Tata Safari - the original Indian SUV
Tata Safari- the name itself creates an image of a big, strong, burly SUV in our minds. Not just that, the word SUV itself, for an entire generation, was synonymous for Tata's iconic Safari. A firmament in the automotive enthusiast's world for more than 20 years, it also served as a pillar of strength for the brand itself - it was for a long time positioned as the company's flagship product. It was the most important of the Si-Su-Sa coined from the initials of the flag bearing models of the brand namely Sierra, Sumo and Safari.
The Safari was the first made-in-India 4WD SUV and soon after its launch in 1998, received a humongous response from the audiences because of its bold look, off-road capabilities and comfortable ride.
The Safari was popular among enthusiasts, even politicians preferred it and even now is a part of the PMs convoy. For India's rapidly rising middle class, the Safari presented itself to be an aspiration in the 90s and early 2000s. Nothing could even come close to the sheer comfort that it provided and the towering stance that it had, made the puny hatchbacks of the day look well, puny and unimportant. Everyone important or powerful made a beeline for it.
Safari in its first generation (1998-2005)
The Safari made its debut at the 1998 Auto Expo, where it won hearts with its masculine look, a roomy cabin and its off-road capabilities. The first-gen Safari was available with a single powertrain option that was a 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine that churned out 90bhp of power and was mated to a five-speed manual gearbox. The Safari did well when it came to sales numbers from 1998 to 2003 and Tata eventually made the bold move of introducing a 2.1-litre petrol engine variant that produced a colossal 135bhp of power. The petrol-powered model didn't exactly light the sales chart on fire and was plagued by low fuel efficiency. In 2003, the Safari was also offered as a limited edition variant that featured a Sony PlayStation 2, a 10 slot CD and VCD changer, two front headrests with integrated LCD monitors, a refrigerator cum cooler, reverse parking camera with a 130-degree view. The Safari in the first generation came with a sticker of Rs 8.25 lakh for the diesel option and Rs 9.35 lakh for the petrol option which was undoubtedly a hefty sum of money to spend on an SUV.
Safari in its second generation ( 2005-2007)
The second generation of the Safari witnessed a lot of major updates on the exterior as well as the interiors, most importantly a new heart - a 3.0-litre DiCOR diesel engine borrowed from the Tata 407. The new motor churned out 116bhp of power and was also mated to a 5-speed manual transmission. The second-gen Safari was revamped aesthetically with a new front grille, new headlamps and upgraded interiors as well. It was launched at an attractive price tag of Rs. 6.40 lakh and was expected to go against its new rival in the segment, the Mahindra Scorpio.
Safari in its third generation ( 2007-2012)
The second-gen Safari with a new heart obviously emerged as a product with great power and torque on paper but lagged behind when it came to engine refinement which is why Tata came up with a third-gen Safari with a new Euro 4 compliant 2.2-litre DiCOR engine. The engine was peppier than the previous-gen engines and produced 140bhp of power. Not only were the power figures impressive but it also boasted of a host of features on its high end trims like dual airbags, ABS with EBD, rear AC vents and DVD players with LCD screens on front headrests. This generation of Safari was a complete package and Tata continued selling it till 2017 when it was eventually phased out.
Safari in its fourth generation ( 2012-2019)
The Safari nameplate saw its biggest revision in the form of the fourth generation offering, the Safari Storme, which was sold alongside the last generation model - the Safari DiCOR. The Safari Storme was introduced at the 2012 Auto Expo and was based on Tata’s very own X2 platform. The Safari Storme underwent minor tweaks on the 2.2-litre DiCOR engine and replaced its DiCOR badging with a VARiCOR. Additionally, the Storme was offered in 2WD and 4WD options and received a number of cosmetic updates on the outside. The Safari’s macho look was reworked in the Storme to give it a sporty stance and was welcomed by a number of enthusiasts. The Storme, in 2015, received a facelift with a new honeycomb grille that was adapted from the Tata-owned Land Rover. The 2015 update of the Storme also witnessed a peppier engine that was now producing 150bhp of power.
The Army edition of the Safari
Now this version of the Safari was an exclusive offering to the Indian Army from Tata Motors. Besides being offered as bullet-proof variants for the politicians, Tata rolled out its Storme in an army specced version and named it GS800. The army specced version of the Safari Storme offered 60 per cent more payload capacity, 70 per cent more power and 200 per cent more torque as compared to the standard version. The GS800 was selected by the Indian Army after it underwent a 15-month long trial run through some testing terrain all over the country. It was designed and customized in a way to survive both extremely cold and hot regions in the country.
Now that brings us to why Tata discontinued the Safari. The reason was simple. The Safari was getting a little too old in the tooth and with the Nexon positioned below it and the Harrier positioned above, there simply wasn't much value in investing in a segment that the Indian market is shying away from. Around its price point, buyers are by and large looking for compact-SUVs or mid-size SUVs and the market for utilitarian, rugged vehicles is dwindling. Add to that the poor sales numbers of the Safari and it meant curtains for the Safari.
Although the Safari came to be regarded as a symbol of affluence in its early years, it wasn't something that ever sold in large numbers. It set the benchmark when it came to ride quality in the segment and it was tough as nails, but it had way too many flaws. Poor reliability that came to characterize Tata motors' products of the time was an issue with the Tata Safari too. Tata was reluctant to bring it up to scratch and issues like poor refinement stood out like sore thumbs.
The Safari in many ways was the product that defined what Tata as a brand stood for. In a market that was crowded with affordable hatchbacks, the Safari despite its low sales had legions of fans. It was immensely more capable than anything else in the segment and stood out for offering a powerful, fun drive with class-leading ride and handling.
In recent years, Tata Motors has hit the market with a range of new products - with bits of Safari DNA - that, in some ways, are redefining expectations in their respective segments. The Harrier has taken up space once occupied by the Safari and with a Land Rover derived platform is setting the bar for off-road ability and ride quality in the segment. Lower down the range, learnings from the Safari must have trickled down to cars like the Altroz and the Nexon which are class benchmarks in themselves when it comes to ride quality. The Safari's tough as nails image has now transitioned into the Nexon and its 5-star NCAP Safety rating.
The Tata Safari might be no more but for its fans and enthusiasts in general, it will be hard to overlook its contribution to the Indian automotive space for nearly two decades.