The XUV doesn’t do too badly for front-seat comfort either. In fact, the seat is very spacious and visibility front he slightly higher perch is better still. The seat, however, is a touch too supportive and larger drivers will have to contend with some excessive side bolstering. The XUV’s interior looks busier and has more of a sense of occasion than the Aria’s understated cabin. There are some good-quality bits like the large rotary dials on the centre console and smart air-con vents, which have a wide range of adjustment. The classy pod-like dials also win the XUV some brownie points.
But take a closer look at the plastics and you soon realise some of the quality is sub-par. It’s inconsistent throughout the cabin and many buttons look quite downmarket. There are ergonomic issues as well. The central box, for example, fouls with the driver’s elbow during gearchanges, the handbrake is oddly angled (and doesn’t work well), and the steering has a limited range of adjustment.
Shift your focus to the middle row and the XUV is easily the more spacious of the two. To get more legroom with a wheelbase that’s a full 150mm shorter than the Aria’s speaks volumes about Mahindra’s clever design and packaging. Also, you sit higher in the XUV, so there’s ample space to stretch out even with the front seats pushed right back. The floor is absolutely flat too, which is ideal for middle passenger comfort. Under-thigh support, however, is not as good as in the Aria and the Tata has rear seats that can slide back and forth as well.
While both these large vehicles may be classified as ‘seven-seaters’, for all practical purposes they are best suited for carrying five adults and a pair of kids. The Aria does have an edge here though, as you can move the middle-row seats forward to free vital niches of legroom for the third row. In contrast, the XUV’s third row is more cramped, and adding to the inconvenience is access which is only from the left side. Also with all seats in place, the XUV has virtually no boot space. The Aria, in comparison, has enough room for small suitcases at the rear. If you don’t have passengers, both cars allow the third and middle rows to be folded flat, which gives you enough space to move house with minimal trips. Both models have plenty of storage space in the cabin, but it’s the XUV that has an abundance of cubbyholes and pockets. The cooled box between the front seats is also another useful XUV feature, missing on the Tata. Tata has oddly given the Aria a total of seven roof-mounted boxes which, we assume, are put there to attract customers from within the Taliban, as they would make perfect ammunition cases!
Both motors displace 2.2 litres, both have an identical bore and stroke, 85 x 96mm, and power outputs are similar too, with 138bhp in the Aria and 140bhp in the XUV.
The XUV gets Mahindra’s proven mHawk motor from the Scoropio, albeit with an additional shot of 20bhp, courtesy a higher-pressure fuel system and new variable-geometry turbocharger. But it is only after driving the two cars back-to-back, that you realise the mHawk trails behind the Aria’s DiCOR motor on the refinement front. The XUV’s engine is louder and always audible. The Aria seems to have benefitted from its body-on-frame chassis, which absorbs noise and vibrations better than the XUV’s monocoque.
Once you’re on the move, it is quite easy to get used to the relaxed character of the Aria motor. Bottom-end torque is not all that great so you need to work the gearbox to keep momentum. But once past 2000rpm, the Aria settles into a comfortable rhythm. It is an easy cruiser with enough pulling power to make highway overtaking stress-free. But its long-throw, five-speed gearbox is slightly rubbery in its operation and the clutch is on the heavier side, making hard work of stop-go traffic.
When it comes to performance, Mahindra usually has the edge over Tata and with the XUV it’s no exception. With a 200kg weight advantage, the XUV feels livelier at any speed and there’s a spring in its step which is missing in the Tata. If you’re in the wrong gear, you feel bogged down in the Aria, but that’s never the case in the XUV, which simply runs away like a cheetah from a lumbering Colonel Haathi! The XUV reaches 100kph in 12.34 seconds, which is more than a second and a half earlier than the Aria.
In-gear acceleration is a closer-run affair and the XUV’s 12.36sec 20-80kph time is just marginally quicker, but the Aria closes the gap largely because of its shorter gearing.
There’s a good spread of power across the mHawk’s rev range and getting past slower traffic is never more than a mild prod of the accelerator pedal away, despite the relatively tall gearing. That brings us to the XUV’s six-speed gearbox, which is just not up to the mark. Yes, the extra ratio gives the XUV a long pair of legs on the highway, but gearshifts require effort, the clutch action is jerky and it’s easy to stall the car too (often the case with a dual-mass flywheel), which takes away from the driving experience.
Weight and efficiency are interlinked, so no prizes for guessing the more fuel efficient of this pair. In the city, the XUV returned a figure of 10.2kpl while out on the highway the figure rose to 14.3kpl. The Aria’s city and highway fuel economy figures were a lower 10kpl and 13.9kpl, respectively, which are not too bad, either.
RIDE AND PREJUDICE
The Aria is a big vehicle and always feels its size, especially when you have to park, but it’s quite easy to drive. Its supertanker dimensions make the parking sensors not a luxury, but an absolute necessity. On the move, there’s a lumpiness to the ride at low speeds which is typical of body-on—frame vehicles. Hit a pothole hard and you can feel the Aria judder, and sharp edges filter through. However, ride quality improves with speed and the Aria, with its double wishbones up front and five links at the rear, smoothens out everything but the sharpest of bumps with ease. Ride quality is pretty settled too, except for some low-frequency pitching over undulations. The Aria is quite stable at speed as long as there is no sudden steering input. The heavy and softly set-up Aria means it does roll quite a bit when cornering with any enthusiasm, but that’s to be expected. The massive Tata is not a car that likes to be hustled and feels best when driven in a relaxed manner.
Mahindra has equipped its soft-roader with MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear suspension and on paper, this should have given the Mahindra a big advantage. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Low-speed ride is only marginally better than the Aria’s, but things change the faster you go. The SUV doesn’t take well to sharp bumps and you can always hear the suspension crash through potholes. There’s a fair amount of body rattle, which questions the torsional stiffness of the body shell. Moreover, the steering has a tendency to kick back over rough surfaces, unlike the Aria’s helm, which is uncorrupted by driveshafts in the front. Though the XUV is more agile, quicker to dart into corners and easier to park than the ponderous Aria, the overall handling of the XUV is only just acceptable.
It’s ironic, but it has taken the XUV500 to remind us that the Aria, which has slipped below the radar, is a pretty competent vehicle. The big Tata feels more refined than the Mahindra, has a better overall ride and a bit more space too. The interiors are pretty plush as well, and some of the plastics feel better than those in the Mahindra. However, the overall fit and finish of both cars is still some way off international standards.
For sheer emotional appeal though, the Aria can’t compete with the XUV and it doesn’t quite offer the same bang for your buck either. The optimistic price marks the Aria down in this comparison. Even for the two-wheel-drive version. Even for the two-wheel-drive version, prices start at lofty Rs 11.16 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) for the base Pure variant and go up to Rs 14.26 lakh for the fully-equipped Prestige model. To win at this price, the Tata would have to be much better.
The XUV500 stands out in some key areas. It has those SUV looks most shoppers in this segment crave, the rear seat is comfy and performance is terrific. However, interior quality is a letdown, the transmission is hard work and the ride and handling don’t feel sorted either. It’s seriously well equipped, with every conceivable feature you could (except a sunroof) but what tilts the balance firmly in the XUV’s favour is quite simply the price. The base W6 front-wheel-drive model costs just Rs 10.8 lakh and the better-equipped W8 variant costs Rs 11.9 lakh, making the feature-laden XUV a lot more car for the money.