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It's not just Tata Motors' first premium hatchback but their first all-new small-car platform. It promises plenty but does the Altroz deliver?
TWO YEARS AFTER IT WAS showcased as the 45X concept, the Tata Altroz is here in production form and will go up against the Baleno and i20 when it goes on sale at the start of 2020. And straight off the bat, we must talk about the styling that has stayed remarkably faithful to the concept car, with only a few concessions being made for production realities. Led by Pratap Bose and his teams based in Pune, Turin and Warwick in the UK, the stylists at Tata Motors have delivered a fantastic looking hatchback that sets the benchmark as far as design goes. I particularly like the slightly thrusting sharknose treatment going on at the nose where the slim headlamps are defined by a chrome chin that runs the full width. The blacked-out honeycomb grille is free from any chrome embellishments and runs against the current grain of huge, thrusting goatee grilles.
Top-end versions of the Altroz get the floating roof whose blacked-out treatment extends into the tailgate that makes the Tata logo along with the Altroz lettering pop nicely. The tail lamps create sharp angles and negative spaces when viewed in profile that look excellent. Sticking with the profile you will also notice the gloss-black finish around the glass house that starts with a kink under the wing mirrors and sweeps up towards the tail giving this impression of a tapering shoulder line and narrowing window line. Strong wheel arches give strength to the profile and it runs on 16-inch wheels shod with MRF tyres on our test cars. To keep the profile clean, the rear door handles are hidden away in the C-pillar.
Exterior fit-finish and panel gaps are tight and there is really nothing to criticise on that front. In fact, there's nothing to criticise and everything to praise as far as the styling goes. But if I did have to point out one thing, it is that the Altroz would look better on 17-inch wheels and in our Thrill of Driving podcast Pratap Bose did admit that the car has been designed to run on bigger wheels.
Doors open like the Albatross
Like the exterior, the cabin, too, is a new design from the ground up, and the highlight is the LED mood lighting that seeps out of the seams around the centre console and the footwell. The cabin is spacious, airy and the highlight are the doors that open really wide, a full 90 degrees to the body. This door opening has been engineered into the new architecture keeping ease of ingress/egress in mind — and
enhancing the same for the driver is the flatbottom steering wheel. While on the subject of space, there's enough knee room for rear passengers and the width is also up to class benchmarks. However, the rear seat back is too upright and there's not enough underthigh support to make long drives in the back seat comfortable. The front seats too aren't as wide or supportive (on the side and under the thigh) as its rivals.
Again, the fit-finish of the interiors is quite good and Tata Motors have done a very good job exorcising the ghosts of the past. The doors shut with a solid thud, you no longer have to hunt for the USB slot, there's no aircraft-style nonsense for the handbrake, nothing rattled after two days with the car, no gaping panel gaps, there's space in the footwell for a dead pedal, and everything is where it should be. But, if I'm being honest, the interiors don't make you go wow, like the exteriors do.
For one, there are too many different materials and surfaces on the dash. The plastics feel too hard and I am not a fan of some of the surfacing, especially on the steering wheel boss. The stalks are carried over from other Tata Motors' cars and don't feel high quality and some of the buttons like the ones below the infotainment are carry over items that seem out of place, being too small and squeezed in together.
What I don't like are the clocks that are disproportionately too small — something
I'd criticised even on the Harrier. The tacho and trip computer are on a 7-inch screen with
Fit-finish is quite good and Tata Motors have done a very good job in exorcising the ghosts of the past
the speedo on the right and since it has been squeezed into a small binnacle, the numbers and lettering are too congested. That said, the graphics of the trip computer are done quite nicely and are properly legible.
The infotainment is via a 7-inch touchscreen taken from the Nexon and gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. No in-built maps, but with Google Maps nobody uses it in any case.
On the top-end variant there's a 6-speaker Harman sound system which does sound good. There is space in the centre console for your phone but no wireless charging. There's auto headlamps and rain-sensing wipers but no day-night mirrors. And no sunroof will be available at launch.
Familiar engines, now BS6-compliant
The Tigor's 1.2-litre 3-cylinder petrol engine along with the 5-speed 'box is carried over and is a naturally-aspirated unit unlike the Nexon's turbo-petrol, making 85bhp of power and 113Nm of torque, which is par for the course considering its rivals but the petrol Altroz does tip the scales at 1036kg (kerb) which, when compared to the Baleno that's under a tonne, does make it slower off the line. The performance is not as eager as its rivals and the engine is not as smooth, refined or silent either. The gearbox shift quality is acceptable but not the slickest among its rivals.
The engine to opt for is the 1.5-litre diesel borrowed from the Nexon that makes 88.7bhp of power and 200Nm of torque. The diesel is 114kg heavier than the petrol, but the significant bump up in power delivers more eager performance, makes it more torquey and generally more enjoyable to drive. Where
the petrol struggles to get past 120kmph, the diesel is capable of much more and also the torque gives it better overtaking grunt without having to pull the revs all the way to the redline. The NVH is par for the course as far as its diesel rivals are concerned, though the throttle responses are a little dull. In fact, the added weight of the diesel does deliver better steering weight, which we will come to.
All-new Alpha-arc platform
This, finally, is a new platform from Tata Motors to underpin their small cars and engineers claim it is flexible enough to go up in size to a sedan and SUV. Obviously it can also be downsized for smaller cars which will be the eventual Tigor/Tiago replacements. And it has been designed with electrification and hybridisation in mind.
So what does the Altroz feel like on the road? Actually, very good. In keeping with current trends, this Alpha-arc platform is lighter than earlier Tata Motors' architectures but I'm glad they haven't gone all anorexic. The 100-odd extra kilos when compared to rivals like the Baleno, make the Altroz more planted and more confident on the road. It does not feel flighty and at risk of switching lanes in a strong breeze. It also doesn't transmit every little surface change and every little undulation into the cabin, and damps out a fair bit of the road surfaces and noise when compared to the class best-seller. It feels safer, and more sorted.
The ride quality is in keeping with Tata Motors’ past form of making very comfortable cars
The ride quality is in keeping with Tata Motors' past form of making very comfortable cars. The Altroz does a very good job of soaking in road undulations and it soaks it up so well you don't even have to slow down over small speedbreakers. In fact you can easily cruise at triple-digit speeds and I'm glad Tata Motors have tuned the speed buzzer to be audible but not horribly intrusive.
The handling is safe and secure if not exciting. The steering is too light and lifeless, but that said, still feels better than the Baleno. And the brakes, discs at the front, drums at the rear, are strong. We drove the car on the straight roads around Jaisalmer so you will have to wait for us to test it on familiar roads in our backyard to give you a more detailed verdict on the handling and braking but initial impressions of this new platform are overwhelmingly positive — and we cannot wait for Tata Motors to put in more powerful engines to exploit the potential of this chassis. In fact a turbo-petrol with a DCT automatic is in the wings, most likely carrying the go-faster JTP badging. I just wish they'd engineered the steering column to adjust for reach (it's only rake adjustable right now) and that would have delivered a better driving position.
The gold standard?
Does the Altroz live up to the marketing hype? Let's start with the downsides. That the handling isn't exciting won't be a big miss for most buyers but what they will notice is the petrol engine isn't up to class benchmarks, nor is there a turbo-petrol at launch. Also not available at launch are automatic gearboxes. And while Tata Motors has matched class benchmarks, it hasn't significantly raised the game especially in light of an all-new i20 that's round the corner.
That said, I will say the wait for the Altroz has been worth it and it definitely is the best hatchback that Tata Motors have ever built. It is properly finished, the fit and finish is up to the mark, nothing feels out of place or compromised, the powerful diesel engine will also be a strong selling point, and it looks fantastic. In fact this is the best looking small car there is right now and also among the most comfortable and confidence inspiring too. If matched with aggressive pricing you will see plenty of Altroz's on the road in the new year. ⌧
Facing page, bottom: Analogue speedo with a 7-inch digital display incorporating the tacho. Right: Only manual gearboxes. Below the lever is the switch for eco mode. Below: There's really no bad angle on the Altroz, the styling is so good
Bottom: Interiors use carry over parts like the touchscreen. Well designed but too many different surfaces and materials. Below left: Rear door handle in C-pillar. Facing page, top: 16-inch wheels shod with MRF rubber