By Adil Jal Darukhanawala

It is quite logical that many of our readers and viewers would have loads and loads of questions on the new Tata Motors offering and with just as much Zest and gusto we take on almost all the touchy ones just so that they have the absolutely accurate, unbiased yet clear cut first assessment of what could well be the car that gets the Tata Motors revival going in earnest.

The segment in which the Tata Zest steps in to play the game is one, which is a very hotly contested category in the Indian car market and also of course one of the fastest growing as well. It is also an aspirational cum practical category for young couples, the gee-whiz young upstarts stepping out in life, the practicality-oriented and also those who think a sub-four metre sedan is kosher. Now that its overall size has been made clear its natural rivals comprise the segment leader Suzuki D’Zire; the high on charisma Honda Amaze and that surprisingly refined young Korean challenger to the Japanese duo – the Hyundai Xcent.

These three cars are the natural rivals to the Tata Zest and at this very juncture we should make clear a fact that many miss out on: the first car to really exploit the sub- four-metre sedan rule came not from Maruti-Suzuki or Hyundai or Honda but from Tata Motors which had its Indigo CS saloon showing the way ahead. However, unlike the Indigo CS, the new Zest has the capability to tackle all its rivals strongly on practically every count – design, build, performance, driveability, comfort and space, ergonomics, wallet-friendly fuel efficiency, handling and stability, steering and brakes, plus also of course a wholly new addition to the Tata mix – an innate ability to bring in the smiles whatever the length of the drive!

And speaking of pricing, that will be revealed only at the official launch of the car next month but potential buyers would be pleased to hear what Girish Wagh (Head of Program Planning & Project Management at Tata Motors) told us during the first drive in Goa. I asked him about price positioning and his exact words were “We are going for volumes,” and that should say it all! Also on this very count, history tells us that Tata Motors has for the most always priced its wares very sensibly and I don’t think they can cock a snook now just because they have made what is probably the best car ever to roll out from any of their plants in the country!

After the initial on-road price comes the operational cost bit, “kitna deti hai” being a logical follow-up query. While we have yet to put the Zest thru the ZEEGNITION road test on our standard test route in and around Pune city, initial signs from the way the car feels with its driveability and tractability indicates strong delivery on the fuel efficiency angle and I am for once more or just as confident of the new Revotron turbocharged 1.2-litre petrol delivering as strong as the 1.3-litre diesel. Feel is the only yardstick with which we can go ahead and stick our necks out right now and on sheer feel and the manner of throttle response we can safely say the new Zest should be right up there with its rivals.

The Revotron is an all-new state-of-the-art 1193cc four-cylinder inline internal combustion motor with a liquid cooled turbocharger and sporting MPFI (multi-point fuel injection) induction. It is probably the most advanced petrol engine ever from an Indian carmaker but apart from just being dazzled by nationalistic fervour let me assure you that this motor is world class – plain and simple! Making use of a turbocharger has been a trick yet clever move to help bump up volumetric efficiency and give it not just class leading power (90 PS @ 5000 rpm) but a whopping 140Nm of torque over a wide engine speed band that stretches from 1750 to 3500rpm. It is this torque spread that helps the drivability massively with rewards accruing in fuel efficiency, crisp throttle response and good overtaking thrust whenever needed.

To this basic package are added clever electronics with the ECU being tweaked with enough algorithms to help deliver three operating modes – the standard being the incongruously termed ‘City’ mode which can give decent low down thrust and a meaty mid-range to keep up with sharp bursts whenever called for yet have a linear forward progression without in any way running out of breath, even on the highways!

The second mode is termed Eco, which softens the power delivery and helps deliver low down torque without letting the engine rpm soar, thus sipping instead of guzzling gasoline. This should delight many provided they are tuned into making the effort to switch on the Eco mode by dabbing the activation button on the central console.

And since it is Narain Karthikeyan who has been pushing the three-engines-in-one Revotron promotion there has had to be a Sport mode, allowing the revs to soar quickly and give a sense of urgency for quick forward progression. Bosch has supplied the ECU that packs in the multiple ignition and fuelling maps for these three modes to perform as intended and it is this triple prowess that sums up the three totally different operating characteristics from one single unit.

More than the cost or pricing, this is one engine that is the future and it is indicative of the next generation of petrol engines we will be seeing from practically all serious OEMs operating in the country. I think that Tata Motors has learnt from its original Indica project which had a low-tech direct injection diesel when it could have literally set the pace had it gone for common rail direct injection diesel engine technology from the outset. Not wanting to repeat this sort of a mistake with its next generation gasoline engine family, the Revotron is a mighty welcome big step forward not just for Tata Motors but also for the Indian automotive industry.

Too many to list them all comprehensively here but do take the time to read our first assessment and complete description of the Zest. However I will outline some of the standout features of this already very impressive automobile and it first begins with its design – compact yet pleasing with a superb stance. The designers and the product planners as also the engineering guys haven’t compromised on outfitting it with small sized tyres and that is a bold step forward contrary to prevailing thought. The turnout of the automobile and its strikingly finished exterior are subtle highlights, which you will need to look and marvel at. Fit and finish is extra-ordinary, pardon me for quantifying it by saying that many would be hard pressed to associate this with previous offerings from Tata Motors. Yes this is a big step up and a very welcome one at that.

Move into the cabin and the interiors are right up there to strike fear in the minds of the Suzuki D’Zire and the Honda Amaze while the Hyundai Xcent manages to hold its own! This is not meant to overtly praise the Zest but just saying it as it should be! Cabin is airy and the ambience is cheerful. The design of the dashboard and the IP, the ergonomics of the cockpit or for the occupants is global contemporary and in fact it prompted some wags to comment as if Tata Motors had got the Zest made by some other OEM and had just stamped its mark on it! Back handed compliment it might be but that’s suggesting the tremendous strides made in the packaging and trim. The science behind the art of ergonomics has been taken to Honda levels and in a few critical areas it surpasses its famous Japanese counterpart! Equipment levels are pretty high and it shames both the Japanese offerings hands down. Textures, appliques, finishes, upholstery, quality of materials employed in the cabin are rich and pleasing. The placement of controls is oh-so-natural, the tactility built into operating them is something, which will blow your pre-conceived notions of what Tata Motors used to offer and fast forward delight in every sense of the term.

The comfort in the cabin for four full grown-ups is magnificent and in a cinch you could have five sit comfortably as well with acres of shoulder, head and leg room front and rear. A subtle detail that helps liberate space not just for the back benchers but also results in a large boot volume is the deep foot well area which helps the driving position and also the front seat occupants to stretch out without compromising on valuable space for those residing behind. Underseat or thigh support for all occupants is of a top order and the way the H-points have been configured and set makes for great user satisfaction. The rear seat back angle is a terrific case in point and something that should find favour among every age group relegated to this lavish area!

Another detail is obviously the fact that the structure is even stiffer than on the Indica or Indigo CS or for that matter the Manza! This helps not just in a good base for the suspension aggregates but also in conjunction with the designed crumple zones (to assist in impact dissipation in the event of a crash), helps make the cabin pretty safe. Another detail that benefits from a stiff structure is the lack of NVH and also of course the handling! I must say that I have always had good impressions of ride quality from previous products from Tata Motors but this invariably made for slightly wayward handling. Not so this time round for the Zest handles with uncanny ability through fast and slow sweepers, has the grip and the taut control to keep it planted with very little hint of body roll. The dual path suspension units, the sub-frame mounted front suspension and proper-sorted suspension geometry with top notch components all aid in a dynamic ability that one never did associate with a Tata Motors offering. Another area that is most impressive from a dynamic point of view is the electrically assisted power steering – light but well weighted at slow crawling speeds but which firms up progressively as you sink in that right foot on the throttle. The steering is precise and just about perfect – not sluggish or overtly quick – just what the perfectionist ordered for the masses to revel in. Brakes are par for the course and retardation gets a big boost with the application of the latest generation ABS from Bosch along which is bundled with EBD (Electronic Brake Distribution) and a wholly new feature celebrating its India debut – the Corner raking Stability programme.

And of course there is an all-new state-of-the-art gasoline engine along with a proven diesel mill to choose from day one but the killer punch is the AMT five-speed transmission on the diesel-engined Zest, the first small diesel with such a transmission in the country. This is a welcome piece of kit and though I would have liked to see an additional selector step as that employed in the shift actuation on the Suzuki Celerio, the F-Tronic AMT more than helps eke out strong performance for the convenience minded. I am sure that given the runaway success of the AMT-equipped Celerios the diesel engine version of the Tata Zest would be even more of a killer proposition. However, I would like to caution many here because I liked the responsiveness of the Revotron petrol engine and its driveability to be a notch better and more pleasurable but then that’s just me being myself and to those masses bent on saving millions, this is the perfect recipe to go motoring in the urban habitat so very economically and with ease.

Final high point is the level of equipment specified and also the quality of big name suppliers integrating their systems to keep the driver alert and informed and occupants engrossed and connected. Where earlier it was just a few bits or two, Tata Motors has gone the whole hog to pack in as many bells and whistles from cars at least two classes above the Zest and make it even more appealing.

This is a very tough as well as a highly loaded but appropriate question and why not when the consumer is king and talks with his actions! The Suzuki D’Zire is the acknowledged market leader but having seen and experienced the Zest in inclement conditions in and around Goa, I must stick my neck out and state the potential to go for leadership in class is there for the taking. The solidity of build as well as the quality of the build and the fitments is Toyota-class but with elan and dash that even a Honda can’t muster. What I can’t quantify is the fact that both the D’Zire and the Amaze have proved themselves on our roads and this vital aspect will take some time at least to get into customer psyche. Another facet of car buying is not just the product per se but the ownership experience over the life span of the vehicle and here Maruti Suzuki rules the roost with Honda next up. Tata Motors hasn’t excelled here but there is a big impetus already assigned to after sales so that the consumers are handled with humility and a genuine affection – ingredients that were lacking many a time in the recent past. The good thing is that the product is good, nay very good and that is a fine start and hopefully there would be a strong commitment to high quality care and service for the vehicle over its life cycle, both from Tata Motors and its dealers. Personally, I like the Zest and being the inveterate nationalist (and a fiercely proud one at that!), I can say with all the resources and faculties at my command, that the Zest is the future in its class of car.

Again the right question but with a totally different and welcome response to that! Fit and finish are in the same league as a Suzuki or Honda but with apparent Toyota levels of put-together quality. There was no way Tata Motors could have kept on going the old traditional way it operated in in the past with constant product testing being performed by customers. Newer processes and systems borrowed from its wholly owned Jaguar – Land-Rover subsidiary brought much learning and these have been incorporated into the production system. There is now a dedicated vehicle line project chief to oversee build quality with no PDI being left to dealers! Unheard of but that’s what many top honchos of Tata Motors were eager to instil in our minds! If true and I have no reason to doubt them, this could mean the first genuine effort not just for the revival of the marque but also a resurgence of its fortunes.

Tim Leverton who heads Advanced & Product Engineering at Tata Motors told me that not only were processes optimised and refined within the company but also the same was the case with its suppliers who were given stiff quality levels to match up to. I think this is an area where Tata Motors has to be very stringent about because so much good work can be negated with shoddy quality. Also I have personally seen that previous offerings had inconsistent build and quality levels – from ultra-reliable to downright pathetic. This has to be junked so that consistently high quality build unit to unit is the norm as is the case with its rivals. Tata Motors says that it has licked this issue and maybe let’s give it the benefit of time to prove this as fact.

I think that the new master of this class as regards space for the backbenchers will be the Tata Zest. Also let me state that it is not just space but the way the ergonomics dictate seating comfort is where the Zest scores over its rivals. The angle of the seat back in relation to the seat squab; the length and angle of the seat squab in relation to the floor and the comfort geometry to conform to the Indian physique makes this a most inviting place for your loved ones to motor in safely and comfortably, over distances short or long. Shoulder space is adequate for two and a half adults of my rather portly build but for sure three average Indian homosapiens can sit in comfort with more than adequate shoulder, head and leg room. Entry and exit is easy but the big reward is also the large boot, which hasn’t been compromised in making space for the back seat occupants. Also just don’t dwell on space alone but also factor in the ride quality which is mighty impressive and that’s when the space and the comfort ram home the point of it not just being true to Tata’s age old mantra of “more car per car” coined from the days of the first Indica but go on to borrow a line from our new Prime Minster – “ab ki bar, Tata car”! No wonder then that I think the Tata Zest wears hyperbole rather well on its sleek compact shoulders.Yes we have already mentioned this earlier but what is a welcome adjunct to this is the fact that the F-Tronic AMT will come as an option to the standard 5-speed manual gearbox that the 1248cc Quadrajet diesel engine will come with. The F-Tronic AMT (developed in collaboration with Italian component specialist Magneti Marelli) can be used either in full automatic mode or as a sequential shift manual that further has two operating modes to give even more versatility of operation. There is a default City mode and of course the Narain Karthikeyan pleasing Sport mode. With 200 Nm of torque whipped up by the Quadrajet diesel, the F-Tronic has the thrust to offer seamless motoring thru the gears even if I did get the feeling of being a little underwhelmed at launch from standstill. Maybe it had all to do with the brilliance of the new 1.2-litre turbocharged Revotron mill I used earlier!

The answer to this is again what I mentioned earlier about the fuel efficiency. We can only compare notes once we have put the Zest thru the rigours of a ZEEGNITION road test and right now we can only comment on our first drive assessment. On feel and driveability plus tractability, both petrol and diesel engine versions have the capacity to delight and impress. It certainly did our road test chief Dilip Desai who was pleasantly surprised to find it spirited and eager to his every command. A near caress of the throttle pedal even when not in Eco mode is great going on every front – performance and fuel efficiency wise but the smooth power delivery is where the biggest smiles begin to emerge and then they seem to stay put for the overall spectrum of the vehicle’s performance is more than adequate for what a car of its class can and ought to deliver. I am sure that it isn’t about outright acceleration times or top speed that will be critical but a comprehensive spread of ticking every box in every cog and measuring the performance in that vein which will see how cohesive this car works as a brilliant package. There that’s the word for it – the package is close to topping its class and to think that it was conceived, designed, engineered and manufactured in India by Indians is indeed a very high achievement indeed. How effectively Tata Motors communicates this as also defines its commitment to its consumers over the ownership cycle will be key to the success of this product and also of course a heads up for the brand itself!

I have already said enough on the Revotron and its build and make-up. It is probably the most modern small car gasoline engine built in India and right up there with global rivals. Featuring an aluminium alloy cylinder head and a cast iron block, this engine has tremendous potential considering that it makes 90 PS of power using just a two-valves per cylinder top end configuration! This simple top end (which employs a single overhead camshaft) has to be realized in the realm of the tiny Honeywell turbocharger that spools up quickly and unleashes 140Nm of torque, which bests and/or matches many rivals in class and some above as well! Given that down-sizing is the mantra all over the world with carmakers, and since legislation also forces technical jurisprudence, turbocharging is the easy way to getting not just the power to please but also the means to deliver that strongly without compromising fuel efficiency.

The 1193cc four-cylinder inline engine has cylinder dimensions of 75.0mm x 67.5mm bore and stroke and works on a 9.0:1 compression ratio. A look at the under bonnet layout of the Zest with this mill shows how sanitary is the layout of this small jewel of a motor and also how effectively and efficiently the ancillaries have been attached to it. The turbocharger is liquid cooled via a water channel from the engine itself so as to keep the bearings in the high spinning turbo in good temperament! If the motor in this state of easy tune is any indication, I think the power-performance potential of this engine is huge and yet to be tapped. Think what it could do with a four-valve top end layout (either with a SOHC or the even more potent DOHC actuation) with the same displacement and then you could see where this line of thought could extend!

As to whether there could be larger sized petrol engines using the same thought process as on the 1.2-litre Revotron, the simple answer is yes but then there are other more efficient ways to go with higher displacement engines and I am sure that given the product portfolio will keep increasing from now on, a larger petrol-sipping family of power plants is on the anvil from Tata Motors.

The article was originally published on Zeegnition