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First drive: Tata Xenon

Bombay rocks: Xenon’s crisp styling hides a tough yet civilised truck

We sample India’s most modern and promising HiLux rival ahead of its Oz launch


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23 Aug 2013


WELCOME to Australia’s newest vehicle brand – Tata.

If you’re based in Queensland you may wonder what the fuss is all about, since both the Indian LCV light commercial vehicle manufacturer and its modern Xenon pick-up truck have been on sale for at least a couple of years now.

But that’s because an enterprising dealership named Upton’s Motors has had the initiative to import the modern utility from Pune.

Now the Walkinshaw Group of companies is taking over – and going national, though Upton’s remains as a dealer – with what is the first of a global export drive.

If Australians embrace the Xenon in the modest but meaningful numbers (say, 2000 units annually) that the newly-formed distributors Fusion Automotive must surely be striving for at the very least (nobody’s saying), then within the next two years we should expect the Ultra medium and Prima large truck range.

Beyond that Tata Buses such as the Marcopolo (one word) are earmarked for Australia, before the conglomerate’s first passenger vehicle arrives – most probably the next-generation Yaris-sized Vista and an as-yet unconfirmed baby SUV.

And just in case you’re rolling your eyes at the prospect of some slapdash half-baked range of roughshod rickshaw-like runabouts, 68-year old Tata Motors’ design and engineering team includes the experience and knowhow of Jaguar Land Rover, and is overseen by Dr Tim Leverton – ex-BMW and Rover engineer whose achievements include managing the Rolls-Royce Phantom project.

So the Xenon’s arrival is a big deal for both Tata and Australia.

Here in the third week of October, the six-model strong one-tonne, 2500kg-capacity pick-up will be priced between $20,000 and $30,000, and is aiming to lure Mitsubishi Triton, Holden Colorado, Isuzu D-Max and Nissan D40 Navara customers. The bottom-end utes from China, epitomised by the Great Wall V-series, aren’t in the Tata’s crosshairs.

That’s because the Xenon will include dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes with EBD Electronic Brake-force Distribution, side-intrusion bars, and – from January production – ESC electronic stability control, traction control, and hill-hold assist.

What we’re dealing with here, then, is an inbetweenie – something positioned above the cheapies and below the premier league (Toyota HiLux, Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50, VW Amarok), but with the latter’s safety equipment and features.

With this in mind, we’re at Tata’s vast industrial complex just outside of Mumbai to drive pilot-build MY14 Xenon 4x2 four-door dual cab pick-ups.

We’re told there’s some fine-tuning to still be completed in terms of steering weight and final specification, but the body shape, 110kW/320Nm 2.2-litre common-rail four-cylinder turbo-diesel, and five-speed manual transmission are as we’ll see in Australia soon enough.

The drive involved a few laps of a closed road circuit deep in the proving grounds. We had just enough of a straight line section to hit 120km/h, before backing off, making a U-turn, and then returning back to base.

In a way this distinctly unchallenging route sells the Xenon way short of its true capabilities, since as the shocking roads leading to the Pune facility all-too regularly prove, vehicles in India need to be ultra tough, in environmental and driving conditions that would break the will of many of today’s urbanite tradies in no time flat. And Tata’s been building trucks like this for decades.

Of the two identically specified vehicles, one had steering that was too light while the other was heavier but completely out of alignment, so it was difficult to ascertain much except that the helm reacts to inputs in a linear fashion.

The engine, on the other hand, is lively off the mark, very well insulated, and as punchy as any contemporary four-pot turbo-diesel rival’s. The gear change is a little on the weighty side, and requires a firm hand, but – again – it is no worse than most of the competition.

Where the Xenon does differ from its rivals is in its interior packaging. Think Triton or previous-generation Holden Rodeo/Colorado, and you’ll have a good picture of how compact and narrow the cabin feels. A high floor exacerbates this.

Your 178cm-tall tester had no problem with finding the right driving position with the (reach but non-telescopic adjustable) steering wheel, but taller folk might. There isn’t that sheer feeling of width you experience in the wide Ranger/BT50 twins, but neither is the Tata cramped either.

However the rear seat is a little bit cramped, with an upright backrest underlining the interior’s overall shortness, but overall comfort levels seem sufficient.

After the vast and stylised dashboards found in the newest up-spec pick-ups, the Xenon’s fascia is appealingly if a bit old-fashioned in its smallness, though the layout is neat and irrefutably modern. Plastic quality is below the Japanese, however, though well above that of Chinese rivals.

Tata says equipment levels will be extremely competitive, with air-con, Bluetooth, power windows, remote central locking and an alarm included, but the important cruise control and automatic transmission options are nowhere to be found.

One engineer suggested the GM-supplied six-speed auto might eventually find its way into the Xenon, while another said cruise is on the wishlist.

These items aside, what the brief Tata driving experience showed us is that there is nothing lacking, or cheap, or nasty, about Australia’s newest one-tonne pick-up truck combatant.

Fusion Automotive’s assertions that it feels and drives more than its sub-$30K pricing suggests is believable, mainly because the drivetrain is modern, the styling distinctively handsome, and the cabin presentation completely inoffensive.

Of course, a more definitive conclusion can only be ascertained on Australian roads, and we’ll need to experience the final Oz-specification models, before we can make a call either way.

But out of the 17 models that Tata says are competing for the same slice of pick-up pie, the Xenon might just be one of the better value-priced propositions.

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