Tata Hexa First Drive Review
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Tata’s new Hexa, the company claims, is their latest SUV. The flagship Tata has a lot of glass ceilings to shatter, establish the brand's premium appeal, and most importantly, swim swiftly in the pond where the Aria floundered.
Design & Styling
Tata themselves credit the design team for the success of the Tiago and have relied heavily on them yet again for the Hexa. While the old Aria was positioned as crossover, it was distinctly MPV-ish in its design and outlook. The hydroformed X2 platform has been used here as well, but as is evident the sheet metal is all new.
The front has been cleverly redesigned. For instance, the bonnet gets a lot of muscular creases, and the shut line sits higher, right above the new grille. Little geometric details on the grille and the bumpers set the theme for the design, and the horizontal daytime running lamp setup looks swell too. It looks purposeful, and naturally, commands respect, just like the Safari.
At the rear Tata has done away with the vertically stacked tail lamps for a nice looking pair of wraparounds which feature a strip of fused LEDs on the top. A heavy chrome garnish connect the lamps. Viewed from the side the Hexa looks sizeable with the lip smacking 19-inch alloys giving it a menacing stance. For your reference, the Innova Crysta uses 17” rims. There's also a neat -looking shark fin detailing on the window line near the D-pillar, with Hexa embossed on it. Chrome is kept at a minimum too. Classy.
The bulk and the brawn of the Hexa is amplified in a dark shade such as the 'Arizona Blue'. And might we add, the all-black Hexa 'Tuff Edition' that was showcased at the Auto Expo looked absolutely sinister, and we hope Tata puts that on sale as well.
When you are inside the Hexa, it manages to cut you off from the rest of the world easily. Tata claims that the Hexa's NVH levels are 15 per cent better compared to its rivals, but more on that later. When they launched the Tiago, Tata said they've done away with beige for good, and it's good to see they've stuck to their word. As a result, the cabin is wrapped in different shades of black with different textures. There's a muscular theme going on on the insides as well, which is made evident by the bulky looking centre console. It looks good and houses the 5-inch screen neatly.
In terms of cabin storage there's a central armrest that can swallow the wallet, keys and cellphone without complaining. There's more storage in the doors, and two gloveboxes too, one of which can keep your drinks cool. There's a grand total of 29 utility spaces inside the cabin if you go about counting, including the hideaway cupholders for the third-row occupants. With all three rows in place, there's 128 litres of luggage space, which is enough for four to five backpacks.
The Hexa can be had with either a 6-seat layout or as a seven seater. No matter what you pick, the seats get a 'leather-feel' upholstery, made specifically for the Hexa by the folks at Benecke-Kaliko. The quality is excellent, and the seats are accommodating across rows for the average Indian build. However, people with wider frames, like me, might find the front seats slightly narrow, could do with more cushioning around the shoulder. Also, the central armrest should've been the sliding variety, as I found my elbow resting a notch farther away than I'd have liked.
But, getting into a comfortable driving position was easy thanks to the eight-way adjustable driver's seat (that's not electric adjust, by the way) and the tilt adjust steering. The seating position is very SUV-like, where you tower over most vehicles on the road, and get a superb view out of the front windscreen. It is among the few cars that I can sit comfortably in, in all three rows. The third row space has been improved over the Aria and is genuinely usable now. Of course you still sit with your knees pointed towards the roof and headroom won’t be great for the taller passengers. But, then, there’s always the second row.
The Hexa looks like a nice proposition if you plan on being chauffeur driven. In fact, the name Hexa was chosen because of the six-seat configuration, which was considered to be most important for the customers in this segment. The seats are just as well bolstered as the front ones and can be reclined too. The only issue here is access to the third row - since the captain seats only slide forward - which can get slightly tricky. The one with the bench seat fares much better in this aspect, as the bench folds down and tumbles forward too.
Air-conditioning, like most Tatas, doesn't let you sweat. However, we have a few grouses. For instance, the blowers are effective and have good throw, but they are simply quite loud even on the lower settings. It would have been nice to see ventilated seats on the menu, especially since the all-black cabin heats up rather quickly when left under the sun, and there's no sunroof to let hot air escape. Passengers in the second row get vents mounted on the B-pillar and floor console, while the third row also has dedicated vents with three-stage fan speed.
Other than the all-row AC and seats shod with leather, you also get a stellar JBL powered 10-speaker audio system. Tata claim to have put the whole setup (that includes a 320W amp and a subwoofer in the hatch door) through 1000 hours of testing. It also runs proprietary audio algorithms by JBL. Now, what does that translate into? Stellar sound quality! The sound staging is perfect, and I didn't bother fiddling setting the system up because it sounded just right from the get go. The highs are crisp, and the lows clean.
The 5-inch touchscreen is handy and doubles up as the display for the reverse camera and gets adaptive guidelines too. Then, there are the apps that let you do a little bit extra. For instance, you can use the Juke Car App to setup a playlist over WiFi, or use the NaviMaps app (made by MapMyIndia) for the navigation. Other apps include one for the user manual and another one that lets you book and track servicing of your car. Neat!
The interiors are the right blend of quality, functionality and features. But, there still are a few rough edges here and there. Quality isn't a sour point, but a little attention in quality control will go a long away. For instance, the central speaker on one of our test cars wasn't flush fitting, the steering rubbed against its base and made a low sound everytime I went lock to lock. These aren't major bugs, but someone shelling out well over a million rupees wouldn't want these iffy things to bother him.
Drivetrain & Performance
The Hexa gets Tata's tried-and-tested 2.2-litre Varicor engine, which was recently updated to produce 156PS and 400Nm and is paired with either a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission. Twisting the key on the manual transmission equipped variant (yes, no start-stop button like the XUV here) there was very little audible clatter from the engine. It doesn't make itself heard till you absolutely give it the beans.
The clutch pedal is light, but the travel is slightly long and then it engages suddenly, resulting in a few awkward starts. Also, the chunky central console eats up a lot of space and this becomes apparent as as your foot and left shin keep rubbing up against it while making gear changes. Nonetheless, get going and the Hexa impresses. All of the 400Nm is available from 1700rpm, which will make it convenient inside the city. The low-end shove also means it's okay if you chug down speedbreakers in second or third without downshifting. The big torque figure doesn't mean you will get pinned into your seat as the tacho races for the redline. Of course, there's more than enough grunt to get it up to highway speeds and keep it there all day long.
Our test car was also equipped with all-wheel drive, which in normal conditions sends torque to the rear-wheels. However, depending on the conditions as much as 45% of the torque can be sent to the front axle. Like the Aria, the Hexa also offers ESP (Electronic Stability Program), but the latest generation system brings with it greater sophistication. Features such as Hill Hold Control and Hill Descent control and rollover mitigation are included. This advanced ESP system offers traction control which combined with the all-wheel drive system and engine modes has allowed Tata Motors’ to offer the drive modes.
The modes are Auto, Comfort, Dynamic and Rough-Road and vary how the all-wheel drive system kicks in, how the ESP intervenes and how the engine delivers performance. For instance in Comfort the jump in torque is smoothened out for a calmer drive experience and the electronic brains help eke out higher fuel-efficiency figures too. The Dynamic mode gives you the all that the engine has, and even makes the ESP back off a bit. The selected modes show up on the colored MID, with cool graphics that are inline with the overall theme.
The 6-speed torque converter automatic is polished, and responds well to the weight of the right foot. Upshifts happen around the 2000rpm mark, and the motor chugs along at 100kmph at 1800rpm in top gear. Both upshifts and downshifts are smooth, with next to no perceptible jerks. Yes, there's a lag in the downshifts on kickdown, but not that isn't annoyingly prominent either. You can always slot it into Sports mode by pushing the gear lever away from yourself, or take control of the gears yourself too. Notably, Sports mode will ensure the engine is always spinning between 3,000 and 4,000rpm, in order to aid roll-on acceleration.
Ride & Handling
The Hexa’s ride quality is particularly impressive. Courtesy of the 19” wheels broken tarmac and shallow potholes are zapped away with disdain. Tata engineers have firmed up the suspension settings, especially at the rear, and the use of new multivalve dampers give it a more controlled ride. As a result not only is it good at soaking up rough stuff the Hexa can be a great highway cruiser as it feels planted and confident, the chunky 235/55 MRF rubber doing its bit there too.
However, the steering on the Hexa is a bit lacking. At highway speeds it feels too light and vague when tracking straight. As a result, find yourself correcting it a bit too frequently to just keep it going in a straight line and changing direction requires some amount of guess work. Then there's the fact that it is a tad heavy for daily usage. Couple that with the large turning radius, and you know a lot of three point turns are in order inside the city.
The other disappointment, are the brakes. The all-disc setup feels lacking in terms of bite and feel. There's very little bite initially, and you have to use considerable effort to get things slowed down real quick. Stomping on the brakes doesn't bother it too much, it will come to a dignified halt without straying out of line and a lot of nosedive. In case things go south, there's plenty of tech to keep you safe too. You get a total 6-airbags, traction control, ESP and anti-lock brakes. We're expecting at least two airbags to be standard across the range.
Is the Hexa more than a repackaged Aria? Clearly, yes! The Hexa has been arrived at after thoroughly revamping it from nose to tail, inside and out. It has been reworked on all fronts engine, suspension, chassis, interiors, design and features too. As a result this Tata feels sufficiently modern, appealing and capable. It’s spacious cabin make it a genuine six or seven seater, ideal for Indian families. Yes, Tata does need to get a few minor quality issues ironed out here and there, but on the whole the package is possibly as good as they can make it. In terms of pricing the Mahindra XUV 500 - and not the Innova Crysta - is expected to be in the Tata Hexa’s crosshairs when it is launched in January 2017.
Photography: Vikrant Date