You would be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that Mahindra’s new Bolero Neo looks like another of its vehicles, the TUV300, the rather severe-looking ladder-frame-based compact SUV that was discontinued in April last year, because of a lack of a BS6-ready engine. The reason that you’d be forgiven is because the Bolero Neo is a refreshed TUV300 – Mahindra has refreshed its sub-four-metre SUV and reintroduced it with some design upgrades, a BS6-compliant engine, new features and a new name.
The reason behind the name isn’t difficult to comprehend. The Bolero remains a trusted and popular bestseller for Mahindra, and the firm is no doubt hoping that customers will be intrigued by a ‘Bolero’ that looks different and is more feature-loaded. To that end, the Neo has design cues from the older Bolero, like the rather unmistakeable boxy shape, its grille, the X-shaped elements at the front and back and the black strip that runs from the front to the back, below the shoulder line (popularly called a ‘cattle pusher’ by many Bolero buyers).
Who does Mahindra have in its sights as potential customers, though? A good guess would be those who want a compact, tough SUV that can go where the competition can’t. You see, the other compact SUVs on sale have monocoques, but the Neo has the same ladder-frame chassis as the Scorpio and the Thar, giving it some proper cred. Also, it’s also the only SUV in the segment to have rear-wheel drive. Not just that – the top of the line N10 (O) variant has a mechanical locking rear differential that Mahindra calls Multi-Terrain Technology.
Essentially, the Neo is perfect for those desiring a slicker Bolero, and the cabin also reflects this. It’s well finished, bright and very roomy, and you get kit like a 7-inch infotainment touchscreen, connected tech, Bluetooth, cruise control, powered ORVMs, steering-mounted controls and several others, all of which are considered essential today. The front seats are large, comfortable and have individual armrests, and the rear bench seat is also spacious and comfortable. You get a par for the course set of safety features - two airbags, ABS with EBD and corner braking control, ISOFIX anchors and rear parking sensors.
Speaking of safety, do not, under any circumstances, have anyone sit in the twin jump seats in the boot area. They’re very cramped and much more importantly, they don’t come with seat belts, which makes me wonder why Mahindra offered them in the first place, given how gung-ho it’s been about making safe cars. Some other features the Neo does miss include automatic climate control, electric folding mirrors, projector headlamps and Android Auto/Apple CarPlay.
The engine is a BS6-compliant version of Mahindra’s mHawk100 diesel engine – a 1.5-litre 3-cylinder unit with 100 bhp and 26.5 kgm of torque, paired with a 5-speed manual gearbox. These aren’t extraordinary numbers and thus the Neo isn’t very quick, but that’s not really its raison d’etre. It’s not super-refined either, but is on the acceptable side of things. What it does have is plenty of low-end shove, which makes it easy to drive in just about any gear. However, in Eco driving mode, power and torque sent to the rear wheels are throttled in the interests of fuel economy, so I wouldn’t try any hard acceleration in this mode, since the revs don’t rise above 3,500 rpm. A start-stop system is also present, which can be a bit hit and miss – the engine didn’t restart on a couple of occasions, and I had to turn the key to start the car up.
You’ll be surprised by the Bolero Neo’s handling, as was I. It’s a ladder-frame setup, but it still goes around corners reassuringly, without wallowing around too much when you change direction, and without too much body roll. The feedback from the steering wheel isn’t sportscar level, naturally, but it’s not lifeless by any means and lets you know which way the wheels are pointed. The ride quality is very good, especially over bad roads, and when I took it to an off-road trail, it clambered over everything with ease, which no other car in its class would have been capable of; the mechanical locking differential does its job very well. It’s also a lot of fun to drive off-road, which may be an enticing factor for some buyers who can’t afford a Thar.
The Neo, all told, is a tough SUV that smoothens some of the rough edges of both the standard Bolero and the TUV300. It isn’t the most sophisticated compact SUV out there, but it’s an honest, no-nonsense machine that comes with a decent feature set and a lot of off-road credentials. With prices starting at Rs 8.48 lakh and going up to Rs 10 lakh (the variant with the locking rear diff will go on sale some time later), there’s no doubt that the Bolero Neo is a fair amount of car for the money, and should find takers.