What comes to your mind when you consider the term ‘off-road’? Big chunky tyres, low range gearbox, steel chassis and strong biceps overcoming difficult non-tarmac terrain splashing an ooze of water and mud. Yes sounds about right! And even if you don’t, you surely imagine a Mahindra Thar in that very picture. It has been a corner stone for all off-road events in the country, every trail has one on it, every obstacle sees a Thar hammering down and every enthusiast swears by it. So much so that Mahindra has a dedicated playground near Nasik termed ‘Mahindra Adventure Academy’ where anybody can go and learn what skilled instructors have to teach you. We were called for a couple of days to participate in some gut wrenching feats and experience what Mahindra has to offer.
The training ground
First look and you’ll be fooled into thinking obstacles range for easy to doable, but watch your instructor go through one and you’re surely left gawping. Partly because the range changes to ‘I can’t do that’ to ‘this one is impossible’, partly because your instructor is digging it furthermore to make it even difficult and partly because he’ll have men pour down millions of gallon of water to make it slippery. That’s it, all your confidence goes down the drain turning into an anxiety attack, “I’m next”. When you go through the details of all these obstacles you realize how each one is a very intricate design and not just some terrain dug over. Each one will test and teach you how to handle throttle, brakes, steering and low range to your benefit overcoming impossible terrain. Driving through deep ruts drowning in muddy slush you feel wheel articulation of your capable tool, the Thar, making its way through. Mahindra Adventure Academy accounts to an upwards Rs 1.3cr budget for repairs and maintenance which just shows how gruelling the course is.
I’ll be as accurate here as possible because this is important. Our bunch of 5 people is a great mix, an existing owner of a brand new Thar, his brother is in the midst of buying one, one owns an AWD XUV500 already, one auto journalist who is an off-road fanatic and then me who is terrified of driving without grip. Everybody is here to explore their own and Thar’s capabilities along with Selvin Jose here whose our instructor. He’ll keep instructing you along your entire obstacle tirelessly giving directions and predicting what you are needed to do next. All inputs get diminished to millimetres here as you wade through slush or climb a very slippery and steep incline. So much learning makes you a better driver throughout, understanding where exactly your car’s wheels are and what are they doing.
Mahindra Thar is an extreme off-road vehicle with a powerful 2.5l turbocharged diesel engine putting out 105bhp backed by 247Nm peak torque. On the face of it this does look unexciting, that’s not enough torque you say. But couple it with a Borgwarner High and Low 4WD case and you see how gargantuan the torque becomes. In its low ratio it dispenses 800Nm to its wheels pulling you out of every kind of terrain imaginable. Obviously you have to pair it with knobby tyres to get essential grip, which is helped by Mahindra dealers. You can put giant wheels, very powerful winches to pull yourself and others out, add roll-cages for strength and safety, equip high performance lights to illuminate dark crevices at night, etc from the dealership itself. It is such an amazing and capable base to personalise and express oneself.
To begin your first obstacle, what you actually do is ‘unlearn’, huh! You forget about the clutch and restrict it to just starting off. Rest of the obstacle you forget about the clutch and use that enormous torque to your advantage. Thar will pull through almost all horizontal and declines in ideal, which was completely a new understanding but got embedded like clockwork. Then is the mysterious world of understanding a low range gearbox. Most of you already know this, but for me watching all modes in action is still a sense of achievement. The secondary lever as you know is 2H (2-wheel high), 4H (4-wheel high), 4L (4-wheel low) and of course N (neutral). 2H is what you use normally use on the road, 4H is just an extension of power being delivered to all four wheels. But 4L is where the ratios change to give you mammoth torque. So begin in 2H, try through 4H, get stuck and wade through waist deep water in 4L was my favourite exercise. Our occasional getting stuck moments were an opportunity to understand how a powerful winch works which is added but very crucial information. This will happen and you will have to use the winch eventually to pull yourself or your mate out. And it becomes needless to say you never ever go off-roading solo. I was terrified of off-road driving earlier, but that consideration was a huge mistake. It just teaches you a lot about surface grip, tyres and precise throttle control.
Without any doubt I would say every enthusiast must master driving without grip to understand driving precision better. Now I understand why Valentino Rossi practices on a dirt track, just teaches you a lot about you machine. Mahindra holds multiple level off-road competitions for those of you who know their way around off-road obstacles. For all us minions there is Mahindra Adventure Academy to get the ball rolling. Thank Mahindra for keeping the spirit of off-road driving high for plebeians. Pay a considerate fee, book your ticket and go experience it for yourself. You’ll be back a much better driver for sure.