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Auburn Hills — They sit in a few brightly colored rows of fire-orange, white, blue and black, their grilles evoking a storied Metro Detroit brand headquartered just a few miles from Mahindra North America.

 

The Indian automaker calls it Roxor, its entry into the growing off-road utility sector that sells roughly 500,000 units a year. How the new vehicle, to be unveiled here Friday, plays with off-road enthusiasts likely will determine whether parent Mahindra Group moves to enter the hyper-competitive U.S. car and truck market — after it parries inevitable comparisons to Jeeps past and present.

“These are the latest in a long line of vehicles we’ve been building for 70 years in Mumbai,” Rick Haas, CEO of Mahindra North America and a veteran of both Tesla Inc. and Ford Motor Co., said in an interview. “We do have some agreements ... that we followed for this project.”

They’d better, because few in and around the Motor City would need more than a glance to see Jeep in Roxor’s four-and-a-half bar grille, its stubby nose and muscular stance. It screams tough, which is exactly the point its creators want to make in a segment where attitude and capability both matter.

Leave trademark wrangling to the lawyers, well aware that Mahindra 70 years ago began assembling Jeeps at its Kandivali Plant under contract with Willys Overland Export Corp. Focus on the big picture: Mahindra’s Roxor is coming from the first new assembly plant in southeast Michigan in 25 years, a bid for indigenous talent and engineering cred easily found around Detroit.

That’s not the only thing different about what amounts to an automotive startup, staffed with 350 employees, on the edge of America’s pre-eminent Big Company town. Mahindra is pushing to find a third way to its likely market presence in the United States — faster than the decades-long brand building of the Japanese and South Koreans and slower than the acquisitive Chinese.

Anand Mahindra, the Harvard-educated executive chairman of the Mumbai-based group, in November called the approach “asset-light.” Experiment and leverage brands; pair technical talent back in India with peers in the United States; foster an innovative culture that thinks big, takes risks and responds to customer demands.

Roxor is the first answer in the United States. Hunters and farmers, off-roaders and groundskeepers and more soon will be able to select from 900 colors, each applied to the 148-inch long bodies in a million-dollar manual paint shop inside the Auburn Hills assembly operation.

“It’s a great way to test our DNA,” said Haas, one of several chief engineers who delivered Tesla’s flagship Model S to market. “I would call this a litmus test for Mahindra in the United States.”

Instead of selling Roxor from Mahindra’s established network of tractor dealers across the country, the automaker is recruiting powersports dealers. More than 230 of 300 dealers targeted by Mahindra have signed to sell Roxors with a base price of $15,549, the company says. That price could nearly double when loaded with options.

For a few hundred dollars per vehicle, commercial customers can arrange to have custom logos affixed during the assembly process. And in less than six months, customers will be able to order custom seats, the coverings selected from a broad palette of materials for seats that would be sewn in-house instead of coming from a Lear Corp. plant in India.

“Customization is a big deal,” said Cari Coffer, a craftsmanship technical manager at Mahindra. “We’re not going to say no off the bat. We’ll see what we can do. It’s so much fun to get away from the black interior, the tan interior, the gray interior. It’s a blast.”

The options may not be endless for the 2.5-liter, 62-horsepower turbo-diesel mated to a five-speed manual gearbox, but they are expected to be substantial. Colors and seats, ride heights and hard tops, safari seats and back seats, winches and side enclosures — all of it, and more, suggests a commitment to customization that says Silicon Valley more than it does Detroit or even Stuttgart.

And that’s the point. Heavily customizable iPhones, iPads and Android devices, coupled with ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, are shifting customer expectations. One consequence is a challenge to the automotive orthodoxy that limits choices.

In theory, Mahindra’s Roxor proposes to change that paradigm — in part by marshaling automotive assets it has quietly but persistently assembled during a long period of due diligence. The company considered (but passed on) Sweden’s Saab Automobile AB, Britain’s Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin brands before turning elsewhere.

It owns South Korea’s Ssangyong Motor Co. It recently spent less than $100 million to acquire Pininfarina SpA, a legendary Italian design house now developing a premium electric vehicle for the parent company. It is partnering with Ford in India to develop mobility services and electric vehicles for the growing Indian market.

Now Mahindra is poised to make its first meaningful automotive move in the rich U.S. market. Success can confer global credibility on those willing and able to play outside the relative comfort and familiarity of their home market.

Starting with an off-road vehicle whose top speed is governed at 45 mph may be an unusual way to launch. But these are unusual times favoring risk-taking and innovation more than clinging to the status quo — with a single caveat embossed on a sticker affixed to every Roxor dash:

“Warning,” it says. “Don’t Do Anything Stupid!”

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.

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