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Driving India's Jeep In A Desert Rally Without The Burden Of Skill

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I knew I wanted to drive a Thar long before I had any idea I'd ever get to India. I was interested because it's one of the best automotive examples of evolution to an environment. Think of it this way: both the Thar and the Jeep we Americans know and love started with the same source: the WWII-era Willys Jeep. This was the first car Mahindra produced, via CKD kits under license from Willys. So, we can say that the Thar and the Jeep started out as brothers, possibly even identical twins. But they grew up very differently. Here in the US, the Jeep grew, matured, and eventually went to a good college.

The Thar went to prison. 

(Full Disclosure: I spent a week in India as part of a Mahinda-organized adventure sparked by a random post I did on Indian cars. Read the full story of why I'm in India here.)


I mean this in a good, but very specific way. The modern American Chrysler/Fiat Jeep is a pretty sophisticated machine, benefiting from regular updates and improvements with new technology.  The Thar, while also the result of many years of Indian jeep development and refinement, has had all of its development focused on keeping it simple and making it as indestructable as possible.

Manish Sarser, the Manager of Mahindra's Adventure Initiative, explained it like this:

"You can beat the fuck out of a Thar. And you can't break it."

I appreciated Manish's candor, even when he told me "the brakes aren't really so good."


The Thar is the modern Jeep's tough, ex-con brother. It's closer to the CJ-5s of the 70s than modern US Jeeps, but unlike those old Jeeps it sports a very torquey common-rail turbo diesel engine. It doesn't make a ton of power (about 105 bhp) but it makes 247 nm of torque, and it makes all that twisting at a very useful 1800-2000 RPMs. The suspension and chassis are like blacksmith metal, simple (long-travel independent up front, live axle and big leaf springs rear) and everything that could break redesigned until the thing seems apocolypse-of-drunk-Hulks-proof. It's a brute.

There are a couple sops to modernity: there's a decent (and optional) plastic-molded dash that seems a bit like an afterthought, and there's a shockingly excellent air conditioner that managed to keep the inside frosty even while climbing sand dunes in the middle of the Rajasthan desert.

The context I got to drive the Thar was my first event when getting to India: the 100th Mahindra Great Escape. Mahindra's Great Escapes are a very clever thing: marketing that's actually fun that actually makes money. See, starting back in 1996 Mahindra started organizing off-roading rallies and treks for their customers, who would pay to go out to the desert or Himalayas or some other rocky godforsaken place to beat the crap out of their cars. And it's been a huge success. In many ways, this is really the only sort of recreational driving that happens in India. The traffic is mostly too awful to allow for anything approaching fun in a fast sports car, so Indians looking for driving fun have been looking off the roads.


So, I was lucky enough to be at the hundredth Great Escape. And this one was even better, since I was at the VIP one. That means in addition to my one American journalist nobody/possible simpleton there were Mahindra dealers, suppliers, executives, and even Indian movie stars like Gul Panag, who I just thought was some attractive lady that everybody seemed to want to take their picture with, over and over again. 

We got to stay in this incredibly lovely resort where immediately after entering, you pass under two camels arranged like an archway, a pretty woman drapes a necklace of flowers around your neck, paints a red mark on your forehad, and throws flower petals at you. All this took me by surprise, as usually when I enter hotels all I get is the stinkeye from the security guard and not one goddamn camel at all.

The other plus about being in the VIP group is that they chose an area for the rally that, while challenging, was unlikely to end up in any deaths. Meaning sand and not sharp, murderous rocks. Also, they made sure I got the Thar with the big orange external roll cage, since I was told

"We can't kill an American citizen."

 I wish more automakers adhered to that rule.

The rally itself was initially intimidating to someone whose off-road experience was driving a Beetle a little bit around the deserts of Joshua Tree and the occasional rage donuts on ex-girlfriends' lawns. The course was well-used by Mahindra's rally team, and as such was nice and rutted and uneven. It was mostly sandy dune-type of terrain, a very fine, powdery sand that makes getting grip a challenge. There were long trail-type stretches and areas with huge, steep climbs and precipitous, cliff-like drops. I was very excited, and free of any real knowledge of how to drive in this kind of terrain.


Manish was in the passenger seat, and proved an excellent on-trail teacher. There was no GPS and the desert area is pretty vast and generally looks pretty uniform, so we did manage to get lost a few times, thanks to the mileage readings on our guide sheets being different from the reality of what an odometer records on tires severly deflated to get grip. Oops.


Getting really stuck or lost in this desert could be pretty bad news, but the Mahindra team did a good job of corralling everyone. The only big close call I heard about was a journalist who I won't name (and don't know) who left his photographer out alone in the desert with nothing so he could be alone in the car with a girl. The photographer eventually got a ride, but still, stay classy, horny journalist.

The Thar made even a desert-driving noob like myself a capable driver. I knew this would be fun when I was shown that, in low range, the Thar can go from a dead stop, on sand, in fifth gear. I don't think I've even been in a car that could do anything but stall if you tried to start in fifth gear.


Here's what I learned about sand dune off-roading: first, it's a blast. A bouncy, slippery, dusty blast. Second, when climbing a wildly steep hill, far steeper than what you could actually climb on your own, a hill that looks like a 90° vertical wall from the ground but is probably only 40something degrees, the key is to get some initial speed and not rev too much.

For the big climbs we put it in 4L range, started in second gear, built speed, and shifted to third right before the hill, and kept steady on the throttle. By keeping the revs in that 1800-2000 range you're maximizing the diesel's torque and you climb right up the hill. Revving more just makes noise and no more torque, so it's counter-intuitive for those of us used to gasoline motors.

Even if you foolishly stop right before the crest, you can often save yourself with steady throttle and sawing the wheel back and forth, letting the front tires essentially climb and pull you up through all that sand. It's the least driving kind of driving I've ever done — it's much closer to piloting some sort of loud, climbing robot.


Going down the hills is another matter entirely. The first couple times, it's really quite alarming, because from the top of the hill, you can't really see the downward slope — it just looks like you're on the edge of a cliff. And, the way you decend these things is to go into low range, and then just take your hands and feet off everything. It's a total leap of faith. No throttle, no brakes, no steering, even. Left in low, the Thar just slides mostly gently down the slope, the ruts in the sand guiding it down. Steering can flip you over, throttle can dig you in, and brakes just make your wheels slide instead of roll. It feels weird, but it works.


That video doesn't really convey just how steep that drop was; in the Thar, it felt like we were essentially diving into the ground like a lawn dart.


Between stages, I drove a bit on a rural Indian highway, trying to remember to stay on the proper side of the road and being alarmed that none of those huge trucks seemed to be too concerned about that same thing. And the cows didn't seem too worried about languidly wandering right in front of a jeep doing 80 KPH with not-so-great brakes. I've never had the experience of turning off a paved highway and immediately plummeting down a sandy cliff and thinking "Whew! Finally, I'm safe!"


During the race, I also was lucky enough to end up in a little scene that more perfectly sums up the modern world than countless books on the subject. We had stopped to help try and free a dramatically stuck and sand-buried Mahindra Scorpio truck from another team of drivers. While I was helping by crucially standing around and looking at the half-submerged tires really hard, a group of kids from the local village came to see what was going on.


Cars like this don't pass by often, so we were of great interest. So was I, the weird-looking American. These kids lived in a very poor village in the middle of a colossal desert area, they didn't have too much English, but they had enough to ask lots of questions, ask me to give them pens (I gave them the ones I stole from the hotel) and, most incredibly, they asked me for my name so they could find me on Facebook.

Facebook. These friendly, occasionally barefoot kids from the dusty, arid, remote desert in the middle of nowhere, India, are going to find me on Facebook. Brave new world.


By the end of the rally, I was exhausted, battered by all the bouncing in and out of deep ruts, thirsty, dusty, and utterly elated. The experience was incredibly fun, and I developed huge respect for the Thar. It tackled some extremely tricky terrain with remarkable ability, even when driven by a rank amateur. Based on the incredibly abused and overworked examples I saw around the villages, these things really can't be killed.


They're a perfect product of their harsh environment, and, in many ways, may have even developed to be more of a "real" Jeep than its more famous American brother. I know for some that borders on sacrilege, but I defy any real Jeep lover to look at a Thar and not see the distilled, fundamental idea of a Jeep.