Tata Bolt: Ready to respond

For long, Tata Motors was admired for its commercial vehicles. Then it started making passenger cars. The cars, like the Indica, Safari and Nano, initially created a huge buzz in the market, but after launch failed to catch the imagination of the car buyer. Today, the Indica is seen more as a taxi, while the Nano suffers from a massive image problem as being a cheap car. Tata is trying to paint a better portrait of itself as a car maker, and the release of compact sedan Zest was an attempt in that direction. To some extent, Zest has honestly tried to counter the company’s perennial problems related to build quality, fit-and-finish and refinement. This was the first chapter of change for Tata, but the acid test remains how the Bolt, which will start selling from January 22, will fare in the competitive hatchback segment.

As in most segments, diesel variants outsell their petrol counterparts, even among compact cars. But Tata Motors has a different take on this. With the price difference between the two fuels reducing steadily, it believes there will be a 60:40 swing in favour of petrol cars. Based on this, the company is launching the Bolt with the 1.2-litre Revotron petrol engine. I drove this variant of the Bolt across Udaipur. We’ll have to wait a little while longer for the diesel and automatic variants of the car.

The 1.2-litre engine is the same set-up that powers the Zest. It has identical output figures, and the Bolt employs the same 5-speed gearbox as in the sedan. But the slight, yet crucial, difference is that the Bolt peaks at 5,000 rpm, whereas the Zest hits a high at 4,000 rpm. This may sound like technical mumbo-jumbo, but it makes all the difference when you step on the accelerator pedal — because that’s when you notice the sweet, linear power delivery. From the word go, the Bolt has a more willing response and lag is at a minimum. Tata has also shortened the gear ratios to make the Bolt more responsive at slow speeds.

The Bolt is the first car in its segment to offer three drive modes: Eco, City and Sport. Basically, at the touch of a button, the engine control unit, or ECU, selects a different map for the engine that alters the car’s performance. The default mode is City, which is ideal for urban driving conditions as it provides adequate power while ensuring fuel efficiency. The Eco mode is where all the power evaporates and you feel like you’re in the middle of a mileage contest. Since the response is quite anaemic in the Eco, most Bolt owners will be happier driving in the City mode. It is in the Sport mode that the Bolt springs to life, and the rpm needle makes a lunge towards the redline. Take the Bolt on an incline, and you’ll certainly notice the difference — even Usain (yes, Bolt) would be momentarily startled.

The Bolt looks a lot like its predecessor, the Vista. For a company that wants to change its image, this is not a good sign. It would also be unfair to say that there aren’t any changes, as the new angular, swept-back headlamps do stand out. The headlights are also blacked out, and provide a very contemporary feel. The new smiley-face grille or, as Tata Motors designers call it, the ‘Humanity’ line, tries to give the Bolt a fresh look. The bonnet yearns for attention too, with its slight central bulge.

The all-black dashboard layout, which in my opinion is better than the Vista’s dual-tone interiors, is identical to the Zest’s. It comes with a touch-screen infotainment system by Harman, smartphone-based navigation maps from MapMyIndia, Bluetooth connectivity, and USB and Aux ports. The plastic quality is an improvement (and I hate to say this) for a Tata product. In comparison with the competition, the quality is still debatable. It doesn’t give you that feel of solidity that customers now expect.

The seating position, though, is spot on. Tata Motors has worked overtime to ensure that there’s plenty of side bolstering, but I would have preferred a little more lower back support. The cabin is very spacious, as in all Tata cars, and the Bolt has substantial knee room for rear passengers.

The suspensions — independent McPherson Struts in the front and the semi-independent twist beam at the rear — are a perfect marriage, and they ensure that the ride quality is comfortable on city roads. The ride is plush, but on smooth tarmac it is slightly soft. The steering feels just right — not too heavy — making the Bolt effortless to drive in rush hour traffic. It also makes parking a breeze, although I would have liked the car to have parking sensors to ease reversing woes.

According to Tata Motors, the Bolt’s suspensions are stiffer than the Zest’s to ensure better handling. I did put the Bolt to test through sweeping curves that I encountered around Udaipur, and this hatchback stayed planted, even if I occasionally felt a little nervous when rushing by curves at high speeds.

The 1.2-litre Revotron engine is refined and, really, is ideal for urban driving. The drive modes may come across as gimmicky, but they do work to change the Bolt’s mood from mellow to mildly aggressive. The company still needs to work on cabin quality, and more radical looks would have been welcome. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see that Tata Motors is clearly taking steps in the right direction.

TATA BOLT (Petrol)
Engine:  1,193 cc petrol
Power: 89 bhp @ 5,000rpm
Torque: 140 Nm @ 4,000rpm
Price: To be launched on January 22