Tata, the giant Indian motor manufacturer, didn’t exactly earn its stripes when it launched the original Indica in South Africa about 13 years ago.
Brian Joss – In fact, one motoring magazine advised people not to buy it.
Tata which was founded by Jamsetji Tata in 1868, began distributing trucks here in 1998 with a fully-fledged operation, which in 2004, included passenger cars for the first time.
In the 149 years of its existence Tata has become a global company with interests in everything from hydro-electric power, hospitality and airlines, and they have set up trusts for science and technology, medical research, social studies and performing arts, at universities and other institutes of higher learning.
Tata has manufacturing plants around the world including in South Africa and in England for Jaguar and Land Rover which it bought from Ford in 2008.
But things have changed since the first cheap Indica rattled, squeaked and rumbled its way along the highways and byways of South Africa. Tata seems to have re-invented its products, and perhaps the Bolt introduced two years ago is a sign of things to come.
While I wasn’t exactly expecting a Usain Bolt-type package (Bolt is the record-breaking runner from Jamaica), I was pleasantly surprised when the Bolt was delivered to my doorstep.
Even though the test car, the turbo charged XT 1.2 Revotron, the flagship of the range, won’t stand out in the mall parking lot, it is an attractive looking car. The Bolt, according to Tata, is a culmination of ideas from their three design studios in Pune, India, Coventry, England and Turin, Italy, and the collaboration seems to have paid off.
The appeal of the Bolt does grow on you. Inside there are more surprises: the Harman infotainment centre for one. It’s a sophisticated piece of electronic gadgetry and is easy to operate. It features the usual Bluetooth connectivity, voice command, and shows climate control info, but you still have to use the buttons to choose from the menu, which is not a hardship. The multi-information display has a digital clock, shows outside temperature, includes dual tripmeters, displays instantaneous fuel consumption, average fuel consumption and distance to empty of the 44 litre tank.
The cabin is a pleasant place to be. The plastics are hard, and, although not in the Jaguar class, the chrome, the silver and piano black strips on the dashboard and inner door panels add a touch of refinement. There is also a lot of room for rear seat passengers, and I struggled a bit to find a comfortable driving position via the height adjustable seat.
It has all the mod cons: power windows, front and rear; adjustable electric mirrors, immobiliser and various warning signs.
ABS and two airbags in front are standard. Talking of brakes; those on the Bolt are excellent, as I found when a pedestrian suddenly made a dash for it across the Nelson Mandela Boulevard travelling in to Sea Point. Luckily, there was nobody on my tail, as is the norm with most Cape Town drivers, otherwise there could have been unintended consequences, for me as well.
An unusual feature of the car is the changeable driving modes. There are three different settings for engine response: Sport, Eco and City modes and the Sport is the default setting for the Bolt in South Africa. Which does give the car a more sportier feel.
You can use the Eco mode on the motorways but it’s probably best to keep the speed below 120km/h; above that I felt a distinctive drop in power, and I needed to do a lot of gear changing, especially on the steeper gradients and when cornering. The City mode, as the name implies, is best suited to heavy traffic conditions and it delivers a bit more power to help you take that gap when you need it. The electronic power steering is a boon too, when you’re negotiating the gridlock, or trying to, anyway.
New is the 1.2-litre Revotron engine, which produces 66kW and 140 N.m between 1 500 rpm and 4 000 rpm. I didn’t feel any turbo lag to speak of, and although the shifts through the five speed manual gearbox is smooth, in slow traffic the Bolt has an irritating habit of stuttering, I think the problem is the transmission, the front wheel drive vehicle hops along when you change to second at low speeds, possibly because the first gear is too short and the second gear is too long.
The sedan has a luggage capacity of 360 litres, the hatch has 210 litres, enough space for your monthly shop and if you’re going away, some suitcases and a few other odds and ends you may need. There is a storage drawer under the driver’s seat, and if you get thirsty there is one ubiquitous cup holder in the front.
As always the big question is: how does it drive? The Bolt handles well, the ride is comfortable and it sticks to the road although there is some body roll if you take a corner too fast. The petrol engine is perky and the Bolt sails along quite happily at the legal limit. There is power to spare if you want to overtake. It’s also reasonably happy in slow traffic except for that disconcerting stammer at low speeds. There is hardly any engine or road noise but the whistle of the wind was markedly high, but not enough to drown out the music from the Harman sound system, which also has a speed sensitive volume control.
The Bolt is not that frugal with fuel and in a town and country cycle I recorded figures of just over 7 litres/ 100 km, and my test route included all kinds of traffic conditions.
Would I take the test car to Johannesburg? It ticks most of the boxes: space, comfort, a smooth ride and I’m sure it will cruise along quite happily on those long stretches, especially the one from Bloemfontein to Kroonstad. So the answer is a reluctant yes, but only because of the manual gearbox (and the 44 litre tank) although there is talk about an XT being fitted with automatic transmission. Then the answer would be a resounding yes.
That said, if I were in the market for a new set of wheels I would give the Bolt a second look. I didn’t expect much from the car but I really enjoyed driving it and if this is a sign of things to come from Tata, then expect to see many more of their passenger vehicles on the road. Competitors include the Honda Brio; the Suzuki Swift, the Renault Sandero and Toyota’s Etios.
Unlike most other marques, the emblem on the boot tells you that the model is an XT Revotron. Many motor makers leave this out, probably as a cost-saving measure, and it gets very confusing when there are sometimes up to 12 derivatives and more in a range.
The sedan comes with a price tag of R177 995 (check with your dealer) and it includes a five- year/ 100 000km factory warranty, a two- year / 30 000km Service Plan and five-year roadside assistance.