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Tata Zest review, test drive

Tata Motors’ Horizonext movement may have been spearheaded by a series of updates to its existing models, but this is the first actual new product of the company’s big renaissance. However, the Tata Zest compact sedan isn’t an all-new car in truth, but instead a thorough revision of the Indica Vista platform, with the addition of a boot. Don’t think of this as just some mid-life facelift though, because the car has been heavily re-engineered, with just about every mechanical component modified or replaced with the goal of matching international standards. Tata has a lot riding on the Zest (and its upcoming hatchback sibling, the Bolt), and is counting on it to revive its waning fortunes in its home market.

You can see the family resemblance, but the Tata Zest definitely looks more modern and upmarket than the likes of the Vista and Manza. There’s a nice kink in the headlamps, which now get projector elements, and between them sits an attractive mesh grille. The bonnet and front bumper are more sculpted than before and, the top-spec petrol version features LED daytime-running lamps too.

You should know at this point that we also drove the all-important Zest diesel equipped with an automated manual transmission (dubbed ‘F-tronic’), which was made available in a lower trim level.

 There’s a thick shoulder line running along the side that breaks up the car’s rather tall profile, although it still appears to ride quite high on its 15-inch wheels, thanks in part to the pronounced wheelarches (the actual ground clearance is a pretty standard 165-175mm). The back is where the big news is, of course, because this is a 3,995mm sedan, and integrating a boot onto such cars is always tricky for the designer. The boot looks stubby and truncated in comparison to the large windows (a straight carryover from the Vista) but given the limitations, the designers have done a fairly decent job. The big, wrap-around part-LED tail-lamps and wide chrome bar give it decent road presence from the rear.

A much bigger surprise is the cabin, which is easily the most modern and classy looking one we’ve seen in a Tata vehicle to date. The two-tone colour scheme makes it feel really airy, and the piano-black and gunmetal grey plastic trim do liven up the dashboard. The steering wheel is smaller in diameter than the Vista’s, it has a smart new hexagonal boss and there are audio controls here too. The speedo and rev counter dials are also very attractive, with a chunky-looking 3D jewelled effect, and a detailed fuel and trip computer nestled between them. It’s not just the look that’s improved, but the quality too. The texture and finish of the plastics look and feel much better to be on par with Maruti and Honda (though not quite at Hyundai’s level). If we’re going to nitpick, panel fit still isn’t perfect, the edges of certain parts are still quite rough, and the shiny plastics still reflect too much. It’s a shame that all the leather trim from the car shown at the Auto Expo 2014 is missing, even on the top-spec car, and that there is just one cup holder in the cabin; the slim door pads could barely fit a half-litre water bottle.

 A lot of work has been done to the seats as well, and the big front chairs are well cushioned and supportive. The high dashboard means shorter drivers might have to use the seat height-adjuster (only available on the top trim), but you will be comfortable over long journeys. The rear seat is like a sofa – easily wide enough for three, with good support and space in every direction. The air-conditioning – automatic climate control on the top-spec car, manual otherwise – has also been improved, and though we didn’t have a hot summer’s day to test it on, it regulated cabin temperatures very quickly and efficiently.

Finally, another talking point on the inside is the new infotainment system developed with luxury audio experts Harman (of Harman and Kardon fame). The eight-speaker audio sounds fantastic for this class of car, and gets USB, Bluetooth, aux and SD card input (no CD player though). The touchscreen infotainment system on the top-spec car is very ambitious, offering higher-segment features like a proximity display for the rear parking sensors, alternate controls and display for the air-con, vehicle settings control, and even voice commands. It gets the job done, but is a little rough around the edges; the voice commands are too few and specific, for example. The screen is a bit too reflective to easily read on the move as well, but the unit itself feels really good to use, with high-quality controls. The lower-spec car misses out on the touchscreen, and with it, some of the aforementioned features, but its unit looks neat and works well.

 What’s it like to drive?

The petrol version first, which uses Tata’s new 1.2 Revotron engine. Although this motor has its roots in the cast-iron block of the Xeta 1.2 motor, for all practical purposes, it’s a completely new engine. The talking point is the turbo-charger which promises the benefits of forced induction but the engine doesn’t have advanced tech like direct injection or a four-valve head. Still, the turbo gives it best-in-class power and torque figures – 88.7bhp and 14.27kgm – the latter being a fair bit higher than the naturally aspirated 1.2 petrols you find in the other sub-four-metre sedans. But how does it work on the road?

It’s very accessible for those unaccustomed to turbo engines, that’s for sure. It’s smooth when you set off and when the turbo comes alive at around 1,700rpm, the transition is smooth. Off-boost, you will find some hesitation if you punch down the accelerator in a hurry, but you get accustomed to it soon enough and it’s hardly a bother in traffic. The mid range isn’t ballistic as you might expect from a turbo engine, but performance is adequate for normal motoring.

Tata has also made a lot of mention of the Revotron’s three driving modes – Eco, City and Sport – a class-first feature that uses different ECU maps to suit your need but to be honest, it doesn’t live up to the hype. There is a little more responsiveness in Sport mode, but apart from that, the differences between the modes are hard to discern. The other problem is that this motor isn’t particular free-revving and runs out of breath pretty quickly, struggling to hit 6,000rpm.

Though the Revotron has sporting intensions, the fact is that this engine doesn’t like being flogged and feels best with moderate throttle inputs. Mention must be made of the refinement levels which are superb. Because it uses a cast-iron block rather than an aluminium one, noise and vibrations are much better contained, and noise levels are quite low. In fact, the Zest on the whole is very refined, with wind and tyre noise levels also having been improved.

However, the quite ambience in the cabin has accentuated the noticeable whine of the gearbox — an updated version of the Vista’s old TA65 five-speed manual, now cable operated, and fairly light to use.

More important than the new petrol, however, is the diesel automatic car. It’s likely to become the cheapest diesel automatic sedan in India when it goes on sale, the next most affordable option being the Hyundai Verna, and that’s something buyers have been craving lately. It uses an automated manual (AMT) gearbox with the same 89bhp 1.3-litre, Fiat-sourced Quadrajet engine as before, and as with most AMTs, promises to offer a sticker price that’s not much higher and fuel economy that's not much lower than the manual equivalent.

While we can’t verify either of those two things right now, what we can tell you is that the gearbox works just as we’ve come to expect AMTs to. For one, you have to remember there’s no ‘Park’ setting on the gearbox, and you have to leave it in neutral with the handbrake up when you leave the car. On the move, there’s a distinct pause between gear shifts which are pretty slow. It’s not so much a bother when you’re ambling along or even cruising steadily on the highway. The issues arise when you want an instant change of pace, and if you put your foot down hard, it drops gears quickly, but then immediately interrupts the power momentarily, which can leave you stranded halfway through an overtaking manoeuvre. The trick, then, is to give yourself room and gently feed in the power so that you can run through the gears smoothly.

The AMT also has a Sport mode, which makes it a little more responsive, and lets the engine rev to 4,000rpm when you’re going flat out (Normal mode shifts up anywhere between 2,000 and 3,500, depending on your inputs). The best mode for going quickly, however, is the gearlever-operated tiptronic manual, which will hold gears even till 4,500rpm. While that might seem like it’s defeating the purpose of an automatic, know that for everyday driving, the auto modes work great, and only if you are in a real hurry will you feel the need to swap cogs yourself.

The final area where huge strides have been made is the chassis and suspension. Without getting into too much detail, what you need to know is that Tata has managed to find a sublime balance between ride and handling; perhaps even the best in this class. Drive it over any manner of road blemish and it will flatten it out impeccably, and quietly. Even big potholes hardly faze it. Road shocks are cushioned brilliantly and the sense of calm in the cabin even on a really bad surface is amazing for a car in this segment. The only time it comes close to being caught out is when you drive it quickly over large road undulations, at which point, it may pitch a little at the rear. Under very hard braking too, the rear can get a bit unsettled

Amazingly, the relatively heavy and tall Zest darts around corners quite capably too. Its wider tracks help it feel more planted than an Indica, and the body movement is very well controlled for a car that seems to ride quite high. Yes, there is a bit of body roll but the overall balance of the chassis doesn’t make it an issue. The new electric steering unit, borrowed from the Nano Twist, also works really well. It’s pretty accurate and the ‘active return’ feature does subtly make things easier on the move. At speeds, the steering does feel a bit light but doesn’t take confidence away from the driver.

 Should I buy one?

Even a short drive in the new Tata Zest will make you forget everything about the old Indica Vista, so effective are the improvements. The design is a definite step forward and when viewed from certain angles, the car looks genuinely good. The real changes are in the engineering. The ride and handling mix is just spot on, and it’s even fun to chuck around corners. The petrol engine doesn’t quite live up to all the hype Tata put behind it, but in isolation, is very smooth and driveable, and packs adequate punch too. The AMT diesel comes with the compromises typical of this type of gearbox, but for most people in everyday driving, the price, fuel economy and immense convenience factor should outweigh the small foibles. You’ll also have little reason to complain sitting inside, apart from the lack of cabin stowage, and the top-spec car is really well kitted out too.

With the Zest, Tata Motors is taking on a hugely competitive segment dominated by three of the country’s biggest carmakers. It does have a trump card up its sleeve with the diesel auto, however, and this alone should have buyers flocking to showrooms. Tata was the company that started this segment in the first place, remember, and if it prices the Zest as competitively as it historically has its other cars, this could be the car that puts Tata back in the game.


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