- Published On: 31 March 2017
- 10 min read
Tata's no old's barred shot at the premium crossover has resulted in the Hexa. Here's what it's like to drive.
Tata Motors has been working for some time on re-inventing itself as a brand. It started with the Tiago, a car that got the whole country to sit up and take notice, again. The carmaker’s sales figures have received a boost, with an average of 5,000 units being sold every month. This feat was impressive, considering the Tiago is a mid-range hatchback that feels truly premium – Tata’s weren’t ever looked at as premium cars.
However, when it comes to the premium SUV segment, where prices range from ₹12-18 lakh, expectations are a fair bit higher, and the erstwhile Aria, although a capable car, never managed to appeal to the Indian SUV buyer. Under the skin, the massive Tata had the right hardware – it offered superb comfort and stability, and even four-wheel drive. But it looked too much like an MPV and lacked a premium feel, which is all too important at this price point.
On the inside
The Aria’s successor is the car you see here - the Hexa - and the company is hoping this car appeals to more upmarket clientele. Let’s first talk about what’s changed the least from the Aria on the inside – the space. It’s a big car, there’s more than ample room for five; but the last row is best for two people only. Boot space is surprisingly good with all the seats in place; you could get a mid-size suitcase in here, the loading lip is fairly high. Similarly, access to the cabin also involve a bit of a climb. On to the seats, and at the front, you’ll be impressed at how well Tata has crafted the big chairs. The contrast-stitched faux leather feels suitably rich. Cushioning is a touch too firm but it’s well bolstered in the right areas. Also, the car’s size and the high driving position can be a little overwhelming until you get used to it. The top-spec XT trims of the Hexa come with two individual chairs for the middle row instead of the bench. The only downside of these seats is that they don’t tumble forward and this limits maximum boot space; also, it’s honestly easier to just walk between them to access the back row. A conventional split-folding bench comes as standard, but even with this configuration, accessing the third row isn’t particularly easy. It has to be slid all the way back to tumble forward properly, and then its heavy weight makes it quite a task to flip forward. The bench seat, however, when in place, is really comfortable, supportive and spacious, although the middle passenger has a large central AC console that hampers leg room. Finally, the third row – it’s quite a comfy place for two - the high floor means you sit a bit knees-up of course. Head and shoulder room isn’t too compromised in the third row - in fact, you can even recline the backrest, and there are also adjustable headrests. There are, of course, air-con vents for all three rows, but the blower is noisy, especially at full blast, it can overpower even the engine’s sound.
What really wows you is the quality of materials on the inside. It’s on a level we haven’t seen ever from Tata Motors. The dashboard isn’t dull anymore, the central stack has a variety of colours, textures and surfaces; here too, like with the exterior, excessive chrome has been substituted with other finishes, like piano black and dull grey plastics. The quality of the switchgear is also rather good, apart from a few places like the steering control buttons, which feel tiny and fiddly to use.
What is quite an annoyance, though, is the prioritizing of storage spaces in the cabin. Sure, there are generous pockets with bottle holders in every door, and though individually not very big, the dual glove boxes together provide sufficient storage. But if you’re in the driver’s seat, there is just one cup holder and a recess under the central armrest - so your phone, iPod, wallet, toll tickets and a cup of coffee are all vying for the same tiny spot to nestle in.
Tata Motors has tried to make sure this car comes fully loaded with features. The 10-speaker JBL sound system is a standout and sounds superb. There’s also ambient cabin lighting with eight colours to choose from, faux-leather upholstery, single-zone auto climate control, cruise control, heated wing mirrors, a cooled glovebox, automatic headlamps and automatic wipers. However, it’s not perfect. The infotainment screen is small and sluggish, the satnav requires an app on your phone and, most of all, there’s no sunroof, which is something its rivals offer. On the safety front, top-spec Hexas do offer six airbags, as well as ABS, EBD, ESP and traction control, and also hill descent control and hill hold. The infotainment system in the Hexa is a mixed bag. On one hand, you have the JBL sound system with 10 speakers and 320W, which sounds rather good for this price point and lets you tailor the sound with a neat equaliser. On the other hand, the touchscreen that controls it is small, slow and fiddly to use; luckily there’s also a rotary control knob and shortcut buttons.
This car doesn’t come with built-in navigation but you can get a companion app on your phone, which seems a bit counterintuitive. Additionally, this and the other two apps – one for remote control, the other for music – drained our phone’s batteries quite a bit.
Under the hood sits the latest version of Tata’s 2.2-litre, four-cylinder turbo-diesel called the Varicor 400, which also does duty on the top variant of the Safari Storme. Fire up the engine and there is a bit of murmur at idle, but it’s not the boom you’d expect. Vibrations too are impressively contained, save for a little bit through the gear lever. It does start to get noisy as the revs climb, but it’s only beyond 3,500rpm that it really sounds harsh.
From behind the wheel
The engine is surprisingly responsive when you set off and it does its best work before 3,000rpm. This does take some getting used to in both the manual and the automatic versions. In the manual, the snappy clutch, whose pedal is not very progressive, so often jerks and leaps off the line. Couple this with the heavy gearshift action and long, wide throws for the lever, and changing gear becomes a tiring task you’d rather avoid. There’s also no safety lock on the reverse gear, so you have to be careful when you’re switching to sixth gear on the highway. However, this is a pretty powerful motor, you can easily leave the Hexa in second, third or fourth and get through most everyday driving situations. Overtaking too is a breeze and very rarely needs a downshift.
In fact, despite its size and weight, it only takes 12.72sec to get from 40 to 100kph in fourth gear, and 10.83sec for 20-80kph in third. But, because of how tricky it is to launch smoothly and its jerkiness off the line, the 0-100kph time is a less-than-impressive 14.21sec, which is a lot slower than its rivals.
Driving the automatic is an altogether nicer experience. The gearbox is really impressive with how smoothly and seamlessly it gets its job done in most circumstances, whisking you from gear to gear at no more than 2,000rpm if you tread lightly on the throttle. Like the manual, however, it’s when setting off and at really slow speeds that it falters. The tremendous pep from the motor means it overreacts and often shifts down unnecessarily with the lightest tap of your toe, only to return to the same gear moments later. The automatic is significantly quicker than the manual version, with 0-100kph being despatched in 12.28sec.
The Hexa comes with a few driving modes, controlled by an upmarket-looking rotary knob. The ‘Super Drive Modes’ offered on the 4x4 manual let you choose between Comfort, Dynamic, Auto and Rough Road – the former two power just the rear wheels, while the latter two are AWD, sending torque to the front wheels when required. The automatic Hexa doesn’t have drive modes or the rotary knob, but you can tap the gear selector to the left for Sport mode. This too improves responses dramatically and will hold on to gears much longer when you put your foot on the gas.
Ride quality is really good, which was a hallmark of the earlier Aria. You will get quite a bit of steering shock when you hit a sharp bump but there’s an underlying firmness that you’re constantly aware of. The truth is, the Hexa does a phenomenal job of tackling various road conditions - things in the cabin are largely comfy. This car is in its element out on the highway, with a supremely flat ride and very little movement. What you’ll also be impressed by is how silently it goes about its business; very little suspension, tyre and road noise makes it to the cabin.
Handling expectedly is not in the same league as. The Hexa rolls around a lot in turns, although, it has to be said that there is a lot of grip, especially in the 4x4 version. It just feels too large and heavy for you to ever dream of pushing it even remotely hard around a corner. With an SUV this big and heavy, fuel economy is not going to be its core strength, of course. The 4x4 Manual returns a decent 10.1kpl in the city and a mere 13.1kpl on the highway. Despite being a fair bit lighter, the 4x2 Automatic was a bit lower down on the economy chart, with 9.1kpl in the city and 12kpl on the highway. The 60-litre fuel tank is not too bad, but for a big family SUV that’s likely to be taken out on long road trips, a larger tank would have been a better option.
Is it worth the money?
While the Tiago is almost an entirely new car, the Hexa is more of an evolution. But that doesn't mean this car isn’t impressive. Its biggest flaws are the same as the Aria’s - its heavy, cumbersome to drive and isn’t the best handler, but then, it's also gifted with its strengths - generous space, superb ride quality (that's only gotten better) and proper go-anywhere ability. What it successfully adds to the formula is impressive refinement and an upmarket look and feel, inside and out, which is on a level that's unprecedented at Tata Motors. This car definitely feels like it’s worth the money, unlike the Aria, which struggled to justify its price-tag. The company is slowly managing to shrug its 'cheap car' past and is taking a real crack at the premium segments. Only time will tell how successful the company will be with this endeavor.