The new Mahindra Thar SUV has been unveiled by the Indian utility vehicle major. And the Thar has lived up to all the hype and anticipation around it. It has recevieved much praise for its modern looks, better finish, much-improved cabin and more practical everyday use capability. I was also lucky to be the only one to test it off-road and tell you that 4X4 prowess has also remained intact. So the only chink in its armour appears to be that front grille. It was amongst the first things noticed by media, Tharophiles (yes a word I just made up, but it works – and hey Mahindra certainly will not mind ‘Tharo'!) and the critics. Why is it so different, they asked. And how come it isn't in keeping with the car's overall design that draws so heavily from the previous Thar, and even the Classic or CJ heritage?
The new Thar looks imposing and carries the DNA of the previous generation
Why This New Grille Was Done
Well, the answer is simple. It is not like this is the direction the design team lead by Ramkripa Ananthan wanted to go. It has simply been done to avoid legal trouble. You see, it all goes back to when Mahindra first started making the old CJ-3B or Willys Jeep, post independence. Those vehicles were built under a license from Jeep. Over the years Mahindra began to make its own vehicles, even though the CJ Series was more or less continued in some form or the other all the way until 2010.
The Thar was first launched in India in 2010
That is when the Thar first arrived, and it took all its styling elements from that same DNA. The license to use the typical Jeep fenders, round headlamps and yes the grille remained with M&M, but the agreements have been amended over the years. When the Chrysler Corporation (later DaimlerChrysler, then Chrysler LLC, and now FCA) took over the Jeep brand in 1987, it signed fresh agreements with several manufacturers making Jeep derivatives worldwide. And those had continued unhindered until recently. The current drama is explained further below.
Why Not A 5-Slot Front Grille?
But first let me ask – is the new grille really a problem? I don't hate it, and for scores of consumers it would well be seen as simply a new design direction on a new generation of a car. After all no one questioned the change of grille on say a Verna or a Swift, right? The purists will say the Thar cannot be compared to those cars, as it is not a generic model, and is more cult. So to that I say, why not do a 5-slot grille instead of the 7-slot that Jeep may contest? After all if you look into the history, Jeep too began making a 7-slot grille way back when, to avoid infringing on Ford's 9-slot that had come earlier in military use.
A 5-slot grille would still maintain the overall classic feel
So a 5-slot grille would still maintain the overall classic feel, hark back to the Thar's own legacy, and yet not attract any legal disputes. Well, that is for Mahindra to consider, but given the market introduction is still far away (October 2 2020), maybe your opinions (like mine) could help alter what officially launches! Sources have shared with me that a rethink is on within Mahindra, and what we saw at the unveil may not be the final shape the grille takes. Even if the current grille remains, it may have certain body coloured or silver elements instead of being all-black.
History Of Dispute With FCA
Mahindra launched the Roxor – its first vehicle in the United States in March 2018, the car was not for on-road use. It was loosely based on the Thar, and its design therefore drew immediate objection from FCA. In August of the same year, Fiat Chrysler filed a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission or ITC claiming that the Mahindra Roxor infringed key characteristics of Jeep's signature ‘trade dress' or design. The complaint also claimed that the Roxor was modelled after the original Willys Jeep. It further accused Mahindra of undercutting Jeep products by importing cheaper kits from India and asembling them in Detroit. Mahindra for its part stated that the Roxor was within the framework of the relationship and the terms of its agreements with FCA. It therefore said FCA's claims were baseless. It also cited an official agreement signed with FCA in 2009, that allowed the use of the 7-slot grille – even in the U.S. market.
FCA filed a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission claiming that the Mahindra Roxor infringed key characteristics of Jeep's signature design
That contract was signed by Mike Manley in 2009, when Jeep was still a part of Chrysler LLC. Incidentally, Mike Manley is now the CEO of FCA. The said contract stated that Chrysler would not assert 'any claim for infringement of ‘trade dress', trademark, or other intellectual property rights in the United States based on a grille having the “approved grille design”, against M&M or its affiliates. Subsequently the U.S. International Trade Commission launched a patent-related investigation into the Mahindra Roxor. In Novermber 2019 a U.S. Administrative Law Judge ruled that the Roxor infringed on the ‘trade dress ‘of Jeep vehicles, particularly the Jeep CJ. And recommended the ITC issue a cease-and-desist order to prevent Mahindra from selling the Roxor in the United States.
Mahindra disputed the ruling and in January this year the ITC said it would review the administrative law judge's initial determination.
FCA said the Roxor used six key details of the Jeep ‘trade dress'. This include - 'Exterior Hood Latches', a 'Boxy Body Shape with Flat Appearing Vertical Sides', a ‘Flat and Round-edged Hood that tapers towards the front', the 4.5-Slot Grille, 'Rear Body Panels with Door-Cut Outs Running above the Rocker Panel', and the 'Trapezoidal flared fenders that extend past the grille'. Mahindra disputed the ruling and in January this year the ITC said it would review the administrative law judge's initial determination. Mahindra launched a model year 2020 Roxor with what it described as significant styling changes. Mahindra has also said that it would make additional changes if the ITC required so. But in June 2020, the U.S. regulator still ruled that M&M infringed upon FCA's intellectual property rights, and barred the sale of the Roxor.
The 2020 Mahindra Roxor gets a new and updated grille
Mahindra says that car originally objected to is no longer in production, citing aforementioned styling changes to the 2020 model. Still, considering the status quo, last month a new Roxor was teased that promises even more significant changes. Perhaps the new Thar's grille may find it way on to that too?
The 2020 Mahindra Thar will be launched on October 2, 2020
While the legal drama plays out, here in India Mahindra has grounds to launch even a 7-Slot grilled Thar. After all – so many Mahindra products have used a 7-Slot grille (not nearly as big or vertical as the Thar's), including the last Thar itself. We contacted Mahindra but received no response from the company about our query regarding the grille. So then, the million dollar question remains – what exactly will launch on October 2? Please comment on social media – and tell us what you think. Twitter, Instagram, Siddharth Vinayak Patankar