Is a new product from Tata Motors exciting news? Well, the Nano sure was. But, then on, every new product from the company has been marred with the perception of being substandard in terms of quality, design, and driving pleasure. But, Tata says, all that's about to change. Thanks to the Zest. A new compact sedan which will take on the likes of the Honda Amaze, the Hyundai Xcent and the very popular, Maruti Suzuki Dzire. And we are about find out, if it actually does.
One of the biggest consideration aspects while buying a car here in India, is the exterior design or styling. It is said, if you get the visual allure of a product right, that's half the battle. On this front, the Zest is a huge step up over both the Vista and the Manza. The Zest still has that typical Tata smiley face, which Tata now calls the humanity line. It is the line that runs along the bottom of the grille and connects the headlamps. The headlamps look nicer too, and in this top of the line version, are projector type. The bumper with its large fog lamp housing and a reverse air dam design give the Zest an air of much-needed modernity.
In profile, the Zest doesn't look very proportionate; it's more like the Dzire - with a longer hood and a stubbier boot - than the Amaze which clearly is better balanced visually. But with a revised shoulder line and an upswept lower character line, it gives the Zest better road presence. It gets largest in class 15in wheels too. The design for the alloys isn't exciting, but its size certainly helps the Zest's stance. At the rear, the Tata Zest has LED tail lamps, a well-defined bumper and boot lid with a thick chrome line dominating proceedings.
The most crucial change for us on the Zest compared to the Vista on which it is based, is the revised interior. The quality of materials, both in look and feel, have improved significantly. And the design is way more inviting and pleasing that before. It actually looks upmarket now; something we haven't said about Tata products too often. The play of colours - black and beige, the shapely aircon vents, the gloss black finish around the centre console and the instrument binnacle, and subtly used chrome highlights, all help in achieving this.
There's also a high-end Harman audio system on this top of the line XT trim of the Zest. The system has been developed specifically for Tata Motors and besides having touchscreen interface and a lovely sound, it also get voice activated command. It supports Bluetooth telephony, reads out your text messages and has a reverse guidance system as well. We particularly like the fader adjustment and the fact that the climate control can be adjusted via the touchscreen. Two big omissions here though, are satnav and a reversing camera.
Operability, however, doesn't require too much complaining. It is, in fact, good in a few places. The steering is small and nice to hold and twirl; the instrumentation is easy to read; and things like light and wiper stalks and gear shifter fall easily to hand. We still aren't completely happy with the pedal positioning for the throttle, brake and clutch, but at least it's not going to leave you with aching ankles. The Zest could also do with more bottle holders; actually it has none at the moment and the stowage areas are nothing to write home about.
What we would have also liked better, are the seats. These are large and well bolstered with good back and under thigh support, no doubt. But, for some reason, these are just too soft, especially the ones at the rear. It's not so much of a problem over short distances, but over long hauls as it folds under your weight, it will prove to be uncomfortable. Space though, as is true for any Tata product, is enough and more. There's enough knee and legroom at the back, good headroom and interior width to seat three abreast without a problem.
The Tata Zest comes with two engines - a 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol and a 1.3-litre VGT and AMT equipped diesel. Both cars make 90PS but the diesel of course has a higher torque output. The one here is the petrol and it is more refined, nicer sounding and lighter of the two. Now, this engine might be turbocharged and all, but the focus here isn't on outright fast 0-100kmph times or sensationally high top speed. Tata clearly wants to deliver on fuel efficiency and driveability, which we think is a smart way to doing things, particularly for car in this class. And, this focus is instantly clear the moment you step on the throttle. The turbo lag is hardly perceptible thanks to light water-cooled turbocharger that spins up with minimum delay and the car gathers momentum in higher gears and lower speeds without feeling too lethargic. The power delivery as a result is linear too. But, it isn’t urgent, at least in the City mode, it isn’t.
Yes, the Zest 1.2T comes with three driving models - City, Eco and Sport. In Eco, the ECU map is softer as is the response to throttle inputs. As the name suggests, it works best for achieving good fuel economy. In Sport mode, there's a perceivable alertness in proceedings. The throttle response is sharper and revs seem to rise quicker than in other two modes. Our only issue with the Sport mode is the inconsistent delivery of power; instead of one seamless pull, the Zest seems to hesitate at some points along the rev range. It's probably a calibration issue, which we expect to be sorted before the Zest goes on sale.
Like space, ride quality too has been one of Tata Motors' strong points. And the Zest is no different. It rides well at slow speeds, and even pronounced undulations, doesn't unsettle the car too much. Tata has used what they call dual path struts at the front and revised torsion beam axle rating at the rear to achieve this. The dual path struts use a softer rubber at the point where the strut connects with the body in white giving a supple secondary ride before the spring and damper setup comes into play. This has allowed Tata engineers to firm up the latter combo a bit to achieve better cornering ability.
On the road, the Zest doesn't feel like a go-kart or even a car where handling takes precedence. It is still more comfortable than energetic around a switchback. Not that it feels cumbersome or lazy if that’s the impression the previous line left on you. It’s just not as sharp at turn in or flat around bends or neutrally balanced to keep understeer away as an entertaining handler ought to be. The steering response and feel, on the other hand, particularly for an electrically assisted one, is impressive. It also has feel and is agreeably quick, and because it’s light and not vague, it makes driving the Zest in the city pretty easy.
The Tata Zest is one of the better Tata cars we have driven in a longtime. That it is based on the Vista platform, means there are a few compromises. So, it isn't perfect. What does work in the Zest's favour is its interior, its ride quality and its spacious insides. It scores well on equipment too and is in fact an easy car to drive. Now, what remains is the price. But, knowing Tata and what the sort of competition it is dealing with, expect cut throat pricing, even lower than the already well-priced Hyundai Xcent maybe.
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