“The Tata Punch is a legitimate SUV,” says Martin Uhlarik, Head of Global Design, Tata Motors
Tata Motors has just unveiled the Punch sub-compact SUV after months of anticipation. Martin Uhlarik, Head of Global Design at Tata Motors, talks about how the Punch fits the definition of a 'small SUV’, and how it carries the Tata family DNA in terms of styling. He also talks about the ALFA architecture and mentions the challenges faced in terms of interior packaging and both on-road and off-road dynamics.
Here is the full conversation with Martin Uhlarik, Head of Global Design, Tata Motors
Sirish Chandran: So, Martin Uhlarik, obviously these cars are not an overnight piece of work. How long have you been working on the Punch?
Martin Uhlarik: We’ve been working on the Punch for the better part of three years. Usually, product development takes about 36 months before the start of production. A couple of months before that, in terms of product definition, we figure out its positioning in the market, what typology it will be, and so forth. Of course we were developing the platform even before that with some options in mind. I've been with the company for five years, and I will say the better part of my career has been focused on delivering this vehicle.
Sirish Chandran: So this has been your baby right from the start
Martin Uhlarik: Yes, the timing of it was pretty appropriate, in the sense that just when I joined the company, this programme was really accelerating, and so it's been the focal point.
Sirish Chandran: We saw this as the HBX at the Auto Expo, and this final production car is almost the same as the concept. Was that done intentionally?
Martin Uhlarik: Yes. I think it was very important to show a level of reliability and confidence. Sometimes you have a concept vehicle that can be really exciting and really dramatic, and when you see the production car, there's a little bit of "oh well, I wish it hadn’t lost something in the translation" and all that. We did the H2X concept at Geneva, and that was where we defined we want to go into the sub-compact SUV segment. And then of course, at the Delhi Auto Expo, over 18 months ago, we showed the HBX and the difference between that, in terms of promise and the production version, is really small.
Sirish Chandran: Calling this an SUV, is it not a bit of a stretch?
Martin Uhlarik: No, not really. Actually it was always defined as a small SUV. Right from the beginning we wanted to create something that has a really strong stance, and as you saw with the clips this morning, it's more than capable off-road. When we were designing it, the ride height, the ramp angles, also the wheel positions — all of that had to communicate that SUV-ness. So, it's a legitimate SUV for sure.
Sirish Chandran: Is it intentional that the front face looks very much like the Harrier and the Safari?
Martin Uhlarik: Yeah, and I think that's not a bad thing. The Harrier and the Safari have been very strong entry points and really defined our brand from a premium position and also SUV capability. And you've seen with the Nexon facelift — we've brought everything in line out so there's a real family DNA going across the range. This car only benefits from those vehicles being its stablemates.
Sirish Chandran: The 16-inch wheels — how hard did you have to fight to get that? Or did you want to go bigger?
Martin Uhlarik: Of course, the designers always want optimum proportions. When we were reviewing the wheel sizes in scale models, in full-size models, we were trying to find the right balance. It's also about finding the wheel and tyre size that's right for the customers in terms of affordability and reliability and so forth. We felt like 16-inches was just the right balance.
Sirish Chandran: Now with the new Safari, you drew inspiration from the older Safari in terms of its design. With the Punch, where did you take inspiration from?
Martin Uhlarik: To be honest, the design process was 'form follows function, intelligent design.' We identified the package envelope — it is a small car, and at the same time we wanted to make sure that the interior doesn't look claustrophobic. We wanted the people sitting inside to have a commanding driving position, the ‘SUV characteristic’ as you mention. We wanted to make the windows very high and the A-pillar and windscreen very upright to give it a very functional stature. At the same time we wanted to make sure that the wheels are in the corners and that the wheel arches are visible, so there's a real balancing act between the spacious interior without making it look top-heavy or bloated, and actually get a really good stance on the car to communicate that SUV flavour.
Sirish Chandran: Now the Punch is actually quite tall, is there a challenge as to how tall you can make this before it starts to feel top-heavy in terms of driving dynamics?
Martin Uhlarik: Yes it is. You can constantly go higher and higher for more interior space, but then it doesn't balance and go into a never-ending problem where you have to increase the wheel size to balance the height. We've made sure that the height of the door is just right to get in and out of, and when you sit inside it feels spacious. The fact that we have wraparound graphics on the A-pillar in black, and you have the floating roof — those are visual tricks to make the car look shorter than it is, because all the lines are running horizontally.
Sirish Chandran: Tata Motors’ cars have had a reputation of being extremely spacious no matter what the footprint. Is that also one of the challenges you faced with the Punch?
Martin Uhlarik: Yeah, I think our values are really about the humanity of the brand. People who are using our products have to have a positive experience. It cannot be in the realm of styling, or something fashionable. It has to be about getting from A to B in the most productive way — that has to be the driving factor of any design that we do. Afterwards, of course, we want to make it as beautiful as possible and make it as attractive as possible. It's a functional vehicle — you want to use it, you want to have the freedom to go where you want to go. If you park the vehicle and you're walking away, you should turn to look at it and even if it brings a smile to your face just by being an attractive product, it enhances your day. Even just that one smile for three seconds will make your day better.
Sirish Chandran: The ALFA architecture — how well does it lend it towards your work, in terms of design and styling?
Martin Uhlarik: Very well, because we were a part of the development of the architecture. Design is about actually defining the parameters of the vehicle. We worked very closely with the engineering team, platform development team and the packaging team. We made a number of ergonomic parts, a number of proportion models and we assessed them and we audited them. Then we look at the bandwidth of the platform in terms of what products it could be on, and what each product should be doing as a role. It is very advanced work, but design was definitely a part of it. It's when you define the package and the platform that the cake is baked. Once you've done that, it's very hard to go back and make it look attractive. So we made a lot of work making sure that the wheels and proportions are correct and so forth. That's what I actually call the design phase or the process.
Sirish Chandran: How different is the platform here compared to the Altroz?
Martin Uhlarik: It's obviously a shorter vehicle but the floor is modular, and at the same time most of the units, from a technical point of view are common. Of course things like the firewall and all the technical hardpoints inside are common hardpoints, but at the same time it is a different product. There is an elasticity in the platform that allows us to make both an Altroz and a small SUV like the Punch.
Sirish Chandran: The rear of the Punch does not have that much of a family resemblance, or is there?
Martin Uhlarik: To be honest, this is quite a unique rear end. It's important that we don't create a Russian-doll look either. We want a feeling that it fits in the stable with its larger SUV brothers, but at the same time, this is a very young, dynamic product and it has to have that energy. For instance, the line that runs around the rear light and becomes the fender on the rear, it really pulls the corners of the vehicle out. And all of the lines on the back are running horizontally, to make the car look as wide as possible. We had a number of design proposals, first we developed sketches, then we made digital models and finally made a number of full-size models. Then we have a selection, and this was definitely the theme that best communicated what we wanted to with the Punch.
Sirish Chandran: You have design teams in the UK, in India and in Italy who have been working on this together. But which team did the final exterior design?
Martin Uhlarik: It's not as clear-cut as that. We had proposals from every studio, both exterior and interior. The fact remains that we have quite a mixed group. We actually have designers from India working in Europe, and then we have Europeans working in India. So even there the lines get blurred, and then at the same time, both the exterior and interior were selected in one location, but then because of our resources and where we had the capability, we actually did the production development in another location. So the three studios are like one design studio but three locations. They communicate on a daily basis multiple times, so you almost don't realize what's coming from where and even now, post Punch, we have weekly design reviews and I just see the work being presented. I don't even know what location or what the source is. There's such a consistency in terms of quality levels and creativity that it's actually quite inspiring.