Is the new Tata Safari worthy of the badge?
We pit the 2021 Tata Safari against its older iterations to find out if it is capable of carrying on the iconic name
“This is not a Safari,” screamed all of you on social media when it was announced that the seven-seater Harrier, code-named Buzzard and formerly christened Gravitas, would finally roll out wearing the Safari badge. It’s obvious far too many of you harbour a soft corner for the Safari. Fact also is that it doesn’t take much for the internet to be outraged. But there’s only one way to answer the question, and that is for the new Tata Safari to meet its parents. And ask not Instagrammers, but people who actually own OG Safaris what they think of the new one. Hence the new Safari getting a more lavish spread in the feature section of this magazine, not squeezed into the preceding Driven pages, and even space on the cover. Because, honest admission, even I’m a fan of the Tata Safari.
The Tata Safari is what put me on the map. Two decades ago, as a cub journo, I came up with the idea of 4x4 travelogues and the very first one involved two Safaris and a week out of the office chasing wild asses in the Rann of Kutch, spotting lions in the Gir forest and buying junk from the Alang shipbreaking yard. I’d found my calling and soon after I excused myself for a further two weeks to head to Ladakh, driving from Pune all the way to Leh, across Khardung La to the Siachen border outpost, and then back down via the spectacular lakes that, I suspect, are out of bounds thanks to our neighbours being spectacularly incapable of sticking within their own damn borders. The clutch needed attention in Leh having been abused up the Himalayas to counter the monster lag of the 2-litre diesel but otherwise, it ran flawlessly. For the longest time it was the absolute best set of wheels to crisscross India in — incredible ride, a spectacular driving position, plenty of space, shift-on-the-fly 4-wheel-drive, and good enough power. It even had a VCD player (remember those?) making it a luxury car. I desperately wanted one for a long term test. Instead… I got an Indica.
Anyhoo, enough of the history and geography lesson. Fast forward to the present and the new Safari — well let’s get straight to the point shall we — doesn’t get rear- or 4-wheel-drive. This is a Harrier that has been lengthened by 60mm to accommodate a third row of seats, forward facing and not the prison-cell jump seats of the past. The 2741mm wheelbase carries over unchanged and at the front, save for chrome on the grille, there really is nothing of difference between the two. The changes start aft of the C-pillar where the Harrier’s dipping roofline has been replaced by a more formal, rectangular section. There’s more glass area to give the third row passengers more of a view out and it is allied to a new tailgate (not electrically operated), LED taillamps and bumper (with fake exhaust tips). Credit though to Pratap Bose and his design team for making the Safari look proportionate and equally good looking as the Harrier. This doesn’t have an ungainly rear overhang, the upright rear end still looks good and the stance remains spot-on with the wheels having gone up by an inch to 18s. Weirdly though it shares the exact same design with the Harrier’s 17s.
Behind those 18-inch rear wheels lie disc brakes, replacing the Harrier’s drums and that has enabled the deletion of the ergonomically-flawed aircraft throttle-style handbrake of the Harrier. The Safari gets an electronic parking brake along with hill hold assist to add to the safety features that include six airbags and ESP. Otherwise what you see in the Safari is exactly what you get on the Harrier, except the former gets white upholstery for the seats and dual-tone treatment for the dash and door pads. This does make the cabin more airy and it feels more premium and of course there’s the panoramic sunroof which is optional on the top two variants. I must also mention that roof rails on the Safari are load bearing, up to 140 kilos, but that’s on variants without a sunroof, so spend your money wisely.
The only real miss in the cabin is the infotainment screen. At 8.8-inches, it’s not only smaller than its rivals but the CarPlay and Android Auto projection doesn’t occupy the entire screen width, limited only to (the Nexon’s) seven inches which makes the icons too tiny and difficult to operate while on the move. I can only assume Apple and Google must be charging a bomb to update the software, because we’ve written enough about this on the Harrier for Tata Motors to know that this is a problem that needs addressing.
Getting into the third row isn’t easy on any seven-seater and the Safari doesn’t break any new ground. You contort into a few yoga poses to squeeze in and for me to fit in (I’m 5 foot, 9 inches) the middle row needs to slide forward. This doesn’t mean zero space in the middle row, mind, only reducing knee room from generous to adequate. But, credit where credit is due, the taller roofline than the Harrier does allow the seats to be mounted a little higher (stadium seating as Tata Motors calls it) and not only can I fit into the back but my knees aren’t rubbing against my nose. There are also aircon vents and USB chargers so the kids sitting back here can plug in and chill. The Safari also gets a six-seater variant with captain seats in the middle row and this, I suspect, will be a big reason for people opting for it over the Harrier. ‘Boss Mode’ is a handy lever allowing the rear passenger to slide the front passenger seat all the way forward. Allied to the generous space on offer, these captain seats are excellent for being driven around in, what with the Safari also sporting fantastic ride quality. Even better than the Harrier’s benchmark.
The Safari is 100 kilos heavier than the Harrier but that doesn’t make any noticeable difference to the performance, the Safari accelerating with the same enthusiasm we’ve come to enjoy in the 2020 Harrier that got the updated 168bhp tune. The version tested here is the 6-speed manual and there’s enough grunt to get the front wheels to spin in first, if you switch off ESP. On tarmac too, you get a bit of torque steer and it will do the 100kmph sprint in around 11.5 seconds, quick enough for something of this size and weight. The shift quality of the gearbox is par for the course, with no trace of the vague and imprecise shift quality that we used to associate Tata gearboxes with. My pick though would be the 6-speed automatic, sourced from Hyundai, which will deliver 100kmph in a similar 11.5 seconds and is so well-suited to the character of both the Harrier and now the Safari. It delivers eager performance and quick downshifts when you want it to, and it can be relaxed at a cruise. What this engine won’t do is deliver great fuel efficiency, neither with the manual and particularly not with the automatic.
The extra weight over the Harrier obviously necessitated retuning of the dampers, but while they were at it, the engineers also went about dialling-in an even better ride quality. And it is obvious the minute you go over the first speed breaker and feel almost nothing. You’d think with bigger wheels the ride would get worse but, on the contrary, it is even better, even more planted, even more plush. The ride quality truly is fantastic! And it hasn’t come at the expense of handling as there isn’t any noticeable increase in either body roll or any float or wallow. The dynamics are aided by a retuned (hydraulic) steering that is less fidgety than the Harrier’s setup; less reactive to road imperfections and now much calmer. I’d have preferred more steering weight at speed but engineers say further refinements are being planned before the Safari goes into series production. Nevertheless the Safari is brilliant at hammering down broken patches of road, absolutely flattening everything in its path and retaining great body control. And that’s the benefit of modern monocoque construction.
There are two playbooks to reincarnating an icon. The G-Class route of staying true both visually and even in terms of the mechanical architecture or the thoroughly modern road the Defender treads over. But even then there are visual cues to its forbears. The Safari has none, because this was never meant to be a Safari. At the (virtual) launch, Tata Motors’ design head Pratap Bose made a game effort of pointing out the kink in the roofline that apparently harks back to the original, but it’s evident the pivot to the Safari name happened way too late for Bose and his team to make any meaningful design impact.
The Safari started life as a ladder-on-frame luxury SUV which was way ahead of anything ever made in India till then. What we don’t have here is that very first 90bhp, 2-litre, turbo-diesel that I drove all over the country twenty years ago. Seems not many survived the vagaries of time, and the few that we did locate were all in the workshop (Safaris and workshops… a recurring theme as we found out). So we start with the first update necessitated by the shift to Euro 3 emission norms, 2005’s 3-litre DICOR that borrowed the 407 small truck’s engine. While power went up to 114bhp what I couldn’t get over was the 1500rpm power band that is as impressively shocking today as it was back then. While it will rev to 3300rpm there’s no point hustling it, the 300Nm of torque peaking at 1600rpm and tailing off pretty quickly at 2000rpm. It is impressively easy to maintain a good cruising speed though — as long as there aren’t any corners.
Body roll! An enthusiastic hatchback lifts its inside back wheel when you throw it round corners. In the old Safari, the driver’s inside leg lifts as it leans spectacularly round corners, scraping its door handles, delivering equal doses of laughs and terror. The steering has immense play and vaguely directs the Safari in the general direction you intend to go. But it is mighty. The driving position is epic, the view out unlike anything you will ever encounter. You sit so high and the belt line is so low that sight lines are incredible. The seats, with the original leather and the armrest that never stays in position, are super comfy. And that soft suspension makes for an immensely plush ride, though body control wasn’t part of the engineering brief and this land yacht can be all over the place, you sawing away at the steering wheel to pilot it.
I have to get a picture of the tacho with the redline starting at 3000rpm and that’s when I notice the odometer showing 1,92,450km. Nearly two lakh kilometres over the past 14 years and Umair says he hasn’t once opened the engine. That’s the beauty of an unstressed, unhurried engine but then Aditya Namjoshi reminds me that his 2.2 DICOR, only a year younger, has done 1,35,000km. The black Safari you see here is the third update, the truck-derived engine making way for a passenger-car motor to meet the BS4 norms, and it is a welcome move back to a wider power band. Where the 3.0 DICOR is unhurried at 80-100kmph, the 2.2 is unhurried at 100-120kmph. It revs with eagerness, it is far better in terms of refinement, and is quicker to accelerate as well. It also signals a return to turbo lag but with more power – 138bhp being 50 more than the original 2-litre – it’s far easier to deal with the lag. The gearshift was also improved but it’s the same 5-speed gearbox that is as vague as the steering. It handles a wee bit better though I don’t think the underpinnings went through any updates, it’s just the passage of time wearing out the spring and dampers differently. Oh, and the insides got plastered in beige, the ‘in’ colour of the late 2000s. Otherwise everything remained the same, even the blower tacked on to the roof to keep second row passengers cool.
Only in 2012, 14 years after it screamed ‘Reclaim Your Life’ from what were remarkably memorable ads, did the Safari get its first thorough update. The chassis adopted learnings from the Aria MPV with hydro-formed sections and revised rear suspension. The nose and tail were subject to thorough design updates including deletion of the spare on the tail gate, incidentally the first project that current design boss Pratap Bose worked on. The engine was further refined, 10 more horses were extracted from it, and the variable geometry turbocharger led to DICOR being dropped in favour of Varicor. And three years later came the ultimate version of the Safari, the Varicor 400 putting out 400Nm of torque, 154bhp of power and mated to a 6-speed manual. The most important update of all though was the name. Safari was relegated to a minor prefix and all the advertising screamed Storme. Tata Motors went to great lengths to highlight the fact that despite retaining the classic silhouette and design, this wasn’t the old Safari. And in terms of the dynamics, it really was massively improved. It goes round corners without scaring the life out of you, a good thing because it got up to higher speeds with less effort. The better body control came without losing any of the ride plushness. The refinement is way better. The gearshift lost its sloppiness. Even the interiors were upgraded and though the architecture was the same, everything else was new. Even the rear air-con was integrated into the roof lining. What remained though was the spectacular view and the king-of-the-world driving position. Which is the only thing that you miss on the 2021 Safari.
Is the new Safari a true Safari? By objective yardsticks there really isn’t anything to connect the new one to its forebears, and it is all the better for it. You don’t get the same view out but you also know that modern crash safety will never allow for it. Losing the ladder frame means the dynamics are a million times better, the 2021 Safari going round corners and yet hammering down bad roads with a brilliance that only the more expensive Compass can come close to. The interiors are way better and though you don’t get the lofty seating position, the new one is more comfortable over long distances. And, finally, the thing we are all howling about — no 4x4 on the new Safari!
Fact is Safaris were rarely bought with 4x4. Both Umair and Aditya’s Safaris are rear-wheel-drive; only the Hella-festooned Storme has four-wheel-drive and that’s because it was bought to do cross-country expeditions. When Tata Motors say all their data and experience points to hardly any off-take for 4x4 variants, they’re right. They also say if there is genuine demand, 4x4 can be engineered into the platform and that too is true because this is the old Discovery Sport’s D8 platform — they’ll need to throw in the more expensive independent rear suspension to accommodate the 4WD hardware, all of which will be a fair R&D expense. But will enough buyers spend the extra Rs 1.5 lakh for a 4x4 Safari?
I suspect not. And that makes the reincarnation of the Safari badge an insipired (if not last minute) marketing decision. No way the Gravitas would have ended up on magazine covers or got so many of us talking. The free publicity the name has generated is astonishing. I’m not making this up – on our shoot we were stopped by two scary-looking dudes who were on their way to Pune to check out the Safari; we didn’t save them the three-hour round trip, they carried on after checking out our test car to put money down on it. And it was purely the Safari name that had got them interested. Time will tell, but in pandering to our memories, Tata Motors will probably have their cake and eat it too.