Mahindra XUV700 on the Rann of Kutch - our 700 special!
Three capable cars, open desert, endless horizons- sounds like fun, doesn't it? It is also great timing if such a promising road trip comes around the vacation time. Of course, from where you are watching, our life in OVERDRIVE could seem like one endless vacation. But a lot of hard work, sleepless nights, blood and sweat goes into this life we lead. You could get a chance to know this better once we resume our Live Life in OVERDRIVE escapades after the pandemic leaves us for good, but until you would just have to take our word for it. I mean, after continuing to publish the OD magazine for over 23 years and airing the TV show for 13, we know a thing or two about how much effort goes into it all. Those 13 years of the OVERDRIVE show on the CNBC-TV18 television channel led us to our 700th episode, which nicely coincided with the last week of December, and therefore the celebratory road trip plan with three SUVs.
Some of us OD hacks choosing our cars and meeting at a common point to start the trip is a pattern that you know of already. Sure, some planning goes into choosing those cars too, but this time around Bert was to make all the plans and send the cars over without telling us what choices he had made for the steeds or the destination. On the day of the drive, the senior producer of our show, Sohini Dutt picked up Simran from the pet hostel (where he was making arrangements for his new dog), while I was fetched by our ace lensman Anis Shaikh who has gotten over his knee injury from our anniversary issue shoot in the desert, but probably still fears the loose sand. Still being careful of his knee, he arrived in a shiny new Mahindra XUV700 automatic. Just a day before, Mahindra had sheepishly told me that the media cars weren't yet available and I could now see why. Mahindra hardly has any competition in this segment, certainly not enough to have three competing cars on this road trip. Intrigued to find out I called Simran, only to find out that he too was in an XUV700. Before we could ask more, Ms Dutt butt in and said, "Bert is driving the same car too. Don't you get it - 700th episode, XUV700? It just fits!"
Meanwhile, Bert was procuring equipment for the drive - tow hooks, tie-downs, tyre inflators et al, and would join us on the highway towards Gujarat. Could we be going towards Balasinor again? We certainly wouldn't mind the royal food spread. But Bert's equipment list meant that we could be heading back to the mountains in the thick of snow. Only Bert knew. Anis cut short our guess working and told us that in the spirit of the theme, Bert was planning a destination that was around 700kms from Mumbai. So while Simran and Sohini were fooling around with Alexa's music searching capabilities, prodding our car's Alexa assistant revealed that the inviting Sam sand dunes of Jaisalmer were about 700kms from where we were. Probably that was the destination then - but I had the 200PS XUV700 petrol, which doesn't get all-wheel-drive like the diesel automatics that Bert and Simran were driving.
A couple of hours later, Bert caught up with our cars, which were practically crawling through Gujarat's tourist traffic. Past Surat, we encountered traffic jams at every toll and bridge and the sight of three shiny XUV700s standing tall caught a lot of attention too. Feeling like celebrities through all the crowd, we soon hit the Vadodara-Ahmedabad expressway where the petrol XUV700 left the other two behind in the blink of an eye - only to be reunited with its oiler siblings at dinner. As we left Ahmedabad, we soon turned to the emptier B-roads and while that certainly felt like paradise after driving through the crowds, we soon reached our destination for the night - Rann Riders at Dasada. The name of the place quickly gave away what Bert had in mind for the 700th episode - etching a signature on the undisturbed flatlands of the Rann of Kutch.
It was an early start the next morning since the target was to reach the Chhota (small) Rann at the crack of dawn. There are many wildlife sanctuaries around the Rann of Kutch and only certain areas are open for public and transportation use to avoid disturbance to the habitat. Therefore, permissions from the forest department are a must and are hard to procure. With all the paperwork sorted, we hit the Rann soon enough and drove deep until we were surrounded by empty horizons on all sides.
The Overdrive show was conceived around 13 years ago, but the Rann of Kutch eons ago a vast shallow of the Arabian Sea that was cut off from the saline water body due to the geological uplift. Since then it has been a salty marshland, which during the dry months of the year turns into an endless mudflat that for the Chhota Rann alone, spans across 30,000 square kilometres. So it is only natural that we went berserk after hitting the crusty landmass - kicking up dirt trails, sliding around and letting the XUV700 get into its element. Sure, it was "crossover" written in its name, but let it loose on loose terrain like this and you realise that it was the same spirit of adventure as any other Mahindra SUV.
The lowered centre of gravity also makes it easier to control as it is sliding around, and never gives you the feeling that the vehicle could topple on its side. The precise steering control adds further to the confidence. The new FSD suspension shows its superiority on the Rann too. With reduced rebound and predictable dive, it's far easier to change directions on the XUV700 even while drifting around on the sand. Needless to say, the diesel AWD does all of this far better than the petrol, which is FWD only.
After a few hours of hooning around on the Rann, Bert gave his car a rest and discussed some serious tasks with us - the first of which was a top speed run! Finding a stretch long enough to attempt this run isn't as easy as it seems even with such a large patch of emptiness at your disposal. Ruts creates by other vehicles, the ditches and trenches created by the salt extraction operations, unseen damp patches and even remains of animals consumed by this saline desert, pose a threat to such high speed runs - especially when these can catch you unaware. Add to it the surface which looks grippy, but is largely loose and can be unstable.
While identifying the right patch to do the top speed run, we also tested the top end capabilities of the diesel and petrol XUV700s, and the latter managed better speeds. The choice was clear then - the 200PS XUV would make the attempt, while Bert's XUV700 would park a few kilometres away with its powerful LED lamps on high beams to give me a general direction that I had to head in. It's easy to get lost in such a vast emptiness! The first couple of runs ended with the car reaching a speed of around 150kmph and struggling to go beyond that. It's not easy for cars to put the power down on this surface. While the upper surface looks toasty, it quickly vanishes into the powdery sand that sits only a couple of millimetres underneath. As the sand gets softer or the wind adds resistance, the speeds drop and then the car struggles to build speed again. We used these factors to our advantage. We over-inflated the tyres to reduce the contact patch and grip, and using our bespoke flag (oh yeah!) we gauged the direction of the wind and chose the course. Both worked! The tyres had noticeable lesser resistance from the sand and the car had the aid of the tailwind. 150kmph came up sooner. We drove past 160kmph and the steering was telling us how the tyres were cutting through the sand. 170kmph came up within a few breaths, and we were climbing briskly to 175kmph - and dang, we hit a massive rut created by the salt extraction pipelines. Watch our in-cabin video you will see the magnitude of it - but the suspension soaked it and the car continued without any drama. But the progress had stopped and the speed had dropped. It wouldn't pull past 160kmph after that. If we had to do these speeds, it could have only happened in this particular direction that the wind had insisted. But the endless ruts on the course meant our start line couldn't be pushed back for a longer run-up, nor would we have enough distance on the farther end to go any faster without hitting that rut.
So 175kmph it is. One for the record books, till we return to rewrite it. I would have loved to etch 175 on the Rann too, but we thought it would be a nicer idea to etch the number '700' instead - and so we did - and what a sight it was for the harrier that was flying over us (or was it attacking our drone?)
With that sense of achievement still strong, Bert led us to the Medak Bet - one of the few stony elevations in the middle of this landmass. The petrol XUV700 continued to impress here too, as it steadily followed the AWDs to the top of the thorny hillock. It was a great spot to open our picnic baskets and also gaze at the numbers we had etched in sand.
Soon after, we descended back to flatlands for the next task. This one needed me to have an even cleaner launch than the top speed run - because this time it was a quarter-mile run on the Rann. We marked a starting point, measured a distance of 400 meters and marked the finish line with our beloved, bespoke flag.
With my trust in the petrol car, I hit the course with much enthusiasm. The wheelspin was difficult to contain with 200 enthusiastic horses rushing to the front wheels. More so with the traction control switched off. As a safety system, the traction control switches back on automatically between the 40-50kmph mark, and the transition don't rob the car off some of that time. But it's fun (and addictive) in its own sweet way and I must have done at least 8-9 runs. A 23.5s quarter mile run on this terrain is a feat in itself for a three-row SUV of this order. Make that 22.5s with manual shifts!
But the moment I told Bert that time, he had a small grin on his face and we all new it was all about the all-wheel-drive. He decided to drag. Wanting a piece of the pie, Sohini decided to be the one flagging off the drag. It took Bert one attempt (one!) to take limelight away from my 200PS crossover. The diesel puts out 185PS, a clear 15PS deficit over the petrol XUV, but with that power going down to all four wheels, he had a big advantage on this surface. By the time he crossed the finish line, he had gained over two seconds on me. That felt so embarrassing to the petrolhead in me that I simply wanted to drive off into the sunset and never return!
While the camera crew photographed the winning car, Bert celebrated his win with Simran's car - while the rest of us watched, ate dirt and put our phones to use. We could have simply watched shy wild asses and dancing flamingos instead. While we couldn't really cherish the wildlife, our undeterred spirit of adventure made us camp for the night have a bonfire, reminiscing about the 13 years that have passed. What a lovely journey it has been, and here's to many more that will come.
Images by Anis Shaikh
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