At the 2009 Geneva Motor Show, a Prima was unveiled at the Tata Motors pavilion. And it had nothing to do with the machine you see here. The Prima was a gorgeous executive saloon concept designed by Pininfarina that indicated where Tata was looking at entering next. But before you know it, barely had a few months passed that the manufacturer unveiled the Prima in India – and the badge was affixed on a big rig, instead of a car! Never mind what the sedan will be called, we got behind the wheel of the bigger Prima instead.
If you took three Kartiks or 3.2 Kyles (I suck at math, you see) and stacked them one above the other, the roof of the truck and the skull of the third would just about fall in line. It's so long with the trailer attached that I doubt if our entire team of eight lying down one behind the other head to toe would measure up. But really that is hardly an excuse to drive it now, is it?
The true reason is simple. Think of the good ol' Tata 1612. Those hot interiors, an apology for a dashboard, gears that would refuse to stick and with a steering wheel so thin, you could actually use them for hula-hoops. Now place it next to the Tata Prima and you get the drift. The jump is monumental. So monumental that it is enough to change the face of trucking in India forever and take Tata Motors straight into the backyard of the Renaults, Volvos and DAFs of the trucking world.
There are numbers too to go with the truck. Six years of development, over one million kilometres of testing on the first tractor alone, 700 Indian customers interviewed, options ranging from 11 to 75 tonnes and it is built on an assembly line that is 1.1 kilometres long! The big deal however is that Tata Motors spent all that time and money in ensuring that drivers drove farther (800 km versus 300 km a day) and stayed in them longer (up to 18 hours a day). And I have to admit, they may have just succeeded at it.
Climb aboard the Tata Prima (in our case, the 4928S tractor trailer) and the first thing that hits you is that this could be the interior of any European truck. It's so cavernous it could carry more kids to school than any of those six-seater rickshaws converted to carry sixty. And we aren't even including the load bay here! The super comfy suspended seats can be adjusted in a multitude of ways, while the steering can be adjusted for rake and reach – how many cars can boast of that? The instrument panel is an instrumentation and information overload. The display tells you everything, right from your next scheduled service to oil levels to how you forgot to call your missus at 4:30. Baah, but it could if you want it to. The best bit is that the information is available in English as well as Hindi and soon Tata Motors will install more regional languages while offer it in international languages for its export markets.
There's more. The automatic climate control system looks straight out of a European saloon, the cruise control works just fine and the stereo system feels like it has more resolute bass than the ones I last heard on a bus in the deepest parts of Rajasthan. The driver and co-driver get their own bunks on this particular version with controls for the audio and climate control available right next to them. For operators there's also a GPS unit for consignment tracking, an in-built memory system and two way SMS system. They can also keep track of driving patterns, braking patterns, fuel thefts and what not – it really feels like a 22-wheeled Cray computer!
Since this was the first time I was driving a tractor trailer, the driving pattern had to be seriously altered. Even on the Tata Motors test track, the Prima 4928S couldn't hide its size and to add to it, it has fuel tanks with a combined capacity of 625 litres or enough to fill eight Toyota Land Cruiser LC200s! On the move, the Prima is quite refined, albeit in the trucking sense of things. Since the whole cab is suspended, you are pretty much isolated from the road and yet it isn't too soft to leave you suffering from 'pitching' sickness. But the way it moves is enough to make even our Parliament sit up and take notice. The Cummins ISBE common rail diesel engine produces 266 bhp of peak power and nearly 100 kgm of peak torque. To drive it, you need to use the nine-speed ZF gearbox that uses a crawler, four low ratios and four high ratios. I can tell you this, you can banish all memories of the Tata 1612's recalcitrant gearbox in one go with this one. It slots more positively and even though for a non-truck driver like me who had to clutch and de-clutch for a while, it became increasingly easy to use as I got a hang of it. And Tata Motors says that the blanks I saw on the gear-lever will eventually make way for a switch to shift between low and high ratios. So goodbye re-set ball-and-socket joints.
The combination of a relatively slick gearbox and the healthy bottom-end torque meant that trailer, cab and one jovial driver were heading on the main straight at speeds of 65-70 kph. I don't doubt one bit that it can do 99 kph when asked to, and it seemed intent to do just that, except I was chicken enough not to explore it. But if anything looked tough, and it is hellish to say the least, it is parallel parking. Aneesh wanted this shot next to the aluminium wall at the track and I thought parallel parking should be as easy as trying to slot a Lamborghini Countach. But oh no, it's an art that I don't think very many can ever master. Use the traditional method of backing up (turn steering left to go left) and you will make a mess of it. The technique is to do it the other way round and lots of minor corrections and even then it's so easy to overcook it that I now have deep rooted respect for trailer drivers.
At the end of it, this is not an ordinary truck (see box: Prima-ry Changes), it is in fact a change in ethos and business for a company that first started making trucks in the 1950s. If Dr Sumant Mulgaonkar, the architect of Telco (now Tata Motors) were alive today, he would be proud of what the current day engineers have achieved. It is nothing short of spectacular, for it changes the very essence of trucking in India. And what's more, it offers an international trucking experience at a price that is still Tata friendly. If I were to put it, it's the first time in nearly six decades that the CV division of Tata Motors have kicked away evolution for revolution.
The Tata World Truck Project was conceived in 2004 as a platform to develop the next generation trucks from Tata Motors. Since Tata Motors lacked certain expertise and skill-sets, it acquired Daewoo Commercial Vehicles in 2005 (now called TDCV) and thus the project saw newfound acceleration. Tata Motors also utilised the skill-sets and knowledge base of a whole host of companies and countries to develop its first global truck platform. It hired the services of Stile Bertone to design the truck, Carcerano for the aero-kit, Eaton and ZF to develop gearboxes, Bosch, Calsonic, Blaupunkt, Siemens VDO and Grupo to develop electronics, electricals, software and a whole host of systems for the truck. Cummins was roped in for engine development and today it boasts of a whole host of engines ranging from 180 hp to 560 hp. Tata Motors also benchmarked its trucks in Germany against five other European truck platforms with names such as Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Volvo, Man and Scania. Eventually a couple of applications and combinations were decided and these included 4x2 and 6x4 tractors, 6x4 and 8x4 tippers, a multitude of rigids, six different types of cabins that are either pneumatically or manually adjustable and host of engine-gearbox combinations for different applications. In the end, a customer can choose from over 1,000 different permutations and combinations for his truck. Baffling, isn't it?