Do you really need to shell out a lot of dough to have some proper off-roading fun? Jared takes out the most affordable off-roaders in the country – on both two and four wheels – to find out.
It all began with a Jeep. It was our family tradition to load up our old Mahindra CJ 540 and head out to the jungle a few times a year. In fact, I could easily say that the Corbett National Park was my second childhood home. Before the hordes of tourists and developers got there, it was untouched and free for all. It was even legal to fish in certain areas, and you could venture out to anywhere you wanted to. A lot has changed now, though, and what was once an open jungle for anyone has turned into a touristic and ecological nightmare. Anyway, let’s get back to that Jeep.
My passion for off-roading started at a very young age, and it was all because of my father’s lifestyle and love for nature. There weren’t many roads in rural India back then, and because we had a Jeep we would venture off-road all the time. The Jeep, unfortunately, met with a terrible accident – and was replaced soon after by the first production series of the Maruti Suzuki Gypsy (also the very first car I drove). Twenty-five years on, and that Gypsy still sits outside our house. I’ve always had more interest in Jeeps and pick-up trucks than I’ve had for full-blown sports cars. I guess it’s more of a lifestyle statement. Sports cars are for rich little men – because I don’t fit into them. And I mean that literally, because it is a huge task for me to fit into the driver’s seat of any sports car.
But, besides four-wheel off-roaders, I also fell in love with the smaller two-wheeled variants – when, at the age of 16, I learnt how to ride a dirt-bike in a strange place called Rancho Cucamonga in California. Yes, I’m being serious – that place actually exists. Dirt biking – or motocross – changed my life completely and I’ve had a brilliant love affair with motorcycles ever since. Give me anything with two-wheels, and I’ll have some serious fun with it. And that’s what riding – and driving – is all about, isn’t it? If you aren’t having fun doing something – well then what’s the point really? And I’ve always lived by the rule that ‘it’s not what you are driving, but how you’re driving it.’
When it comes to proper off-roaders in India though, we really don’t have a wide variety of options – especially affordable ones. Sure, you can now get your hands on a Jeep Wrangler, or a Triumph Tiger, but you will be giving up a lot of your hard earned dough to get your hands on those wonderful machines. But, then again, do you really need to spend so much to have fun? Let’s look at the two most affordable proper off-roaders available – the Mahindra Thar and the new Royal Enfield Himalayan. One is the most affordable Jeep, while the other is the most affordable off-roading motorcycle – and both are specifically made for off-road enthusiasts.
The Mahindra Thar is a brilliant off-road vehicle, and you can have unlimited amounts of fun with it. You might not be able to do it in style or comfort, but nonetheless you will be smiling all day long. Mahindra are no stranger to making tough Jeeps, and the Mahindra Thar is a testament to their heritage of making rugged military vehicles – including the legendary Willys Jeep. Moreover, the updated Thar looks nice and the interiors have been upgraded quite a bit. Plus, you can also get a bunch of extra features, like a snorkel to increase its wading depth and a winch to pull yourself, or anybody else, out of trouble – and it doesn’t cost a fortune. The capabilities of the car really depend on the driver, and if you know what you’re doing and how to handle a proper 4x4 then the Thar will certainly take you places and climb over almost any obstacle. It’s also got a nice torquey engine and the power delivery is nice. And while we would never consider the Thar for daily use, we love taking it off-road for some good old-fashioned fun.
Royal Enfield, meanwhile, is no stranger to making motorcycles that are suited to tough terrain. It’s just that their bikes had a knack for developing niggling quality issues when you least need them, but there’s never a dull moment when riding an Enfield on some challenging trails. Thankfully, RE have looked long and hard at the task of proper off-roading and they’ve come out with the Himalayan. Yes, we do know that the engine is severely underpowered, and we are a little upset with RE because of that – but you can’t take away the fact that they’ve made a brilliant off-road machine. The new chassis with the monoshock suspension is simply brilliant and the tyres are also great. The bike is super fun to take off-road and, once again, there’s no telling where this bike won’t go. Again, we won’t recommend the Himalayan for daily use, but we do recommend it if you want your dose of fun.
We’ve tested both vehicles on all kinds of terrain, and it’s safe to say that we’ve had a lot of fun with them. While it does seem to be subjective, there really isn’t a way to measure the fun factor of a car or motorbike. But if you look at the overall experience with the vehicle, both the Mahindra Thar and the RE Himalayan offer a great off-road experience – and both are equally capable if you want to take it to the extreme. It all depends on how much you want to push yourself – both vehicles, as enablers, are equally willing. Sure, they both have their limitations – and they may not be as capable as the Jeep Wranglers and Triumph Tigers – but they are affordable, accessible, and exhilarating when in their element. So, whether you’re a serious off-roader, or just looking for the occasional weekend trail drive or ride, you can have plenty of fun with these machines – and if you can’t, well, then, maybe you’re just not doing it right. Of course, if bang for your buck is the main criteria – the Himalayan wins hands down!