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Car reviews - Tata - Xenon

Our Opinion

We like
Sharp pricing, good drivetrain, Tata has listened to Australian market’s demands, capable off-roa
Room for improvement
Truck-like to drive, no cruise control, cabin lacks comfort, utes sold between now and January won’t have anti-lock brakes or stability control


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23 Oct 2013

WELCOME back to Australia, Tata. Yes, the brand has been here before with the Xenon, selling it in limited numbers priced from $19,995 several years ago.

However, you can’t compare the Xenon today with the one sold here from 2009-10.

The most important change is that the 2.2-litre diesel under the bonnet recently stepped up from Euro IV to Euro V emissions standards.

Tata and Fusion are selling the Xenon in Australia in the belief that something tough enough for India is equally tough enough for Australia. The ute has already done 40,000km of endurance testing here over bitumen and gravel to reassure both Fusion and Tata that the Xenon will live up to the claim.

However, it has not been an easy road for Tata. Fusion didn’t think a ute made for developing markets would have much of a chance in Australia, so it wanted things the Xenon did not have. Before even turning a wheel here, Fusion made sure the Australian version of the Xenon included two airbags, a double-DIN radio unit, brakes that would stop the ute going into an uncontrolled skid, hill descent control, and potentially life-saving electronic stability control.

However, while the Xenon ute goes on sale now, the anti-lock brakes and stability control don’t arrive until January next year, In the meantime, more than 400 of them will sell here without these key safety features.

All Xenons sold here will feature a 2.2-litre variable-vane turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine mated to a five-speed manual gearbox with synchros on all gears, and with two of them on second gear.

The engine is good for 110kW of power from 4000rpm, but more importantly, 320Nm of torque from 1500rpm right up to 3000rpm thanks to an electronically controlled variable vane turbocharger that can add more boost at low revs.

Fusion boasts that the Xenon produces 230Nm from as low as 1000rpm.

Most of the running gear on the Xenon is standard commercial kit, including drum rear brakes, perhaps one reason for its modest 2500kg tow rating.

What is unusual is the way the Xenon’s front end is set up. Instead of a Macpherson spring, there’s a double wishbone suspension setup mated up to a torsion beam – a hallmark of Tata’s need to keep costs down as much as possible.

The torsion-beam front end is mated up to load-bearing leaf springs down the rear, while a limited-slip differential between the front wheels is standard fit on 4WD models. A rear diff-lock is optional.

Buyers can add a premium audio and sat-nav system for an extra $2430, paired with reversing sensors and a reversing camera that shows up in the LCD navigation screen.

If you want just the navi and no reversing camera, that costs $2175. If you just want the reversing camera and rear parking sensors, it is $999. If you can make do with a reversing camera that displays in the rear-vision mirror, that is $745.

Tata and Fusion only had twin-cab versions of the Xenon in all-wheel and rear-wheel formats for our brief drive of the ute on the outskirts of Melbourne. Our drive included an off-road course to test articulation and four-wheel-drive ability.

The Tata will stand out on Australian roads. Big hubs stick out from the 16-inch alloy wheels clad in Indian-sourced Apollo Hawkz rubber, which is wider on single-cab models than the dual-cab ones. The Xenon also has a long 3250mm wheelbase on dual-cab models, giving it odd-looking proportions.

The cab looks narrow, but big, flared wheel arches give the Xenon a wide stance and repeater lamps housed in the wing mirrors add a modern touch.

The tub behind the cabin is big and looks deep from the outside, but is unlined inside with a high floor. The tailgate does not lock, and the deck is not too heavy to lift up and down. There are a few tie-down points around the tub.

Rear-seat space is tight for knee room. The door is decently sized thanks to the rearward positioning of the rear wheel well, but the low cabin and high rear bench and floor make it difficult for taller people to fit in.

The hard-wearing cloth bench is a bit hard, flat and rather unsupportive, and the outboard lap-sash seatbelt clasps disappeared under my backside, making it difficult to clip in. The centre rear seatbelt is a lap-only affair, and only the seatback flips forward to yield more room, not the squab.

Storage space in the rear, though, is OK, with door bins and mesh nets on the front seatbacks.

Ergonomics in the front are equally poor. The Xenon’s steering wheel does not adjust for reach, only height, the front-seat squabs are too short and unsupportive, and for my driving position, I had to perch on the edge of the seat and lean forward to get comfortable. There’s no footrest for the left foot, and exposed wiring is visible down one side of the seat.

Storage is OK, with enough stashing points for a mobile phone and wallet. The controls for all four windows are in between the front seats, and the passenger side of the dash has a deep glovebox with a flip-down lid and a USB connector hidden away in it.

Apart from the low-set navigation screen, the cabin is very low-tech. There are conventional switches for the lights, indicators and wipers, three dials for the climate control air-conditioning, a conventional two-dial instrument cluster (the clear plastic cover on the instrument panel of one of our test cars was cracked), and the only hint at anything modern is a switch for the electrically activated 4WD high and low settings via a toggle near the conventional ignition barrel.

Surprisingly for a cheap ute, the three-spoke steering wheel is wrapped in leather. Disappointingly, though, it lacks cruise control functions.

Another thing of note is a Bluetooth phone connection. It comprises a button stuck on the dash trailing a wire, and a similar set-up on the windscreen pillar for a microphone.

The diesel engine fires up willingly at the turn of a key. First gear is a fair reach across thanks to a long throw, and the clutch has a long travel before it bites.

On the road, the Xenon is much like a Jeep Wrangler to drive. It’s a comfortable ride, and relatively noise-free apart from a constant rise and fall in the ever-present whine from the diesel’s turbocharger.

However, it lacks surety at speed. There is next to no feedback through the steering, and over rougher sections of road at 100km/h there was a distinct disconnect between the ute and driver as the chassis shuddered and bumped below the cabin, particularly in the rear. It will also try and point into the next lane if the driver lifts off the accelerator mid-corner – not in a dangerous way, but it will catch you by surprise if you back off too quickly.

At lower speeds it handles the lumps and bumps of Australian roads with more confidence. The engine pulls well at low revs while accelerating, but up long hills the Xenon will struggle to maintain speed even if the throttle is held to the floor, requiring a gear change.

The late take-up for the single-plate clutch means the driver’s left leg needs to rise fairly high for the clutch to bite, resulting in some unexpected engine revving if not timed right. The brakes, twin-pot calipers at the front and drums at the rear, have decent feel.

The Xenon performed well over a small off-road circuit designed to test four-wheel-drive ability. Tight turns – and the Xenon possesses a very good turning circle given its stretched wheelbase – results in the inside wheel popping as the LSD grips and then the tyre loses traction, but rock-strewn tracks and bumps were dispatched easily.

However, that long wheelbase does result in a low ramp-over angle, and we did bounce the gearbox’s underbelly armour off one rock. The lack of anti-lock brakes, too, meant the Xenon could be left hanging with opposing wheels off the ground.

The unique suspension set-up of the Xenon also meant all the articulation over uneven ground is left almost entirely up to the rear leafspring suspension, with the torsion-beam front end hugging the contour of the ground.

The Tata Xenon ute, then, feels like a cheap work vehicle, and both Tata and Fusion won’t disagree with that assessment, although they will argue that the vehicle’s cheapness represents value for money.

It does and it doesn’t. Yes it is cheap, and a three-year, 100,000km warranty with roadside assistance may sway some buyers who otherwise may have considered buying a secondhand trade ute with no warranty.

But it is going to be the cost-conscious buyer investing in a Tata Xenon, expecting to get the most from it in terms of running costs and longevity.

That’s a big load for the as-yet unproven Indian ute to carry.

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