Test drives pt 3 – A pinch of salt

The first car my father’s company gave him was a second hand Maruti 800 that a colleague had used until retirement. It was fine for the first few months before more and more problems began to mount. My father asked for a new car and the company gave him and a bunch of his colleagues new cars – all Tata Indica/Indigo.

This was a 2003 Indica V2 Diesel. It had no power steering or power windows. Oh, and a manual transmission. A car that would have still been regarded as respectably modern back then and would now be regarded as hopelessly out-of-date. We will one day look back on the 2010s-20s as the period when the Indian car industry saw the thrust shift to must-have features (including even the infotainment system or reverse cam) much more than the engine itself, the beating heart of the machine.

At that time, Tata had a justifiably earned reputation of building strong and rugged cars that weren’t necessarily too user-friendly.

Now, all these years later, when I was in the market for a premium hatchback, things had/have changed a lot. Tata is a strong no.3 in the market (which it was, actually, back in 2003) and snapping at the heels of Hyundai who don’t have production capacity to hold off Tata for much longer (should Tata produce just one more ‘hit’ that delivers volumes in the 10k per month region). It’s an amazing turnaround and it makes me a bit sad as an ex-employee who, for a variety of reasons that shall not be discussed, had to leave just at the cusp of this turnaround. They say the darkest hour is before dawn but I didn’t know that Tata had reached its darkest moment just then (when I left).

So, like many others, Tata’s cars were actively under my consideration and in fact very high up on the list. At that time, I hadn’t really thought of the new i20 due to its price point. With the Altroz, Tata was delivering a premium hatch experience at a showroom price that was at least a couple of lakhs lower. What wasn’t to like? In a roundabout way, they were delivering more car per car again. Only, this time it didn’t mean a bigger but somewhat ugly and unwieldy car at a price point a tad higher than a Zen. Now, Tata was doing something like the Chinese Xiaomi/Vivo/Oppo phones – delivering an experience close to what premium smartphones provide at a much lower price point. As a Vivo owner, I do approve of this strategy.

Anyhow, the first showroom I visited this time around was a Tata showroom (which happens to be a ten minute walk from my place!). The sales executive politely and patiently explained the features. Since I told him what I wanted clearly (Altroz), he didn’t have much work to do, to be honest. I asked about a test drive but he told me he could possibly try in the evening and failing that only in the week up ahead. Now I live in New Bombay and have to commute to Andheri so taking a test drive on weekdays is impossible. And remember, I absolutely need to park the car in my slot as part of my test drive!

Evening came and he couldn’t make a car available. He reserved a car for next Saturday but only with multiple reminders could I make it happen.

And then, when I sat in the car and began to drive, he told me he had fuel only for a short ‘stroll’ and that I would have to coordinate again for an elaborate drive next week. I was pissed off at this point but still willing to accommodate…if it worked out. I could tell that demand for the car was high. If I couldn’t wait, the showroom wasn’t going to sweat it.

I did get some insights from the short drive that I was permitted.

The positives were, firstly, the interiors. They were superb and more or less best in class. Secondly and related, the air conditioning was brilliant too, especially considering it was mid-noon. Thirdly, the steering. I had to make a U turn and I could effortlessly complete the turn without the car butting into the middle lane. OK, don’t try this unless you have been driving for a while and have attempted such maneuvers before but still, the car basically can turn in such a small radius.

But…and there’s a but. There were two things I took a dislike to. One was the pickup/power…or lack of it. The Altroz comes with a 1.2 litre petrol (or a 1.5 litre diesel) and the petrol delivers a mere 85 bhp. This added to the weight of the car makes it feel really underpowered. And, if you have read my previous reviews, this is coming from someone who doesn’t necessarily like cars that zip too soon off a standstill. I like cars where the acceleration matches my throttle input because I then feel in control. But even so, man, this took some real pushing to get it off standstill. It improved as I gathered speed.

But as I gathered speed, I had to change gears and at this point, I ran into a gearstick that was rather reluctant to, uh, move. Maybe it is unfair to compare the gearbox of an i20 to an Altroz. But it nevertheless stood out immediately. It’s not like I couldn’t shift gears but it took some effort. And at this point, I can change gears with a finger on the i20. So it’s not me.

In a roundabout way, Tata cars are still more comfortable to ride in as a passenger than to drive. Check that, the Altroz is. Maybe the Nexon delivers a more pleasurable experience, I wouldn’t know. But if I compared my experience of driving the Altroz to the old and new i20s as well as the Jazz, effortless wouldn’t be the first word that would come to my mind.

I still did like the overall package enough to keep it in my consideration list. Until…the new i20 wouldn’t fit into my parking slot and I began to look at specs of other cars in the segment. That’s when I found the Altroz too was too big for my parking. And so was the Nexon. Or the Punch. Tigor was the only option (like Grand i10 or Aura of Hyundai). Downgrading to the lower Bs felt very disheartening to me. You could argue that it’s just a car and still just a hatch (or compact sedan). And I know and would agree. But when you can afford a premium hatch and have to opt out only due to the parking slot, it’s very frustrating.

Additionally, the Tigor would have taken a month to deliver. The waiting for Grand i10/Aura was minimum three months. Did I really want to wait that long for the lower Bs? I didn’t think so. But what options did I have? Or was there an option that somebody else would enlighten me about and take me in a completely unexpected direction?

More on that in the last part of this series.

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