September 01, 2003 | Overdrive

The Power of Petrol!

The Safari is the flagship of Tata Motors' passenger car portfolio. Ever since its introduction in late 1997, it has had an aura and presence about it which no other Indian SUV seemed to pack in till Mahindra introduced its Scorpio last year. But like all things of this size in the automotive sector, diesel power (with turbo assist in this case) was the preferred choice and it took quite a lot of diesel horses and torque to move this near two- tonne behemoth to perform.

The Safari came just about a year before the Indica and given the huge scope and investment in the small car project, the Safari might have suffered from focus but there was always constant upgradation going on this first true blue Indian SUV. The initial build quality hassles were licked as were the transmission bothers and the SUV updated to such an extent that it became a shining example of what was possible from an Indian product, both for operation in India and abroad.

The biggest bug bear of the Safari though was the lack of grunt needed from under the bonnet. There was talk of getting newer engines sourced from other makers and in fact Tata Engineering (as the company was known then) did pursue this line of thought pretty strongly but came to the conclusion that it was better to do things in-house.

The debate about diesel and the environment was another issue, not in Europe but elsewhere and any serious car maker had to explore both diesel and petrol options. Tata Motors had shown a prototype petrol engine some six years ago at Auto Expo 1998 and this was spec heavy to delight any petrol head: displacing two­litres (the same block ,as the 483DL engine) it sported a twin overhead camshaft top end working four valves per cylinder and used the then state-of-the-art Bosch Motronic engine management system which combined electronic fuel injection and electronic ignition. Tata Engineering had been developing this engine for fitment in its Sierra and Estate models but given its late start in automobiles, such a high powered petrol engine was not high up in its priority then.

Emboldened by the success of its Indica petrol engine, work on the bigger petrol unit was accelerated. The company did take some help of noted Austrian engineering consultancy AVL as it went about and developed an entirely new engine which finds its first application in the Safari SUV. Given the fact that other petrol engined Indian SUVs have failed to spark passion in our testers (for good reason because they failed to match let alone out perform the oil burning versions), we obviously had mixed emotions when an invite came from Tata Motors to try out their new and more powerful flagship.

Style & Build:
Styling needs facelift while build is solid like a tank.There is not much to write about the familiar styling which is identical to the turbo diesel from the outside. Build quality has been improving all along from the time Safari was launched. The proof of the improved build quality shows both in the interior as well as the exterior. The door alignments, and the way they open and shut, are far better than before. The quality of rubber door trims and plastic mouldings has gone up quite a few notches. But there still is scope for improvement, to bring it up to international standards. However, with strong competition in the style stakes Tata Motors needs to freshen the Safari’s pleasant looks with modern detailing on headlights and grilles.

Chassis & Suspension:
Tried and trusted ladder; firm ride.The Safari displayed the latest thought in its mix of separate body on traditional ladder type frame when it was introduced in 1997. The most important bit had to do with the suspension which mirrored the correct line of thought adopted from the days of the Sierra and Estate with an independent layout at both ends. Now even today this is something which makes the Safari stand out - for the better -among Indian SUVs making for surer body control and very high levels of ride quality and handling.

The 2.1Exi Petrol Safari employs the same suspension set-up that does duty on the diesel version car which has double wishbones up front with torsion bars and an anti-roll bar. There is an independent multi-link layout at the rear with coil spring. The LXI employs power-assisted rack and pinion steering while the braking system comprises 281mm ventilated discs up front and 282mm drums at the rear now with ABS integrated into the breaking circuit as standard equipment for the first time. This is most welcome and has to be seen as a major step forward not just in improving braking and a big plus in safety but also to register even more firmly on the minds of those who tended to dismiss such techno gadgets as not worth their while for Indian vehicles.

Engine & Transmission
Tons of bottom and mid-range performance. Gear shift notchy, but positive.Though the Safari 2.1Exi shares the same engine block with the turbo diesel unit, it has shed a hefty 14kg from the block and a further 2.5kg from flywheel! The four-cylinder engine dohc 16-valve engine uses an aluminum ally cylinder head and cast iron block. The valve train is run by belt driven double over head cams with hydraulics tappets, one of the newer details which finds its first application in a homegrown powerplant. It has an under square engine configuration with 86mm bore and 90mm stroke, giving a 2092cc engine displacement having a 9.621 compression ration. The engine delivers 135PS at 3800rpm, and 195Nm at 2000rpm gives exceptional low-end and mid-range performance to the Safari. The power and torque curves have been really well matched and designed for an SUV which warrants better mid-range and bottom end performance rather than out and out high rpm power output.

A hydraulic clutch is employed to transfer the power via the five-speed manual gear box which is the same as the diesel powered car except that there is a vast improvement in shift quality over its diesel sibling. The shift actuation is slightly notchy compared to the diesel, but has far more positive feel and makes shifting gears a joy rather than a chore.

Finally the right stuff to match its muscular styling.While specs on paper may flatter only to deceive in actual performance we were slightly wary of the direction this petrol-engined SUV would head into. Many a time given the need to only go for fuel efficiency. Many car market tends to look good only at the top of its performance curve, the way its reaches its top end is mostly sacrificed and there is no pleasure afforded the man behind the wheel as he labours to reach the SUV’s performance peak. Many have sacrificed bottom end and mid-range grunt for a high revving vehicle with a large top speed figure.

When Adil mentioned that we were going to Tata Motors to test the petrol Safari, I just hoped that for once someone somewhere was thinking on the right lines. The Safari 2.1Exi petrol is definitely smoother and more refined compared to its diesel counterpart. It was only the out and out performance that impressed me. In any gear with the air con on with the engine running at around 1500rpm, all it needs is a gentle push on the throttle pedal and there is an instant response from the 2.1 petrol motor. The 2.1Exi has upped its game in the performance stakes, doing a 0 to 100kmph time in 16.81 secs while the standing 400 metres came up in 20.55s; not a road burner but definitely one of the best in its class. The top speed of 154kmph was achieved in 5th gear, using our VBOX data acquisition gear. The 2.1Exi has gained in all aspects of performance over its diesel counterpart. The roll-on figures show how much it has gained over the diesel in the mid-range and bottom end.

Driving the diesel Safari in slow moving city traffic is a bit of a pain due the obvious lack of bottom end and mid- range torque. Due to the nature of power delivery and torque curve, driving the new 2.1Exi is real easy and also fun as overtaking is not a chore, and you don’t have to downshift all the time. Just step on the gas and she will thunder past the vehicle to be overtaken. The gear shifts have also improved considerably, much to do with the triple synchro-cones now doing duty in the gearbox. This blend of power and low end grunt is something the diesel should have had. What is further impressive about the petrol engined Safari is that it is near vibe free and the refinement of the drivetrain is top notch. You would be hard pressed to know that this has all been done in India. Any serious Indian SUV enthusiast worth his salt needs to go out and drive one to bear us out this count.

Fuel Efficiency:
Nothing to complain about!
There is no gain without pain and for all the extra power and fun you have to pay the price of petrol (instead of diesel). I did not expect any miracles in the fuel efficiency department from a 2-ton SUV. The petrol’s Safari’s worst mileage under flat-out testing at VRDE was 6.5kmpl. On the highway cruise mode at around 85kmph, she managed 12.2kmpl. In typical city traffic conditions, she returned . 8.7kmpl which is good for a petrol-engined SUV. When one talks about fuel efficiency many of our fellow countrymen only hear the kmpl digits and not kmpl in relation to the size of vehicle and its powerplant. Seeing purely from a size to engine perspective, the figures delivered genuinely make the Safari petrol a very fuel efficient performer in its class, as good as even some of the SUVs brought into India via the CBU route!

Handling & Braking:
Handling refined. Braking certainly is a strong point.
There is no difference in the handling and ride quality between the diesel and petrol but then apart from detail issues, the Safari's suspension was always well sorted out. The power steering benefits from the 16.5kg she has shed, ensuring a much lighter feel to the steering. The front and rear independent suspension gives a good firm ride. Going over speed­breakers at a good rate of knots does not upset the Safari nor its occupants. The suspension is really well sorted out as you can drive flat-out over broken roads without batting an eye lid.

The R&D team are definitely on the ball in the braking department. Brake development has kept pace with the engine development. The braking system comprises of 281mm dia ventilated discs up front and 282mm dia drums at the rear with hydraulic power actuation, and the latest generation ABS supplied by Mico Bosch. The braking figures speak for themselves as to how much the Safari petrol has improved over its heavier turbo diesel sibling. Even under heavy braking she does not lose composure and comes to a dead stop in her tracks. You are in total control of the SUV at any given time which inspires a lot of confidence in the SUV and its brakes. Credit also goes to the steering which is not limp as in some other SUVs but very well weighted all across the performance spectrum, light and easy at crawling speeds before firming up progressively as the speedo needle climbs and climbs to give great feedback to the driver. The steering is not only very precise and has just the right speed to it but also works well with the large rubber employed. Turn-in is another delightful trait of the Safari and by and large she rides as good or as bad as any of the international SUVs which sport the body-on-ladder build, configuration.

Equipment & Interiors:
There has lot of improvements in the fit and finish and change in the interior of the Safari over the years. The most important aspect which Tata Motors is trying to promote - subtly but effectively - is performance with safety and by equipping the SUV with two air bags up front(not to mention the adoption of ABS in the braking system) Tata Motors exhibits concern for those who use the Safari and make it their first choice set of wheels. The cabin has acres of room and the seats are the same high quality items as on the Safaris we have used for long distances on our travelogues. Quality of switchgear and controls has also climbed a notch while the twin blower air con system is surely a very welcome and efficient bit of kit. Same for the Blaupunkt audio gear.

The diesel engined Safari set the benchmark for the Indian SUV market. Now with many other MNC car makers getting in their latest SUVs via the CBU route on to the Indian market, the Safari petrol comes in at probably the right time. Not only is it powerful but it is refined and immensely competent, making it a very difficult vehicle to overlook, in more senses than one. Go on ahead and take a test drive, this is one Safari which has the genuine wherewithal to make one's own road.