TATA Motors fires its first salvo into the established ranks of the ute market and comes up with a strong alternative option

Want to buy a durable ute, powered by an impressively frugal 2.2-litre, common-rail diesel and backed by the fourth largest automaker in the world? If the answer is yes, then Delivery would suggest taking a close look at a TATA Xenon.

We’ve seen prices of crew-cab utes rocket to the $60,000+ level with Amarok and Navara ST-X, and plunge to $25,990 for a diesel 4×4 V200 crew-cab at drive-away pricing from Great Wall. In the centre of that pricing structure is a plethora of product, and now that choice has increased with the arrival of Indian auto maker TATA Motors.

Against the current trend of utes becoming higher off the ground and bigger in the body, the TATA Xenon stays to the typical sizing of the previous model BT-50 Mazda or Holden Rodeo. One of the main reasons for not upsizing to match the Amarok or new BT-50 is that, for many of the markets in which the brand competes, traffic congestion and narrow road access dictates what can be used.

There’s nothing spectacular about the appearance of the Xenon, unless you take a close look at the Tuff Truck concept vehicle created by the backroom boffins at Fusion Automotive in conjunction with its parent company, the Walkinshaw Automotive Group. With its additional lights, 20-inch alloy rims and altogether collection of added bling, the Tuff Truck has already created comments from Delivery readers interested in knowing if this is going to be a model available on our market.

This is perhaps where the introduction of TATA becomes more interesting than being considered as “just another ute”. The DNA of the Walkinshaw Group, and in particular Fusion Automotive, is founded on a passion for vehicles. Managing Director Darren Bowler doesn’t rule out producing a limited production run of the Tuff Truck, nor does he dismiss the idea of marketing selected design and accessory features, once the initial launch is completed.

The engine is a four-cylinder, common-rail, Bosch fuel-injected diesel engine matched to a five-speed manual gearbox, both of which are designed and manufactured by TATA. The rear axle is a Dana/Spicer unit. The front suspension is of a double wishbone design with long torsion bars, while at the rear is a set of parabolic leaf springs. For those that revel in figures, the gearbox ratios are 4.1:1, 2.22:1, 1.37:1, 1:1 and 0.77:1 with a transfer box ratio of 1:1 and 1:2.48. A limited slip diff’ is standard and a locking rear diff’ will be optional next year.

Although of only 2.2 litres, the performance characteristics of the TATA diesel are quite impressive, thanks to a variable geometry turbocharger and electronically operated wastegate. Performance and torque are smoothly supplied from 900 rpm upwards and the torque output is actually constant at 320 Nm from 1,500 to 3,000 rpm. At 1000 rpm the peak torque output is 230 Nm.

Controlling the electronics is a Bosch 32-bit electronic control module, and this results in some interesting benefits such as a crankshaft sensor that automatically increases engine rpm without driver input if the load starts to exceed the engine output. What this means is that a driver with low range 4×4 engagement on a steep hill can impress the other occupants in the vehicle by not touching the accelerator pedal as the engine determines sufficient rpm for it to climb the obstacle quietly and without fuss.

Electronic stability is added to the vehicle spec from January build in 2014, together with traction control and hill hold, leaving the early adopters in 2013 with ABS, driver and passenger front airbags, Bluetooth connectivity and an optional Sat/Nav, reverse camera and park warning sensors.

The release to the media took the form of an on-road drive around north western suburbs of Melbourne, followed by a short evaluation over a rough off-road course to check on axle articulation, ground clearance, underbody component protection and ability.TATA-8

Delivery was able to finish the day’s events by taking a 4×4 crew-cab version away from the launch, immediately heading for the Hume Highway and a destination some 750 km away to the North. This provided a good cross section of driving experiences and the opportunity to experience at first hand just whether the package comes together in terms of comfort and on-highway cruising.

The first impressions of the driver’s seat was that the cushion depth was a little short, the front of the seat squab a little low and the pedal height a little high, as appreciated by a driver of 1.87 metres. Yet, surprisingly, the seat remained comfortable throughout the eight-hour drive, and the steering, handling and suspension were found to be certainly equal to the task. One suggested improvement, though, would be for a length/reach adjustment option on the steering, which currently is only tilt capable.

Ergonomically, the standard wiper/horn/turn indicator stalks on the column worked well, and the leather-clad steering wheel felt chunky enough.

Cruise control isn’t available yet, but there is a headlamp-levelling adjust control via a knurled knob under the right-hand side of the dash. Nestling next to this control, and out of sight, if not out of “feel” range, is a duplicate knurled wheel that controls the 2WD/4WD High/4WD Low selection. If nobody told you where it lived, we reckon you would never find it.

One of the options is a very flash, Fujitsu SAT/Nav unit that incorporates radio function selection, Bluetooth connectivity and other musical inputs obtained via a cable in the dashboard locker. The Sat/Nav unit worked well and was clearly audible with its alerts, but with it in operation we failed totally to master the selection of any musical accompaniment from the radio. Like many of the current radios being fitted in vehicles today, it appears you need an operational training course and a competency certificate to turn on the ABC.

Whether you like the seating position in relation to the controls depends largely on your own physical genetics, but this driver can only report it all worked well, without any overwhelming onset of aches or pains.

The 2.2-litre diesel may sound small in capacity by comparison to its competition, but it produces its power and torque smoothly across the rev range. It’s a gutsy little performer that’s certainly better than the 2.5-litre diesel in Nissan’s Navara and also the diesel in the Great Wall. If there’s a further recommendation needed, then let that be the fuel economy, which at 7.4 l/100 km for the combined figure, 9.0 for the urban and 6.5 for the extra urban is a great result. The fuel tank capacity is 70 litres and the emissions level for this Euro V compliant engine is 196 g/km of CO2.

TATA_7The three-seat accommodation across the rear is adequate for adults and there are no headroom issues. Storage pockets in the front doors accept a standard one-litre bottle, and accessories such as the jack are stored behind the rear seat.

The introduction of the TATA Xenon brings with it a common-sense approach to vehicle specification. Whether 2WD or 4WD the crew-cab shares the same ride height and suspension settings, plus the same 2.2-litre diesel and five-speed manual transmission. This removes complexity of choice, making model selection a simple matter of whether the driver needs off-road capability.

There is a difference in wheelbase dimension between the crew-cab and single-cab ute version, the former being 3,500 mm and the latter 2,825 mm, with corresponding differences in overall length of 5,250 mm and 4,800 mm respectively. The single-cab/chassis wheelbase stays at 3,500 mm.

There’s no shortage of factory-backed support with TATA Motor senior executives on hand during the media introduction to reinforce the company backing for the move into the Australian market.

The big attraction here for the TATA brand is the establishment of a strong contender for the ute market in a price range from $22,990 through to $29,990 for a product that is well engineered, feels well built, doesn’t rattle and performs well.

Individual pricing results in the 4×2 single-cab/chassis being $22,990, the 4×2 single-cab ute being $24,990, and the 4×2 dual-cab being $26,990. Move into the 4×4 versions and the pricing is $25,990, $27,990 and $29,990 respectively.

As Darren Bowler, Fusion Automotive MD himself said, “It’s tough, it handles well, and it provides very good value for money. It’s backed by a three-year, 100,000 km warranty with 24/7 roadside assistance for the first three years. ”

With a current dealer group of only 15 locations, the initial impact of TATA on the market is going to be slow and steady rather than earth shattering, but the TATA story doesn’t just stop with the introduction of the Xenon. The future will bring forward an entire range of light, medium-duty and heavy-duty trucks, buses and coaches. On that basis, it may just be a matter of time before TATA becomes a common nameplate on Australian roads, as the world’s fourth largest automaker comes to a town near you.

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