There’s a new automaker in town.
Mahindra comes from India. It’s been assembling Jeep-derived vehicles in Mumbai for 70 years. Now, it’s got its own version for the off-road utility market of hunters, farmers and groundskeepers, and it’s going to be rolling off a metro Detroit assembly line.
All just a few miles from Jeep’s headquarters.
For the first time in roughly a quarter-century, a global automaker is opening an assembly plant in the capital of the American auto industry. Doesn’t really matter if the Mahindra Roxor isn’t legal to drive on Michigan roads. Or that its speed is limited to 45 miles per hour. As utilitarian goes, it doesn’t get much more so than the two-point-four liter turbo-diesel that rolls without honest doors.
Let the lawyers worry about trademark issues with Jeep, if they haven’t already.
Focus instead on what Mahindra’s arrival in Detroit means — beyond the 350 or so jobs. It’s not just the Chinese who are taking aim at the United States. Now an Indian industrial heavyweight also wants to earn credibility here, and it’s tapping local industry talent to do it.
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.
The Harvard-educated chairman of the Mumbai-based group calls the approach “asset-light.” Experiment and leverage brands, says Anand Mahindra. 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.
Like what? Like soon offering the Roxor in 900 colors. Like assembling customizable seats. Or options like hard tops and safari seats, winches and back seats, side enclosures and a whole bunch of other stuff that can add a lot to the price of a $15,500 vehicle.
It all suggests a commitment to customization that screams Silicon Valley more than it does Detroit. And that’s precisely the point.
Customizable iPhones, iPads and Android devices, coupled with ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, are shifting customer expectations. Automotive orthodoxy has limited consumers’ choices in order to simplify business for manufacturers.
Mahindra’s Roxor proposes to change that paradigm.
The guy leading the effort is a veteran of Ford Motor and Tesla. He worked as a chief engineer on Tesla’s flagship Model S and Rick Haas gets a glint in the eye when you talk customization. Mahindra is betting that it’s the future, and they’re trying to figure out the possibilities in a small industrial park in Auburn Hills.
Starting with an off-road vehicle that can’t legally be driven on public roads may be an unusual way to launch. But these are unusual times that favor risk-taking and innovation more than clinging to the status quo.
A single caveat is embossed on a sticker affixed to every Roxor dash:
“Warning,” it says. “Don’t Do Anything Stupid!”
Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.