Off-road enthusiasts will remember the Gurkha from 2008. Force Motors, then Bajaj Tempo, made an off-road vehicle based heavily on the Mercedes-Benz G-wagon, mainly for export. A limited number (40 to be precise) were sold to the Indian public between 2008 and 2010, after which it faded away. Now, spurred on by the increased interest in adventure sports and off-roading, Force Motors has come up with this updated Gurkha, aimed at the off-road crowd. It is Force Motors second offering after the Force One.
The official name is Force Gurkha E.O.V. 4x4x4. In English that means Extreme Off-road Vehicle and the three 4s stand for a vehicle that has four-wheel drive and can take on four seasons and four kinds of terrain; silly name, but does it live up to it?
The specs are impressive though. For Rs. 8.5 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) for the top-end Gurkha Hard-top, there is some serious mud-plugging kit on offer. Standard equipment includes mechanical differential locks for the front and rear axles, a snorkel that allows it to go swimming in water 550mm deep, a transfer case with low-ratios and all-terrain tyres mounted on alloy wheels borrowed from the Force One.
Under the Gurkha's'designer skin' is the same basic body as the old Gurkha. It is mounted on a beefy tubular ladder frame that is also from the old Gurkha. The front suspension is an independent, double wishbone arrangement with an anti-roll bar, while the rear is a leaf spring, anti-roll bar and live axle combination. Brakes are via discs up front and drums at the rear.
Powering the Gurkha is a Mercedes-Benz OM616-derived 2596cc turbo-charged, inter-cooled direct injection (not common-rail) diesel that makes a modest 81bhp and 23.5kgm of torque. It doesn't meet BSIV emission norms as of now, but work is on to make it so. Mated to a five-speed G18 gearbox from Mercedes-Benz, it powers the rear wheels under normal conditions and all four if you stir through the second gearlever that sits between the front seats.On our short test drive at a specially designed off-road course at the Force Motors plant in Pune, a few things were immediately apparent.
The view from the driver's seat is great – the Gurkha's slim pillars don't obstruct your view much and its old-school square lines make it easy to place the Gurkha accurately on narrow off-road tracks. The two-tone dashboard is simple and straightforward. Ahead of you are the dials, which consist of a speedo, temperature- and fuel gauge with a tiny rev-counter placed under the air-con vents. The AC vents are hugely adjustable but the AC itself has no thermostat control and wasn't particularly strong on cooling.
Plastic quality and fit-and-finish are better than the Mahindra Thar's, but that's not saying much anyway. You'll find plenty of gaps between the dash panels, and lots of cheap bits. The driving position is mixed bag too– the steering wheel slopes away from you (much like a truck's), there's no seat height or steering rake adjust, and slotting the long-throw five-speed ’box into the dog-leg first is quite a stretch. That said, the Gurkha's seats, its moulded roof lining and the bright, airy interiors are quite nice by off-roader standards. You access the forward-facing rear seats by lifting the front seats out of the way (the soft-top version has conventional side-facing seats). Sit on the high seats and you'll discover they have plenty of legroom, width and thigh support. However, owing to their high-set position, tall passengers might find their heads brushing against the roof lining.
Twist the key, the engine catches almost immediately and settles into a gravelly idle. The clutch, you will find, is heavy but progressive in the way it engages. Stretch to slot into first, get off the clutch and you'll find the Gurkha moves off with surprising zest. However, it's soon time to stretch again and shift to second as the engine only revs to a disappointingly low 3500rpm.The Gurkha feels incredibly short geared(which is why it feels so responsive) andwhile this last bit gives you incredible throttle control off-road, it translates to plenty of gearshifts on the road.
And gearshifts are something you'll tire of in the Gurkha – apart from the incredibly long throws (which makes rocking a stuck vehicle back and forth almost impossible), the gearbox is rather vague and needs a lot of effort to operate.The same goes for the gearlever that operates the transfer case.
Nonetheless, the suspension seems pretty sorted. The Gurkha displayed a well-controlled ride over the Belgian pave track with little pitch from the front and just a bit of kick from the rear. As for the handling, the Gurkha uses a power-assisted, worm-and-roller steering mechanism that makes for a deliberately low-geared steering. That means plenty of turns lock to lock and slow responses. And, thanks to its two-metre height and relatively narrow width, it isn't particularly happy when going around corners fast. Which is fine – this is an off-roader, not a corner carver.
Speaking of which, as an off-roader, it is really impressive. Force Motors says it has an approach, ramp-over and departure angle of 37,29 and 34 degrees respectively, and ground clearance stands at 210mm. In 4x4 low mode, it can climb a 40-degree slope, and the engine's low speed idling has been calibrated to allow it to climb a 25-degree slope without any throttle inputs.
On Force Motor's specially constructed off-road track, the Gurkha simply felt unstoppable. We took it through deep holes, had two wheels in the air occasionally, made it climb a 40-degree slope, down a 35-degree slope and drove through water. If it ever got stuck, tugging the pull-type, manually engaged differential locks would get us going again. Still, we did notice that wheel articulation isn't great.
The Gurkha comes across as a properly capable off-roader, but there's no denying that it needs quite a lot of polishing. At Rs. 8.5 lakh, it is Rs. 1.4 lakh more expensive than the Mahindra Thar and though it has more standard off-road kit, it isn't that much better than the Mahindra in terms of finesse. You could excuse this lack of finesse as a byproduct of a hardy off-roader, but at this price, people will expect more.
Apart from this 4x4 hard-top, the Gurkha is available as a 4x4 soft-top as well for Rs. 15,000 less. There's also a base 4x2 soft-top that costs Rs. 6.25 lakh. As it doesn't meet BSIV norms, you can't buy it in a lot of cities, but then again, the whole point of a vehicle like this is to use it away from a city. Force Motors is offering it in three colours– matt black, metallic red and green and most impressively, it comes with a three-year/3,00,000km warranty. It will be in dealerships by the end of April 2013.