Last time Tata Motors tried its hands at the premium MPV segment with the Aria, the market gave it a thumbs down. That however didn’t demotivate the company to give up on the segment entirely. The company started working on Aria’s successor, a project internally known as the Eagle. After three years of development, the all new Tata Hexa is now production ready and we've driven it on the outskirts of Hyderabad to find out if the Hexa can put up a fight to the mighty Mahindra XUV500 and Toyota Innova Crysta.
Tata Hexa is underpinned on a reworked version of the Aria platform and there are visual similarities between the two. That said, the Hexa has a completely new front and rear. Taking centre stage at the front are Land Rover inspired headlamps housing projector lamps. Sitting between the headlamps is a piano-finish black honeycomb grille, on top of which is a muscular clamshell hood. The surface area of the chrome finish beneath the grille is just about enough to look premium without going overboard. Lower in the bumper are LED daytime running lamps (DRLs) with fog lamps below them.
Moving on to the side, the silhouette is reminiscent of the Aria but the body panels are visibly different. The roof tapers a bit at the end but is mostly straight. While the design team wanted a steeper rake, it wasn't given a go ahead in favour of headroom for the third-row passengers. The wheel arches are massive, adding to the muscular appeal. Thankfully, the 19-inch twin-spoke alloy wheels fill up the huge arches adequately.
At the rear, there's a chrome finish slat, flanked by sleek wraparound LED tail lamps. These tail lamps, we were told, are imported from a European supplier as Tata couldn't find a local supplier with the required capabilities for this part. Rounding up the rear are the twin-exhaust pipes, which in chrome finish, look elegant.
Overall, the Hexa came across as an impressively designed vehicle,which lend it a muscular look, which is easy on the eye. Unlike the loud design of the Mahindra XUV500 or the futuristic Toyota Innova Crysta, the Hexa is a vehicle one would be pleased to see day after day for years.
Following the new design philosophy of Tata , the Hexa’s interior too features a combination of subtle and pleasing components. The centre console houses a 5-inch colour screen, which is paired to a JBL 10-speaker audio system from Harman. The system, once connected to a smartphone, can stream navigation data onto the infotainment screen, enhancing the safety and convenience factor for the driver. Sound quality from the system is impressive and would prove to be an audiophile's joy.
The black interior theme goes well with the dynamic positioning of the Hexa. The minimalistic button layout gives a neat look to the dashboard, thereby enhancing its premium appeal. Material quality is expectedly better than other Tata vehicles and at par with the segment standards.
One of the key changes in the Hexa is that it has been developed by a global network of suppliers. While this isn’t a new fact, the extent of supplier globalisation on the Hexa has been the most by Tata Motors ever. As a result, the seats are draped in impressive leather supplied by Benecke-Kaliko, a European supplier. The seats themselves are aptly sized for people of various sizes and offer good side and back support. The arm rest has been designed well and it doesn’t interfere with gear shifting on the manual version.
Captain seats at the rear are comfortable and offer generous leg room and head room. The seats can be pushed back to liberate additional space and the backrest too can be reclined to a significant extent. Headroom won't be an issue for taller passengers in the first two rows and up to six feet tall people to won't have their heads bridging against the roof even in the third row. The third row is ok for adults for short durations and the large glass area helps curb claustrophobia. That said, the lack of under thigh support can be an issue over long journeys.
Tata has used the VARICOR400 engine, that powers the top-end Safari Storme. With the Hexa, the same state of tune has been used and power is at a respectable 154 hp, but the talking point is the 400Nm torque. In simple words, the torque is ample to move the two-tonne-plus MPV over paved terrain with utmost ease. For most of our driving duration on the highway, the Hexa was in the 1,500 to 3,000 rpm range and it returned an impressive figure of 13.1 km/l on the MID (or Multi Information Display). This engine has two transmission options, a 6-speed manual transmission which is exactly the same as found in the Storme and a Punch Powerglide Strasbourg 6-speed automatic transmission. It is a torque converter unit, but this gearbox is well tuned for the engine. The engine noise doesn’t filter much into the cabin, partly due to the good Noise, Vibration & Harshness (NVH) proofing.
While most torque converters have the inherent issue of shift shocks, this automatic is one of the most refined units we have driven so far.
The gear shifts are quick and the turbo lag is well-controlled. The transmission responds quickly to kick-downs. Along with the 'D' mode, the driver also gets to choose from a 'Sport' or 'Dynamic' mode where each gear is held for longer for an engaging drive when needed. It can be shifted to a manual mode where a tip-tronic lets you change gears when you want to. There isn't a paddle shift arrangement, but with the Dynamic mode is pretty good too.
The manual gearbox, on the other hand, was slightly notchy and sometime slotting the gear was a bit of a problem.
In addition, at every overtake on the highway, a higher gear change became imperative as the engine would reach its limit for that particular gear. Since the vehicles being overtaken here were trucks, the overtake happened in second gear, but shifting to the third cog while doing the overtake became necessary. Also, there isn't any space for a dead pedal in the manual version, so you don't get one.
Off-road experience and drive modes
Before the media drive, Tata issued an official statement about different drive modes. This became clear when we drove the manual as it came with a 4X4 system. A knob on the centre console controlled the 4X4 system which isn't a conventional one. This unit has a torque-on-demand that works in tandem with other electronics such as hill descent, hill hold, traction control and the locking differentials upfront and rear to send maximum power to the wheels with most traction. An off-road track was laid out just to showcase this system and how the Hexa handles the rough terrain so well.
Once the drive mode was set to Rough Road, the MPV went through chicken holes or pot holes dug up alternatively, an incline where the car was taken sideways to showcase the lean capability, a small section where one side of the car was on ice and the other on gravel and so on. Here, the Tata Hexa did not fail to impress and we can bet that this system would work on an even tougher track.
Ride and Handling
Ride quality is one aspect where Tata has mostly excelled. With the Hexa, the case was no different. Although the Hydroform platform is shared by its predecessor, the Aria and this MPV, the revised setup of the suspension and the chassis meant tackling potholes was as easy as it has been for any Tata vehicle, only better in the Hexa. Whether one is driving or enjoying the scenery in any passenger seat, there is negligible jerk felt by any occupant.
When it comes to handling, the Hexa is confident while taking sharp turns and even if the ESP (Electronic Stability Program) kicks in, it does so very gently without intimidating the driver. There is body roll, but the Hexa maintains its line through a corner without much drama.
Tata has made no compromise here and safety aspect has also been well taken care of and that too with a very close attention. Both versions have ABS (Anti-locking Braking System) with EBD (Electronic Brake Distribution). Interestingly, there was another system to inspire confidence while panic braking. The Hexa would understand how quickly the right foot is shifted from the accelerator pedal, sensing imminent panic braking. The EBP or Electronic Brake Pre-fill then would force brake fluid through the brake lines, that would enhance braking efficiency . A test in the off-road experience was about hard braking where this system worked perfectly. Apart from this, the Hexa also has dual front SRS airbags, side and curtain airbags to cocoon its occupants in utmost safety. As safety is now becoming a paramount deciding factor, Tata should consider to keep the safety systems standard across its variant range.
The Tata Hexa is unlike any other Tata vehicle and has equipment found usually in luxury SUVs. It has brilliant NVH (Noise Vibration and Harshness) levels and an impressive automatic gearbox, which is a quantum leap for the carmaker. However, pricing will be critical to the Hexa’s success and it should undercut the Toyota Innova Crysta AT by a considerable. For the manual, it should be priced below the XUV5OO's top-end trim. Things such as only one touch down on the driver window and lower plastic quality for the rear HVAC control panel are some shortcomings. That said, the Hexa is a big indicator of change for Tata Motors and hopefully production models and upcoming models maintain consistency.