Tata Punch review, test drive
Published on Oct 09, 2021 09:00:00 AM
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What is it?
Described by Tata Motors as a product with ‘the agility of a hatchback and the DNA of an SUV’ and marketed as ‘sub-compact SUV’, the Punch is an interesting new addition to the carmaker’s line-up. The 3.8m-long Punch plugs the size and segment gap between the Tiago NRG cross-hatchback and Nexon compact SUV, and by virtue of its Rs 5.5 lakh-9.39 lakh (ex-showroom) price is likely to draw buyers from across segments.
Tata is also going to lengths to drive home the point that the Punch’s SUV classification isn’t a misnomer. The Punch is a front-wheel drive-only model, but has been designed to take on the worst of Indian roads that are often as severe as mild off-road trails.
The Punch is built on Tata’s new ALFA architecture and, like its platform sibling the Altroz, is expected to score big on safety. There’s one petrol engine with manual and AMT gearbox options for the moment and an EV derivative is also in the works.
What is it like on the outside?
Designed on a clean sheet of paper, the Punch has been conceived to be an SUV from ground up. The flat concave bonnet (raised on the sides) and its split headlamp layout with the LED Daytime Running Lamps atop and projector headlamp cluster below establish strong family ties with the larger Tata Harrier and Safari. Uniquely, the gloss black grille is an enclosed panel with a tri-arrow-shaped opening for the horn behind. The lower half of the front bumper is black plastic, and it features a large air-dam (split by the number plate) sporting tri-arrow design elements which has now become a signature styling trait on modern Tatas.
The Punch has a purposeful stance; and while the smart 16-inch diamond-cut alloys are attractive, they don’t quite fill out the massive squared-out wheel wells. Its thick side cladding, black pillars and roof break the monotone, and like the Altroz, the Punch’s rear door handles are tucked in the C-pillar. Some might find the Tata’s rear design as a bit tame in comparison to the aggressive front, but the cool-looking circular tail-lamps with ‘Y-shaped’ tri-arrow LED elements really do help the Punch stand out. Like other Tatas, the Punch also sports some fun Easter eggs for you to discover, like the one-horn rhinoceros’ motif in the rear windscreen (and glovebox), as well as Tata lettering in the elongated tail lamp bezel.
View it in light of other compact SUVs, and the Punch is much smaller in dimension. Measuring 3,827mm in length, 1,742mm in width and with a wheelbase of 2,445mm, it has the same footprint as something like a Maruti Swift. However, the Punch’s 1,615mm is at par with a Tata Nexon and the high roof and upright pillars do help with that SUV-like look.
Tata’s seriousness to establish the Punch as a capable SUV is evident in its marketing speak which highlights its 190mm (unladen) ground clearance, 370mm water wading capacity and a host of off-roading angles.
What is it like inside?
The fresh and youthful exteriors are complemented by an equally stylish and exuberant interior. To start with, ingress/egress are a breeze, even for the elderly, thanks to its doors which open up to 90 degrees (like the Altroz) and its overall high seating. The layered dashboard design is pleasing to look at, and so are its rectangular air-vents. Contrasting white panels, textured plastics and other materials not only look appealing, but also feel quite upmarket. The free-standing touchscreen, climate control buttons, steering as well as the part-digital instrument cluster are shared with the Altroz premium hatchback.
The front seats are nice to be in, although the cushioning is a bit firm, and tall drivers will find thigh support to be limited. What’s nice is these seats are high-set to begin with, and the seats can be jacked up further to suit your requirements. Its low window line and XL-size door mirrors further enhance side and rear visibility, and the reversing camera with adaptive guidelines make life easier while parking in tight spots.
Despite its compact size, rear seat space is comparable to the pricier Kia Sonet in terms of knee room as well as shoulder room. Two six-footers can sit one behind another with some room to spare, and what adds to comfort is the space beneath the front seats to tuck their feet. Rear headroom is in adequate supply for all but the tallest of occupants, and what’s nice is that the Punch also gets adjustable rear head restraints as well as a centre armrest. A flat floor does add to the comfort of an occasional third passenger here, however, the car’s narrow width makes three abreast here a tight squeeze. There’s no rear air-con vent either. It’s important to bring in that a Nexon is roomier with more leg, head and shoulder room, should cabin space dictate your choice of Tata SUV to buy.
Having the premium knitted roof liner, like the Tiago hatchback’s, would have added to the Punch cabin’s sense of occasion. And while its 7-inch touchscreen is feature packed with Android Auto, Apple Carplay, a crisp 6-speaker Harman system, as well as (optional) connected car features, its touch interface and its responsiveness could have been slicker. Other equipment that the top-spec Punch packs in are automatic projector headlamps with LED DRLs, rain-sensing wipers, cruise control, electric folding mirrors, climate control, cooled glovebox, rear wiper and washer, 16-inch alloys, fog lamps with cornering function and a security alarm, to name a few.
Storage areas for smaller items like cupholders are in abundant supply, the segmented glovebox is massive and all the doors can easily swallow large bottles and then some. There’s just one USB charging provision and two 12V power sockets for front occupants. Rear passengers on the other hand get two front seatback pockets, as well as a storage area with cupholders between the front seats. At 319-litres (366-litres if measured till the roof), the Punch’s boot is almost the size of a Maruti Brezza’s boot, and owners also get the flexibility to fold down the rear seat to accommodate more cargo.
How does it drive?
The Tata Punch uses the same three-cylinder, 1.2-litre, naturally aspirated petrol engine as the Tiago, Tigor and Altroz, but the engine has been modified for this application. Tata Motors has reworked the air intake with a ram air system, aiming to enhance drivability. The engine makes a modest 86hp and 113Nm of torque, but factor in the Punch’s 1,035-kilo kerb weight, and the output comes across as more than reasonable.
Enhancements to the engine and the switch to BS6 emission standards have resulted in a smoother power delivery and generally the unit feels nicer than in its older iterations. The 1.2 Revotron unit is quite smooth, although it still isn’t as refined or vibe-free as Maruti’s K-series engines. The engine sounds grainy and there is some three-cylinder thrum too, but to be fair, it only gets really vocal over 4,000rpm where you’ll also hear a whine from the engine bay.
What’s nice is that the engine performs its daily duties with relative ease and its short gearing (first and second) makes it quite user-friendly, so it’ll effortlessly close gaps in traffic. Adopt a sedate driving style and it’ll even perform the occasional highway duties satisfactorily. But demand for brisk performance and the engine feels out of its comfort zone. Quick overtaking manoeuvres will warrant careful planning and you will need to work its gearbox to make progress. And while on that topic, the TA65 5-speed manual transmission is quite effort-free in its operation, but shifts aren’t butter-smooth like other cars it competes with. Thankfully, its clutch is light and easy to operate.
Even though flat-out performance isn’t going to be a deciding factor for buyers, the Punch accelerates from 0-100kph in 16.44 seconds, and it rolls from 20-80kph in third gear in a lazy 17.26 seconds. To put it in perspective, that is almost 5 and 4 seconds (respectively) slower than a Maruti Swift.
The manual iteration is equipped with an engine start-stop feature which switches off the engine when the car comes to a halt in order to save fuel while idling. This system is slow to respond, hence you will need to depress the clutch and wait for the engine to restart before engaging a gear, else the system gets confused and the engine remains off.
The other transmission option is the Marelli-sourced 5-speed automated manual transmission (AMT), which first made its debut in the Tiago hatchback. Within metres of driving this AMT, it feels a lot more refined compared to some older-gen units. The creep function is a bit eager, but is very easy to get accustomed with, and it is particularly useful in stop-go traffic. The gearbox performs with relative smoothness as AMTs go, and shift shocks or pause between gearshifts are pretty well contained. First time auto gearshift users and newbie drivers will certainly appreciate its ease and convenience. There isn’t a hill-hold feature on offer, so it is advisable to use the handbrake before starting off on an uphill climb to prevent it from rolling back.
This AMT has a tendency to upshift to the highest gear at the earliest (in the interest of fuel economy) and coupled with this non-turbo engine’s unhurried performance, it encourages drivers to adapt a laid-back driving style. Erratic throttle responses will confuse this gearbox, resulting in annoying pauses while the transmission decides whether to shift to a lower gear or continue in the same gear. Another peculiarity is that while gradually slowing down from fourth gear, it occasionally continues rolling at the same speed and feels like the car is ‘running away’, thus compelling you to depress the brake pedal even harder to control its deceleration.
Owners may take manual control over the gearbox via the tiptronic mode, useful while driving downhill for more engine braking; however, even in this mode the gearbox upshifts automatically. Curiously the AMT only revs to about 5,300rpm, which is 800rpm lower than the manual’s rev limit.
Both the transmissions get City and Eco driving modes, and while throttle responses feel marginally duller in Eco mode, pedal to the metal driving reveals a greater performance delta between these two modes, particularly in the AMT version. The latter sprints from 0-100kph in City mode in 19.98 seconds, which is 3 seconds quicker than in Eco mode. Rolling acceleration times from 20-80kph and 40-100kph reveal similar results with City mode being quicker than Eco mode by 2.5 and 2.8 seconds respectively.
The Punch’s ride and handling balance are spot on – Tata has really nailed it . There’s an underlying toughness to its suspension, which shines while tackling rough and bad sections of road. It flattens road imperfections with a sense of maturity like a much heavier car, and its stability at high speeds is excellent. The steering of the Punch is light, consistent and accurate, and not overtly sharp like the Altroz’s unit. Its taut structure, light kerb weight and wonderful steering feel make it quite enjoyable around corners. And while driving enthusiasts will be left longing for stronger engine performance, a majority of owners will be satisfied with its overall packaging. Its brakes feel natural and progressive, and its braking performance is very confidence-inspiring.
Unique to the AMT version of the Punch is a Traction Pro mode, which essentially detects front wheel slippage and asks for permission to activate via a prompt on the touchscreen. Once permission is granted, the driver needs to press the brake and accelerator pedal at the same time, and the system will intelligently apply the brake to the wheel with low/no traction, while the one with traction easily pulls the car out of the sticky situation.
Make no mistake though, while the Punch is certainly more capable than other hatchbacks at this price due to the Traction Pro feature (AMT), with its raised ride height and tall stature, it is still a front-wheel drive car, hence it must not be subjected to conditions meant for four-wheel drive vehicles.
Should I wait for one?
A hatchback with SUV pretensions isn’t unusual today, but the Tata Punch differentiates itself from the tribe with some of the attributes you’d actually associate with the SUV body style. It’s got the elevated seating and ample ground clearance you’d expect, but also boasts of a fairly tough build and, as we experienced, even some ability in challenging conditions.
In other areas too, the Tata has a lot going for it – it is stylish on the outside, cheerful on the inside, packs in adequate space and practicality, as well as a reasonable equipment list. Engine performance isn’t exciting and its AMT gearbox could have been a bit more intuitive, but these are likely to meet the requirements of a majority of buyers.
Priced between Rs 5.5 lakh-9.39 lakh, the Punch is expensive for what it offers, and serves as a pricier alternative to hatchbacks, like the Maruti Swift and Hyundai Grand i10 Nios, as well as non-turbo compact SUVs like Nissan Magnite and Renault Kiger.
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