Building big on the Indica platform is Tata Engineering. Star of the recent Auto Expo, the Tata Sedan is the second of the Project MINT variants due this year. And it is not only about new body styling but is also to do with revamped engines, transmissions, handling and ride plus an overall new perception which Tata Engineering is working on to offer Indian car buyers. Overdrive’s Adil Jal Darukhanawala gets to grips with the new car and the changing ethos at India’s largest automotive firm.
If you think Tata Engineering is being mighty ambitious with the unveiling of its Sedan, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, because it is the natural progression of models it will need to make to justify its emerging stature as a full-fledged automobile manufacturer, as against being just a truck maker who also used to make UVs and some cars.
The answer in the negative is justified because it didn’t need the Sedan to show off its ambitious zeal. The Aria Sports Cabrio and Coupe concepts were far more ambitious than anything else an Indian car maker had ever done.
As such you can therefore safely say that Tata Engineering has got into the swing of things pretty well and has timed its Sedan version to coincide with a thrust in Indica sales which has seen the all-indigenous hatch hit the rev limiter month on month to top sales in its category. The fact that this isn’t a flash reading as one would sometimes get on a singleton engine properly blueprinted and put to test on a dyno but it has been replicated every month should mean a great deal to many, both within the company and also to the nation.
But then just resting on the Indica alone will not help and anyway Project MINT was always meant to encapsulate a range of models using the basic floorplan and underpinnings of the Indica. It is an area of endeavour which many have travelled on mainly because it is the only way to go, especially in terms of capital investments, tooling time and safe return on the investments.
The versatility of the Indica platform had already been highlighted by the Aria two-seaters in both coupe and cabrio form. The next logical stage was always going to be either a three-box saloon – as the Sedan has turned out – or an estate version. Fiat India Auto is the car maker which one can take as an example of conjuring up different body style variants using the same platform and underpinnings.
It is just that it was so wary by Tata Engineering’s Indica some two years ago that it shelved plans to launch the Palio and instead ushered in the Siena saloon followed by the Siena Weekend. Now with the Indica blazing a new trail at the top of the segment tree and the Palio having just been introduced, battle has been joined, one which will prove to be of great interest and made even more so with the addition of another spoiler-the Tata Sedan.
Positioning the Sedan in the saloon category against the likes of the Maruti Esteem, Ford Ikon, Fiat Siena, Hyundai Accent and the Opel Corsa will mean that it will have to be spot-on in every respect unlike the teething troubles the Indica faced in the very first year. No one will accept anything less than a fully sorted out automobile given the quality of the competition on offer. In this regard there should be no apprehension though because month on month Tata Engineering continues to refine and upgrade the Indica. Nowhere more will these lessons be hammered in than on the Sedan, due later in this calendar year.
THE LOOKBefore anyone complains and says the car is simple and not distinctive we confess that we concur with you wholeheartedly. The Sedan has a pleasing personality and given that the company had to basically use the same doors and architecture till the C-pillar meant that an entirely different or distinctive look would have cost a whole load of money. But this is what essentially emerges when a hatch sprouts a boot. Look at the Peugeot 306 in both hatch and saloon versions. In fact look at the 206 and the 309 which lived for a few fractious years on the Indian automotive firmament and you will get the drift.
Generally speaking, in a nation like ours we are not supposed to, or rather not used to getting cars with a boot added on period. We are more into getting a small hatch and a three-box saloon totally different in make-up and turnout. But these are signs of the times and one will see this line of thought proliferate all across the manufacturer smorgasbord.
The same smiley face greets you up front with the familiar pleasing A-pillar rake and the aligned-in-the-centre beltline. The boot added on is simplistically styled and non-fussy which is where it can be faulted. But to give the blandness some visual relief the wraparound tail lamps and the recessed number plate do help somewhat. The Tata Sedan is no stunner in the Aria mould but is meant as a functional and affordable mid-sized saloon. This could just end up as a virtue, taken with its mix of performance and pricing.
One factor helping the Sedan (no name as yet and so we keep addressing it as such) display some poise – whether at rest or on the move – are the 14 inch wheels (shod with 175/65-R14 tyres) which will be standard fitment, a welcome move in our opinion.
GEAR ON BOARD
To get the 14-inch wheels going on the Sedan, much work was done on the panel sheeting of the wheel wells. This required some major engineering work but as V Sumantran, the head honcho spearheading both the Passenger Car Business Unit as also the engineering side of the business informed us, "You haven’t seen the last of this. " One can safely say that if it requires a move to 15-inches, the Sedan in its sportiest or upscale versions would wear these sizes.
And more importantly it is not just a new or a larger set of shoes that this car sports but it also comes with a whole new fitness package that encompasses reworked suspension geometry and hardware plus some crucially new components. The front end remains faithful to the MacPherson strut all-independent layout but the lower arms have been beefed up, the steering knuckles have been revised and the braking system has been better optimised. Add a larger dia section anti-roll bar and the front end is completely allied to a more positive rack and pinion steering gear.
The wheelbase which has been lengthened by almost 50mm to deliver extra room to the rear seat occupants brought with it its own compulsions, mostly on weight distribution and ride quality plus also the need to handle as flat or neutral as possible. The ERC boffins addressed this by penning an all-new three-link rear suspension layout employing MacPherson struts plus an anti-roll bar.
Thanks to the enhanced wheelbase, the new front end suspension geometry (which has made for a slight reduction in the front track dimensions), the all-new rear end layout and the slightly wider rubber, the Tata Sedan has manners to surprise many.
The cool and calculated manner in which the Sedan development has gone its way reflects well on the project managers. An excellent example of this comes by way of the powerpacks. While diesel has remained a core strength of Tata Engineering, many will find the turbo-diesel version of the 1405cc just the ticket for the class but it will be the petrol which will provide the most surprises.
The 85 horses max power output (for the moment) and a whole host of engine mapping in areas of throttle travel and loading plus fuel delivery have all played a major role in endowing the spark ignition version of the 1405cc mill with a strong torquey of the 1405cc mill with a strong torquey spread. The way the petrol-engined Sedan moved on the long straights of the ERC test track brought a smile to all members of our team with the apparent lack of vibration. Just to give the salient details of the engine’s output, the 85bhp is made at 5500rpm while max torque developed is 110Nm at 3000rpm. Overall gearing has been revised and the ratios seem better spaced to benefit from the torque peak from shift to shift. I am sure that this engine will help everyone revise their opinion about Tata Engineering’s petrol proficiency!
Playing to its strength is the diesel which gets blown – thanks to the fitment of a KKK turbocharger. While max power jumps to 60bhp (at 5000rpm) from the 53.5bhp dished out by the naturally aspirated version, it is the sheer wallop delivered in torque-ing terms that will delight even a petrol-head! The bottom end response is clean, the power delivery is crisp and punchy with amazingly next to no turbo lag and the strong torque hurtles the car forward in a very purposeful manner.
Both engines will be the Sedan’s strong suit and if Tata Engineering can get the clutch pedal pressures right and the shift quality spot-on, the driver appeal will only add to the Sedan’s feelgood quality.
The Indica set standards for cabin space among the hatchbacks and the Sedan only builds on this in its class. While the seats upfront have been revised, we would like to see some more side support and also a bit more under-thigh support. The new thick-rimmed four-spoke steering wheel is good and grippy but is mounted too high. V Sumantran again gave his rationale for that but the final spec hasn’t been signed off as yet and maybe some changes could happen in this area.
The gearshift quality is too rubbery for my liking and while the cars we sampled were early hand built protos, cars in the mid-size segment are expected to sport certain positive feel elements in their operation and the clutch, gearshift, steering and braking characteristics need to amply provide that. Driver appeal is an intangible which needs to be worked into the product and I am sure that this is where the effort is being lavished on the Sedan.
The extension to the wheelbase has helped the back-benchers immensely and the Sedan boasts best in class head room and leg room. The company is still working out the best seat recline angle and there is no decrying the effort to date. Just take a look at the well thought out shelf behind the back seat and the niftily angled perch for the stereo speakers to highlight one such detail. The door pads are new, the moulded roof is a new item and by and large revised new textures to the dashboard and other details requiring that tactile feel have been given much thought to. The advent of the boot means a large Indian family can be carried in style along with 450 litres of luggage and then some more!
READYING FOR LAUNCH
Tata Engineering have set the last quarter of calendar 2002 as the tentative launch period for the Sedan. There is a lot riding on the Sedan, possibly even more than what did on the Indica. I quantify this by the fact that the Indica gave the company a reason to be admired, by competitors and consumers alike.
With the Sedan it can emerge as a force to be reckoned with, provided all the above mentioned details are spot-on at launch, with a sticker tag that emulates the strategy of the Indica when it was launched. There exists a large vacuum for a three-box car in the Rs 5-6 lakh range and if Tata Engineering can deliver the value they are noted for, expect the Sedan to kill a flock of birds with a single stone. The last four to five months have seen a major change in attitude and aspiration among car buyers for the Indica. This feelgood factor Tata Engineering will need to keep going and build upon till the sedan’s launch and beyond.
Nothing succeeds like success and the company is pulling out all the stops to ensure that for the first time in its history it will have a product which is bug-free from Job One. It is one helluva task but all the indications from Pimpri suggest this could happen. Not for nothing is MG Rover looking at Tata Engineering and the Indica to give it that entry level saviour it lacks in its model line-up. So if it can work for a car maker in the world’s most discerning auto market, Tata Engineering can surely work the same magic for India as well!