Mahindra’s new off-roader part of U.S. market puzzle

Ian Thibodeau

Auburn Hills — Mahindra Automotive North America’s new steel frame off-road Roxor is a critical step forward for the Indian automaker angling to break into the rich U.S. auto market.

But the next step could go in any number of directions, Mahindra officials said Friday at the unveiling of Roxor. The off-road ute’s lineage traces back to 1947 and Mahindra’s contract to assemble Jeeps for sale in India.

Mumbai-based Mahindra has several pieces currently moving in the U.S. market. It already is a major distributor of tractors, utility vehicles and information technology services. The North American outfit is also bidding to build the United States Postal Service’s new delivery vehicle. And Roxor, assembled in Auburn Hills, targets hunters, farmers and off-road enthusiasts.

Besides 900 paint colors expected to soon be available, Mahindra will offer buyers partial and complete “wraps” including camo.

Mahindra is not new to manufacturing. The company started building Jeeps at its Kandivali Plant under contract with Willys Overland Export Corp. more than 70 years ago. The company’s since become a leading manufacturer of utility vehicles in India.

Mahindra’s future in the rich American market, however, depends on several factors the company can only partially control.

“The immediate next step for us is if we do win (the USPS bid), then we would obviously have a much larger investment, a much larger plant than what we have here for Roxor, to supply the quantities for U.S. Postal Service,” Pawan Goenka, managing director of parent Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd., told The Detroit News in an interview. “And that would then establish us a little more firmly in the U.S. automotive sphere.”

The Roxor and a potential postal delivery vehicle still wouldn’t be consumer vehicles for a company has long hinted its desire to enter the competitive U.S. automotive market.

A diversified conglomerate with interests in agriculture and information technology, Mahindra’s automotive arm mainly manufactures SUVs, pickups and commercial vehicles for the Indian market. But the company last November shared plans to field a global platform for compact pickup trucks and SUVs by 2020.

Goenka said it’s too soon to say how or when Mahindra would put a consumer vehicle on U.S. roads. Roxor needs to be successful. And the company wants to land the Postal Service bid — significant milestones in the company’s decision-making process over the next several years.

“If both of these are positive for us, that certainly gives us more reasons to believe that we can come into the U.S.,” Goenka said. “You have to prepare for many different scenarios.”

The company intends to remain flexible for now, ready to pivot and adapt to a plateauing U.S. auto market after two consecutive years of record automotive sales. That’s fine with Rick Haas, Mahindra Automotive North America’s CEO.

“As the water starts to clear a little bit,” said Haas, a veteran of Ford Motor Co. and Tesla Inc., “we’ll be able to see which are the best paths.”

For now, the company has more than 300 employees here in Auburn Hills engineering, marketing and building the Roxor. The automaker will sell the off-road vehicles through a network of powersports dealers around the U.S. More than 230 of 300 dealers targeted by Mahindra have signed to sell Roxors, their starting price pegged at $15,549.

If the Roxor is successful, it could position the United States as Mahindra’s largest market outside of its native India. Said Goenka: “You have to serve the market with local presence.”

“The U.S. is not a kind of market where one can say ‘I have something here in India let me take it to the U.S.’ You’ll never succeed. You have to make the product for the market. It makes a lot of sense to design it here for the U.S. market.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau