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Nexon XZA+ Another slice in the small SUV pie from TATA

Tata Group is the giant family-owned conglomerate in India that dabbles in a variety of business sectors, from steel to salt, from tea to television. Here in Sri Lanka, Tata is known for producing buses and large trucks, along with small trucks such as the Ace or “Dimo Batta” that have empowered farmers and small business owners in far-flung reaches of the island. Oh, and lest we forget, the most common taxi - the Tata Nano which has become a buzzword for hailing a small taxi. “I’ll call a Nano and come” is so common now, much like the name “Pajero” or “Jeep” used to refer to almost any large off-roader several years ago.

Tata also brought a smattering of small cars to Sri Lanka. The Indica and Indigo used to ply our roads but were rather forgettable (the Indica was imported to Britain in the early 2000s and badged Rover Cityrover).

Alas, the Nano is a sales flop in India. Having created the “Cheapest Car”, the company learned that Indians are creatures of pride, and do not want to be seen in the “Cheapest Car”. Just ONE Nano was produced during the entire month of June 2018. The Nano is soon to die a reluctant death, as it was one of the pet projects of the company’s leaders.

However, Tata has not been quiet in India, offering a range of small cars and SUVs, and they have been getting better. In case you didn’t know, Tata owns two of the world’s most recognizable car brands, I’ll give you a few seconds to guess them. Done? Jaguar and Land Rover. Yes, they are owned by Tata.

The Tata Nexon is the first SUV from the rejuvenated Tata line-up to hit our shores and it does indeed carry some cues from these two names, both over and under the skin.

DIMO kindly gave me a white Nexon with a full tank of fuel for two whole days. Thanks guys! It’s much more conducive towards getting a comprehensive idea of a car’s strengths, weaknesses and USPs when you have a longer time to play with it. I took it to Ja Ela via the highway and concrete roads for a photo shoot, used it to carry my empty gas cylinder to the local hardware store, ferried my mum and dad to the supermarket for groceries, met fellow motoring nutter Avinda D. Perera for a Friday late-night coffee and cruise around Colombo (where we had some fun chasing a well-driven Mini – more on that in the Driving Experience part) and introduced it to crowded Bambalapitiya-on-a-Saturday-morning. How did it do? Let’s proceed…

 

Exterior 

The Nexon has your typical small-SUV stance. Wheels at the far corners, Black plastic cladding on the doors... At the front we see a predominantly black grill that is not overly chromed, with the Tata logo bold and centre. Fog lamps are mounted quite high up, just below the headlamp clusters which sport U-shaped DRLs, faintly reminiscent of Land Rover designs. The main beams are projector lamps. The side profile features a prominent crease cutting through the door handles, and at the rear the design is a bit anonymous, with small lamp clusters. No fuss though, they light up just fine.

No matter what colour you pick, the roof will be matte grey. Gives a nice contrast and got quite a few positive comments. Chunky roof rails adorn it, along with the ‘shark fin antenna’. Wheels are 16-inch “diamond cut” alloys. Lower models in India get 15-inch steelies.

So does the Nexon copy anything else? Not really. It’s a design that doesn’t step on any toes, is reasonably restrained and in general, works. Tata seem to be relying more on the contrast between roof and body colour to make the Nexon stand out than trying anything outrageous with the metal itself.

While you can unlock the doors and boot with the key fob, you also have a dedicated button that switches on the headlamps!

 

Mech & Tech 

The Nexon packs a 1.2-litre turbocharged triple, outputting 108bhp at 5,000rpm and 170Nm between 1,750 and 4,000rpm. A diesel is on offer in India with the same power figure but torque of 260Nm. Drive is to the front wheels via a six-speed (first for Tata) AMT or Automated Manual Transmission called HyprDrive Self-Shift Gears, while India also enjoys a traditional six-speed manual with clutch pedal. We’ve gone over AMTs many times before and the positives and negatives; so we won’t dwell on it here. It’s not a traditional, torque-converter auto ‘box. It’s a manual ‘box with computer-operated clutch.

Braking is via disc at the front with drum at the rear. ABS and EBD are there too, and suspension is a MacPherson dual-path setup at the front with twist beam at the rear.

The Nexon has three drive modes, CITY, ECO and SPORT. And you know what? They change the BHP output of the engine as well as the gearbox changing points under automatic operation! ECO gives you 69bhp and shifts up around 2.5k rpm on part throttle, CITY gives you 89bhp with shifting at around 5k rpm under full throttle (else it shifts like eco on part) and SPORT gives you the full 108bhp with higher rpm shifts even on part throttle. When you choose to shift gears manually by sliding the shifter into “M”, SPORT is selected by default.

 

Driving Experience 

Step aboard into a high driving position. The ground clearance is 209mm and it is a noticeable climb. Settling into Avinda’s CRX straight after alighting from the Nexon was like getting into a bathtub after sitting on a barstool. This ground clearance means that the hops, dips and potholes of the urban landscape can be dispatched effortlessly. Thumb the starter and the gauges do the sweep while the engine cranks. Slot into A (or M), handbrake off and its go time.

The steering has a pleasing heft to it that is very un-Japanese like. Visibility is great all round, major controls fall to hand and the Nexon cruises away. In Eco mode the ‘box shifts up around 2500rpm and likes to keep the engine in the 1500-2000rpm rev band. Floor it, and the Nexon doesn’t downshift really. ECO is best for cruising at a set speed outstation or on the highway.

City Mode gives more pep. As mentioned in the previous section, BHP outputs change with the mode selector. In city, a floored throttle from rest gives more than enough cut and thrust to beat the other car to the end of the lights (unless other car is a modern turbodiesel Euro or one of Honda’s sport hybrids). Kickdown brings a downshift here.

SPORT gives you the full BHP and holds the gears until redline (which is about 5,800rpm when the rev counter needle turns red). Kickdown is more immediate and the box holds gears longer. When you select drive modes, an Indian female voice announces the selection “Sport Mode Is Activated” for example. This can be turned off in the vehicle settings if you so desire.

The gearbox, being an AMT gives that characteristic “lurch” when shifting gears with a planted foot, so treat it more like a manual and back off the gas when an upshift is imminent. Drive it like you would a manual (especially when in manual mode – when not on a spirited drive, you don’t shift gears with right foot planted, do you?) and you can get rid of that lurch to a large extent. This is a common characteristic of all AMT gearboxes, and you will find (if you are lucky enough) that in the mid-1990’s, early 2000’s Ferraris with early AMT-style boxes suffered from “lurching” around town!

The gearbox has got fairly tall ratios lower down – a full-bore charge in second under SPORT or Manual mode will take you to circa 85km/h and at town speeds, it sits in third mostly, shifting into fourth as you approach 60km/h.

On the highway, the Nexon settles into a quiet cruise with some vibrations from the road surface and low wind noise. The gearbox is still in fifth at 80km/h and shifts into sixth around 90km/h. The engine is not straining even at 100km/h and if you are not watchful, your speed can creep higher and higher.

The engine has decent refinement, but some vibrations creep through the steering wheel, gear shifter and pedals. The sound is a typical three-pot thrum and the turbo is almost inaudible most of the time. Revved towards the redline, it does not get intrusive or thrashy, but you are aware that it is working hard. It revs freely, better than some other  one litre-turbo-triples we have figured.

The suspension is another surprise. Taking the corner on to the highway entrance at a decent clip, the Nexon rolled less than I expected and felt quite firm and composed. OK then, a firmer suspension set-up I concluded. When I reached some pot-holes and the typical “sunken manhole”, I squarely placed the Nexon to fall into them, cringing in anticipation for the “firm suspension” to pass the buck straight into my spine. This did not happen! The impact was well damped and barely felt. I repeated the trial several times and not once was I able to fox the suspension into faltering.  Very impressive, especially at this price point! This was also why we had fun chasing a Mini late that night – the Nexon took the famous “Independence Chicane” at speed flatter than you’d expect! It’s no sports car of course, but corners better than a high vehicle at this point should.

I also took the Nexon beyond highway speeds on a desolate road with mild curves free of traffic and wildlife and it displayed decent body control at the point where one would not dream of taking an Indian car, and where many Japanese cars start to feel light.

The brakes are decent, we performed an emergency stop from 120km/h on a straight stretch of the same desolate road to test the behavior under this condition. There was some mild skidding punctuated by ABS pulses – the ABS is not aggressive I concluded, but the trajectory of the vehicle stayed straight.

A final note on the AMT, if you are starting up a hill, you will want to employ left-foot-braking (or simply use the hand-brake) as the Nexon will roll back until the clutch bites – which can cause frantic horning from the vehicle behind. This is not restricted to the Nexon alone, but typical behavior for AMTs and some DCTs also.

 

Living with the Nexon 

Where to start? OK, let’s take AC. The climate control in the Nexon can chill you to the bone (Indians have discovered the holy grail of frigid vehicular air-conditioning for eons now), where even the lowest fan speed of 1 out of 7 left me keeping the airflow split between the dash vents and foot-well. It’s a full climate control system with automatic fan speed and temperature control. The rear passengers get a two-speed blower (it’s not a true dual AC, just sucks cool air from the front and blows it rearwards). If you squint, the design of the climate control stack has cues of Land Rover in it – the angle and the knob layout in particular.

The infotainment system is called ConnectNext by Harman. Yes, the Harman of Harman/Kardon. Controlled by a 6.5-inch touchscreen with a row of physical buttons and knobs below its quite simple to use. Radio, Bluetooth, Android Auto, AUX and USB are on offer. Android Auto (not available in Sri Lanka sadly) means your phone can be mirrored to the system, with Google Maps showing on the screen. Sound is via an 8-speaker (4 speaker, 4 tweeter) sound system that is, to put it mildly, bloody good. I haven’t come across even a 10-million rupee vehicle that sounded this good from the factory. Tata puts the Harman system into most of its cars now and it’s one of the USPs. The touchscreen can also control the climate control.

There is a little button on the steering wheel that minimizes interactions with the physical controls. Voice commands! Yes you can order the Nexon to change the climate control temperature, fan speed, change radio frequency and sound source to name a few. And you know what? It works with our accent! Ordering the climate control to “Set temperature to 22” resulted in the female Indian voice assuring me that it was “setting temperature to twenty-two degrees”. My success rate with the voice command system was easily 90%.

The literature supplied with the vehicle tells me that this will extend to your phone functions too when paired under Android Auto. No wonder there is a separate manual for the Infotainment system alone. Tata could have sought a sexier-sounding voice though – they should have asked a Bollywood actress to help, and ladies might complain that there is no “male voice” option – maybe they could give an SRK option!

There is ParkAssist which consists of radar parking sensors as well as a neatly-integrated reverse camera. The reverse camera is of low resolution but it gets the job done, day and night. Other neat features include split-folding rear seats with a second USB charging port for the rear, myriad of cupholders and door pockets, centre armrest for the rear, umbrella holders in the front doors, a cooled glovebox with Tiger motif inside (I carried a cup of chocolate mousse from the supermarket in this and it was still chilled when I got home over an hour later) and deep pockets in the centre console. The boot can hold 350L with rear seats up (690L with them down), and you get a full-size spare wheel.

Passengers of smaller stature may find it difficult to climb into the Nexon due to the ground clearance. This was pointed out by my mother as well as Avinda, the latter who suggested a grab handle in the B-pillar to ease access into the rear seats. However after speaking to DIMO, they informed me that a side step option is indeed available, which slightly reduces the effective ground clearance but eases entry and exit to the vehicle. Speaking of seats, they are on the softer side.

 

Safety 

The Nexon comes with ABS and EBD for the brakes, the aforementioned ParkAssist system and two airbags (driver and front passenger). The car is built with an Energy Absorbing structure, and when searching online for safety ratings, I came across an article regarding the first recorded crash of a Nexon in January 2018 that happened when the vehicle turned turtle! Pictures show the vehicle with the cabin almost intact, even the tailgate could be opened after the impact. The occupants walked away from the crash sans major injuries.

 

Fuel Economy & Price 

Driving the Nexon on the Airport Expressway at 100km/h; an economy of 15km/l was achieved in Eco mode, while driving it on rural roads at speeds in the 60-80km/h range yielded economies of 16-17km/l. In the City, I was able to achieve 10km/l during the late-night drive, while traffic times saw these figures dip to approximately 8.4km/l. The Nexon is not a hybrid. It’s a turbo petrol-engined crossover, so don’t expect the stratospheric figures of hybrids. This is well in line with the figures from other small petrol turbo engines.

Price is where things get very interesting. Priced at Rs. 4,980,000 the Nexon goes head-to-head with the increasingly popular MG ZS SUV. The MG lands a punch on the Nexon with a six-speed automatic Aisin gearbox, hill start assist, a higher quality reverse camera, a full sunroof and six airbags. The Nexon responds in kind with an engine that is peppier and freer-revving, tighter handling while retaining good comfort, a blow-your-socks-off sound system, voice command system and rear AC blower. It’s not always we see such closely matched rivals in our market.

 

Final Words 

Tata is back in Sri Lanka’s passenger car scene and what a car they’ve come here with. Put some good tunes on the sound system, crank the volume up and cruise along while the mayhem of our roads passes you by. The Nexon represents a seriously good contender in the sub-5 million segment, with a peppy engine, good handling and a comprehensive option package. Go check it out!

 

Tech Specs

Engine

1,198cc, three cylinder

Turbocharged

108bhp @ 5,000rpm

170Nm @ 1,750-4,000rpm

 

Transmission

Six speed AMT

(Automated manual)

Front-wheel-drive

 

Suspension

Front

MacPherson

Dual-path strut

Coil spring

Rear

Twist beam

Coil spring

 

Brakes

Front Disc

Rear Drum

ABS, EBD

 

Wheels & Tyres

215/60R16 all round

 

Misc

Length 3,994mm

Width 1,811mm

Height 1,607mm

Kerb Weight 1,237kg

Fuel Tank 44L

Boot Space 350L