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With an engine and chassis tuned by a bona fide track specialist, the Tata Tigor promises loads of excitement in a not-so-high price tag. But how does it compare to the competition, namely the VW Polo TSI, Maruti Suzuki Baleno RS, Mahindra XUV300 and the Fiat Punto Abarth?
Handling is what makes a hot hatch. Okay, warm hatch, in the Indian context, but handling, above all else, is what makes a small car fun to drive. And Indian small cars are getting increasingly fun to drive. Across the board, the days of deathly unspectacular small cars are over, thanks to a heightened level of awareness as far as handling goes — both on the manufacturer and more so on the customer side. Motorsport is also helping. VW have been racing the Polo ever since its launch, and it’s no stretch to link its fun-to-drive on-road character to the race track success. A strong desire to retain Mahindra’s rally championship crowns have made the XUV300 a very good compact SUV. Maruti Suzuki might have pulled out of Indian motorsport but prior to that, and for over a decade, they sent factory engineers to the Raid, Desert Storm and Dakshin Dare to learn how to make better handling cars. Abarth, well, it comes from motorsport doesn’t it? And the new kid on the block, JTSV, is a mainstream manufacturer (Tata) partnering with a motorsport tuner to inject enthusiasm and desirability into their more affordable offerings, like the Tigor and Tiago.
The second reason small cars make us smile is turbocharging. The sub-4 metre rule is here to stay and petrol cars have to be under 1.2 litres to qualify for the excise duty breaks — it’s a rule that has all but eliminated performance from small petrol cars and until recently you only got decent power if you went diesel, like the Polo GT TDI. But now thanks to the widespread adoption of turbo-petrols, the Polo GT TSI has a whole bunch of rivals whistling and whooshing away, while putting a big wide smile on your face.
To see how far handling has evolved in the Indian context, and to highlight the point that you also need some power to enjoy the handling, we’ve brought together the best of the affordable turbo-petrols — a motley mix that includes the obvious hatchbacks and the not-so-obvious compact sedan and compact SUV.
This is the benchmark that every enthusiastic small car has to match up to, despite the Polo now entering its tenth year in India. That’s an amazingly long life, but is also the reason why the Polo doesn’t sell much these days, except this spec. The GT TSI accounts for a big chunk of Polo volumes and remember, this is the priciest hatchback you can buy. But you also get sophisticated technology. The first is the high-pressure direct petrol injection on the turbo-petrol motor, the first small capacity motor with this tech, which has now been adopted by all the other manufacturers here with the exception of Tata Motors. And the second is the DSG twin clutch automatic gearbox, still the only hatchback to get it. The two combine to deliver performance that is still the most enthusiastic and engaging of the five on test. There is a noticeable kick when the turbo comes on song, and then on, the TSI really gets its hustle on, aided by the DSG that (up or down the ’box) shifts so rapidly. Of course the Abarth’s larger T-Jet motor has the measure of the Polo in terms of straight line speed but the combination of TSI and DSG still sets the high point as far as technical sophistication goes. I just wish VW had paddle shifters for the gearbox.
Actually there is a third element to the tech angle, the Polo’s body shell itself. There is a reason why this ten-year-old car is still expensive, it is very well built and the body shell is super-stiff. No corners have been cut, no steel has been down-gauged, no sections have been deleted. The strength of the shell makes it a very safe car and the torsional rigidity is still the benchmark in this class — it is the reason why the Polo makes for a great-handling rally car, and the stiffness of the shell allows Volkswagen to put on relatively softer dampers that delivers a great ride quality too. If you had to pick holes in the dynamic repertoire, you can point out that the relatively soft dampers (that deliver a great ride) does lead to the nose pitching uncomfortably on sharp and bumpy roads and the steering is absolutely lifeless. But if rally drivers can get used to that steering, I’m sure everybody can live with it, especially since the overall ride and handling balance is still the benchmark in this class. The GT TSI, it still puts a big, wide smile on my face. It is still the car I would put my own money on.
If you’re on the lookout for the fastest car, this is it. The 145bhp motor of the Punto Abarth delivers the only nine-second 0-100kmph sprint in this group. Plus it gets a manual gearbox, and no matter how accomplished the DSG, when you’re really in the mood for enthusiastic driving, there’s nothing like a manual gearbox. The Abarth is a seriously good car to drive. It’s the only one that delivers appreciable torque steer as the front tyres scrabble for grip and the steering wheel squirms in your palms when you give it the boot. You even get wheelspin in second gear on concrete roads and when the roads are wet, the turbo can spin up the tyres in third. The first thing you must do, if and when you buy the Abarth, is put on stickier rubber. Thus shod, it will outlap the GT TSI and every other car here on a race track while you appreciate the superb front-end bite, the well-controlled body manners and the old-school hydraulic power steering that is the most feelsome and involving out here.
It should win this test, except… there’s a whole laundry list. The interiors, the whole car itself, looks, feels and is older than the Polo. The gearbox is rubbery. The driving position is terrible, always gives me a back ache. And there’s the big question — when will FCA finally pull the plug on the Fiat brand in India? If you can live with that, I hear FCA still makes Punto Abarths on order — a performance bargain till BS VI will kill it off in a few months.
This is the car that I’d enthusiastically pinned my hopes on. After all, the ingredients are all there for an enthu-cutlet: a kerb weight of under a tonne, a turbo-petrol motor, a snappy manual gearbox, and a manufacturer that delivers reliability and peace of mind like no other. I then drove it at an Autocross event in Pune, the only mod being MRF rally rubber since it was a gravel event, and despite my over exuberance in knocking cones, I came home with three trophies. A friend who I shared the car with set the fastest time of the event, and that tells you how quick the Baleno RS is. It has a power-to-weight ratio of 106bhp/tonne, 13 more than the GT TSI, and the Heartect platform is not only light but very responsive. In fact, it has the most agile and responsive front end of all the cars here, great turn-in, and it would have made for a damn good rally car. In fact it almost got turned into a rally car before Maruti Suzuki pushed pause on their motorsport programme.
As a road car, well, the Baleno RS is almost there. The Boosterjet engine doesn’t have a strong bottom end but once the turbo starts whistling it does pick up speed enthusiastically, there being just 950kg to lug around helping matters a fair bit. And Suzuki have always built slick gearboxes, which again helps matters as far as the enthusiast goes. The platform too has great handling in its genes, except here is where the enthusiast angle starts unravelling. The ride isn’t great and neither is the handling. The Baleno RS is no different to your regular Baleno, running on the same, skinny, 16-inch tyres that understeer way too early and squeal way too enthusiastically. The steering, responsive and agile that it is, is too light, too lacking in feel and very odd in its responses. And the car feels too light, lacking the rock-solid stability of the Polo.
What the Baleno RS needs is for Maruti Suzuki to believe in it, and not get too hung up on every car in their portfolio having to clock 10,000 units a month. The Baleno RS needs to be different from the regular cars at Nexa showrooms, it has to look sportier, get better suspension, wider tyres and more throat to the exhaust. It has to appeal to enthusiasts that want something different from the ordinary. And while I agree Maruti will not find 10,000 enthusiasts to lap up the RS every month, the few who will… they’ll sing praises and the rub-off on the brand will be worth much, much more.
In an ideal world, the 2019 Indian rally championship would have the Polo, Baleno and XUV300 going head-to-head against each other, except Maruti have yet to take a call on their motorsport activities. That leaves us with a Polo vs XUV300 battle in the INRC, now that Mahindra has decided to retire the XUV500 after VW finally found speed and reliability in their R2-spec Polos.
The XUV300, you ask, with incredulity? Well, you see, compact SUVs are more hatchbacks than they are SUVs. This breed started off as hatchbacks with raised suspension that, while delivering stance and ground clearance, successfully ruined the ride and handling. But with every new car, engineers have increased the level of maturity and sophistication and the XUV300 is the best representation of what compact SUVs can do. Thanks to big 17-inch wheels that is stylistically demanded of something that is trying to pass off as an SUV, the XUV300 really does grip well when you throw it round corners, tenaciously holding on to its line even though there is a fair and noticeable amount of body roll. The steering is lifeless but there is one trick, you can (artificially, of course) alter the level of steering assistance so that, unlike the others, it isn’t both lifeless and overly light. And that’s not all, for the XUV has a great trick up its sleeve: the chassis can take a solid beating. This is where Mahindra have injected some SUV DNA, because the minute you turn off the highway onto a dirt trail, the XUV ups its pace. It loves belting down gravel tracks, feels robust and solid enough for you not to worry about the rocks being kicked up and clanging against the underside, and you can really indulge your rally driver fantasies. The XUV300 really does have the perfect ride and handling balance when you consider our indifferent road conditions.
As for the motor, I’d recommend this Mahindra with the larger 1.5 diesel engine. The 1.2-litre 3-cylinder petrol isn’t gutless, but 110bhp isn’t enough to really hustle the heaviest car in this test. It neither has the urgency of the Abarth nor the smoothness of the Polo, but on the plus side, the engine is very silent. Then again, what you lose out on the 0-100kmph sprint you will make up when you barely have to slow down for potholes and speed breakers. Come to think of it, the XUV300 is probably the fastest of them all on our roads.
I’ll admit I am very partial to the JTP. Would I buy it? Not today, there’s still work to be done which I’ll come to. But of all the cars here, the JTP has the coolest story, the strongest motorsport link and is the car I most want to see succeed.
It all started over a decade ago when a motorsport tuner in Coimbatore built a bunch of the original Indicas to go rallying. To test it out, they were entered as forward cars in the INRC, the pace and handling proved promising, but just before a full-fledged program was signed off, priorities shifted, the rally program was put on the back-burner, and the tuner was entrusted with more road car development. The tuner, though, kept that flame flickering, kept experimenting with go-faster cars (none of which saw the light of day) and as more enthusiasts assumed senior roles at the manufacturer, the enthusiasm for performance grew into a business case. And that has led to India’s home-grown answer to AMG, M Power et al — Jayem Tata Special Vehicles. It’s easy to laugh it off, but remember that’s how all the big Germans started off; everybody had a humble beginning. And JTSV is being humble with the Tiago JTP.
J Anand’s Jayem Motorsport used to run MRF’s N+ Cedias, they’re the guys behind the fastest Indian single-seaters, the MRF F2000, and they’re the ones who will supply the X1 Racing League with the 2-seater prototypes. Getting big power out of the Tigor’s motor isn’t all that difficult for these tuners. But they’ve been humble. They’ve been super-careful about their first car, careful about reliability, about quality and most importantly about pricing it sensibly. At a `60,000 premium to the regular Tigor, this JTP is the cheapest turbo-petrol compact sedan you can buy in the country and the Tiago JTP, the hatchback with the same motor, is a whopping `1.1 lakh cheaper at `6.49 lakh. If you’re sold on the JTP story I’d definitely recommend you look at the Tiago over the Tigor. They both get the same spec engine, 112bhp for the 1.2 turbo with 150Nm of torque and a 5-speed gearbox. They’ll get to 100kmph in a shade over 10 seconds which, while not mad-quick, is in the ballpark for this category. But what I like the most is that it has a tuner-car feel to it. The turbo comes on boost with a kick, some might call it unrefined and many will say there’s too much turbo lag, but that is exactly what a turbocharged Evo feels like, albeit at a significantly lower performance level. And when the JTP comes on boost it really is a fun puppy. Not too much to get you into trouble but also enough to make you smile. The JTP boys have also worked on the gear linkage to make it shift better than regular Tatas (still not as great as the Suzuki though) and most of all, they’ve done some jiggery-pokery to the suspension to make it handle flatter and turn-in more keenly than the regular cars. This is where the motorsport experience of the J in JTSV has come in. They’ve even worked with the tyre suppliers for a better compound to improve the handling — which really has gotten better. It’s not better than the Polo GT but at this price point, the JTP twins will run the Swift close for the best-handling car honours.
Why won’t I buy it then? I think this is not enough. The JTP cars need more power and more visual appeal to really work. There’s also legacy issues. The steering is the biggest problem — too light, too vague, too disconnected from what’s happening. Tata also needs to rethink how they’re going to sell this car, the state their regular dealerships are right now, it just doesn’t cut the ice with the enthusiasts. And the T in JTP needs to ensure their cars are better built with better-quality materials and tighter finish.
All of which can be fixed. And the best part is the Tiago/Tigor JTP is just the start of the experiment. If things do kick off — and I think Tata Motors needs to get serious about JTP and invest in it lest it go the Abarth way — we could very well see JTP versions of all the new Tata cars. A Harrier JTP. A Nexon JTP. The upcoming Altroz with a snarling JTP go-faster version. A works JTP rally team. The future is really bright for handling enthusiasts!