Potholed roads a moon rover would balk at and speed breakers that could double up as anti-tank defences - no wonder India loves compact SUVs. It’s now Tata’s turn, and boy, have they swung for the fences or what.

Tata’s been on a roll for the past year - about time we say. The company that gave us the Sierra (fess up, old-timers, you all wanted one) and the Safari (the big, bad SUV you didn’t want tailgating you) seemed to have lost their way with a slew of cars that were competent enough but couldn’t be termed exciting, not by a long stretch. That’s changed recently - as we realised when we drove the mighty Hexa and the very likeable Tigor. Yup, Tata have been hard at work regaining their mojo - and they’re succeeding at it.

That brings us to the Nexon. Tata’s new compact SUV steps into the Indian car market’s fast-growing segment - one with some pretty well established competition. No, it’s not gonna be an easy ride for the Nexon considering who it’s up against, and it’ll need to wade into battle armed to the gills.

 

Look at me

It’s striking, all right. Chunky headlamps, high-set fogs, flared arches, silver-and-black alloys, a white ‘slingshot line’ and inserts, a grey roof that swoops down like a coupe, an X-shaped motif at the rear. The Nexon’s no shrinking violet and it makes its presence clear.

A few might find the exterior styling a bit overdone, others might find it extroverted in just the right way, but whatever your opinion is, you gotta agree it’s rather striking. We’re on the ‘it looks smashing’ side of things (the looks also begin to grow on you). After all, you’re not buying a boring executive sedan; you’re going for a crossover (one which shows your ‘ride it to Leh’ spirit hasn’t been killed off by a 9-to-5 job) and you want it to look the part.

At the same time, what you’ll also love about the Nexon’s styling is that it comes across as being rather confident of what it is - a mid-sized hatchback-slash-crossover that can handle bad roads with aplomb. No boxy lines better suited to a ladder-on-frame 4x4, no spare-tyre-at-the-back pretensions of being a cousin to the Rainforest Challenge bunch.

Yes, this is a car that knows what it is. And we like that. The Nexon sits wide and squat on the ground, with the roofline making it look ‘fast’ even when standing still. A great job by Tata’s design team, we gotta say. Step out and walk away, and you just catch yourself turning back to look at it.

Comfortably smiling

Step inside and prepare to smile. You’ll love the very-chic and very-European interiors. A start-stop button sits on the fascia, there’s a chunky mode selector dial (more on that later) ahead of the gearshift, a classy sliding-door mechanism covers the cup-holders, there’s a nice armrest, and the high centre console is something you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see in what’s really a mass-market vehicle. The massive (and cooled) glove box has a removable partition which can double up as a tray when you’re taking a snack break (at Khardung-La, of course), there are slots for umbrellas on the front doors (wish they were larger as it was nearly impossible to slot the umbrellas back in), the rear passengers get cooling vents.

But let’s get back to the high-set centre console. The sliding ‘tambour’ door is pretty slick and, again, is something you’d expect from a car that costs a lot more. Now, all these things aren’t really essential, but as something which elevates the driving experience? They go a long way. Yeah, it’s small touches like these that make the Nexon seem quite a compelling drive.

Meanwhile, the seats are comfy with nice side bolstering, and lumbar support. However, those of us on the heftier side might find the underthigh support a bit lacking. The Nexon’s also wide enough that front passengers won’t get dirty looks from the chap behind the steering wheel.

But the highlight (apart from the centre console) is the high-mounted infotainment screen (more on that later as well). It’s perfectly placed so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road; it’s sharp and has an anti-glare finish. And even though it’s not the fastest, it’s still decently responsive - we didn’t notice any missed touches. And yes, it supports Android Auto (Apple CarPlay is on its way). Tata also gives (just like in the Hexa and the Tigor) hardware buttons so you can navigate through the interface without having to reach forward and tap the screen.

The rear seats? Comfy, and there’s even an armrest with cupholders. Luggage space? 350 litres (690l when the seats are folded to a ‘flattish’ position), which is pretty decent. The only complaint we have with the interiors is that some of the plastic bits didn’t seem to be fitted with the highest precision, but keep in mind these niggles should be sorted out over the coming months.

Diesel power

It’s good-looking. And it’s comfy. But the real question is - how is it to drive. At launch the Nexon will come with a choice of two motors - a 1.2 turbo petrol (the Revotron) and a 1.5 turbo diesel (Revotorq) - both rated at 110ps and paired with a 6-speed manual transmission (AMT versions should be out before April 2018).

We first drove the petrol. This 1.2 turbo petrol is a quiet one, indeed. Combined with a soft clutch and smooth gearshifts, it’s fun when driven aggressively. We were impressed with the overall smoothness, and it makes for a quiet-yet-fun drive around the city - or on a highway. But the twisty sections of the Western Ghats near Idukki proved to be its undoing. That’s where the lack of low-down torque really came into play and we often had to downshift to first to make progress on steep climbs. Hill starts were equally annoying. But drive it on a flat stretch and the fizzy engine was more than fun. The soft and none-too-progressive clutch did make for a few jerky starts but it’s something we soon got used too.

The petrol’s fun enough (unless you’re powering up a steep hill), but the diesel blows it out of the water. The oil-burner’s decent low-end and meaty mid range is just what you need to overtake cars with ease. Hill climbs are easy and you’re not forced to keep rowing the gears. It does run out of steam once past 4500 RPM but keep it in the powerband and you’ll be rewarded. But on the whole, it’s one brilliant engine. We’d even go so far as to say this is one of the best small diesel motors you’ll find in an Indian vehicle. It’s tractable in the city and has a meaty mid range that’s perfect for the highway. And with a 6-speed gearbox, you’ll find yourself cruising comfortably on our newer expressways.

Before we go on, the Nexon features a dial with engine driving modes. There’s Eco (a bit too weak and best left for, hmmm, never), City, which smoothens the engine response, and Sports, which is what we’d stick to anytime outside of rush hour. The difference might be slim, but it’s one of those feel-good things sprinkled around the Nexon.

Rough rider

Ride and handling? Well, that’s one area Tata’s cars have usually excelled in and the Nexon’s no different. The meaty 16in wheels (with 205-section tyres) and the suspension smothers imperfections and easily takes the edge off the worst potholes, while the 209mm (yes, that’s correct) ground clearance gives you peace of mind when out in the back of beyond. You’ll notice some body roll, but the wide-and-squat Nexon never feels uncomfortable. The steering is well-weighted and firms up nicely as you go faster. A very European feel, overall.

All geeked up

Been waiting for this section, haven’t you? Well, where do we start. First up, safety (we’re the responsible sort). All variants of the Nexon get airbags with ABS and EBD (a very commendable move from Tata). There’s Cornering Stability Control. ISOFIX mounts for kiddie seats. Happy? We are, too.

Here’s what else our review cars (the top-of-the-line XZ+ variant) had: We’ve mentioned the engine mode dial, which switches between Eco, City, and Sport modes. Well, it looks like the gearshift from a Jaguar. Overkill for something you might not use that much, but it’s a nice, fun touch and adds to a sense of drama you’d want in a car. Other fun bits include the keyless entry and the start-stop button.

Then there’s the 6.5in infotainment display. It’s sharp, has a decent touchscreen response (for a car display, that is), and is bright enough even when it’s sunny outside. But that’s not all. It’s also placed at the perfect height, comes with hardware buttons, Android Auto, with Apple CarPlay support in the works. Nice, isn’t it? In fact, you’d have to go quite a few segments higher (and shell out a tonne of cash) to get this ‘floating’ infotainment system. Not essential, no, but you do remember what we said about the feel-good factor. Face it, you want your car to call out to you every morning with the promise it’ll make your daily commute worth it. The Nexon will do just that.

Next up is something else that’s also inspired by Jaguar and Land Rover (Tata is the parent company so one would expect features to trickle down to their mass market offerings as well). That’s the wearable key. Off to the gym or to buy veggies at the Sunday street bazaar? Leave your key fob - the wearable key stays on your wrist and works with the passive lock-unlock system. Gimmicky? Yes, but come on, where’s your sense of fun?

Then there’s the support for Harman Kardon’s ConnectNext suite of apps, the voice warnings, and the 25Wx4 audio (each mid range driver also gets a tweeter alongside). Is the audio good? Yes. It’s crisp, loud, and although it’s more tuned towards the mid and high range, you can tweak the equalisers to get a more balanced feel. We turned it up loud and could discern no sign of the audio giving way. One of the best on its segment, that’s for sure.

But feature-packed as the Nexon is, there are some omissions - surprising ones we say. After all, the Nexon is brand, spanking new, and it’s gotta be prepped for a long-term battle. You won’t find auto headlamps or rain-sensing wipers, and the steering wheel’s not leather clad. Meanwhile, you do get reverse sensors and a reverse camera, but the resolution is rather poor.

Initial verdict

Want the truth? The Nexon is probably the best car Tata’s made. It looks good (we first thought it was a bit too flashy, but the looks really grow on you), it drives well, has a decent petrol engine and a fantastic diesel one, handles well (especially considering how high it sits off the ground), has the best-designed interiors in its segment, and is kitted out just right. Yes, it does go up against pretty stiff competition (the Maruti Brezza and the Ford Ecosport), but we reckon it’s got what it needs to be a success.

Tech Specs 
Engine
1198cc (Petrol) / 1497cc (Diesel)
Power
110ps at 5000rpm (Petrol) / 110ps at 3750rpm (Diesel)
Torque
170Nm at 1750-4000rpm (Petrol) / 260Nm at 1500-2750rpm (Diesel)
Transmission
6-speed manual
Boot space
350 litres (690 litres with seats folded)
Drive modes
Eco, City, Sports