Seven rounds with the Hexa
Images by Gaurav Thombre and Rohit Mane
Words: Sirish Chandran
It’s not a car. It’s not an SUV. Neither is it an MPV. A straight off comparison test doesn’t really work for the Tata Hexa. You’d obviously compare it with the Innova Crysta but even before you read the verdict you can conclude that the Hexa is less of a people mover and more of an SUV. You will take it touring so we pitted it against what we think is the most comfortable SUV you can buy today. You will drive it in the city so we set out to find how much longer a big crossover takes on the city commute over a tiny city car. You might take it (a bit) off-road so we pitted it against a Duster AWD, our benchmark for soft-roading. We even attempt to answer the age-old car versus SUV question. And then the most important question, can it be a serious contender for the Indian Car of the Year. Time to ring the bell for seven rounds with obvious and not so obvious rivals.
Round 1: The Benchmark
I spent a weekend last month in Mumbai for the Mahindra Blue’s Festival and, turns out, the friend we were staying with had just booked an Innova Crysta. His factory is on the outskirts of Mumbai and he needs something comfortable in which to stretch out on the nearly two-hour commute. And reliable, you don’t want to be breaking down in Bhiwandi. That he now spends his weekends hunting for apartments in Bandra with enough parking for a Crysta is another matter altogether.
As we walk to Mehboob Studio, conversation, much to the irritation of the better halves, veers around to the big Tata I spent half an hour trying to park in Bandra. Just looking at the Hexa – far, far kinder on the eyes than the Crysta if you ask me – is enough to plant seeds of doubt in Anoop’s head. Add to the fact that after totting up registration and insurance the Hexa automatic is a whopping five lakh rupees cheaper than the automatic Crysta and I can literally hear his mental calculator firing away. I apologise for ruining his evening.
Next morning lunch turns to brunch: Anoop has barely slept and wants to try out the Hexa. I don’t have the ConnectNext App on my phone so we rely on Google Maps to take us to a new burger joint next to my old office in Parel and, to summarise his detailed road test over a juicy quarter-pounder, Anoop concludes he’d buy the Hexa, even if it were five lakh rupees dearer, provided it had a Toyota badge on the nose.
Perceptions are hard to get rid of, and that is (and will be – for the foreseeable future) the Hexa’s biggest challenge. That’s terribly unfair but Anoop is spending serious money and I’m in no position to predict how tight the Hexa will feel after 50,000km, let alone the 1,50,000km Innovas clock without breaking a sweat.
What I can tell you is that this test car has done 15,000km, and it feels brand new. No squeaks, no rattles, no play in the steering or suspension, no screeching fan belt. To be clear this is something we have come to expect on all modern cars and, in all fairness, this Tata feels like any modern car. Anoop also points out that the interiors look better than the Crysta’s – better styled, more SUV-like, better selection of colours; more macho to give it one word. If only the Hexa had a larger touchscreen (the Crysta’s is almost double the size) and just went with the flow and bundled Apple CarPlay rather than foisting ConnectNext Apps on you. And while they are at it how about some space for the mobile phone in the centre console and larger speedo and tacho pods?
A double espresso to beat out burger-induced drowsiness and we head back home to Pune. My wife’s immediate reaction is surprise at how silent it is at a cruise. I’m impressed by how well tied down the ride is. You can feel a nice tautness that is usually the preserve of German cars, and a firmness at low speeds, but potholes and speed humps barely slow it down. This feels like an SUV, not an MPV, and the way it smothers poor roads is deeply impressive. It eggs you on to jump everything in your path!
And as we hit the expressway it doesn’t feel like a handful. There’s no float and she stays properly planted at speeds clocked by enthusiastically driven Mercs and BMWs. I particularly like the high seating position that allows you to look over the roof of the Mercs and BMWs and all round visibility is also terrific, but sitting so high also makes it a little unnerving for the wife who thinks we are going way faster than we actually are. Also the steering really needs reach adjust, my arms are stretched out way more than I like. And another discovery – for a branded sound system, JBL in this case, there really should be more depth and bass.
Back in Pune, the Crysta is parked in the office and first things first it feels so much more car-like. The electrically-adjustable seats go down really low and the steering adjusts for reach. That feeling of quality is a notch higher though I’m not a fan of all the ambient lighting. The seats are more cushy and there’s more space at the rear – with wider seats too. To be driven to Bhiwandi and back everyday Anoop has made a wise decision, even the stereo sounds better. And his driver will appreciate the more urgent throttle response and acceleration of the 2.8 diesel compared to the Hexa’s 2.2. The Crysta also handles really, really well (begging the question why does the Fortuner feel so ponderous) but the Hexa is more dismissive of bad roads, jumping speedbreakers and flying over potholes that will force a Crysta to drop down two gears. The clincher remains, as affirmed by the double takes of all the Bandra boys with their manicured beards, the really cool styling and positioning of the Hexa.
The crossover concept always had potential but Tata Motors made a royal hash of it the first time round. The Hexa not only atones for past mistakes but is something I’m actually looking forward to running as a long termer (and answer the biggest question – what it will feel like after 50,000km). I have no doubt were this 2015, car magazines would have been screaming ‘Tata Beats Toyota’. But the 2017 Innova is such a vast improvement that it is now a luxury car riding on mechanicals that we all know can survive an apocalypse. But still, I’m not fully convinced it is that much better to command a five lakh rupee premium over the Hexa. Perceptions. Now how do you get rid of them?
Round 2: Elephants in the room
Words by Aatish Mishra
Ask any SUV owner why he has got something that barely fits in his parking slot and he’ll give you one of two standard retorts — that he enjoys the commanding driving position or “bhai, sahi presence hai.” I suspect the amount of real estate he gets for his buck is also a factor, though he’ll never admit it. With Tata claiming the Hexa is an SUV, we’ve parked it against the burliest (and nicest looking, don’t forget) SUV to see if it can hold its own in this battle for street cred.
The Endeavour is massive, it looks like its been lifted straight outta Detroit and plonked on our Indian roads. It’s from the land where everything is supersized, and it unabashedly muscles its way through the swarms of small desi cars. It dwarfs SUVs twice it’s price and it makes mini-buses look like vans.
The Hexa is no pushover, though. Pratap Bose’s design team is clearly equipped with more than just rulers and have lavished the Hexa with genuine style. The Hexa has size so it isn’t overshadowed by the Endeavour, though it has to be said the Ford is more classically-SUV with its high-profile tyres housed in huge wheel arch gaps that hint at lots of wheel travel, massive chrome grille to scare cars it’s tailgaiting, and a sculpted bonnet that is unyieldingly high. The Hexa has more finesse, the lines are finer, the headlamps shapelier, and with their smokey, blacked-out effect they lend the Hexa an aura of malevolence. It has a mean-looking bulge on the clamshell bonnet, and looked at head on, the shoulder lines have a nice heft to them. The whole shape is more slippery while 19-inch wheels ensure it stands tall and looks rich. It’s still imposing, but not unnecessarily so. It’s the Vin Diesel to the Endeavour’s Dwayne Johnson. It’s the Mayweather to the Endy’s Mike Tyson.
The Endeavour may still tip the scales on an absolute level, but the second you bring price in to the equation, the Hexa seems to have the upper hand. Both will send bikers scurrying out of your way, both will require two slots in your garage and both will ensure you get a second look. But at the Hexa’s price point you most definitely get a lot of bang for your buck.
Round 3: Hexa in the city
Words by Anand Mohan
The Hexa is many things – a tourer, a people mover, an SUV, a mild off-roader – but a city car? Say hello to its sibling, the Nano. Just like you can get five Hexas for the price of a Q7 so too can you get five Nanos for the price of a Hexa, so this is far from a comparison test. What we are here to find out is how much longer your city commute will take when you switch from a dinky Nano to a (comparatively) massive Hexa.
Half past nine in the morning (unless there’s a shoot we journos don’t wake up early) and I catch up with Ryan for breakfast before heading to work. Ryan is in the Nano Twist, complete with power steering and the AMT gearbox, and I can see how effortlessly he finds gaps where none exist. However the Hexa has power and in my part of the city, where the roads aren’t as busy, he disappears in my rear view mirror.
At the next junction the Nano catches up, weaving its way through other office commuters and gets out before I can even move. The Hexa is a wide car and when you are in chock-a-block traffic, it gets really frustrating with something this big. It is 152mm wider than a Nano and over 2.6 metres longer so I am not able to squeeze it into tight spots.
To catch up, I find the next patch of traffic and drop the Hexa off the road’s shoulder. It’s a bit of off-roading but the Hexa easily takes it. Ryan can’t take the same route as his 12-inch wheels transmit every small undulation into the cabin and the light body lacks the stability of the Hexa. Also the Hexa’s size now works in my favour, motorcycles and other dawdlers give it a wide berth and space magically opens up.
This cat and mouse game goes on till we reach office – at the same time! – so I can conclude that despite its size the Hexa takes the same amount of time on city commutes. What is surprising though is I am fresher than Ryan in the Nano. Here’s why: the size of the Hexa means people not only give you a wide berth but other SUVs, even busses, do not cut you up or squeeze you out. The excellent ride means you aren’t shaken up. The cabin not only looks great but also has a soothing effect on the subconscious. Logic dictates that a smaller car will get you from A to B faster than a bigger car. But that’s not how our cities work, do they?
Round 4: Rocky and Creed
Words by Aninda Sardar
To my knowledge there are few vehicles that can match the Audi Q7 on the ride quality front. So when Sirish casually mentioned over lunch that he thinks the Hexa has equally good ride quality, I smiled at what I thought was a typical exaggeration to establish a point. Turned out he was serious. In fact, he put his money where it matters and wrote in his first drive review, “The Hexa delivers what is the best ride, over bad roads, that you can get on anything sold in India today.” That, coming from the man who had spent two weeks driving the Q7 up and down the country on our quattro Xpedition.
Now the Hexa is a fifth of the price of a Q7, this is not a comparison test – what I’m out to do is find out how close the Hexa comes to the Audi’s ride quality benchmark. I get a particularly nasty patch of tarmac on my way home and this, I decided would be the perfect testing ground. The Q7 with its sophisticated air suspension skims over this surface filled with ruts and shallow ridges. Only the couple of deep potholes slow it down.
Out of the Q7 and into the Hexa, the initial impression is that at low speeds the Tata is a fair bit stiffer. But the ride improves astonishingly as speeds rise. I keep at it to find out where the chink in the Hexa’s suspension is, but after eight runs I’m still stumped.
Over a coffee break I wonder how a humble double wishbone setup with coil springs at the front and a five-link rigid axle with coil springs at the rear can almost match up to the Q7’s air-sprung independent front and rear setup. The only thing common is both ride on 19-inch rims, though the Audi’s tyres are significantly wider.
Coffee over, I change tack and try again. This time I don’t stop as soon as the patch is over. Instead I carry on till the end of the road to the sharp left-hander and that’s where the difference becomes evident. As long as ride quality is the only parameter the Hexa is nearly as good as the best but the difference in sophistication becomes clear when the question of balance between ride and handling arises. Don’t get me wrong, the Hexa isn’t a bad handler. In fact for its size, the Hexa handles quite well. Except that the Q7 is much, much better.
To be fair, most vehicles from the Tata stable have been good riding cars but the Hexa takes things to a new level. It seems that by aiming for the stars, Tata have landed on the moon.
Round 5: Chalk and Cheese
Words by Aatish Mishra
Fifteen years ago you moved from whatever your first car was to a sedan. A City, or if you’d really, really made it the W124 E-Class – the ultimate embodiment of success. Today though it is an SUV. Whether it’s the Brezza or Fortuner or Q7, an SUV is what everybody wants; what commands respect.
But bullying power aside there are a number of practical considerations to make before you decide on a car or an SUV. Take the Skoda Octavia, the best sedan you can get for Tata Hexa money – would you switch from the obvious choice to an SUV-MPV crossover?
Simply put, the Octavia outdoes the Hexa when it comes to sheer driving pleasure. It’s a superbly knit package, the engine is more powerful, more refined and far more efficient, the gearbox is excellent be it them manual or the absolutely fantastic DSG, the pedals have a superb feel to them, the steering talks to you, the brakes are sharp, the accelerator is well weighted. With all this nestled in a superb chassis, the Octavia can out do, out handle cars a class above on a good road. And did I mention its high-speed cruising ability?
But that’s about it. When the roads start falling apart it has got to slow down. That’s where the Hexa comes in and makes life carefree. The Hexa may not be able to show up the Octavia in terms of The Thrill of Driving, but it certainly does in terms of simply being versatile. In a country where road conditions are fickle, the Hexa certainly offers more peace of mind. Higher ground clearance, a more supple suspension, the option of all-wheel drive should things get really rough — it has got you covered.
Though Tata has come a long, long way when it comes to fit-and-finish, the Octy is still ahead. However, the Hexa has a trick up its sleeve that the Octavia really has no answer to — more seats. The Octy is spacious, quite possibly the most spacious in its class. But seating seven? Erm… pass.
Whether you require a car or an SUV really boils down to utility, but over a week with these two we discovered that the Hexa does make a solid case for itself over one of the very few cars we’d spend our own money over.
Round 6: Kicking up dust
Words by Ryan Lee
We turned off the tarmac and headed straight for the quarry. Scraping the sump guard over a couple of bumps, a very concerned Gaurav, our photo Ed, asked “Will the Hexa manage?” Me being the resident off-road enthusiast took it upon myself to find out.
Now I can testify to the Duster’s capabilities – on our ‘Border Challenge’ series I have gone to the remotest parts of the country, dune bashed in Rajasthan, waded through the waters at Kanyakumari and even made my own trail in the snow near the Indo-China border. It might not have a low-ratio gearbox but the Duster AWD has proved to be more than up to the task of tackling all kinds of situations, both on and off-road.
Having said that, Tata Motors has been in the game long enough. I learnt to drive in dad’s Tata Sierra (two doors and huge rear windows which couldn’t be wound down to cool passengers baking at the back!) and even though it did not have 4WD it could do a hell of a lot. And then there’s the Safari with which we’ve been off-roading all over the country on our Reclaim Your Life series. The Hexa has great DNA then.
Slotted in Rough Road (driving modes, even AWD, is only available on the manual) we continue along the dusty path up to the quarry. Since it sits 10mm lower than the Duster AWD’s 210mm ground clearance it did scrape its underside a few times but apart from that we had no traction issues whatsoever. And with 400Nm of torque (and nearly 50bhp more power than the Duster) the Hexa can motor up steep inclines with ease where the Duster can run out of steam. But off-roading is not only about driving on dirt, it is also the ability to tackle various obstacles.
The ability to drive through a trench is all about the approach and departure angles of your vehicle. The Hexa has a longer wheelbase, longer overhangs and sits lower and that means while driving through a trench you have to be careful not to damage the bumpers. The Duster because of its compact size managed to get through the same challenge with the bumpers intact. Another major factor that comes into play while off-roading is articulation. The Hexa surprised us by going over boulders and bigger obstacles but because the Duster is lighter and more compact it did it with relative ease.
So, when it comes down to off-roading/soft-roading, the AWD Duster does have the upper hand. Then again the Hexa is way more luxurious, spacious and upmarket than the Duster. And when was the last time you found a 7-seater that could be taken off-road?
Final round: The ICOTY
Words by Sirish Chandran
We ended the first round musing about perceptions. Now let me tell you how Creta changed perceptions. Unlike Maruti, Hyundai never shied away from bringing in their more expensive cars and SUVs to India. But, like Maruti, Hyundai was always viewed as a maker of cheap, great value, small cars. Then came the Elite i20 and Hyundai got in excess of 10,000 people a month to spend a considerable amount of money on a small car. That laid the foundations for the Creta, a (compact) SUV that 9000 people are putting their money down on every month. That includes my dad, my uncle, five of my cousins, my CA and many, many friends. All spent over Rs 18 lakh – on a Hyundai! And taking a cue from their readers, Indian automotive journos shook off their obsession with affordability and named it the 2016 Indian Car of the Year. It was, and still is, the most expensive car to win the ICOTY gong. Net result? Today nobody raises an eyebrow at the Elantra’s and Tucson’s prices. The Creta’s success means Hyundai is no longer viewed as (only) a maker of cheap and cheerful cars.
That’s what the Hexa needs to do, to change the perception around the brand so that my friend Anoop will drop twenty lakh rupees on a Tata. To stay squeak and rattle free for the next twelve months so that when auto journos get together at the ICOTY farmhouse in Lonavala the Hexa will be considered seriously.
Whether it will win, who can say? What we did do was drive it to our farmhouse outside of Pune, a journey our long term test Creta does every second weekend, and found the Hexa to be quicker, more comfortable, thirstier too but with more space for family or tractor parts or feed for the bulls. And it doesn’t cost that much more than the Creta (three lakh rupees more) to eliminate it from the reckoning for the ultimate prize. It’s only the start of the year but we already have a strong contender for the 2018 ICOTY.