The Mahindra Roxor Is A Reincarnated Willys Jeep And You Absolutely Need One

Photo: Zachary Scheffer/Mahindra
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There are some who are into cars for the wrenchin’. The idea of spending time, money and sanity resuscitating an old Willys Jeep speaks to them. But some of us just want to drive a working vehicle. If you want classic CJ looks without having to keep an old Jeep alive, the Mahindra Roxor was made for you.

[Full disclosure: Mahindra wanted us to check out the new Roxor so badly that they fit us in at the last minute at a drive in San Antonio, where they provided food, lodging and a brief course to tinker around with the Roxor for the day.]

The idea of reproducing a classic, iconic vehicle for use as a toy is by no means new to track dorks. We’ve had kits based on cars like the Lotus Seven, AC Cobra and Ford GT for years. You don’t just buy a new kit Seven when you pick up a new Caterham, Westfield or Locost. You’re buying into decades of knowledge from people running similar cars.

There’s something freeing about having a new copy of a beloved vehicle instead of the beloved original. You can thrash the living daylights out of it with zero guilt. If you break it, so what? It’s just a copy!

That’s what’s so exciting about the Mahindra Roxor: it’s like a Caterham Seven, but for off-road enthusiasts. You just know that someone, somewhere is already wondering how to adapt what they’ve done on an old Willys to a brand-new vehicle that you can just show up and buy. You can even get the Roxor serviced at some 300 or so planned powersports dealers across the country if you really don’t want to wrench on it. New parts for things you break are just available like on a regular car.

Most importantly, it’s just a good little off-roader, with short overhangs to make climbing up rocks easy, meaty components that look hard to break and ample torque to pull itself along.

What Is It?

The Mahindra Roxor is a lightly updated off-road vehicle based on the old Willys Jeep Mahindra licensed to build in 1947. Mahindra has been renewing that license ever since, which allows them to keep stamping out CJ sheet metal with a few key visual nods that this isn’t the original.

Because the new Roxor is off-road-only, it didn’t have to conform to modern road car safety requirements, and it could get away with only adhering to a less stringent off-road emissions spec. It’s delightfully old-school and simple. There aren’t any airbags, and there’s only one ECU. Most of the modifications were made to make components stronger for off-road use, all while keeping things simple enough to service at home.

If you’re familiar with Indian-market vehicles at all, the Roxor is the North American-market variation of the Mahindra Thar. Look under the hood of the Roxor and you’ll even see “Thar” on some of the parts. Likewise, body panels are shipped over from India as they’re stamped from existing designs, which kept the cost of the Roxor down.

The Roxor has a different grille for North America so as not to step on Jeep’s toes here, but otherwise, is that same idea: the original licensed Willys Jeep, yet lightly updated.

Specs That Matter

The Roxor tugs itself along hilariously with a four-cylinder 2.5-liter turbodiesel engine that puts out 62 horsepower at 3200 RPM but a whopping 144 lb-ft of torque that kicks in between 1400 and 2200 RPM. It’s that wonderful turbodiesel torque that allows the Roxor to pull itself along in four-low, even if your foot isn’t on the gas pedal.

The entire base model Roxor only weighs 3,035 lbs, so despite not being particularly speedy higher in its rev range, it had more than enough torque to be fun on some of the obstacles we got to test it on.

It’s also relatively small, with a wheelbase of 96 inches, a length of 148 inches, and a width of 62 inches. Nine inches of ground clearance and short overhangs will no doubt come in handy off-road, as will the 12-gallon fuel tank. It’s rated to lean over at a 40-degree angle before it tips over, although staff noted that they got it up to around 44 degrees in testing. Mahindra claims it has a lower center of gravity than the original Willys Jeep it’s based on.

It all sits on a box steel frame—an improvement Mahindra made over the original Willys CJ C-shaped frame—and two solid axles. A rigid leaf spring with a stabilizer bar is used up front, and a leaf spring and shock absorber combo is used in the rear. The whole package is capable of towing 3,490 lbs.

Unlike many off-road-only vehicles, the Mahindra also comes with a traditional five-speed manual gearbox with a two-speed transfer case that allows you to select between two-wheel-drive, as well as four-wheel-drive high and low gears. An automatic is a planned option for later, but for now, you get three pedals or no pedals.

Continuing this “car, but not a car” theme are the regular-sized 16-inch tires. Stock, it comes with 235/70R16 tires—normal off-road truck tires instead of some special ATV size.

For the launch, the Roxor is available in just four colors and only has one trim level above the base model: the LE Package. The $18,999 LE Package adds a lot of niceties, like a Warn 8,000-pound winch, a Bestop soft top, BF Goodrich KO2 off-road tires, a meatier HD front bumper, KC HiLites light bar, mirrors, grab handles and an MTX AM/FM Bluetooth Sound Bar. This is the one we got to drive around the most.

What’s Great

The Roxor just feels like a good, simple little truck, more so than most off-road-only vehicles. The manually-adjustable seats come with regular seat belts and a normal car-style manual transmission. There’s even a horn, lights, a 12-volt plug to charge your phone and cupholders. Aesthetically, it’s all pretty adorable to look at in a way that most side-by-sides aren’t. This cute little thing even tells you not to do anything stupid on the dashboard—just in case. It’s like they know we’re going to disregard that advice anyway!

It also exceeds some of its ratings. It’s only rated for a 45-mph top speed, yet it felt like it would easily exceed that. One of the Mahindra staff members I spoke with claimed that he got it to go over 80 mph in testing, albeit shakily.

Its killer feature, though, is the torque. The little turbodiesel sounds a lot like a tractor engine and pulls just about as well. One of the obstacles on the test course was a steep hill, and I was able to leave it in first gear in four-low and let the Roxor pull itself up without applying any throttle. I even put my foot on the dash to make sure I wouldn’t touch the gas pedal, and sure enough: it just pulled itself along at idle.

It was the same story over bumps, rocks and tilted dirt mounds on the course. While we didn’t have a particularly hardcore outing, it was still impressive that the Roxor could just idle itself forward all the time. Holy crap, I want to try this thing out on the trails.

The hydraulic steering rack on the Roxor turns extremely slowly, which lends itself well for putting your wheels exactly where you want them.

Everything feels very solid to begin with, which leads me to believe that it’d be hard to bend and snap out on the trail. Mahindra even told us to try kicking the thick steel body, which is an invitation I couldn’t refuse. It kinda hurt my toe, and I didn’t leave a dent.

When I spoke to Mahindra’s reps at the launch event in San Antonio, the company themselves was already starting to think about how to adapt the Roxor for different uses: off-roading, hunting, fishing, ranching and other powersports. The goal is to release a new trim every sixth months, according to a Mahindra representative.

Mahindra isn’t just looking at future trim levels, though. They’re already looking into offering a number of useful add-ons, including under-body skid plates to further protect some of the more important components, locking differentials that help it go over rougher terrain, and even a snowplow.

An HVAC system is planned for 2019 as well, but if most of your activities involve leaving the removable windshield off, nature is excellent aircon. Likewise, the “doors” on our test cars are simple nets designed to keep you inside if something goes wrong, but feel open and airy as a Jeep in good weather should.

What’s Weak

Because this is based on such an old-school vehicle, that means that some items still have the same old-school quirks as the original. The transfer case in particular is a bit stubborn to shift from four-low, to four-high or two-wheel drive. You’ll need to be rolling a bit in neutral to make it happen. Additionally, the turning radius is pretty large. You’ll learn to love reverse gear if you want to turn around without having to hop a curb.

All models come with convenient locking storage boxes under the seats, but I don’t think I’d use these if I was planning on driving through any low water crossings. For that purpose, this seemed like a strange place to put the truck’s only lockable storage compartments.

The LE Package’s AM/FM/Bluetooth sound system is relatively simple to use, but it’s worth noting that this is more like a nice boombox that fits in the overhead space between the two diagonal roll bars than it is a regular stereo system, and sounds accordingly. Likewise, the LE Package mirrors (which are mounted to the roll cage) shook quite a bit more than your average built-in car mirror, which can make them a little hard to use.

And of course, being an off-road-only vehicle does mean that you’d have to trailer it out to the trails if you want to get there legally. If you’re used to hauling around a side-by-side or some outrageous off-roading build around, this is just business as usual, but if you’re looking at this like a new tiny Willys Jeep, you may be disappointed by its on-road illegality.

Early Verdict

Starting at $15,549, this reborn off-road legend is fairly reasonably priced for a new vehicle, but that means that it doesn’t come especially cheap. David Tracy’s Willys build certainly cost him more time and frustration, but he only spent a total of $4,194.70 to buy and fix it up.

But that’s exactly what you’re getting back: time. If you’d rather spend more time driving than wrenching and don’t want to navigate the world of vintage car parts every time a major component gets borked, the Roxor starts to sound like a good idea.

We’d also be curious how this truck performs on more difficult trails. Most of the major components look pretty thick and meaty, but our drive to put them through their paces was relatively brief: a faster ride-along around a ranch that included a low-water crossing that came up over the floorboards, and a course to drive that was specially designed so that journalists wouldn’t do anything stupid.

It all looks and feels very, very right, though, right down to the rugged bedliner-type material coating the inside. If you want a CJ without the old-car hassle, the rough and ready Roxor is the next best thing.