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Tata Hexa First Drive: Breaking boundaries

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All obvious questions aside, here’s the big one that springs to our minds when we look at the Tata Hexa – is it an MPV like the Aria itself, or the Toyota Innova Crysta and Mahindra Xylo; or is it an SUV that will go up against the Mahindra XUV 500? It’s a tough answer too – it’s got seven seats but also comes with 4×4 packed into the manual transmission version. We’ll put that on the side for a while because then there’s another persistent question popping up – is it any good? The answer to this one’s easy – Oh Yes it is! To explain why is a matter of various sides of the story.

 

Tata Motors Hexa engine Varicor 400
Same same, but different. The 2.2 Varicor now makes 400Nm

 

What’s under the hood?

First stop – where the power comes from. Under that chiselled hood is Tata Motors’ Varicor 400 engine – the same one that now powers the Safari Storme. While the Storme makes do with 150PS and 320Nm, the Hexa gets its Varicor motor tuned to deliver 156PS – which is not much of a jump really when it comes to power. Diesel engines are all about the torque though and that’s where the meat of the Hexa story is – 400Nm is an impressive figure after all – especially when it peaks between 1700-2700 rpm. What that basically means is that all that torque is present right where you need it on the rev range; where most of the car’s operation will take place. The mill itself has been kept vibe-free and thanks some decent insulation, there is no more than an acceptable level of diesel hum that seeps into the cabin.

 

Tata Motors Hexa engine Varicor 400
The Varicor 400 is mated to 6-speed Manual and Automatic gearboxes – take your pick!

 

The Tata Hexa may have only one engine option, but when it comes to the transmissions, there are two right from the very beginning and that really shows how well Tata Motors has caught on to the pulse of the segment of buyers the Hexa is vying for. Customers will be able to choose either a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed Automatic gearbox and in the end it will boil down to personal preference. The Manual comes with a light, self-adjusting clutch which means it isn’t all that a workout in traffic either. The gearbox is slick and slots in confidently into every gear – shift feel is still a little rubbery though but not anywhere close to being even remotely annoying. First time Hexa drivers may find it a little difficult slotting into 5th gear but that’s just because we’re used to a hard stop on the right on every other car – shift with a slightly lighter hand and it slots in perfectly – not to mention, it doesn’t require huge biceps to do so either!

 

The Automatic ‘box is nothing short of a revelation – on a vehicle this size without the involvement of two sets of clutches you generally expect it to be sluggish and ungainly – but it’s quite the opposite. The auto’box shifts nice and fast – both in D and S modes, keeping the Hexa in the peak of the torque band all along. For times when you’ve got to get into racing driver mode, it even has Sports and Auto sensing ‘Race Car mode’ which essentially makes things aggressive when the throttle is depressed more than 80% of the way – great in those twisties! So while the Automatic is convenient as expected (isn’t that why they were invented in the first place?), the Manual transmission isn’t all that big a step down either.

 

Tata Motors Hexa SUV rear three quarter styling
Powerful, driveable and stable – what more could you ask for?

 

While all of the electronics give the Hexa some mad capability, the core competence of any car comes from its engine-transmission relationship. The 2.2 litre Varicor 400 does make 400Nm, but the Hexa is also lugging around a 2280kg kerb weight – which compared to the Hexa’s previous X2 platform siblings (the Aria and Safari Storme), is still much lighter. Let’s just face the fact that this is a diesel so turbo lag does exist but the Hexa does a good job of eliminating it as far as it can. The sweet spot is obviously around 2000rpm but even when you’re stuck in traffic the Hexa is pretty driveable thanks to the gear ratios on the manual gearbox. While first gear is short (4.3), second is tall (2.25), which means all you have to do is keep it slotted in 2nd and chug along.

 

The Hexa manual picks up decently from low speeds in 3rd as well and while you may still have to work the gearbox a bit, the light clutch and responsive engine keep things fatigue-free. The Auto-box seemed to be the hot favourite with everyone though – it simply runs like a dream and is quite unexpected from a manufacturer who hasn’t quite experimented with these kinds of transmissions before. The Hexa, regardless of the transmission is decently quick off the line too, thanks to all that torque and we managed a totally respectable 170 km/h on one of the empty stretches with potential for more if there was more room on the highway. Fuel efficiency is something we won’t comment on for now – with all the high-revving that we do on test drives, the figures we get there are hardly a measure of the true numbers.

 

Tata Motors Hexa _Super Drive Modes Traction Control
Terrain Response : Land Rover = Super Drive Modes : Tata Motors

 

Techno-wizardry galore

The debate between Automatic and Manual transmissions on the Hexa actually extends beyond just personal driving preferences, because it’s the manual Hexa that has the exclusive privilege (at least for now), of getting Tata Motors’ Super Drive Modes. Crudely put, this feature is the answer to that long-standing question that we got to hear at every Tata and Jaguar-Land Rover press conference over the past many years – “when do we see Tata products benefit from Land Rover technology?” Let me put it simply then – Terrain Response is to Land Rover what Super Drive Modes are to the Tata Hexa.

 

The system lets you choose between Auto, Comfort, Dynamic and Rough Road through a simple twist of a dial just ahead of the gear lever. The electronics in the car then alter the settings for the ABS, Traction Control and ESP as well as throttle response to suit to how you feel like driving. Comfort mode smoothens things out so variations in throttle input translate to mellow changes in the engine’s response – Dynamic makes things sharper for when you really want to stretch the Hexa’s legs. Auto simply takes the call itself and Rough Road adapts everything to suit a track full of loose gravel. You can instantly feel the difference in the way the Hexa accelerates and brakes in each of the modes. To top that off, there’s Hill Hold Control and Hill Descent Control on the Hexa as well. And if you wanted even more, the Hexa will pre-fill its hydraulic brake lines too, for better braking response!

 

Tata Motors Action Railway track
Ride quality is unbelievable, handling even more so!

 

Manners and mannerisms

The good-road part of the Hexa Experience lasted about 160km on the outskirts of Hyderabad and the Hexa did impress us much. It was when we were ferried around in the passenger seat on a purpose-made off-road track though that the real revelation happened. With a course as challenging as any we’ve seen on showcase drives for proper SUVs, there was nothing that could have prepared us for the mad off-road capabilities of the Hexa – and this is what makes this car more of an SUV than a people carrier in my opinion. The Super Drive Modes, Hill Descent, Traction Control and ABS all work their magic to really drive that buying decision through for the Hexa. It’s truly unbelievable.

 

While most people won’t really go off-roading in a Hexa, and it is prepared if they do, the suspension setup is another thing that amazed us – especially at low speeds. Rarely have I ever seen a vehicle soak up everything this well – revised damper ratings and 19″ tyres help along the way. And then there’s the handling – with a vehicle that has its engine equipped for the twisties when required, the suspension keeps up extremely well through the corners. There is no hint of how big this car is and it just lets you throw it around at will – the electronics obviously keeping things in check as well.

 

Tata Motors Hexa Exterior Styling details
It’s the details that add up to a gorgeous design

 

Boy, does it look good!

Let me be very blunt here and openly declare what I truly feel about the Hexa – if you don’t think this is a good looking vehicle, maybe it’s time you visited a psychiatrist. While I will be talking in detail about the styling on the Hexa and its evolution from where the Aria left off in the next edition of Design Diary, the presence that the Hexa brings with it is unmissable. This is one butch machine and every line of every crease shouts out its macho credentials. And then there are those little doses of chrome too – which I generally tend to hate on most cars – but on the Hexa, they just seem to blend in at the perfect spots. In many ways the Hexa’s design is still a step further on the same path that the Aria was a previous destination on, but the transformation is just the way it needed to be – especially when Tata Motors decided to ditch the vertical tail lamp cluster for a more rugged horizontal one.

 

Tata Motors Hexa Interior Styling Details
Great materials + superb build quality = Premium feel

 

The same emotions continue on inside the Hexa – still the familiar layout of the Aria, but miles ahead in ergonomics, look, feel and quality. Just like on the outside, the Hexa’s cabin isn’t about curves – it’s about visually solid surfaces that come together to form a symphony of the feeling of ruggedness. The true brilliance of the Hexa’s design is in the confusion it creates as it blends in the practical ergonomics of a people carrier with the tough details of an SUV and in the process ends up appealing to customers who are looking for either of the two body styles. It’s extremely tough to not like the Hexa – especially if it’s kitted out with all those outdoorsy accessories – it makes you want to go camping right away!

 

Tata Motors Hexa Connectivity and JBL speakers
Loads of gadgetry for the geeks too!

 

Five years ago, connectivity may have been limited to getting Bluetooth capability on your music system. Today, it’s the norm and connectivity has gone even further. The Hexa brings in Tata Motors’ ConnectNext App which essentially helps control everything from navigation, music, mood lighting and even booking your service. The entire user’s manual is available on the App as well – we haven’t tried but we’re sure it could make for some good bathroom reading too. And then there’s the music system – a 10-speaker JBL system built using Harman tech and perfectly tuned for the Hexa. They say Tata Motors’ spent 1000 hours tuning it right and we don’t doubt it – the audio quality is one of the best we’ve ever heard in any car – regardless of the price!