Summer, 1999. As a young Mechanical Engineering student it was that time of my three-year Diploma course when everyone hunted for an internship. I got mine at one of the biggest dealers for TELCO (now Tata Motors) in Bombay – I was 17 and learning the ropes of the automotive sales and service industry in those few months. The first generation Indica was just out and it was on its way to being a staple sight on Indian roads. History is history, but what constituted that history has become legacy for Tata Motors. While history gets forgotten, legacy sticks like glue for a long, long time. But even then the Indica was actually a revolutionary product. In a market full of rather staid or ugly small cars, the Indica was that cute little pet that stood out with its pretty appearances. It was Tata Motors’ first-ever passenger car but regardless, the quality of its construction did leave a lot to be desired – even when just visually inspected. Over the years the Indica shed a lot of its panel gaps and rough edges to gain the Vista suffix but legacy stuck.
Somewhere along the next 15 years since my internship I managed to get an education in Automobile Engineering and then started writing about the machines I loved the most – cars and bikes. By 2014, Tata Motors had some neat products in its passenger car portfolio – the Aria being one of the most underestimated of the lot. It was also the time for a revolution at Tata Motors with their Horizonext philosophy – the Zest and the Bolt being the first real-life manifestations of the new-age technology that was being brought in. The cars themselves are built to standards that you’d expect of International brands – they’re robust, efficient, refined and pack as many gadgets as you’d expect to find in any other cars in the segment if not more. Despite being all-new, the Zest and Bolt still have that visual connect with the Indigo sedan and the Indica hatch thanks to the design coming out to be more of an evolution of the company’s design philosophy of the past decade. Unfortunately, the legacy of the brand’s past continues to theoretically haunt them, making potential buyers think twice.
As 2015 begins to die down making way for another new year, Tata Motors has now unveiled the much talked about Zica and if you don’t quite know what car we’re talking about it’s because till now it was being called the Kite while under testing. What is the Zica? Well, it’s a hatchback and it sits a little below the Bolt in terms of segment positioning but if you ask us, it’s probably the biggest thing to happen at Tata Motors since the launch of the Indica all those years back – which is also probably why they chose to call it that instead of ‘Kite’ – it has a sort of connect with the name, doesn’t it? Now I know that the moment you read that statement of mine, most of you threw your arms up and thought, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The biggest thing to happen at Tata Motors since the Indica has to be the Zest!” If that’s what happened, clear your mind and let me explain.
While the Zest and the Bolt were the first products to signify the dawn of Horizonext, they were also pretty much the spiritual replacements for the Indigo (Manza) and the Indica (Vista). The design on the cars is also an evolution of the older design philosophy – a more modern representation of the classic form of the Tata hatchback and sedan. Yes, they saw a move to more horizontal lines especially when it comes to the tail ends rather than the vertical hues of the previous models, but that was just one element. Probably the biggest departure for the two cars from the older design philosophy though was in terms of the interiors. Under the bonnet, they stuck with the same engine capacities as well – though the Revotron 1.2T now came equipped with a turbo. In that sense, the Zest and Bolt had taken Tata Motors to a level more comparable to the rest of their competition, if not slightly higher than some. With the Zica though, it’s about taking things way beyond.
The lines differentiating one segment from the next are forever fading but I always like saying that the Zica is a car that sits probably half a segment lower than the Bolt in terms of size and price (presumably, since that’s something we will know once it launches early in 2016). But it is the Zica which truly highlights Tata Motors’ Horizonext philosophy better than the Zest and Bolt ever managed to do. That itself has nothing to do with the two cars as products but more to do with the other cars competing for the same space – the gadgets offered have become the norm for that kind of car and in relative terms, it isn’t really a eureka moment when you read off the features list on the Zest and Bolt, despite both these cars being remarkable products.
But when you bring in that level of gadgetry in the segment that the Zica is aiming to woo, it truly stands out – this isn’t an also-ran kind of car in the competition but has a lot of stuff going for it that you’d expect to see in bigger, more expensive cars. The engines are new too – both diesel and petrol motors sporting three cylinder setups in the Zica which come in with their own inherent advantages. In fact, the diesel-driven Zica is the platform for the introduction of a completely new brand of engines for Tata Motors – RevoTorq is what they’re calling it. While all of that is impressive enough, it isn’t the most important part about the Zica that caught our attention. Where the Zica really got us going was with its design, which in a nutshell is the dawn of a whole new design theme for its manufacturer’s products that we hope to see more of in the near future. It doesn’t look anything like any of Tata’s previous cars and we’d go out on a limb and confidently state that if you removed all of the badging and were seeing the Zica for the first time, you’d be hard pressed to think that it was more European than Indian.
As one passerby aptly put it while inquisitively checking out the car as we carried on with our photo shoot, “It doesn’t feel like a Tata product at all.” And that pretty much sums up the predicament that we feel Tata Motors is up against with the Zica. The statement is what raises mixed emotions for the car’s future as far as we’re concerned. On the outset, it sounds like the greatest compliment – which it absolutely is, coming from a guy who was driving a hugely successful Korean competitor to the Bolt. Read between the lines though and it hints at the past, which is where the whole talk about legacy kicks in. The problem with that is something that has nothing to do with the car itself, nor with the dealership and service network. It’s all about perception here and the only way one can do proper justice to the Zica as a car that is actually pretty damn good is to separate preset mindsets before taking a more detailed look.
It’s not impossible to change buyer’s perceptions either – all you need is the right product at the right time and the means to back it up. Maruti has done that twice now – first with the Swift where it managed to get away from the 800cc commuter reputation. Maruti has done it again now (after a few failed attempts nonetheless) with its Nexa sales model, the S-Cross and the reborn Baleno. The Zica could very well be the product that does it for Tata Motors – and in that sense the Zica is to us, the most important product to come out of its factories since the Indica. Then of course you have to consider the ‘Made of Great‘ campaign that Tata Motors has recently kicked off with probably one of the most famous names of modern day soccer – Lionel Messi. The Zica will be the first new product to be promoted by the fast-footer and that itself speaks loads about the confidence the company itself has in what they’ve made. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we’ll be looking at the Tata Zica for the product that it is – first in terms of the design and then in terms of the way it drives in two separate articles – because sometimes to understand the bigger picture, you have to delve deep into the details.