Tata Zest Diesel AMT Review (XMA F-Tronic): By India, For India

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We were really looking forward to this one. It was time to test the Zest, the latest from the stables of one of India's largest automobile manufacturers, Tata Motors. Post its reveal at the 2014 Auto Expo, the expectations from the Indian public from Tata saw an all-time high. The global company has struggled with marketing problems and image issues for its products in the past, but does the new compact sedan signal the dawn of a new age for Tata Motors?

That's what we set out to investigate, when we got our paws on the wheel of the Tata Zest XMA Diesel, the top-spec diesel variant and the only car in its segment with an AMT unit. Tata is pinning big expectations on this version of the Zest, hoping it will be the compact sedan to make some sense of our mental traffic situations, and impress on the highway too. It looks good on paper, but let's see if it works on tarmac.

The story continues on the next slide.

Design

The Zest is a looker, there's no denying that. Tata has succeeded in creating a decently proportionate compact sedan, despite its hatchback underpinnings. The face of the Zest will get your eyelids out to bat, with the great looking honeycomb grille section with large headlamp assemblies that house handsome projector lamps. Tata has thankfully not gone overboard with chrome-the highlights for the car's grille are classily restrained. The manner in which the grille section angles in and the lower air dam opposes it serves the car plenty of visual good, while the A-pillars support an interesting sunken-in look for the windscreen, but it comes with a downside, which we'll get to later.

Design

Viewed side on, the first that strikes you is the height of the car, which, at 1570 mm, is the tallest in its category. The car sits seems to sit relatively high off the ground too, but it's still a ways away from a Tall-Boy design, thankfully. The strong shoulder crease below the large glasshouse complements the similarly-angled lower door crease nicely. Also, there's something about a door line that kinks around a crease, and the manner in which this occurs in the Zest lends a sense of sportiness to the overall design. The black B-pillars and the 15-inch multi-spoke alloys work well too.

Design

Wish the boot had more butt, though. The Zest's behind looks a touch stubby, but is possibly the most balanced-look rear three quarters in the segment, with the Amaze in a close second. The large wraparound illumination for the rear is nicely detailed, and the tail lamps look good when switched on. The bumper houses a wannabe diffuser lower section in dull black that lends some dynamism to the rear, though it would have been nicer to see the exhaust tip accommodated in its design.

Engine

No surprises that the diesel Tata Zest XMA gets Fiat's seemingly omnipresent 1248cc, 4-cylinder Quadrajet mill, which produces 89 bhp at 4000 rpm and maximum torque of 200 Nm at 1750 rpm, that is sufficient to enable the car into an above-average performer. Tata ironically continues to tune the engine better than its source manufacturer Fiat, since maximum torque is produced 250 revs lower than the Multijet mill's 2000 rpm level seen in the Punto Evo and Linea. This better tuning translates into sufficient oomph for overtaking and means the car can stay in gear longer, both in the city and on the highway. The engine somehow feels more refined and less clattery too, because of more careful attention to NVH levels on Tata's part.

Transmission

An AMT (Automated Manual Transmission) is mechanically similar to a conventional manual box, but a computer performs the function of the clutch. As a result the clutch pedal is absent, leaving only the accelerator and brake pedals, just like an automatic transmission. Most AMT units abroad now use a double-clutch mechanism that enables the transmission to perform smoother shifts, but the Zest's system uses a single clutch. One should know that that single clutch systems are prone to lurch, especially at low speeds, and this is true of the Zest as well. So when you're entering a parking spot or climbing a slope from standstill for example, one notices what's called a ‘slip-and-surge' effect, which is similar to how a novice driver would take time to engage a gear and have the tendency to allow the car to roll backwards.

Transmission

The 5-speed AMT in the Zest certainly has occasions where it displays single-clutch mannerisms, but the Magneti Marelli unit has been tuned well for Indian conditions. The car can be driven in three modes, Auto, Sport, and Tiptronic (or sequential manual). We found that in slow, crawling traffic the Auto mode works best for economy, and slightly faster traffic and open highways suit the Sport mode (activated by the press of a rather fiddly ‘S' button below the shifter). ‘Sport' allows the engine to hold gears marginally longer.

Transmission

The Zest can also be driven in Tiptronic manual mode, but for some reason, its seems like Tata forgot to check conventional placement of the ‘+' and ‘-' to move up and down the gears. Downshifting is usually carried out by pushing the gear knob forward in Tiptronic transmissions, but in the Zest you strangely have to pull the lever for a shift down, and tap forwards to change up. Nonetheless, once you get used to it, it's a far more rewarding way to drive the latest Tata, especially on the open road. We wish the shifting was quicker, but also realise this is probably the best one can expect from a single-clutch AMT system.

The Drive

The Tata Zest obviously had to appeal to a wide audience, so the suspension has been tuned to provide a balance between ride and handling. As a result, the car is not going to thrill enthusiasts around corners because of the moderate roll that will be experienced, but lead-footed drivers too will appreciate the ease with which the Zest tackles bumps and potholes.

The Drive

Almost everything short of a badly-laid speedbreaker is beautifully absorbed by the combination of the independent, coil-spring front suspension and the twist beam, coil-spring rear setup. We hope that if Tata Motors launches a limited-edition model with sporting pretensions, the suspension gets firmer to allow better handling, and closer to the darling of the segment, the Honda Amaze. With regard to the brakes, they retard momentum well, though a touch more bite would have inspired more confidence during quick driving.

Cabin

This is where you're going to spend all your time, so it was important that Tata got the cabin right. The overall design looks great in most places, and is one giant leap for Tata-kind. While the fit and finish was inconsistent in certain areas and not up to the Hyundai Xcent's mark, we like good-looking asymmetrical central AC vents and how the dashboard slopes up towards the instrument dials and the. Ergonomics too, are spot on, and we especially enjoyed the easy operation of the multi-function stalks and the placement of the power window switches which don't call for potentially dangerous contorting acts during use.

Cabin

Like its rivals, the Zest features a two-tone beige and grey upholstery and dashboard theme, which supposedly still appeals to the Indian customer. Be warned, the beige fabric on the front doors will attract dirt and stains in no time, especially with the brats around. But the seats are comfortable and supportive for the most part, though we would have liked a little more lumbar support up front. The rear seats feature adjustable head restraints too, but an important miss is height adjustability for the driver's seat, especially for shorter drivers. There's room enough for five moderately-sized occupants, and legroom at the rear is impressive, something Tata customers now take for granted.

What We Liked

Sound advised

What a lot of people will fall flat for is the Harman-designed, 8-speaker infotainment system. It's simple, clear and extremely easy to navigate through its music and Bluetooth connectivity menus. And the sound. Oh, the sound. It's rather spectacular for a system that is standard fitment, and works a treat for dik-chik and the slower stuff alike. It's a great value-add since buyers will not have to spend on an upgrade to the system, not unless you're truly obsessive and compulsive when it comes to your stereo.

What We Liked

Quiet a car

Even with the engine spinning strongly, NVH levels in the car are impressively low, with very little noise both from the engine and the tyres entering the cabin. You rarely get tired behind the wheel, another reason why this car is a good travel companion.

What We Liked

Light fight

If you do a lot of night driving, you will appreciate the powerful throw of the headlamps which reduces the stress of the drive. You will be well-equipped during the headlight wars that typify our roads at night. DriveSpark tip: Look slightly to the left of blinding oncoming headlights while keeping an eye on the left edge of the road to build your safety net during this dangerous time.

What We Liked

Instrumental peace

We really liked the easy-to-read instruments, the speedo and tacho are extremely clear and look neat too. The slightly small but still effective multi-information display gives you vital info like gear engaged, door ajar warning, trip meters, fuel economy and more. A nice touch is that one is able to read mileage for a particular trip as well.

What We Liked

Switch pitch

Like we touched upon earlier, all buttons and switches are within easy reach and one does not have to struggle to operate them on the move. Very ergonomically sound is the Zest, which will hold it in good stead against the competition.

What We Liked

Underseat treat

We appreciated the fairly voluminous storage tray under the passenger seat, which can swallow knick-knacks, water bottles and the like. Good thing it's there, since storage is actually not one the Zest's best points, as we will talk about a little later.

What We Disliked

Boot truth

While the boot is quite spacious with a 390-litre capacity, the loading sill is a bit high and a touch on the narrow side too. Also, the wheel well intrude quite prominently robbing the boot of precious storage. Also, for a car that costs the better side of INR 8 lakh, the lack of cladding on the inner bootlid is inexcusable.

What We Disliked

Height slight

The Zest needs a height adjustment capability for the front seats, definitely at least for the driver since the dashboard is quite high, as we mentioned earlier. Also, the front seatbelts could have been height-adjustable as well.

What We Disliked

Mirror, mirror

The rear view mirror is a tad small, and as a result one can sometimes miss situations on the road, especially on either side of the C-pillar. The OVRMs too, could have provided a slightly more encompassing view of the traffic behind.

What We Disliked

Button up

If the Sports mode selector button was on the steering wheel, it would have made a world of difference to its usability. And given the buyer due taste of Formula 1 too... Its current position behind the gear selector and slightly fiddly quality hinders usage slightly.

What We Disliked

Visibility disability

The Zest features a good-looking sunken-in windscreen but the A-pillars are a little too thick, and is a bit restricting for visibility. As a result, you find yourself moving forward to look around the pillar while cornering or turning into a street.

What We Disliked

Hit the bottle

With only one cupholder and narrow door pockets, storing bottles of H2O becomes a bit of a headache, especially if the underseat tray is full.

The Numbers

The Tata Zest features a 1248cc, 4-cylinder, Quadrajet engine that produces peak power of 89 bhp at 4000 rpm and peak torque of 200 Nm at 1750 rpm. The car is claimed to provide a fuel economy figure of 23 kpl, but you should be able to wring around 18-19 kpl with careful driving. However, a lead-footed drive in manual mode won't give you too much more than 14 kpl. Despite the car having a seemingly lifted stance, ground clearance stands at an average 165 mm. Also, the car is slightly on the heavier side with a kerb weight of 1,170 kilos.

Final Word

The Tata Zest is more than capable to take on its competitors like the Maruti Swift Dzire, Honda Amaze and Hyundai Xcent, but only time will tell actually how successful it will be. We think the Zest is the best looking of the lot, and its major USP will be the AMT system, which will undoubtedly win a lot of favour with buyers. While it is certainly not a car tailored for enthusiasts, it should appeal to a wide audience and its quiet, extremely comfortable ride will be well liked by the Indian customer. Sure its got its weaknesses, but this is the best Tata product in a long time, and we hope it gets the kind of attention it deserves. After all, the Zest is as Indian a car as they come, and a darn impressive one at that...

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Story first published: Saturday, October 25, 2014, 14:30 [IST]
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