There are times when I truly envy the jawans in battle fatigues patrolling Indian borders. While their call to duty is responsibility mere mortals would find hard to shoulder, I nevertheless envy them a lot in life. I envy the respect they evoke, the exotic and magnificent locations in our country they are stationed in which few of us have access to. Now they even have a most astounding attack vehicle to drive around in. I refer to the Axe, an all-terrain, speedy attack vehicle that has been designed and built by Mahindra Defence Systems, a subsidiary of M&M that caters exclusively to the motoring needs of armed forces across the globe. Yes, they do assist and fulfil defence requirements for smaller countries with meagre resources.
The Indian Army needed an all-terrain vehicle that's compact (as in smaller than the Stallions), able to travel almost anywhere, fast and yet capable of carrying fairly decent payloads. While there are several other automotive firms vying to fulfil this need, Mahindra has unveiled the Axe, a prototype that is in the process of selection by the Indian Army.
Alas, before you rush to the nearest Mahindra dealer, let me announce that the Axe will not be on commercial sale until M&M evaluates the feasibility of refining several aspects to make it an attractive and affordable purchase. Yes, you read right, affordable! The Axe is no ordinary tool shed modification job but one that has racing antecedents almost as well as the capability to shame several other SUVs from reputed international manufacturers. So if it ever comes into series production expect it to cost nothing less than Rs 10 lakh. Count that as just wild guess, since the vehicle is under scrutiny and the actual cost of manufacturing is still top secret.
At first glance the Axe delivers a shock bang into your central nervous core. Forget big, and even large does not even begin to describe the Axe's dimensions. Think XXXL and throw in a couple more Xs and you begin to get the picture. Soaring 1.98 metres in height with a massive 350mm ground clearance, you would need field glasses to peer at the traffic below. The Axe has tremendous street presence and traffic does not just veer but scampers away lest it get trodden underfoot. Endowed with such lofty stature the Axe comes equipped with a special high lift jack that slots into two holes on either side of the running board since no ordinary jack could ever extend that high. At 1.96 metres, this is a very wide car as well, occupying a lane and half, almost! And once you clamber up (mind you, not in) to your seat, you notice your co-passenger sitting well beyond arm's reach. The rear bench can in fact comfortably seat four; five would be a squeeze and six, a little tight around the waist.
The Axe tag derives from the sharp edges that define its shape, angular and cut bluntly in every direction. This vehicle is by no means handsome; the finish is rough and there are just too many cuts and angles to give it a pleasing visage. And it has a stub nose! Yet it is the very same abruptness of form coupled to the immensity of it all that attracts and brings about several admiring glances.
Beneath the veneer the Axe is built to withstand some of the most extreme environments and to ensure that it does it's job well it is bristling with technology that is up to date with the best in the world. The Axe's backbone is its spaceframe chassis, a unique tubular framework made of steel that provides immense strength yet is lightweight enough to enable it to literally fly when the need arises. On to this spaceframe are welded thick aluminium and steel plates to provide minimalist bodywork so as to keep the weight in check, which is a little short of two tons. The panelling extends to the underbelly as well to provide adequate protection to the underpinnings as well as the fuel tank from the elements. The panels can be reinforced to bulletproof status and for protection from mines as well. The mid section can also be covered by an FRP body that employs doors from the Bolero and which can be stripped off entirely in less than an hour. That's yet another unique aspect of the Axe; just a few twists of several bolts and the Axe can be converted from a fully enclosed vehicle to an open type dune buggy.
If you thought the structure itself is impressive the drivetrain would simply stun the senses. Underneath the small hood lurks an impressive 5-cylinder 2.7-litre inline diesel made by none other than Mercedes and is currently used by Ssangyong Motors. This common-rail diesel mill that conforms to all Euro 4 conventions is easily capable of whipping up a sandstorm by unleashing all of 172 horses. While this gives the Axe tremendous acceleration, 340Nm of max torque gives it the required grunt to climb almost 70-degree inclines. Of course, it does have low range to help it climb up such steep gradients though the lack of a differential lock may limit its abilities.
A five-speed automatic gearbox also from the Mercedes stables distributes power to all four wheels, each of which is sprung independently. Now comes the tastier bit; each wheel is hung by nothing short of heavy duty racing suspension worthy of a Paris-Dakar racer. Bilstein coilover gas compressed shock absorbers suspend the massive 305/70 R16 off-road tyres between a double wishbone link. The front wheels further support 290mm disc brakes and the rear even larger 300mm discs, while a 3-channel ABS unit prevents wheel lock-up during hard braking.
Ride quality is impressive even in the rough and the suspension set-up only consolidates an impressive handling character. Of course power steering makes easy work of maneuvering this mammoth around though initially piloting the Axe does make you feel like driving a huge van with no front end since the overhang is not visible and you can barely judge the corners of this vehicle. Yet at no point while I was driving this beast did I ever feel intimidated, though after having seen a special video made to exhibit the prowess of the Axe I felt I could have pushed it even harder without it breaking into sweat.
The Axe is undergoing due diligence by the Indian Army and while I do hope that event may bear fruit I hope, nay pray, that the automotive division at Mahindra does seriously consider the Axe for a commercial run. I for one am already saving up, just say the word launch and my downpayment's ready. Still I dont mind giving the defence forces first shot at chopping the weeds infiltrating our borders.