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D / IMPRESSIONS

Adventure Drive: Mahindra XUV 300 to Putsonderwater





23 July 2019


Mahindra has always had a sensible approach to doing business: sell nice cars at attractive prices. With the all-new XUV 300, it’s taking things up a notch by offering a competitor in the hotly contested small SUV segment.

“Where shall we go and what shall we do when we get there?” That’s the basic premise behind every adventure we go on. This question is usually followed by a flurry of ideas, most of which sound good in your mind, but less so when spoken out loud. “What about Putsonderwater?” Cue the signature sound of buttons clacking away furiously as an investigation into Putsonderwater starts. “There doesn’t appear to be much there,” is the response. “The last update we found dates back to 2017 and that report suggests it is a ghost town.” “Well, the last time I was there they were building stuff,” said another colleague. Interesting. If Putsonderwater was indeed in the midst of a renaissance, we wanted to get there first and enjoy the results before thousands of bearded vapers descended on the town. An old run-down ghost town turned funky also provided the perfect analogy for the car we’d be using: the Mahindra XUV 300. In 2004, things looked bleak for Mahindra South Africa. Its main drawcard was the Bolero, which remains on sale to this day. It’s a sad-looking workhorse with little in the way of comfort and safety but somehow it managed to outlast a tough, brand-loyal market, as well as an onslaught of obscure Chinese imports that have since left the country. The Bolero would eventually build a loyal following, while Mahindra continued to bolster the brand by introducing a series of successful products. The continued investment in South Africa would eventually lead to an assembly plant in Durban. This small assembly line is capable of churning out 4 000 Pik Ups per year. It didn’t happen overnight but the hard work eventually paid off. In January this year, Mahindra sold 644 vehicles in South Africa. It’s on the verge of breaking into the top 10 club and if that doesn’t impress you, maybe we should mention some of the manufacturers it outsold recently: Honda, Mitsubishi, Jaguar Land Rover and Opel. The strategy to get the brand there was remarkably simple. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mahindra’s CEO, Rajesh Gupta (no relation to South Africa’s first family) and he explained it to us: Mahindra basically stuck to what it was good at, which is building honest and affordable, yet capable and comfortable cars. Mahindra stays in its lane and it doesn’t colour outside the lines. Or that’s how it used to be… The XUV 300 is not a normal Mahindra product. Sure, on paper it still appears to subscribe to the usual brand values but you need only look at it once to realise that this particular crossover is, ehm, trying to be funky. With the possible exception of the KUV 100, no other Mahindra has tried to be funky. The XUV 300’s body and roof can be ordered in different colours, for goodness sake. It’s Mahindra’s renaissance, which gives us a nice Segway back to Putsonderwater.

What’s in a name?

The tale of how Putsonderwater got its name depends entirely on who you ask. What we can all agree on is the colloquial definition of Putsonderwater, which generally refers to any far-off place with a name you can’t remember right this moment. It’s like Pofadder but even more extreme. Historically, there are three versions of the story. The first is fairly on the nose. Way back in the day it was a farm called Klippan owned by a man called David Ockhuiswhose. David wasn’t particularly fond of other people, which is probably why he settled in the Northern Cape in the first place.

Unfortunately, the region experienced an influx of passers-by once a few Capetonians got sick of British rule and decided that they’d rather find somewhere else to live. These expats would spot David’s well on the way up to Jozi.

Since it was the only one in the region, they’d often pop in asking for a cup or two. David would tell these thirsty travellers that it was indeed his well, but that it didn’t have any water. “Ek het ’n put meneer, maar hy het nie water nie.” Word got around and eventually travellers started referring to the place as Putsonderwater, granting David his wish of eternal solitude.

The trekboere also have a starring role in the other story of how this place got its name. This story is a bit more complex, though. To get from Cape Town to Jozi, the farmers famously used ox wagons. The wheels on the wagons were lubricated with tar. This tar was kept in a bucket on the end of a stick hung outside the wagon. It was known as a teer puts.

The area in which Putsonderwater is located is prone to flash flooding. As the farmers parked their wagons for the night, the heavens would open and flood the region. The water pushed up high enough to flood the tar bucket, which led to the phrase puts onder water. The last story also has to do with the flooding. According to folklore, the region flooded so much that the famous well would be entirely under water. So, three stories of how one town got its name. One featuring no water at all and one featuring way too much. Which version of the story was true, we wondered?

There was only one way to find out.

The XUV 300

Two things strike you when you first lay eyes on the XUV 300: it’s smaller than it appears in the images and it’s definitely funkier than anything we’ve ever seen from the Indian brand. It oozes cool from every angle and, from what we experienced during our time behind the wheel, the public seem to like it. It looks good enough to lure people to showroom floors but that’s where it will really have to deliver the goods. For our trip to Putsonderwater, Mahindra was kind enough to provide us with a top-spec W8 model and the list of standard features is astounding.

Apart from the usual electric windows, climate control, trip computer and touchscreen infotainment system, you get seven airbags, a full suite of electronic safety aids and full leather upholstery. We aren’t quite sure whether the beige leather will appeal to everyone but it offers a decent contrast to the black upper section of the dashboard. The infotainment system comes standard with Bluetooth connectivity, navigation and a nifty advanced trip computer that gives you a full breakdown of how you drove between refills. It’s a blatantly honest feature and it doesn’t shy away from calling one’s acceleration technique “mediocre”.

The infotainment system also features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. We tried the latter for the first time on this trip and we quite like that it has a quick response button for when you receive a message while driving. You press it and the person on the other end receives something along the line of “I’m currently driving”. Doesn’t seem like much but we used it at least five times during three days of driving.

It feels as if Mahindra put some proper thought into this car and set it up specifically for the kind of people who would inevitably buy it. The two USB ports up front are a prime example. Every single millennial has a smartphone, so why do manufacturers only equip cars with one port? This is something we find in our longterm Renault Duster and it predictably leads to arguments. “Is your phone done charging yet, because mine is at 20%.”

The small SUV market is also a firm favourite among the elderly and they’re well catered for. The XUV 300 has a parking assistant that activates when you engage reverse. He’s a friendly fellow with a pleasant accent and he asks politely whether he might be able to help you get out of your parking spot. He can assist with both parallel and perpendicular parking, which is a first in this particular segment. We found him slightly annoying since he pops up frequently in town but we also understand his existence. He might seem useless to those who can easily park a small SUV, but those who struggle will definitely appreciate the help. The underpinnings are equally impressive, even though the overall nature of the car is nowhere near as sporty as the styling suggests. It corners confidently but the suspension set-up is closer to cushy than it is to firm. Call us weird but we prefer it that way. A little more on that later… The engine is all-new and it’s a peach. It’s a turbocharged 1.5-litre four-cylinder diesel and it packs an 86kW/300Nm punch. The power is sent to the front wheels via a sixspeed gearbox. Since Mahindra had no off-road aspirations for the XUV 300, the gear ratios are spread wider than they are in the Duster, which makes for a much better suburban driving experience with a light clutch and easy gear changes. The XUV 300 really excels on the open road. With 300Nm at its disposal, overtaking requires minimal effort. At a steady 120km/h, a change down from sixth is rarely required. The other positive attribute of this new engine is its frugality. From refill to refill the Mahindra recorded an average of around 5.5 litres/100km. That’s 4.8 litres/100km at its lowest and 6.1 litres/100km at its worst.

The way to Putsonderwater

As mentioned earlier, there are various stories relating to this town’s name. A few people we spoke to were actually surprised it even existed at all. Then we hit the jackpot a day before leaving on the trip. A student at the North West University made a documentary about Putsonderwater in 2015, explaining the reason for its existence. It was a farm but it only really became a “town” during the Second World War. Development happens at a rapid pace during wars and our Government needed a quick way to get supplies to South West Africa. This was by rail and the last stop in South Africa was… you guessed it: Putsonderwater. So, it was actually a famous train station and a pretty one at that.

According to various sources, Putsonderwater has many awards under its belt, winning the award for the station with the prettiest gardens many times. Getting there isn’t a hardship, except for the last 30 minutes of the trip. The journey from Johannesburg to Upington is fairly unspectacular. It’s essentially a dead straight piece of tar with nothing to look at except the curvature of the Earth.

Luckily the Mahindra was exceptional at this mundane activity. The noise, vibration and harshness levels are impressive and the diesel engine is an absolute joy on the open road. At 120km/h it’s hardly ticking over, yet there’s enough grunt in reserve to easily overtake slower traffic. The journey of nearly 800km to Upington was completed in good time, as was the short 160km stint from Upington to Putsonderwater the next morning. Not knowing what to expect, we hooked a right off the main road and on to the final gravel section that led to a four-way crossing where Putsonderwater was situated. Other than what the GPS’ screen revealed, we had no idea what to expect. Our friendly host at the guesthouse in Upington was amused about our journey, since she actually lived there as a child. When we asked what we should expect, she said that she had no idea. “I haven’t been there in decades, but send me a magazine. I’d like to know what goes on there these days.” She also had no idea where the town’s name came from and never thought to ask.

The final push

From the moment you turn off the tar, it’s clear the gravel road to Putsonderwater doesn’t see much action. There are no visible tyre marks and phone reception completely disappears 5km down the road. The sheer nothingness seemed to stretch on forever in every direction. Brilliant for landscape photography but less so when you’ve got an unproven small SUV and no idea what’s waiting for you around the next bend. That section of gravel is particularly tricky. There are smooth sections, rocky sections, washboard gravel sections and, most worrying of all, sandy sections. If you’ve ever been to the area, you’ll know that red sand well. Other than making it impossible to keep the car clean, it’s hard to spot the sections where its deep enough to get stuck. These sections can unnerve even a car with allwheel drive, which meant our front-wheel-driven XUV 300 was way out of its comfort zone. Inside, however, it was hard to tell. Thanks to a suspension aimed at comfort, the Mahindra felt more at home on dirt roads than most of its direct rivals. On the washboard gravel the response of the electronics was delayed, so we conducted a short safety test right there. We had been on that road for more than an hour without encountering another car, so we reckoned it was safe. This required some brisk acceleration up to 50km/h, lifting off the throttle and jerking the wheel first to the left and then to the right. This action is deeply unsettling to any front-wheel-drive SUV and sure enough the XUV started to pull sideways but the electronic nannies interfered before things got out of hand. You could feel it braking the individual wheels back to front until it was happy with its own trajectory. Sounds like sacrilege to keen drivers but it’s exactly what you want in this sort of car. On the topic of safety: in W8 spec it comes standard with seven airbags, which is a first in this segment. ABS is standard but disc brakes all round isn’t as common as you might think. With these small SUVs all being much of a muchness these days, it’s the tiny details that really make a car stand out. By the time we arrived at the four-way crossing with Putsonderwater on the right, we were highly impressed with this little SUV. It can take a beating while keeping its occupants comfortable and safe. If it can do that, a suburban existence is bound to be a walk in the park.

Does the put have water?

No, it doesn’t. It does have an empty Fanta can dating back at least 20 years, however. The only well we found certainly doesn’t date back as far as the stories. \

It’s fairly obvious it was built as a tourist attraction, so people actually have something concrete (no pun intended) to look at. It’s situated fairly close to what used to be the train station.

As mentioned, we only had a documentary dating back to 2015 to work from. From that footage we knew what the train station looked like but we couldn’t see it from the road. We drove the Mahindra up a sandy embankment to get an elevated view of the town and that’s when reality finally dawned on us: it was all gone.

The only remnants are the foundations of the station building and its award-winning gardens. Standing in the middle of what’s left of the floor, you can easily identify the positions of the original ticket counter, walkways, public bathrooms and the station manager’s office.

The beautiful gardens and water features have been claimed back by nature and the only structure left intact is the solitary well with a Fanta can. Across the road from the station is the deserted town. The hotel, station manager’s house and general dealer are all abandoned and in a sorry state. The local dassies claimed these properties long ago. The solitary location and the decaying state of the town give it an eerie atmosphere. We explored a bit but once the sun started ducking behind the horizon we cleared the town and stuck to a 100-metre radius close to the famous Putsonderwater sign.

We’re not even slightly superstitious but the town’s location at a crossroads and the sorry state of the buildings left us feeling a bit uneasy. So much so that when we realised we had left the bucket with which we had washed the car right next to the general dealer earlier during the day, we decided to abandon it there. Nobody was brave enough to go and collect it. There’s honestly nothing to see.

It’s a slice of life from the 1960s, left to rot in peace. We spent eight hours in Putsonderwater and only two cars drove through the town, both within 15 minutes near the end of the day. Probably just two people on a shortcut to some small farm nearby. Having driven all that way to find only a wasteland, we decided to make something of our surroundings.

The Karoo has seen a recent influx of astrotourists. Its location is perfect for stargazing as there’s no pollution creating a fog between the viewer and the heavens. Photographer Cornel van Heerden has been nagging for ages to do a long exposure shot in a deserted Karoo space and this was the perfect opportunity. Under the cover of ink-black darkness, we left Putsonderwater behind. Glad we visited but happy to go back to the real world. Would we recommend you go there? If you’re a fan of exploring deserted places, or interested in seeing how Mother Nature claims her property back, then yes. It’s also worth the trip if you happen to be in the area and you want to kill an hour or two, but we reckon it will all be gone within five years.

Putsonderwater’s heart stopped beating a long time ago. It’s just a corpse in the arid landscape, there’s no renaissance happening. We went to see if we could draw any parallels between Mahindra and Putsonderwater but it turns out they’re polar opposites. Putsonderwater’s time has come and gone, while Mahindra’s time is only beginning.

Conclusion

After 2 000km, we only picked up two chinks in the XUV’s armour. The infotainment system bombed out within two hours of leaving Joburg but it appeared suddenly again three hours later. Mahindra apologised profusely and explained the infotainment required a simple software upgrade for South Africa.

This hadn’t been done because we were given a unit to drive before it was prepared for the local launch at the end of May. Since the car still had plastic on its seats when we collected it, we’re willing to let that one fly.

The only other issue is the size of the fuel tank. The XUV 300 diesel is extremely frugal but it can’t go far between refills, especially in suburban driving conditions. Realistically, you can expect around 650km between tanks. Not bad, but also not as good as the 800km+ range our long-term Duster can do on a single tank. Another eight litres would have been perfect. In summary, the XUV 300 is another great product from Mahindra. It’s a lot of car for the money, which means it’s still Mahindra doing what it does best.

The only difference is the XUV 300 offers plenty of garnish on top of everything we’ve come to expect. Mahindra is colouring slightly out of the lines now, which is the logical next step in growing the business. If you’re in the market for a small SUV, the XUV 300 is definitely worth a test drive.