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Tata Zest

Introduction

The past few years haven’t been good to Tata Motors’ passenger car division. It has had a few good products, but there always was something that didn’t sit right. Of course, there were even more things that were brilliant about the products, but desirability, one of the most important things in an economy such as ours where a car still remains in large part a luxury rather than a necessity, was absent. Tata has now recognised this, and has thrown everything they have behind the new range of products that will launch from now on, and it all begins with this small car that will replace the cheapest sedan on the planet – the Tata Zest. Does it manage to deliver what Tata so badly needs?

Exterior

   

There is a new look about the Zest, yes, but there is also a little that remains from the Indigo CS. However, everything except the silhouette is new about the Zest. There’s a new grille that has taken inspiration from the old Indica grille, but is now a snazzy honeycomb design with a bolder logo on it. It is flanked by the headlamps, which remain a dual-barrel design but the top-spec versions now get a projector low beam with a corona ring. The fog lamps are housed in the new bumper that has a trapezoidal black center.

The Revotron gets LED daytime running lamps, while the diesel auto we had sported a chrome accent under the fog lamp. The hood now has a ‘power bump’, which helps the sporty intentions. From the front three-quarter, the shoulder lines are what grab your attention. Never before has Tata made a car this aggressive in the bodywork, and it is a pleasant change. The wheel arches are flared a little, and this time they are adequately filled out by the 15-inch alloy wheels shod with 185/60 tyres. The fenders don’t have indicators on them any more, they have been relocated to the mirrors, and the bottom of the window line gets a subtle chrome strip.

   

The diesel gets a multispoke design reminiscent of the Manza’s wheels, and the petrol,  a new eight-spoke layout. There is no diamond-cut finish here, and the Zest doesn’t really need it, either. As with any other sub-four metre sedan, at the rear is where the proportions are odd, but the Zest does a fair job of hiding the height of the rear by breaking it up into the bumper with a matt black lower section that mirrors the front bumper, a bootlid with a numberplate and a generous chrome strip above it that links the tail lamps and a subtle lip on the top of the boot lid. The tail lamps are horizontal and wrap around the car’s corners a fair bit. The top-spec variants we drove even had LEDs with light guides on the top, linked to turning the headlamps on. 

Overall, the Zest is a leap forward for Tata design, without making a clean break from the past. It is the right step forward and will definitely have heads turn, especially when they realise it is a Tata.

Interior

   

Tata has ditched the central instrument cluster in favour of one in the right place – in front of the driver. It is, again, inspired from the Manza’s interiors and this is no bad thing. The steering wheel is a new one, which is smaller, and had controls mounted on it for the audio system, phone and voice commands. It even has a couple of toggle-style buttons that aren’t present on any car cheaper than a Nissan Sunny at the moment. The instrument cluster is a much better design with white backlighting, which ignores the current fashion, blue backlighting. It is a clearer cluster, and opts for a twin pod design with the tachometer on the left, speedo on the right and multi-function display in the centre. There is a bar-style instantaneous consumption indicator at the bottom much like the Hondas have. The information displayed is comprehensive, and includes a gearshift indicator that tells you which gear you should be in for maximum efficiency. In the automatic, it shows which mode is selected, including sport mode. As in the Manza, the redline isn’t marked on either cluster, but the tacho needle turns red when it is reached, which is a nice touch. 

   

The asymmetric design of the central vents seem to be a conscious decision to ignore cost in the favour of feel-good factor. They have a thin chrome strip running around them as well, and the hazard lamp switch is placed in between them. Below the vents sits the new Harman-designed audio head unit. It is a comprehensive system, which will support all audio input, even SD cards, which is rare. The diesel had a screen that was slightly smaller, while the petrol had the full-fat large touchscreen that also displayed the climate control settings whenever they were adjusted. Surprisingly, once those settings are on the screen, you can use the touchscreen itself to adjust them – again, something that isn’t available even in a segment above. There was no obvious way to access this screen using only the head unit, but we’ll try it out when we have the car back for a full review. The quality of the audio itself is really very good, especially in the touch screen version. The mirrors are electrically adjustable, and the windows all have power adjustment with the switches in the traditional places. Again, our petrol Zest had one-touch down for the driver’s window while the diesel didn’t.

    

The AC controls are traditional rotary knobs, and the recirculation toggle is now an electronic switch. There is a similar layout for the climate control controls. Below these controls lie another row of buttons which house the controls for the parking sensors, front and rear fog lamps, and in the case of the Revotron, the different modes of operation for the engine. 

On the horizontal section, there is a single cup holder on the driver’s side with the left one blanked out in favour of a 12V charging socket. There is a cubbyhole between the gear lever and the handbrake mount, but nothing behind it. 

    

The seats are large and comfortable, as Tata seats have always been. The Zest is also the widest car in its class, so three abreast at the back isn’t an impossible proposition. The petrol has height adjustment for the driver’s seat. The pedals are not offset any more – something that traditional Tata owners always had a problem with. The boot is big enough to swallow a weekend hoilday’s worth of luggage, which is great. NVH is one area where the Zest is a paradigm shift – Tata has put in a lot of work (not to mention sound deadening) and the Zest has emerged as good as, if not better than, the average in the segment. 

Tata has also installed two airbags and ABS, EBD and what they call Corner Stability Control for safety. Tata also claims that the Zest can be installed with dual-stage airbags if necessary, and meets the upcoming Indian frontal offset crash requirements already. 

    

Tata has paid attention to small things like the chrome bezel for the central AC vents, the follow-me-home headlamps whose on-time you can program and the way the gear shift levers look, which makes the Zest’s interiors feel a lot more upmarket than a standard Tata. However, there are a few negative points, like the fit and finish of some bits like the edges not matching between swooping panel that starts out above the centre console and ends on the right side of the instrument cluster. 

There is no way to adjust the amount of air flowing through the AC vents; you can only adjust the direction of the air.  The door handles have been left matt black and therefore look downmarket. Finally, there is no place to keep a 1-litre bottle anywhere in the Zest. The front door pockets and cupholder can hold 500ml bottles at best. When cars at similar prices are talking about more than five cupholders including bottle holders that can hold bottles bigger than a traditional one-litre bottle, this is a major oversight. The quality of some bits still needs improvement, like the roof liner around the dome light switch that gives the impression that it will crack if you press it too hard. The fog lamp buttons should be higher – to operate them the driver has to take his eyes off the road completely, and a safe assumption to make would be that they will be turned on in low-visibility conditions, so you don’t want the driver to take his eyes off the road at all. There is also no dead pedal for either variant. In the case of the manuals, there simply isn’t any space in the driver footwell, but for the automatic variants, there needs to be a dead pedal for the driver’s foot.

    

The AMT lever is an electronic switch, and Tata hasn’t put a physical restriction on its movement, either. This can get very confusing for the first few minutes – put the lever in ‘D’ without putting your foot on the brake pedal, and the lever will move to that position but the indicator remains ‘N’ on the instrument cluster. This is something that needs to change; at the very least, there has to be a notification to put it in neutral and the foot on the brake before the car has to be started.

 

Engine & Performance

    

Tata is counting on its new family of engines to help turn its fortunes around, and with good reason. The diesel, first: it is turbocharged, intercooled, and Honda still remains the only manufacturer with an all-aluminium diesel engine in the segment. It generates 90bhp and 200Nm – but what’s impressive is, that torque peak is available all the way from 1750rpm up to 3000rpm. The diesel exhibits a little turbo lag, but the climb to 2000rpm from idle is a linear one, and revving it to the redline isn’t unpleasant. Yes, it is the faster of the two engine options, but it won’t go down as the enthusiast choice mostly because of the new AMT gearbox. 

Tata is the first manufacturer to execute an auto gearbox with a small diesel, answering the prayers of many Indian customers that have been demanding one of all the manufacturers. It isn’t a true automatic but an Automated Manual Transmission. What that means is that there is a unit added to the gearbox that operates the clutch depending on the parameters it’s fed and voila! Automatic gear changes. Just think of it as a leprechaun hiding in the engine bay and doing your left leg’s work for you. That also describes the way it operates – obviously the leprechaun isn’t in a hurry to change to the next gear, so when you’re overtaking that big trailer out on the highway, account for a long, long shift time. This is apparently a characteristic of AMTs today, so it isn’t something I will hold against Tata. The company has tried to minimise this loss of performance by putting in a ‘Sport’ mode as well as a manual option, which is engaged by pressing a button behind the gear lever. This mode doesn’t allow the engine to drop below 2000rpm, which helps things considerably. Finally, there is the manual option, accessed by tipping the lever left and then forward for upshifts and back for downshifts. This, coupled with a short shift at 3000rpm, seemed to be the best solution for hurrying along. The AMT needs a little more refinement if customers are going to accept it with open arms – I found that if the car is rolling along at walking pace off the throttle and you give the right pedal a little prod, the clutch engages with a jerk. This is a condition faced all the time in rush hour traffic, and those jerks will get tiring real quick. Happily, these are all software-based improvements, so you can reasonably expect this AMT to get a little better with a little more time. 

    

The petrol, then. Tata is very proud of the 1.2-litre turbocharged Revotron engine, with its 90bhp and 140Nm. Like the diesel, that peak torque is available from 1750-3500rpm. Start it up, and you’ll be greeted by a slightly off-beat idle when cold. Once warmed up, however, things improve considerably. The engine is smooth, refined, and makes a very nice noise. Let it rev and get off the gas in a hurry, and you’ll also be rewarded with a sigh from the wastegate. Power delivery is linear, and though the 140Nm doesn’t make for an exciting engine, it feels good at any engine speed. Refinement is as good as any engine in the segment, with no vibration or harshness coming through. What elevates it from merely good to great is that light, positive gear shift, which also is on par with the best in the segment. This is the biggest surprise from the company: it has shot from a non-contender in the petrol category all the way to the top rung with others in a single go. 

Just to convince the non-believers, Tata has also included three ‘Drive Modes’ in the Revotron. By default it starts up in ‘City’ mode, which offers a blend of performance and efficiency. Pressing the ‘Eco’ button changes it to purely economical running, which deadens throttle response and focuses on getting the maximum efficiency. ‘Power’ mode is the exact opposite – small throttle inputs have the car surging forward. This is definitely the mode to opt for if you’re out on the highway, or in a hurry. 

Tata’s driveline department has done its work well and deserve a pat on the back. The onus now lies on the sales and marketing team – the biggest hurdle will be getting people to drive the car, not to convince them that this is among the best engine/gearbox combinations. 

 

Ride & Handling

   

Just like the engines, Tata has tried to keep all the good things that Tatas are known for – namely, great ride – and tried to get rid of the bad things like the look of the cars rolling along on castors, the vibration in the steering at high speed and ordinary feedback from the controls. 

The steering is now an electrically assisted unit, and Tata has taken care that it returns to the straight-ahead when the driver isn’t turning it. It works well, this system, and the steering assist at low speeds is very well tuned. It is accurate at speed, but doesn’t weigh up very much as speeds increase, but we’ll put off a final opinion about this until we get a chance to slingshot the Zest along our favourite set of corners.  However, Tata’s claim about it not having vibration stands true: it is as refined as the petrol engine now. 

    

The brakes also are very confidence inspiring. Bite and progression are good, and outright power is good enough to let you brake late with full confidence. ABS, EBD and Corner Stability Control (what I gather to be an advanced form of EBD) are present on the top-spec variants. 

         

The suspension is the traditional layout of McPherson struts in the front, and twist-beam rear. However, to keep the plush Tata ride intact with the larger wheels, Tata has included a second rubber mount for the front suspension that helps the secondary ride. The traditional mounts are also different to work around this, so if you’re thinking of swapping your Zest front suspension for something else, it won’t be possible. However, this is a very interesting solution for the problem at hand – secondary ride, in case you didn’t know, is the shock absorption done by things other than the actual spring and damper. Usually it is the tyres and the suspension mounts (made of hard rubber) that do this job, which is generally at low speed, and the primary ride is taken care of by the spring and damper at speed, because that is when the tyre starts moving vertically over bumps. Goa’s roads are smooth and flowing, so we didn’t get to verify this fully on our short drive, but I can safely say that both in high- and low-speed ride, the Zest is a traditional Tata. As far as handling is concerned, it is a whole new Tata – it takes the fast with the slow equally well, giving an unexpected level of feedback and therefore driver involvement. Of course, the Zest isn’t at the top of the class in the driver involvement section, but that was never the expectation. Is it much improved compared to before? Definitely. 

Verdict

    

The Zest has a lot riding on it, and that is why Tata has put so much thought - and a whole new engine and an automatic gearbox – into it. Usually when a manufacturer says ‘new car’, us cynical, jaded journalists expect a new paintjob and upholstery and not much else, but the Zest has proved my expectations wrong. That is a great thing for Tata, because it will earn respect and, eventually, profit, slowly but surely if things follow this path. This will also be a difficult period for Tata because the expectations that benefit the consumer, like a low purchase price and extremely low cost of spares and maintenance will be retained. Sometimes that will not be possible – a turbocharged engine with three electronic modes, an AMT gearbox, projector headlamps, LED DRLs, LED tail-lamps… these things aren’t inexpensive, but the Zest will be expected to be just that. 

As always, it will boil down to the price: if Tata manages to retain its traditional place in the price hierarchy for the moment, it will convince people to walk into the showroom to look at the car. Once they drive it, I’m sure most people will come away impressed. If Tata wants to retain its customers, it will have to work on service as well – I expect Tata to manage the former with an introductory price, and hope that the latter improves dramatically and soon, because that’s what it will need to keep up with products like the Zest and prevent another sales slump. 

For the moment, though, Tata’s Zest shines through in almost all areas, and is certainly something that you should wait for if you’re in the market for a sub-four metre sedan. 

 
You can also view our video review of the Tata Zest 
 

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Tata Zest Price in India

CityOn-Road Prices
Bangalore₹ 6.94 Lakhs onwards
Hyderabad₹ 6.77 Lakhs onwards
Chennai₹ 6.7 Lakhs onwards
New Delhi₹ 6.38 Lakhs onwards
Mumbai₹ 6.82 Lakhs onwards
Kolkata₹ 6.71 Lakhs onwards
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