I admit, I'm coming into this review biased because this little van took me to India before I even sat in it. I'm happy to say that after driving it, I wasn't disappointed. The Mahindra Maxximo is a machine perfectly suited to its environment, and I respect that. It's also the second-slowest car I've reviewed.
The tricky part about reviewing cars with one final number is that, invariably, someone's going to realize that the final number I've given this 25 HP utility van is way closer to the number given to Benz or Bentley or something than it has any right to be. And, sure, if you put the Maxximo next to a Porsche Boxster and take them both on a track, I'm not sure they make numbers negative enough to give it.
(Full disclosure: I reviewed this little van at Mahindra's factory in India, as part of an amazing Mahindra-sponsored trip across India. So, keep in mind that Mahindra paid for me to go there, fed me, and generally made sure I didn't die in the desert because of my stupidity.)
But, take that Boxster and Maxximo out to the desert around Jodhpur and try and haul 8 people to the next town with all their stuff over unpaved back roads and I'm confident the Maxximo will eat the Boxster's fancy currywurst lunch. It's all about context.
So, with that in mind, in the context of a cheap (around $5500 US), tough, efficient (around 42+ MPG), and rugged little van, the Mahindra Maxximo is pretty terrific.
I saw these things all over India doing pretty much everything you can ask four wheels and a motor to do. It was a schoolbus, a family car for a very extended family, a livestock hauler, a rock-quarry hauling vehicle, a tow truck, and the tiny set of wheels under an impossibly large mountain of what was either hay covered in furry-looking burlap or a partially decomposed wooly mammoth carcass. I saw them moving slowly, clearly laboring under the vast loads, climbing over holes and rocks in the road that would make most US-based Range Rover drivers call the National Guard, but I never saw one broken down.
Everything about these vans is designed with the worst conditions in mind. The mid-mounted two-cylinder diesel is designed to easily drop out of the bottom to let crude rural service shops with no lifts work on them, the tiny wheels are housed in comparatively vast open wheel wells to allow for lots of travel and plenty of clearance from flung rocks and caked mud, the side windows are canvas curtains that open to provide good ventilation in hot Indian climates.
So, by American standards, yes, this is absurdly small, simple, and slow. But let's take the broader view.
Personally, I find the front end to be a bit overdone and I sort of prefer the simple, friendly, alien-face look of the Tata Magic Iris van a bit more. But I do understand why Mahindra decided to design the front of the Maxximo like this, and it makes sense: they want it to resemble a "real" car.
So, we get more determined/agressive shaped headlights, a dummy grille, and a chunky black bumper. It's not bad looking, and it does give the van a more finished look. The rest of the van is clean and utilitarian, though with some flashes of style, like the upward-sweeping character line on the side.
There are sliding door versions as well as swing-out door versions with the canvas side window, like the one I tested. On this one, the track for the sliding door is filled with a black plastic panel. Not the most elegant solution, but what do you want for five grand?
I think to American eyes the tiny wheels in the large wheel arches may be the most off-putting thing, but you have to keep in mind why they're that way: cheap, lots of wheel travel, maximize interior space.
All in all, I like the overall look, and I think the bright color choices (red, yellow, white, and I think there's a blue) work well.
The big thing to remember here is this is a very cheap car. So, don't expect much. Like carpeting. It's painted metal and cheap if durable-feeling plastics and vinyls over everything. Should be easy to clean though, since you could probably do it with a hose.
The layout and design of the interior is excellent, though — the two rows of rear seats face each other which gives plenty of room and makes the interior space seem pleasantly room-like. The layout also allows for a usable bit of cargo room behind the rear seat as well.
The best part about being inside the Maxximo, though, is that fold-down side window. Dropping the window makes the whole interior feel airy and open, and almost gives it a convertible-like feel. I loved that, and would love to see something like this on US-market minivans.
This score actually may seem high, considering it's a two-cylinder, 25 HP diesel, but I think it's reasonable. The acceleration itself isn't bad — the Maxximo has 40 lb-ft of torque and weighs about 2400 lbs, so the initial take-off isn't that sluggish. The problem is it stops at about 45 mph or so. Which makes this the first car I've driven at its absolute limit around a track.
But, like I said, it doesn't feel that slow. Maybe it's hoodless view out the front window or the relatively light weight or my forgetting that kilometers are only a bit more than half a mile on the speedo.
I did a couple of hard panic stops on the track and found the brakes to be predictable and solid. You can feel the nose drop as it comes to a hard stop, but everything kept straight and without too much drama. But, then again, that's from only around 45 MPH.
Again, considering what this car is and what it's designed for, it's not bad at all. It's a little bouncy, sure, and the springs seem more tuned for durability and forgiveness of bad roads than comfort, but the end result is decent. You could take a long trip in the Maxximo and not feel like you spent six hours in a rock tumbler.
This may be the biggest surprise about the Maxximo: it handles much better than it's bread-load shape would suggest. I think that's mostly due to engine location: mid-mounted, and low, under the driver's seat. That keeps the center of gravity quite low, and keeps the van from feeling top-heavy.
I had this thing at its limit (again, remember that's just around 48 or so MPH) on the track, in the banked section, whipping around the figure-8, and it was a blast. The body leaned, but less than you'd guess, and the van's grip was quite good. I did get the back end to break free once or twice, and there's no traction control nannies keeping things orderly, but even so it wasn't hard to get it back in line.
It's not a sports car, but fun can be had in this box, even if nobody ever would buy one for that reason.
It has four gears. Fourth is an overdrive, I believe. It's almost nostalgic now, to drive something with only four gears. First gear is gone almost before you even hit 10 MPH, so it takes a bit of practice to be ready to shift to 2nd almost immediately, but the ratios seem well chosen and make the most of the meager power available.
The clutch has a good firm feel, and it's pretty forgiving of sloppiness, which I'm told is factored into the overall transmission design, since it's not unlikely people will be learning on these cars, among other things.
I'm pretty sure you can put a radio in here, though it doesn't come with one. Engine note is interesting, being a 2-cylinder diesel, and not unpleasant. There's some sound-deadening insulation going on, since it's not deafening in there with the windows up.
Toys: Utility: 9/10
As usual for working vehicles, I'm swapping Toys for Utility. And this little van is profoundly, unashamedly useful. As I said before, I saw Maxximos (both the van and pick-up versions) doing pretty much any transport-related task you could think of. This van can haul 8 people by the official rules, and a small stadium full based on the rules of the roads in India.
I saw these with a mix of goats and people, with things on the roof, strapped to the sides like pontoons, pulling what looked like it may have been some kind of plow or fertilizer spreader in a field, and acting as a local bus service. These things are machines that take people and things from one place to another, and that's about as specific as I'd get, because there seemed to be very little limit on what people were doing with these vans. The company must know about the wild overloading, even if it's not officially condoned, but hints of acceptance are there, like including a control to point the headlights back down when you've got the back end overloaded all to hell.
I thought they'd make great city cars for families in urban areas, but I was told that mostly due to status reasons, they weren't usually sold for that purpose. So that may be the one thing they can't do: make you look rich.
For around $5500 US you get a well-built, flexible, practical vehicle that's tough, easy to service, gets excellent gas mileage, and is actually pretty fun to drive, in its own way. That's a good deal. Even with the 45 MPH or so maximum speed, in its native habitat, that's generally just fine. This sort of little van is often the backbone of a family-run business in rural India, so I'm sure these vans have to make economic sense to survive in the market.
As much as I'd happily drive something like this in the US, I really would need more power. Because I'm the sort of speed-loving junkie that demands such absurdities as the ability to go a mile-a-minute. I'm pretty sure that 909cc motor is understressed at 25 HP, and a hotter version is possible. I bet a 50 HP one is even possible, and I could make that work no problem.
So how about it, Mahindra? I'm ready to test your Maxximo Sport van whenever you'd like.
- Engine: 909cc CRDe Direct Injection Diesel
- Power: 25 HP @ 3,600 RPM, 55 nm/40 lb-ft torque at 1,800-2,200 RPMP
- Transmission: Four-Speed Manual
- 0-60 Time: Um, never, unless dropped from a plane
- Top Speed: around 48 MPH
- Drivetrain: Rear-Wheel Drive
- Curb Weight: 2,400 LBS (est.)
- Seating: up to 8 officially, dozens unofficially
- MPG: 42 MPG + (Mahindra estimate, was told is usually higher)
- MSRP: $5,500 (converted from Rupees)