What is it?
Successor to the one that shall not be mentioned and competitor to the other than will also not be mentioned. Both these names were conspicuous by their absence at the Hexa media briefing but nevertheless we shall go ahead and mention them.
The first is the Aria. Surprisingly Tata Motors would rather that you didn’t remember their first stab at the MPV segment but haven’t Maruti and Hyundai also made duds? The thing to remember about the Aria is that it was an innovative alternative to the Innova, a cross between a people-moving MPV and a mud-plugging SUV, and Tata Motors only need to address the obvious shortcomings of the Aria to make a real success of the Hexa.
The second is the Innova, and for obvious reasons. It has been so far ahead of the game that Toyota could price it at whatever they feel like and yet couldn’t make enough of them. Notice the past tense. We’re talking Innova here, not the new Innova Crysta that has gone up in pricing and vacated a space that’s ripe for the picking. Doesn’t that present a golden opportunity for Tata Motors?
Under the skin the Hexa is based on the Aria and the key dimensions – wheelbase, length, width, even weight – are more or less similar. But it looks all-new thanks to a complete overhaul of the styling.
Under Pratap Bose, Tata Motors’ international team of stylists (TML has studios in Pune, Turin and Coventry) have infused real style, and consequently desirability, into the Tata range and the Hexa is a looker. Where the Innova is plane-jane, the Crysta over-the-top with its gaping grille, and XUV now quite commonplace thanks to its success, the Hexa is inarguably good-looking – butch, macho and muscular without resorting to overwrought and frivolous detailing. There are no gaping wheel-arch gaps, always a Tata bugbear until the Tiago wiped the slate clean. The ‘humanity line’ on the grille has become bolder and more aggressive. And the detailing is very neatly done – an example being the curved LED tail lights imported from South Korea as TML couldn’t find an Indian vendor who could deliver the required quality.
To keep in with the MPV/SUV crossover positioning the face is bold with a deep airdam and silver-finished skid plates on the front and rear bumper while all across the bottom portion of the Hexa is black plastic cladding that is now very neatly integrated with no disturbing gaps. Filling those wheel arches are massive 19-inch wheels shod with 235/55 tyres. The pillars are blacked out to give it a floating-roof impression while the shoulder line is interrupted by a neat chrome kink on the C-pillar.
On the inside
There are even less traces of the Aria on the inside, in fact the interior cabin of the Aria has been ripped out and in comes something we have never seen on a car with the T on the nose. Almost every surface that you can touch is layered in a soft-touch plastic, in fact only the surround of the dials and the panel around the drive mode selector is hard scratchy plastic that earlier was the predominant material in a Tata cabin. The seats are particularly well finished, with inputs from a vendor that does seats for Mercedes-Benz – it is not only nicely bolstered and supportive but has neat perforation and even neater (white) stitching. The rear captain seats (the Hexa can be had in 6-seater and 7-seater layouts) are even better, with integrated armrests, so much so that my colleague Adil Darukhanawala who has just taken delivery of his new Innova Crysta proclaimed it to be better than on his new MPV. An added convenience is (manually adjustable) sunblinds for the middle row passengers, though the hooks for this could have been a little more discreet and better finished.
Does anything shake or rattle? Well nothing did in our 200km first drive and while not a final verdict on quality that’s a good start. The arm rest lid is spring loaded and does not rattle like a flimsy item. The secondary glove box opening mechanism could have been done better but that too is spring loaded and doesn’t feel flimsy. The air-con vents have a neat slider mechanism to shut it. There are deep door pockets for bottles and knick-knacks. So much has been thought about that one wonders why didn’t Pratap and his team think of integrating a neat little slot on the centre console to place a mobile phone.
In keeping with the times the Hexa gets an acoustically-tuned 10-speaker JBL-branded audio system and ConnectNext infotainment from Harman with a suite of mobile phone apps. For instance the offline NaviMaps navigation is on the phone and is mirrored on the 5-inch touch screen of the stereo when connected via a cable. The Juke-Car app uses a mobile hotspot to make a common playlist of tracks, the owners manual is also on the app while you can even personalise media and mood lighting settings from the phone.
On the safety front the Hexa gets six airbags (twin front, side and curtain bags), ESP and ABS as standard on the top-end variant. There’s also hill hold and hill descent control.
There’s also a good amount of space. The middle row has plenty of leg room even with the front seats pulled all the way back while the third row is acceptable enough for short journeys even if access is not all that convenient. I must also mention the air-con that is not roof-mounted for the rear passengers but neatly integrated into the pillars and deliver excellent cooling.
The familiar and not-so-familiar
The 2.2-litre VARICOR 400 engine under the hood is carried over from the range-topping Safari Storme, while lower-spec variants of the Hexa will get the lower-spec version of this same engine which does duty in other variants of the Safari and even the old Aria. We drove the 400, which stands for the 400Nm of torque it develops while the power figure headlines at 153.9bhp. So far, so familiar. What isn’t familiar are the improvements to overall NVH – noise is not overbearing and there are no vibrations creeping into the cabin. It is silent enough that you can have a conversation with people sitting in the very last row without raising your voice.
The manual transmission is the 6-speeder from the Safari Storme with an improved shift action but it still requires more effort than is necessary, and isn’t as precise or slick as other transmissions in this segment. What is new is the 6-speed automatic transmission, and as we shall see later, is the transmission to have. Unless you want all-wheel-drive, and that’s only available on the manual.
The AWD is a torque-on-demand unit made by Borg Warner that is primarily rear-wheel drive and when it senses slip torque is transferred to the front axle. There is no low-ratio 4×4, but then again that would have been overkill.
Another new thing on the Hexa is the drive mode selector that alters the torque and engine response. So you get 320Nm in Comfort mode, the full 400Nm in Dynamic, reduced ESP intervention and max power in Rough Road mode while Auto does adjust things depending on your driving. The drive modes are available only on the manual, while the automatic, in Sport mode (shift the gear lever to the left) gets something called Race Mode that learns your driving style and if you’re really hustling it maintains the engine revs in the 3-4000rpm band, aggressively downshifting when you brake and upshifting at close to max revs. We tried it. It works very well.
On the road
Before we get on the road a note on the ergonomics. The drivers seat is height adjustable and you can get a nice view of the road without feeling like you’re sitting on top of the car. The reach to the pedals is also good though some journalists felt the under-thigh support was lacking. What I did notice though was since the steering doesn’t adjust for reach you end up in an arms-outstretched driving position and if you pull the seat closer your knees knock against the dash. Needs work.
Get used to that and you find yourself in a cabin that is massively improved compared to anything Tata Motors have ever made, in terms of quality, fit-finish and general build integrity; if not gate-crashing the Toyota party this definitely puts a foot in the door. Crank up the motor and it settles into a refined idle. The lever for the automatic gearbox takes an unusual amount of effort to slide into Drive and we are off. And the first thing that strikes you is the ride quality. So you try prodding it some more, find and hit all the holes and bumps in the road you can find, and the Hexa completely astonishes you with its ride quality. Thanks to those big wheel and optimised suspension settings the Hexa delivers what is the best ride, over bad road, that you can get on anything sold in India today. I was chasing an enthusiastically driven Innova Crysta on the way back from our drive and while I had to hustle to keep pace on the open road, when we hit a few bad patches the Crysta just disappeared from my rear-view mirror. And at no point did the Hexa feel like it was about to break.
The handling is also good though it doesn’t feel so initially. Since you sit quite high the body rolls feel exaggerated and with the steering offering nothing in the way of feel, you don’t get that initial confidence to push the Hexa. However once you start poking the envelop, you do sense that understeer doesn’t rear its ugly head very early on and the Hexa can carry a fair amount of speed through corners. What I didn’t like were the brakes that felt spongy and lacked feel. It didn’t lack in retardation and even on dirt the ABS didn’t kick in early, but a little more feedback from the middle pedal would have been nice.
With 153.9bhp, performance is brisk and with 400Nm of torque the automatic gearbox never made the Hexa feel sluggish. In fact the shifts are quick, whether up or down the ’box (not DSG quick, mind you) and it always feels refined. We did try the Race mode on the automatic gearbox and it did work as advertised, keeping the engine in the meat of the torque band and delivering rather brisk progress. In fact for its size and positioning the Hexa definitely feels quick enough and the automatic gearbox suits it perfectly. If you ask me the Hexa automatic is the one to buy, shame it doesn’t get the AWD torque-on-demand transfer case, and even more frustratingly the automatic will only be available on the top-end Hexa.
To answer the question we asked at the start – yes! – Tata Motors have definitely hit the nail on the head with the Hexa and could mark the point at which Tata Motors’ fortunes turned around. The quality is a huge step up from anything we’ve seen in a Tata; everything is tight and well-finished with not a squeak or rattle to be heard. The engine has strong performance and is mated to an exceptionally good automatic gearbox. The ride quality is incredible over poor roads. But most of all the Hexa feels genuinely desirable. MPVs aren’t desirable, you buy them for practical reasons, but the Hexa feels like something you’d want to have, versus something that you have no alternative for. If now Tata Motors can price it well (we recommend a lakh cheaper than the Innova, which would be around Rs 19 lakh ex-showroom for the automatic) then it could very well hoover up all demand left by the Innova vacating that space and going upmarket.
evo Rating: 4.5/5