He had bought his farm sometime in 1994, and by 1999, he decided to give up his upper managerial job and take up farming full time. He is my uncle. On some weekends, he used to drive about 280km in his Mahindra MM 540 to get to his farm. That journey in that vehicle was not something a 10-year-old me or anybody in the family looked forward to. I suspect he left his job and got into it full-time to save himself the commute. Now, last-mile access to the farm is determined by the weather. If it’s cold and dry, you can walk and get there in peace. If it’s cold and wet, you’d need gumboots to walk through the access ‘road’. Vehicles? Most would need to be parked about 2km away.
His Mahindra would just about go through after some struggle. Forget all of that. You want to know how remote his place is? In 2017, the single-lane road going to his and several other properties around doesn’t show up as a road on Google Maps. Things have improved a bit, though. Over the decades, authorities have built a sort of surface over what was previously a dirt track. So, in the dry, his Maruti Omni can get in. But when you live 4000 feet above sea level, cold, monsoon and fog don’t leave much room for dry spells.
So, believe me when I tell you off-roading isn’t an adventure, it isn’t a hobby. For many, it’s a process of simply getting home. Of course, you could always get a Range Rover for such places. But there are two issues. Well, it’s expensive. Even assuming you have the money, you just wouldn’t want to. You see, you want a simple off-roader that can be set right by the local mechanic with a hammer and a screwdriver. Take a machine with a computer-controlled Terrain Response System to him, and you’d be… well, the word cannot be published in the BCCL and WWM group of publications, unless a person is being quoted.
And even then, it needs a string of asterisks. Here is where the all-new Force Gurkha comes in. It is a new generation. You can make that out when you see it has lost that comically out-of-place, silver-grey plastic grille in favour of the more traditional and much better looking one. That’s the thing with straight-lined, boxy, squarish, off-roaders. The more you try to modernise a classic design, the worse it gets. What’s new with the Gurkha? Versions, for starters. There’s the Xplorer that you get as a three door hard and soft top. And as a five-door. Hard-top obviously. Oh, and four-wheel-drive.
Then there’s the Xpedition, which comes as a five-door, hard-top, rear-wheel-drive only. You could opt for seven and nine-seater versions of it. And neither come with top-class interiors. There’s an air-conditioner, a 12V socket, distance adjustable front seats, a dead pedal (thankfully) and, er, seat-belts. Now, you may think that’s not much. You are right. But it’s still better equipped than a Land Rover Defender. Oh. My apologies. Let me get to what’s new in this generation of the Gurkha. It has what Force calls a new C in C chassis. It’s still a body-on-chassis vehicle, but body and chassis are bolted together differently. And instead of being suspended by leaf springs, the new Gurkha has coil springs all around.
The 2.6-litre engine is now BS IV compliant, makes 85 horses instead of 81, and retains the 230Nm of torque. I haven’t driven the older Gurkha, but I have driven the Thar, the Bolero and such other built for- extra-terrestrial-terrain stuff, and must say the new Gurkha is better rounded than them both. On the road, the Gurkha is comfortable in the 80-100kph cruise. It’s no Porsche or Range Rover or Hyundai Creta, even. The interiors will remind you of not being in anything classy. And only a fool would place bets on the Gurkha’s cornering abilities. All that considered, the Gurkha is a fine vehicle when in civilisation. The engine and air-conditioning make themselves audible, but there’s none of that agricultural noise and clatter. On the move or even when idle. The steering is light, and vibration free. So is the gearstick.
In fact, the gears have an easy, smooth and short throw to them. You will not develop biceps on your left arm shifting gears for sure. It has a tight turning radius. It’s easy in stop and go traffic. And thanks to the upright design, there’s great visibility out of the windshield and around corners. Which makes it more imperative that the Gurkha got more features. Bluetooth connectivity for your phone is a must today. Whether you live in the city or the country. And something as simple as central and remote locking should have been standard. It’s a pain to take your seat belts off and stretch across the cabin to open the passenger door if someone is to get in midway. Moreover, the Gurkha can easily do the city run and be driven into a mall parking lot.
Now imagine the mall security wants to inspect your boot. See? That’s why central locking is an essential. Apart from these anomalies in the cabin and equipment list, the Gurkha is tremendous off the road. I was on top of a hill between Mumbai and Pune. And the hill had everything nature could concoct from a heavy monsoon – slush, rocks, loose soil, grass, ponds and pathways that are a mix of hard pebbles, rocks, soft slush and grass with some mighty pools of water all within the same track. The Gurkha went through them all in two-wheel-drive mode. There was just no need to engage low-range or differential locks.
It was an incredible feeling driving a simple machine through treacherous surfaces without any terrain response or hill assist pyrotechnics. It was just me and the steering and the pedals. In fact, the Gurkha works up a rapid, confident pace on these surfaces. In the sense, I could actually drive at some 40-50kph on a path that resembled the remains of a minefield that’s been worked on by the monsoons. A lot of this simplicity has everything to do with what most serious off-roaders have forgotten about. Weight. The Gurkha weighs just 2.5 tonnes gross. To give you some perspective, a Merc G63 AMG weighs 3.2 tonnes. Lightness helps on the fields as much as it does on track. Of course, sudden braking on these unpredictable surfaces did result in some wheels locking.
Something ABS would have averted, which is available as an option. Yet, the Gurkha wasn’t a terror to control under hard braking. There are no airbags, needless to say. There are two reasons I’d say airbags in a vehicle like this is pointless. One, you’d never get to such speeds in it. And if you did and airbags did deploy, the cabin is rife with protrusions and grab handles that’s not crash friendly. To cut a long story short, the Gurkha goes through everything. Except a wall. There are a couple of issues, though. Engaging four-wheel drive or low range shifter requires considerable heft from your arms. A sharp contrast to the easy, consistent nature of the gearshifts. And if you get the Gurkha diving aggressively into a deep waterbody, some water trickles inside near the pedals through the base of the steering rod on the floor.
Force Motors assures us that it was a one-off worn out seal. That said, the Gurkha coped with most amphibious duties. Those few droplets come in only when you go into the water aggressively to create a massive splash. Right. So let’s talk of alternatives to the Gurkha. There is the Range Rover and the Mercedes G 63 AMG. But they cost so much, you wouldn’t want to take them over the neighbourhood pothole. There is the Mahindra Bolero at the utility end and the Mahindra Thar at the lifestyle end. They are both cheaper, but not as refined and don’t ride as well as the Gurkha.
The Gurkha is rather comfortable over broken roads with passengers. Trust me. I have endured many long rides in uncomfortable Mahindras to get to farmhouses from the big city. The Thar is surely more iconic and cheaper. But that low starting price doesn’t get you luxuries like a roof or air-conditioning. Go for the full 4×4 with air-con and it’s the same price as the Gurkha. The Gurkha is not an urban soft-roader. If you judge it by the prism of features and comforts of a modern vehicle, it’s atrocious. But if you look at it as a tool to get to inaccessible places and take you there in reasonable comfort, there’s nothing quite like at it at this price. Remember. Genuine off-road ability isn’t about having an adventure or exploring the unknown. It’s the difference between getting home on foot, cold and covered in slush or getting home dry in a vehicle that drives up to your door. When you have experienced that life, it’s hard not to appreciate the Gurkha.