Like the proverbial cat that fights hardest when its back is up against a wall, desperate times at Tata Motors have got the company’s creative juices flowing to produce a torrent of brilliant new designs. That Tata Motors has upped its design and styling ante was clearly evident at this year’s Auto Expo, and the Nexon was arguably the show stopper which got the general public swooning over the car manufacturer’s first shot at a compact SUV. The questions weren’t the typical “How much will it cost?” but instead “When can I buy it?” and for both, Tata Motors had no real answers but, we’ll get to that later. Also giving credence to the Nexon was the competition that quietly admitted that Tata just maybe onto something big.
The Nexon is the culmination of a radical shift in thinking that began just before the 2014 Auto Expo. For many years now, Tata Motors has been struggling to appeal to trendy, new-age buyers for whom a Tata car is as cool as square-toed shoes. Unlike Maruti, which prefers to be square (the Vitara Brezza) and play safe to avoid any risk of alienating its massive customer base, Tata had to come up with something dramatic to get back on the customer’s radar. And why not with a compact SUV? It’s a segment that has a strong pull in the market which makes the battle that much easier.
Tata Motors wanted to break convention from a segment that inherently has boxy forms. “If you look at an SUV under four metres, they are basically scaled-down versions of larger SUVs and somewhere, I felt the paradigm had to change because the compact segment itself is large enough to define an aesthetic of its own,” said Pratap Bose, head of design, Tata Motors.
However, breaking the mould also has its risks. Customers associate SUVs with space, an upright stance and not a coupé.Which is why Tata decided to the test the concept of an ‘SUV Coupé’ with well, a concept.
The Nexon concept was first unveiled at the 2014 Auto Expo and the response was overwhelmingly positive. “The response to the show car was amazing, something we couldn’t ignore and we knew we were on the right track. So when the vehicle was green-lighted for production, we didn’t want to lose the initial impact of the design created,” said Bose.
But that’s easier said than done because making a one-off concept look good under spotlights is one thing, but developing the tools and dies to stamp out complex body panels for production is a different ball game.
To retain the muscular lines, especially around the wheel arches was critical to maintain the stance of the car which meant ‘drawing’ or stretching the sheet metal in the stamping process beyond what Tata Motors had ever done before. Also, the tapering roofline and the multiple layers in the C-pillar area proved to be pretty complex to translate into production and pushed the boundaries of Tata Motors’ manufacturing capabilities.
“When we develop the tooling, it had to be done hand-in-glove with the designers themselves as they are finalising the surface of the car,” said Tim Leverton, president and head – Advanced Product Engineering, who sees the Nexon as a new manufacturing benchmark for Tata Motors.
It’s certainly a new styling benchmark too and the design is going to be the single biggest reason to buy it. Look at the Nexon from any angle and it’s drop-dead gorgeous. The front sports a stretched grille that’s underscored with a ceramic-finish highlight that’s also used to good effect in the fog lamp surrounds, window line and at the rear, to break down the bulk of the car. The projector headlights are nicely detailed with the indicators sitting unusually on top of a horizontal strip that divides the housing.
In side profile, the Nexon looks distinctly like a coupé with a roof that sharply tapers towards the
rear. The overlay of the C-pillar, where it meets the body is an interesting design element but
it’s the interplay of four different shades in this swooping roofline and rising beltline that is a superb bit of detailing.
From the back, the Nexon’s small rear screen and narrow black strip gives it a pinched look but again, the ceramic strip which straddles the diamond-shaped rear tail-lights gives the car a unique identity.
The pinched rear has quite a distinctive look.
An SUV needs big wheels and the Nexon comes with 16-inch alloys and generous 215/60 R 16 neatly packaged into large wheel housings. However, it’s not just the wheels and tyres that give the Nexon its tall stance, but also the X1 platform which is inherently high-riding. In fact, the X1 platform’s high cowl position and overall height maybe undesirable for a sedan (which is why the Zest looks so jacked up), but for an SUV, it’s ideal and works very well for the Nexon.
With this high stance, getting in and out of the Nexon is quite easy, well not entirely. While you don’t have to crouch low to place yourself on the high-set seats, you do have to mind your head when you enter given the low roofline. Once you’re seated, the space on offer comes as a surprise for a car with a coupé profile. There’s decent headroom and even better legroom which places the Nexon a notch above both the Vitara Brezza and the EcoSport in the rear seat. However, Tata has configured the Nexon to be more of a four-seater with the sculpted cushions making it inconvenient for a middle passenger. Tata’s logic in maximising space for four passengers instead of five is because the Nexon’s personality makes it more appealing to individuals rather than large families.
Legroom and headroom is surprisingly generous, though the middle seat is not.
Tata likes to demonstrate the practical side of the Nexon with its ability “to carry a washing machine” according to Leverton; a claim made by Ford too, for the EcoSport. However, for large loads, the rear seats have to be flipped down but quite frankly, the overall luggage space is nothing exceptional and pretty much par for the course.
There are lots of practical touches in the interiors with decent storage in the central console and a large glovebox which has a classy ‘Nexon’-embossed release button instead of a cheap flap-type release. The door pockets, however, are average-sized. Another time-honoured X1 platform drawback, the crammed footwell, though, has been addressed with the freeing up of space and addition of a dead pedal.
The front seats are superbly shaped with lots of thigh support and generous bolstering. You sit pretty high up too, with an uninterrupted view over the chunky dashboard which gets a fixed 6.5-inch Harman-sourced ConnectNext infotainment screen on the top. In fact, the interior design is pretty straightforward and functional and Bose justifies this by saying that “don’t forget that the ‘U’ in SUV stands for utility and whilst we can be more emotional with the exterior, for someone who has to live with the car for 5-6 years, the interiors of the car should really work.”
The interior, with its focus on practicality, is not as dramatic as the exterior.
The instrument binnacle with a multi-info display between the dials looks pretty standard while the small buttons and knobs on the dashboard are from previous Tata cars. The standout feature, however, is the controller for multi-drive modes which isn’t a small button as in other Tata cars, but a nice, chunky knob, similar to the one in the Hexa and in keeping with the SUV theme. But since there’s no four-wheel drive on the Nexon, the multi-drive functions are limited to ‘Eco’ ‘City’ and ‘Sport’ modes, and other than changing the performance and fuel economy parameters, it’s only the ABS and traction control settings (to optimise grip on different surfaces) that can be altered. However, this again will be the first in its segment and certainly a selling point in showrooms.
Up The Power Game
Tata hasn’t officially announced the engine line-up for the Nexon, but according to company sources, it will get more powerful variants of the new family of in-house petrol and diesel engines that debuted in the Tiago hatchback. The ubiquitous 89bhp Fiat 1.3 Multijet diesel was deemed underpowered for a compact SUV, and instead, the Nexon will get a newly developed 1.5-litre diesel developing around 110bhp. This motor is essentially a scaled-up or four-cylinder version of the Tiago’s 1.05-litre, three-cylinder unit, which makes it easy to produce on a common production line.
The Nexon’s petrol engine will be a turbo-charged version of the Tiago’s three-cylinder, 1.2-litre all-aluminium unit which boosts power to a healthy 110bhp. It follows a trend started by the EcoSport’s brilliant 1.0-litre Ecoboost engine which showed that compact, turbo-petrols are best suited to meet the packaging, performance and fuel efficiency requirements of compact SUVs. The Vitara Brezza too is likely to get Suzuki’s 1.0, three-cylinder Boosterjet turbo-petrol. The only challenge will be to achieve the right fuel economy which, in a turbo- petrol, varies wildly depending on driving style and traffic conditions.
The drive mode selector is a nice, chunky knob, instead of a tiny button; we like.
An all-new six-speed gearbox to cope with the higher torque has been developed along with an Automated Manual Transmission (AMT). Hence, it is likely that both the petrol and diesel Nexons will be offered with an automatic option at launch.
Under the sheet metal, the Nexon uses similar mechanicals to the Zest and Bolt. The suspension is the same dual-path independent McPherson strut with coil spring and anti-roll bar up front and twist beam with coil spring at the back. However, suspension has been completely retuned to match the larger and heavier wheels as well as the increased ground clearance, which is a substantial 200mm. The Zest and Bolt are benchmarks in their class for ride comfort and we expect the Nexon to raise the bar even higher.
A Matter Of Time
Now the question on everyone’s mind is ‘When?’, considering the fact that Tata has a history of losing the plot by coming to market often a half-lifecycle too late. A lot of validation and testing still needs to be done before the Nexon can be launched and it is unlikely the car will reach showrooms before February or March 2017.
Tata will no doubt price the Nexon pretty aggressively – it has to if it wants to steal customers away from the Vitara Brezza which is set to be a runaway success. However, if the price doesn’t win people over, the styling surely will. In this segment, nothing looks anywhere near as dramatic as the Nexon and if Tata gets the quality right, this is one product that can pull the carmaker back from the brink.