About 20 years ago, I was in India riding in the back of a Tata Sumo—a sort of Land Rover Defender knockoff—in Corbett National Park, when the driver plunged down a river embankment for a hairy water crossing. The water was a couple feet deep, with a swift current, but the Indian SUV trundled across and then bounced up over the opposite embankment. “Wow,” I said. “It’s amazing what you can do with four-wheel drive.” The driver shook his head. “No four-wheel drive! Two-wheel drive!” In the U.S., we’re conditioned to think we need triple-locking differentials to leave the driveway. Indian off-road culture was decidedly more about technique than equipment. Imagine what that guy could have done with four-wheel drive.
That experience was in my head when I once again plunged into a river in an Indian off-roader, although this time the river was in North Carolina and the vehicle was a Mahindra Roxor, a machine that traces its lineage to the postwar 4x4s that Mahindra began building under license from Willys in 1947. The Roxor is legally a side-by-side, limited to 45 mph. But one glance tells you this thing is a far different creature than a Polaris. It has a steel body, solid axles with leaf springs, and a 2.5-liter four-cylinder turbo diesel hooked to a five-speed manual transmission and a two-speed transfer case. It’s like a Jeep CJ-7 that kept evolving, although Mahindra is careful to say that this is not a Jeep and nobody should confuse it as such, per its agreement with Fiat Chrysler.
I don’t think any Wrangler owners are going to mistakenly walk up to a Roxor in the Target parking lot. For one thing, a Roxor probably won’t be in that parking lot because it’s not street legal—although that varies in states that allow UTVs on the street, like Utah and West Virginia. And a Roxor makes a Wrangler look like a Rolls-Royce Cullinan. The Roxor Classic has only two switches on the dashboard: headlights and the horn. Step up to the LE and you get 50 percent more switches, since you need one for the 40-inch KC HiLites light bar. It really doesn’t get more elemental than this.
- Top speed: 45 mph
- Towing capacity: 3,490 pounds
- Base price: $15,500
But back to the water crossing. We’re on my friend Steve’s farm, and he’s encouraging me to size up the Mahindra’s fording ability in a rain-swollen stream. “Stay where the ripples are and I think you’ll make it,” he says. “No ripples means deep water.” With this country wisdom in mind, I drop in and pause to assess my path. “Don’t wait there too long,” Steve calls from the bank. “The bottom’s eroding under your tires.” He’s right, so I rev up the 64-hp diesel and head for a sandbar, upstream on the opposite side. There’s a moment when the front end dips low enough that the water’s over one of the headlights (and pouring in the sides), but the little 4x4 marches right along and finds shallow water on the other side.
After executing a nervous three-point turn, I make my return. My boots are wet but the Roxor is fine. A little cleaner, maybe. And I’m jacked up on adrenaline. That’s what off-roading is about—giving yourself that moment when you’re not entirely sure you’re going to make it. You don’t need complicated equipment for that. The Roxor is thrilling in an utterly simple, throwback way. It’s you and a machine tackling a problem. Your choices are limited to whether or not you want to use low-range. That’s pretty much it. Mahindra expects that as the Roxor develops a U.S. following, the vehicle could get somewhat more extravagant—you know, like adding back seats. I’d go for that, but I’d be ambivalent about adding any of the usual off-road mods to a Roxor—lift kit, big tires, gears, and locking diffs. The whole appeal of this Roxor lies in its ability to go places you don’t think it should go. It’s like a Suzuki Samurai that way, relying on tidy size and favorable angles rather than brute force.
American-Made? Almost. Mahindra is based in Mumbai, India, but it assembles the Roxor in a 150,000-square-foot factory in Auburn Hills, Michigan, that employs 350 people. “We’re at 30 percent American-parts content,” says Dan Proffer, marketing manager. “But we’re trying to get it to 50 percent, because then we’d be American-made.”
We head over to an old gravel pit, where I try the ol’ “Let’s see how far I can drive up this ridiculously steep wall” gambit. The Mahindra keeps climbing long after I figure it would give up, so I back up and try again a little faster. This time I make it higher. I keep going, charging the hill, until finally I have the momentum to triumphantly blast over the summit. I didn’t think there was any way the Roxor could make that climb, but here I am. Just for fun, we try the same hill with another 4x4 on hand, a jacked-up full-size pickup on 35-inch tires. The truck storms the embankment, throws its front tires over the top . . . and spins to a halt. It’s too big.
This appears in the September 2018 issue.