Howes: Made-in-Michigan Mahindra vies with auto show heavies

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
In its first Detroit auto show, India's Mahindra will tout its ability to offer its Roxor off-road vehicle in 430 different colors and other custom features.

Auburn Hills — As Detroit’s two automotive heavyweights move to rationalize their lineups, trim salaried workers and tweak production footprints, southeast Michigan’s newest automaker is growing so fast it needs more space.

Probably not here in the prosperous enclave of southern Oakland County — but in Detroit or Flint or Pontiac, somewhere where Mahindra Automotive North America can make a difference with new jobs and investment. To prove the point, the Indian automaker employing 425 and now building its Roxor off-road vehicle in an industrial park east of I-75 is planning to make its debut at next week’s Detroit auto show.

"We're investigating potential expansion sites," CEO Rick Haas, a veteran of Ford Motor Co. and a former chief engineer on Tesla Inc.'s flagship Model S, said Thursday. "We're not sure where the business is going to take us."

Forward, hopefully. Mahindra is planting roots in the heart of the U.S. auto industry as giants General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. move ahead with plans to drop slow-selling product and cut salaried employees — a few of whom could end up satisfying Mahindra's hunger for more engineering talent.

Is Mahindra, whose Mumbai-based parent is deep in partnership talks with Ford in India, readying itself to enter the hyper-competitive U.S. auto market? "We've been a little bit coy about that and will continue to be," Haas said, referring to the Mahindra Marazzo minivan that was engineered in Troy for assembly and sales back in India.

"Is it designed to a global standard? Yes, it is. We're being a little bit cautious. We don't want to hit any speed bumps. What I don't want to do is launch in a crisis" — and not until Mahindra gets a longer record of sales, builds its reputation with would-be consumers and dealers, assesses macroeconomic conditions, and learns whether it's awarded the contract to build the next-generation delivery van for the U.S. Postal Service.

Coming to the States? The short answer is probably, depending on a whole lot of conditions that can't be decided too soon. It wouldn't be the first attempt by Mahindra to enter to the U.S. market, a fraught experience whose mistakes the current leadership would prefer not to repeat. 

So for the first time in, what, forever, an Indian automaker will be at the North American International Auto Show. Seventy years ago, Mahindra began assembling the Willys Jeep in India under contract. Now it owns South Korea’s SsangYong Motor Co., a virtual unknown in the United States that could figure in Mahindra’s automotive future here.

For less than $100 million, it acquired Italy’s Pininfarina SpA, the legendary auto design house now developing a premium electric vehicle for its new parent. Starting next week, you'll find Mahindra near the center of the main auto show floor, wedged visibly between Buick and Subaru, America’s fastest-growing brand.

That’s not a bad spot for a newbie, especially one selling a diesel-powered off-roader more evocative of old-school Jeeps (hence the continuing trademark battle with Jeep parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV in federal court and before the International Trade Commission) than a 21st-century SUV.

Mahindra's original plan for the auto show envisioned taking a space in the concourse, out among the suppliers, radio booths and the coat check. But show organizers, facing a continuing exodus from a show once considered mandatory on the global industry calendar, offered the Roxor maker space on the show floor for less money.

"We said, 'Sure, we'll take that,'" Haas said. "We need to get the word out on Roxor: here we are; we're in Detroit; we've established an OEM here. We feel fortunate to have gotten a space inside. We're painting a picture, and we're telling a story."

The tale features Roxor and the fact that Mahindra will showcase its ability to deliver a model in any one of 430 different colors; that its vehicles are drawing interest from mines, railroads, municipalities and beach patrols; that it's moving quickly to offer such options as air conditioning, second-row seats, automatic transmissions and hard cabin enclosures for would-be commercial customers.

It will include the Marazzo, a three-row minivan built and sold in India but engineered in southeast Michigan. It will showcase the automaker's GenZ e-bikes and e-scooters, Mahindra's entry into the evolving mobility space.

And it will confirm that there's a new automaker in town, tiny but itching to grow. That's worth celebrating.

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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.