Do you know which company first came out with a compact sedan? It was Tata Motors. Back in 2008, the company created this new segment with the Indigo CS. Little did anyone or even Tata Motors in this case would have known that this segment which they carved out could become a major volume segment in just a couple of years. After all these years, and with a couple of tweaks here and there, Tata Motors continues to sell the Indigo CS, now dubbed as the Indigo eCS. Back in the day with almost no competition, with the compact dimensions and a respectable boot space, the Indigo CS did manage to sell in decent numbers; but is completely forgotten right now. Then, Maruti Suzuki chopped off the Dzire to sub-4 metres in length and went on to show what volumes this segment can drive in. Other companies which followed suit were Honda with the Amaze, Hyundai with the Xcent and Ford with the upcoming Figo sedan.
Tata Motors has been struggling on the sales front for quite some time. Outdated looking products, low on quality, poor after sales etc., were major deterrents for new car buyers. The Nano even after being an engineering marvel bombed in the market. Other high end effort such as the Aria also failed to make a cut. The only cars which kept the ball rolling were the Indica and Indigo, but only in small numbers. Honda and Toyota with their limited product line-up overtook Tata Motors on the sales front. Currently, the Indian company sits at the 6th spot in monthly sales rankings. This is when the Zest and the Bolt come into the picture, to bring the company out of the sales slump.
The Zest undercuts all its competitors. Priced between Rs. 4.64 lakh – Rs. 6.99 lakh (ex-showroom Delhi), it is the cheapest and the most feature rich car in the compact sedan segment. The feature list can actually put cars from a segment above to shame. But is that enough? Apart from being loaded to the gills and being competitively priced, the Zest had an even bigger challenge – to break the perception people had towards Tata Motors. And seems like the Zest has done a good job at that. In October 2014, the Zest outnumbered the Honda Amaze on the sales front. Quite a relief for Tata Motors, we’re sure. But will this momentum continue? The waiting period on certain variants has now swollen to 6 months and Tata is having a hard time not only delivering these booked cars, but also sourcing components from their suppliers who had not been on their toes for a very long time now. So what is the Zest all about, and does it have what it takes to bite into the competitor sales? Let’s find out…
Let us begin with this… Although the marketing campaigns for the Zest might sound like something all-new and never seen before, it is more of an evolution than a revolution.
The Zest is based on the X1 platform which underpins the Vista hatchback. The car measures 3,995mm in length, 1,706mm in width, 1,570mm in height and has a wheelbase of 2,470mm. The petrol model has a ground clearance of 175mm while the diesel runs 165mm above the ground. At 1,115 kg (petrol) and 1,170 kg (diesel), the Zest is the heaviest compact sedan in the market. It is also the biggest compact sedan, thanks to the bigger width and height of the car.
One glance at the car and you will instantly shout out – TATA! The design irrespective of new features is same old, round looking. The car still bears resemblance to almost all-generations of the Indigo and hence we mentioned, evolution, not revolution. Come on Tata, look at what Hyundai did to the Verna. What Toyota did to the Corolla. And what other manufacturers are doing to future products. There is no rich heritage attached to this design language, then why not drop it?
The front face now gets a new honeycomb mesh grille with a chrome strip on the top and at the bottom. Either ends of this grille gets a gloss black element. Front bumper houses the trapezoidal air dam which is a black plastic section and this black plastic runs below the entire bumper as a lower-lip. The bonnet gets a small power bulge in the between and gets a very neat looking black applique at the top which houses the windscreen washer nozzles. Headlamps sport a segment first projector setup. On the top spec variant, the projector bulb also gets a LED halo ring which makes the Zest look rather upmarket. Headlamp is a twin-pot setup and gets the high beam bulb on the inner section. Fog lamps are round units with a chrome strip on the black plastic housing. This looks good when viewed laterally. The top end variant also gets vertically (forward & backward slash like) placed LED DRLs which are again a segment first.
Look at it from the side, and the tall profile, tallest amongst the competitors is clearly evident. The Zest gets a prominent shoulder line running across from the tail lamp all the way to the front fender. The front and rear door also get another crease line which moves upwards towards the back. The AMT variant gets multi-spoke 15″ alloy wheels in a silver shade. Tata provides alloy wheels as a standard feature on the Zest, again, a segment first. B-pillar is blacked out and the side profile is accentuated with a chrome weather strip. Wheel arches are pronounced and the front fender does not carry a turn indicator, but the electrically adjustable ORVMs get integrated LED turn indicators. Door handles are of the pull type, but the driver does not get true keyless entry with the help of a request sensor. You have to press the unlock button on the key. One quality problem we faced with the door handles was that it was rather noisy, and felt rough when pulled. Also, the rear right door handle stayed up even after we released the lever. Tata has to start ironing out small niggles to achieve better customer satisfaction.
The rear end of the boot is well integrated. It does not look boxy and like an afterthought addition as on the Manza. The tailgate is flat and bulges outwards a bit just above the Tata logo to allow enough shadow to reveal its presence. A chunky chrome strip runs across the bootlid underlining the Zest and the variant badge. Wrap around LED tail lamps are again a segment first and look good at night. Rear bumper also gets a blacked out lower end and houses a rear fog lamp. Apart from this, there is also a high-mount stop lamp placed at the centre, behind the rear windscreen. This blacked out section on the bumper will get dirty easily behind the rear wheels, especially since there is no mudflap being provided. A short antenna is placed on the roof, at the back.
The Zest is a feature rich Tata product, probably for the first time in the history of Indian automobiles compared to Hyundai, Maruti and Honda. From certain angles, it looks rather good and well proportionate compared to competitors. One can choose from exterior colour options such as blue, white, silver, grey, red and beige. Fit and finish overall is much better than previous Tata cars. Build quality of the exterior body feels solid, though not best in class. There is no cost cutting evident on the Zest, at all.
Getting in and out of the Zest is an easy task. The doors open wide and the car is rather tall. Hence, you can simply walk to the Zest without having to bend down too much.
Step inside and you’ll look around twice to believe what you’re seeing. The interiors (dashboard precisely) is the best so far on any Tata product, period. It looks elegant and oozes out class. Black and beige interior colour theme is nothing fancy, yet very tasteful. An Xcent owner, which has arguably the best looking interiors commented that he liked the Zest more than his car while looking at the dashboard. Everything about the dashboard looks very European. Jaguar design team giving inputs? Whatever it is, it works. The top and bottom section of the dashboard is black, while the face is seen in beige. Centre console is seen in gloss black with silver accents on either side. The instrument cluster also sees a gloss black panel running towards the centre AC vents and a gloss black strip above the glovebox as well. Tata has always been good with their instrument clusters; we loved what we saw on the Manza, and even what we see here on the Zest. Backlit in white, the instrument cluster is clean and sports a MID in between the speedometer and tachometer dials which provides driver information such as DTE, trip meter, trip-wise average fuel efficiency, clock, door open warning, shift indicator, odometer and a bar displaying real time fuel efficiency. There are no redline markings on the tachometer. 4-spoke, black and silver steering wheel with contours for your thumbs was made up of soft touch plastic which looked good, but lacked the premium feel. Controls mounted on the steering wheel fall perfectly in place and the horn pad is easy to press as well.
The jointly developed stereo system by Tata and Harman sits on top of the centre console. While the top spec variant also gets an integrated 5″ touchscreen, the one on the AMT was a non-touch, TFT display. Sound quality from the 4 speakers + 4 tweeters is acceptable by segment standards, and may be a notch above the Dzire. One interesting feature on the top-spec touchscreen head unit is that you can use it to control the AC temperature, auto-locking doors, parking sensor display, approach lamps etc. Screen sensitivity is however not up to the mark, and there is a slight lag. So don’t expect smartphone like performance here. On the lower variants, you get manual AC controls, conventionally placed. AC works fine, even on a bright sunny day. It kept us cool at blower level two, easily. Below the AC controls you have buttons for the front and rear fog lamps. On the top model, there are a couple of buttons more for the sport mode, park assist etc. So much space all around in the Zest AMT, but only one bottle holder, ahead of the gear stalk. All four door pockets are good for magazines or toll tickers, but are flat and squeezing in a bottle is a task.
Seats are seen in dark grey, or black if you may want to call it. They have textured elements on the centre and are of the soft compound. Lateral and lumbar support is in adequate quantity and the seat height adjustment available on the top model will keep shorter drivers happy. We really wish Tata would have provided a driver armrest to round-off the Zest AMT really well. There is no dead pedal provided either and neither is the floor inclined. The brake and accelerator pedal on the AMT could have been placed a little far away, since those with bigger boots will face some issues here.
Jump into the rear seats and it is typical of Tata cars – SPACIOUS. Accommodating three well built adults is an easy task for the Zest. Significantly better than the Amaze, Dzire or Xcent. Ingress / egress is easy as well and the elderly will find it very comfortable. The seatback recline angle is not as couch-like in the Manza, but still on the positive side. What’s lacking is the under thigh support. Not that it’s bad, but it isn’t satisfactory either. Legroom and headroom available is also in ample quantity. Also, the greenhouse on the Zest is on the higher side, making the cabin rather bright and airy. There is no sense of claustrophobia at all. For the 5th occupant, things aren’t too bad either. The seatback is flat and hence one can sit upright, all the way back. The floor hump is also on the minimum side and won’t interfere much with ones feet. Storage space for the rear passengers is limited to the thin door pad magazine holders. No cup holder behind the handbrake, no centre armrest with cupholders and no front seatback pockets.
Boot space of the Zest ranks #3 amongst competition at 390 litres. It can accomodate 3-4 medium sized bags at best. This is because the wheel wells protrude too much into the boot space. Also, the rear seats do no fold down so you have to make peace with the available space.
Engine, performance and handling:
With the best-in-class formula now available, we chose to review only that. The Zest AMT with a diesel engine. This makes the Zest the cheapest diesel automatic sedan available on sale in India.
Powering the Zest diesel is the same 1.3L, Fiat-sourced, Quadrajet engine with VGT which we have seen on plenty of cars on the Indian streets. On the Zest AMT, it produces 90 PS of power @ 4,000 RPM & 200 Nm of torque @ 1,750-3,000 RPM. Engine is mated to a first-in-class 5-speed AMT transmission. Swimming against the tide, the Zest is the only compact sedan with an automatic transmission mated to a diesel motor and not on the petrol. Tata likes to call this AMT variant as ‘F-Tronic’. Sourced from Magneti Marelli, this isn’t the same unit which is powering the Maruri Celerio. The AMT gearbox is mechanically identical to a manual transmission. However, you don’t have a clutch inside the cabin to operate. In the AMT, hydraulic actuators placed in the engine bay ride the clutch and shift gears.
To fire up the Zest AMT, make sure you’ve slotted the gear stick in ‘N’ (neutral) mode. Press the brake and twist the key to start. There is no engine start / stop button available on the Zest AMT. On idle, NVH levels are acceptable and there is no unwanted diesel clatter heard inside the cabin. Of course you can tell that there’s a diesel heart ahead of you, but not that it is too intrusive. Slot the car in ‘A’ and release the brake; the car won’t move ahead like in a conventional automatic. It holds on to the clutch till the time you hit the accelerator and only then it starts making progress. This helps in city traffic where you need not keep the brake pedal pressed at all times.
Driving the Zest within the city is a breeze. The AMT does not shift all the time, like in the Maruti Celerio; thanks to the additional torque which adds to this. If you’re of the sedate driving style and only feather the accelerator, you won’t find the gearshifts jerky. The car stays in the 2nd gear unless the speed drops below 10 kmph, otherwise it rides the clutch and maintains the gear for times when you hit the pedal hard and want to speed up after say a speed-bump. Another advantage of the AMT is that the car by itself will handle the clutch a lot better than what drivers can, resulting in a longer clutch life.
You can also choose between a sport and a manual mode. In ‘A’ mode, simply press the ‘S’ button and the car will now upshift at much higher RPMs. Not that it results in a significantly better performance, but is helpful while overtaking. Also, the engine gets a lot more audible when driving in the ‘S’ mode due to gearshifts crossing the 4,000 RPM mark. Manual mode allows drivers to control the engine slightly more. While on a steep downhill, or while overtaking, the manual mode is a lot more confidence inspiring since you can keep the Zest in the desired revv range. However, it is not completely in the hands of the driver. If you revv to hard, the car will automatically upshift. Likewise, if you slow down too much, the Zest will downshift. It simply allows you to choose the ratios till the situation is favourable, otherwise takes momentary control over the gearbox.
The Zest AMT is best suited only for sedate driving styles. And trust us, if you like brisk performance, and like to floor the pedal, you will not be very happy with the AMT performance. If you floor the pedal, the car revvs hard and then towards the peak, there is a lul for almost a second, and even the momentum drops. You can even hear the engine do nothing while the AMT lazily selects gears. This can catch you while overtaking, hence it is best to shift to manual while doing so. Each gearshift is felt (at least till 3rd) while you are really pushing it. It is also jerky than what it is while going easy on the accelerator. Once you’re in 5th gear though, things are a little pleasant. From 60 kmph, all the way to higher triple digit speeds, the Zest stays happy and manageable in 5th. Of course it drops down a cog if you floor the pedal, but it’s better to be patient and let the needle climb rather than pushing the AMT resulting in a jerky gearshift.
Couple of important points if you own the AMT:
- While crossing an intersection, don’t floor the pedal. The AMT responds slow in such situations
- On hill starts, keep the brake pressed while in ‘A’ mode, or the car will start rolling behind
- Make sure you’re kids don’t play with the gear stick, because it can move between modes even when you’re driving
- On longer signals, switch back to ‘N’ mode, to save the clutch
ZF developed EPS is light. Featuring the ‘Active Return’ function, it makes things easy while parking or at low speeds. Steering feedback is average even at high speeds and it weighs up well. The suspension setup is medium – not too soft, not too hard. It can tackle bad roads easily, and thanks to the generous ground clearance, rural commuting will be easy too. On high speeds, it rides decent, but not completely flat. It is a heavy and a tall car, and this results in noticeable body roll while cornering. But for a family sedan, primarily to be driven in a sedate manner, the ride and handling of the Zest is very complaint and will offend none. Road and wind noise is also well controlled, at speeds up to 100 kmph.
Braking performance is adequate, thanks to ABS, EBD and CSC. Brake bite although a bit spongy, brings the car to a halt in a progressive manner. Unlike the Hyundai Xcent which is rather sharp and takes time getting used to. Braking power comes from a disc brake setup at the front and drum brakes at the back. Under panic braking, the Zest did stop in a straight line, although the ABS did kick in. May be better tyres compared to the stock Bridgestone B250s can enhance the braking performance.
To round it off, the Zest has all it takes to perform in good numbers at the sales front. And with the diesel AMT, Tata has a segment first feature which is the biggest USP. The only area where Tata fails is the after sales and support department, which the company claims is being worked upon and the core focus will be on customer satisfaction. With plenty of first-in-class features, roomy interiors, good price and fuel efficient engines, the Zest is a very competent offering from Tata Motors. Also, it is quite a do or die situation for the Zest, since it is the first all-new product from Tata’s product offensive which will continue till 2020. For those who have concerns over the durability, Tata offers the ‘333 Confidence’ which includes 3 years / 1,00,000 km warranty, AMC for 3 years / 45,000 km and free 24×7 roadside assistance for 3 years. So if you prefer function over form, do test drive this latest offering in the segment.