Can a brightly coloured, quirky hatchback posing as a sports utility vehicle (SUV) make the SA public love Mahindra?

When the Indian vehicle brand first landed in SA in 2004, virtually the only selling-point of its Scorpio and Bolero workhorse vehicles was price. At the time, executives said that, like the Japanese and Koreans before them, Indian brands (Tata had launched here a few weeks earlier) would take time to improve quality and gain SA market acceptance.

It’s been a slow process. Annual sales grew to about 4,000 annually, then stalled. Despite what marketers claimed, South Africans did not spend their waking hours dreaming of owning a Mahindra 4x4 or bakkie.

Mahindra has softened its image in recent times, bringing in SUVs like the Xylo, Quanto and XUV500. And now it has the KUV100. Launched this month, it’s an important vehicle for the future of the brand in SA. As the cheapest passenger vehicle of its kind by some distance, its performance could make or break Mahindra’s dream of 12,000 annual brand sales by 2020. Group executive director Pawan Goenka says that once the company hits 6,000, it will consider building vehicles in SA.

So will the KUV100 make the difference? Mahindra calls it an SUV because of its “raised stance and versatility”. I consider it a hatchback car, albeit chunkier in appearance than most on the market.

The interior is neat, comfortable and well-finished. Many people don’t like dashboard-mounted gearsticks but the KUV’s is excellent: slick and user-friendly.

The same can’t be said of the cumbersome bakkie-style handbrake that protrudes just below the gearstick. Unless you drive with your chest against the steering-wheel, you have to lean forward to fully disengage. If you twist and release, the brake tends to stop halfway down.

It’s not the only bakkie-ish feature. The 1200cc petrol engine (diesel is also an option) is willing but noisy. Wind noise through the closed driver door/window is also distracting.

Two things particularly irritated me. On the car I drove, the remote central-locking key button was like a moody teenager: it obeyed only when it could be bothered. And then there’s the radio on/off button. I assume it’s supposed to wobble like that but after four days, I still had no idea how it worked. Please keep it simple.

Overall impression?

Better than I expected but not good enough yet to make me a customer.

Prices on the KUV100 range from R149,995 to R197,995.

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