First Drive: 2015 Tata Bolt

First Drive: 2015 Tata Bolt

It has been two days since I arrived from India. And my grey matter is still reeling from the sensory overload.

It is hard to fathom the scale of things out there — the sheer volume of people, cars and motorcycles. The population of Mumbai alone is estimated to be 22 million, roughly 10 times the number of people living in Namibia. And when you look at the skyline of the coastal city, with its skyscrapers and an assortment of construction activities, it seems to be a sign of the development that the nation is be undergoing.

But let us flip the calendar back 147 years, to when a man laid the foundations of one of the companies that pioneered the industrialisation of India. In 1869, Jamsetji Tata converted a bankrupt oil mill for the production of cotton. Today, the global enterprise is a monolith, with some 95 companies under its belt. And its portfolio is incredibly diverse.

Salt, steel, software, beverages and hospitality — there is a stake in pretty much every facet of human life. Of course, Tata also happens to make cars. And while there might be more than eight million models from the stable roaming Indian roads, their presence in South Africa is unassuming to say the least. There are plans to change this. Gleaning more about the details of just how Tata aims to succeed was the purpose of our visit to the company’s headquarters in Mumbai and production facilities in Pune.

Tata Motors South Africa CEO Kyri Michael feels optimistic about the development of the brand locally, but stresses that the new models are vital to success. Between now and 2020, two new products will be launched each year for the Indian domestic market, we heard from Mayank Pareek, president of the Tata passenger vehicles business unit. One of the offerings is the Bolt hatchback and compact sedan.

You already know that existing models such as the Indica, Vista and Manza never truly succeeded in gaining traction on the local scene. And there was really no mystery as to why. In the face of more accomplished peers from established brands, they paled in comparison, with questionable quality, outdated powertrains and ungainly aesthetics. During an interview, Mukund Govind Rajan, group executive council member and brand custodian, said the bar needed to be raised. “As a group, we were probably not spending enough on research and development, and we are going to invest more here,” he said.

For the most part, the Bolt was conceived on a clean sheet of paper and is the first taste of the company’s Horizonext strategy, promising a drastic improvement in the areas of design, performance and, of course, the ever-growing demand for greater connectivity in the cars we drive. Naturally, you are wondering whether the fruits from the Jaguar/Land Rover acquisition will play a role in all this. And the answer is yes. We were told that, gradually, the expertise gained from having these two brands under its wing will filter down to Tata passenger cars. As an example, there is already a research and development centre based in Coventry in the UK.

But back to the Bolt, the main reason for our trip. We sampled the car at the Tata test track on the premises of the Pune manufacturing facility. In its home market, it went on sale in January this year and has not struggled to earn plaudits. “There were so many critics from the Indian motoring press,” explained John O’Connor, formerly of Ford, who is now responsible for compact car development at Tata. “And nobody expected what we gave them.”

And certainly, the Bolt has several merits that could entice buyers in a segment dominated by evergreen players such as the Volkswagen Polo Vivo, Toyota Etios, Suzuki Celerio, Ford Figo, Honda Brio and Renault Sandero. For starters, there will be a newly developed turbocharged engine doing duty under the hood. Power is rated at 66Kw and 140Nm of torque; its birth is the result of collaborating with some of the top international automotive component suppliers. For our market, it will be available with a five-speed manual transmission only. As a small-car power source, there is little wrong with the 1.2litre, four-cylinder mill. So we simply cannot expect the performance to be as lightning- quick as the title on its rear implies.

But it is certainly peppy and seemed to climb to freeway speeds with relative ease, which is important when you consider the driving conditions in our market. I think this goes without saying in 2015, but ABS and dual frontal airbags are standard fare. Planting the anchors from 120km/h saw the Bolt stop with impressive stability. This is something you probably would not say of one of Tata’s current offerings in South Africa. We struck nothing with our Bolt, save for a little bit of unease in Michael riding passenger, perhaps.

Overall, the Bolt feels like a sturdy product and should begin the erosion of those perceptions that (rightfully) plague Tata’s older offerings. Another trump card in the segment will be the ConnectNext digital interface. One might even say it could give a system from a certain American manufacturer a run for its dollar. It features a touchscreen, voice command, SMS notifications and readouts, video playback, and USB and Bluetooth compatibility.

The audio system comes from Harman, the same brand that owns Harman Kardon, JBL, Infinity and Mark Levinson — all revered names among audiophiles. Now, for all the virtues boasted by the new Bolt, we cannot overlook the glaring issue of perception. And I think this is the biggest challenge it will face in our market, given our fiercely brand loyal nature. But buyers can expect keen pricing.

Despite the precarious nature of the rand, Imperial Group backed Accordian Investments, The local distributor of Tata, is working hard to bring the Bolt in at a competitive price. There was talk of the range topping model selling for around R150 000. Furthermore, the model sold in our market is also likely to benefit from a considerably longer warranty than in India. Measures such as these would go a long way in helping Tata gain a foothold in the market and would bolster the appeal of what is a surprisingly accomplished product. The Bolt arrives in South Africa next month.

-Brenwin Naidu