Tata Motors have had to face the brunt of a falling perception about its products in recent times, leading to a significant drop in its marketshare. Fortunately, the company realised this in time to have started work on a new platform of vehicles, aimed at changing the perception of the company in the consumers' mind. The first result of this effort is the compact sedan Zest, which hints at a different Tata Motors than we all know.
The Zest and the soon-to-be-followed Bolt hatchback are extremely important cars for the Indian automaker's future. Although it isn't an entirely new platform, the underpinnings rest on a vastly modified and enhanced version of the X1 platform used for the Vista. That said, the car is quite different in character from the Vista and also enjoys the status of introducing multiple segment as well as overall market first technologies. All vehicular areas of the Zest have undergone massive work with expertise roped in from international technology providers too.
We were invited by the company to test drive the Zest in the scenic locales of Goa. With the Zest, Tata Motors have clearly made one of its largest efforts in its history, in terms of product design, development and production, but does the compact sedan have what it takes to turn the tide for the company? We find out.
At first sight, the Zest is an easy looking vehicle on the eyes, primarily due to its clean design lines. It is a proper forward-looking and youthful vehicle – a landmark change for the company. The silhouette is quite reminiscent of the Indica/ Vista line, but in no ways takes away from the distinct visual identity of the Zest.
Pratap Bose, Head of Design, Tata Motors talked about the new design language that the company has adopted, and detailed the new lines and their impact on the overall look. Elements such as the Humanity Line, Trust Line, Slingshot Line and Diamond DLO, work well to provide a forward-looking stance with a gentle visual perception. These lines will now be seen on all upcoming Tata vehicles but with different manifestations, depending on the segment and type of a particular vehicle.
Projector headlamps, LED daytime-running lights and LED tail lamps are some of the bits that add flair of modern look to the car. The design flow is seamless right from the front towards the rear, but breaks somewhat at the point where the boot begins. Even though the platform has been designed to accommodate a sedan and hatch, the boot seems a tad disjointed from the design. The side profile benefits significantly from the use of 15-inch wheels, lending dynamism to the stance.
Overall, the design of Zest is unlike earlier Tata vehicles and in a positive manner. We think the design will relate well with the expectations of young and aspirational buyers, a segment which the company hasn't been able to appeal to in the past, but needs to, for building a strong future.
This is one area, where Tata Motors have made great progress, both with the petrol and diesel variants. The petrol unit though is the centre of attraction, being developed indigenously by Tata Motors with the help of global companies such as AVL, Bosch, Honeywell, Mahle and INA.
The REVOTRON 1.2T unit is claimed by Tata Motors to introduce turbocharging in the segment Zest is slotted in. The turbo unit supplied by Honeywell features a low-inertia light wheel, requiring lesser force to drive it to the optimum speed. As a result, the engine develops a healthy 88.8 hp along with 140 Nm of torque between 1,750 to 3,500 rpm. While driving we noticed that the turbo comes to life at about 1,800 rpm, which is the point where one gets access to good acceleration.
The company is also talking a lot about three engines in one, which in simple terms is usage of three drive modes, usually seen on premium vehicles. Trickling this technology to this segment though is commendable. A change in throttle response and engine mapping allows drivers to choose among City, Eco and Sport modes, each of which offers perceivable change in driving behaviour. The throttle itself is controlled through drive-by-wire technology, leading to a crisp throttle response. In the Sport mode, the Zest offers a good driving experience with the engine note being the only area that leaves a little to be desired.
An area hitherto not pursued well by the company, lightweighting has been applied well on the Zest. The old platforms had their limitations too, but the company has used lighter materials on the Zest, and optimisation of multiple areas in the engine has led to good efficiency and lower NVH levels. The 1.2T motor is well-refined and although it may not be the segment best, it surely isn't too far behind. Using an aluminium engine block could've improved the performance and efficiency figures but like Girish Wagh, Head, Program Planning & Project Management, Tata Motors said, that would've seen NVH suffering as a trade-off.
The five-speed transmission too was impressive, offering effortless and precise shifts. A balanced spread of the ratios further aids drivability, which is good to start off with. We weren't able to check for real-world fuel-efficiency figures and would update them soon as we sample the vehicles in detail. We expect the figures to be close to the segment leader owing to improvement in combustion efficiency and other areas.
Next up on our drive was the diesel variant of the Zest, equipped with the 1.3 l Multijet diesel engine from Fiat, already seen on various cars. The highlight here is the segment-first use of automated manual transmission (AMT) with the engine. AMT theoretically holds good potential for markets such as India, where consumers demand for more convenience at lower cost. The effect of AMT's adoption though, is quite mixed but overall, it is a welcome sign to see Tata Motors making early moves in embracing new technologies.
For those looking for an economical means of transport primarily, the AMT variant might make sense. The only downside of it is the slow shifts that one has to contend with, which at times could be jerky too. The option of switching to sports mode – again a first for diesel cars of this segment in the country – does allow higher revs, but shift times remain slow. If not for the transmission, the engine in itself offers a good spread of torque across the rev band and decent performance.
The overall refinement and low NVH level of the diesel variant is truly impressive, which are at par with segment standards.
In a nutshell, Tata Motors' approach towards powertrain is interesting. There seems to be more focus on the new REVOTRON 1.2T petrol engine, despite the fact that the diesel variant would likely sell more. But market dynamics are changing, both in India as well as in other markets, where Tata Motors would take the Zest to. Many of the international markets continue to favour petrol over diesel, and with consumers gradually switching back to petrol following the price escalation in retail diesel in India, it is the petrol variant that could outsell the diesel variant in the long run.
It's good to see an Indian company looking at future technologies and not mass-appealing marketing innovations. This goes on to clarify that the company is confident of playing an important role on the global stage and that too in a better way than it had done in the past.
INTERIORS & RIDE QUALITY
This is another area, where the company has made landmark improvements in multiple ways. The Zest offers a blend of dual-tone dashboard and much improved interior quality as compared to any other Tata vehicle from the past. Instead of going for the monotonous tone of beige, the designers used a mix of black and a light coffee shade. The black centre console with metallic edges accentuates the premium feel of the cabin and houses the infotainment screen as well. The central screen is a touch-type unit in case of the petrol variants and a smaller knob-operated unit in the diesel variant. The infotainment system has been developed by Harman, a name associated with luxury automotive brands globally.
Inset: Centre Console of the diesel version
Developed especially for Tata Motors, this system offers eight speakers as standard along with connectivity options such as AUX, USB, Bluetooth, voice recognition, message readout function and steering operated controls. The sound quality is one of the best in segment, when comparing OEM systems and configuration. There are limitations of the system but those are something one would expect at this price point. The voice commands for example work well, but only if you're using OE recommended commands. In case of the diesel variant, the screen size goes smaller by 1.5 inch as against the 5-inch unit on the petrol car. The seats at the front offer good thigh and side support along with good clearance for taller occupants. Space at the rear too is good and the seats are quite comfortable, with the generous glass area adding to the perception of space.
Dynamically, the Zest fared well on the narrow, twisty and at times broken roads of Goa. Consisting of a dual-path suspension, working in tandem with a zero-pivot sub-frame and anti-roll bar, the ride quality is balanced pretty well. Even going over sharp undulations and crevices, the cabin remains fairly composed, which should appeal to chauffeur-driven owners. Vehicle balance too is commendable and going through turns at high speed is easier than other Tata vehicles. The Zest holds its line well even in wet conditions with a progressive steering input. Body-roll is evident but only when going hard and doesn't compromise handling immediately. In order to improve body rigidity and safety, engineers have used high strength steel in the chassis, leading to an enhancement of 10 % in torsional rigidity.
The Zest is a significant leap for Tata Motors not just in terms of delivering a good car but overall as a company, which is looking at future technologies to expand its global footprint. The Zest reflects a new thought-process within the company, one which is younger, fresher and more flexible than the past. There are of course areas of improvement still in the car such as offset pedals, non-user friendly bottle-holders and storage areas and air vents that cannot be shut, if needed. That said the Zest is an indicator of what one can expect from Tata Motors henceforth. In a market crowded with global competitors, Tata Motors appears to have found its rightful place with the Zest.
Text & Photo: Deepangshu Dev Sarmah & Arpit Mahendra