It could be argued that before the Tata Altroz, the Indian carmaker did not really have a premium hatchback - well at least that's what Tata Motors itself says. In my view, the Indica and then the Indica Vista (later the Bolt) that sold alongside it was Tata's answer to the likes of the Hyundai Getz - India's first premium hatchback. So - interpret that as you will, but for what its worth the Tata Altroz is here and ready for launch. Tata is calling it the gold standard, and so today I intend to test that claim. And oh yeah - it's named after an albatross. In case you'd missed that earlier.
WATCH: Tata Altroz Review
The car is pretty attractive as premium hatchbacks go and stays true to the 45X concept it as based on. And you get some interesting design details, which are rather distinctive. There is a black sill along the waistband that travels below the window line and there's also extensive use of glossy black in the tailgate and front grille. It is also not a flat surface anywhere, and is either recessed, or sharply concave - adding a dynamic and very different look to the car. The rear door handle is kind of like the Swift's - yup its 'up there' but it's a catch release style one, meaning the handle does not come out - I actually like it this way. So it's a really clean rear door as a result - a designer's dream! The metal carries through a lot of musculature, which comes into an almost exaggerated fender up front. Love it. In the face, there is a lot of familiarity, because you see the evolution of Tata's design. In many ways, it looks like the next generation of a car like the Bolt or the Indica Vista. To me it's a good thing like I reckon it shows a sort of growth journey for the same brand. Overall the exterior design is edgy, sharp and clutter-breaking.
I got my hands on two cars - the Altroz diesel and petrol - dressed in Downtown Red and High Street Gold respectively. The latter is the positioning colour you will see on the ads and billboards. I will begin by taking the red one on the road. We are in Jaisalmer, heading in the direction of Longewala close to the India Pakistan border - the scene of the epic and unbelievable battle, which you should google; especially if you escaped the cheesy Bollywood telling of it! The roads here are excellent, good tarmac, some undulations and corners - and hardly any traffic. Perfect for testing this one.
There is considerable turbo lag on the diesel but the engine settles nicely at high speeds
First impression - there is a good amount of grunt that you get from this engine. It's not punchy and does suffer from considerable turbo lag. This is especially annoying between 1800-2000 rpm, when you really expect the engine to leap forth. But after that, it does deliver, and then also coasts nicely. The engine is also surprisingly silent, and Tata has done a good job of sound damping the cabin. But it is not enough to escape the whistley whine of the turbo. You do pick up a little bit of wind noise at higher speeds, but only just.
Ride and Handling
The diesel is very good to drive overall though, and the big reason for that is the added heft only compliments the excellent ride quality and handing. While I would shave off just a few points on handling, the ride is absolutely impressive. The car feels premium, big and sophisticated in its road manners. If the ride quality is the one big takeaway for me, well the second one is the gearbox. I like how it's been mated to this engine. You don't need frequent gear changes as well, even in city traffic and out in the highway it coasts quite nicely too.
The car gets two drive modes, which you can toggle with this button at the base of the gearshift. It's like what we have seen on some other Tata models, and so you get City and Economy modes. You're better off staying in City mode though!
What stick out like a sore thumb though - something that is probably a bigger deal for me than others! Well it is because this is a premium hatchback, that I wonder why the steering is only adjustable for height and not for reach. It should be telescopic. Most of the competition cars do have it. The Altroz should have had it too. Overall the cabin is roomy and well appointed in terms of features. But there's a lot more to talk about, so let's pullover, shall we?
Interior and Cabin Features
The car's big USPs on the inside are ambient lighting, automatic climate control, 7" floating touchscreen with a Harman entertainment system, rear camera, and a 7" digital instrument cluster. Then there's Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Cruise control, auto wipers and auto headlamps, push button start and the start-stop fuel saving system. A lot of these are only the preserve of the top two of the 4 variants on offer. The same is true for the LED daytime running lights and alloy wheels on the outside. A black contrast dual tone roof is optional on the top end XZ variant only. The good news is that dual airbags and ABS are standard. Given Tata's commitment to structural safety - I expect a good crash rating for the Altroz, though have no validation as yet.
The 90-degree opening doors offer easy ingress on the Altroz, something most families will appreciate
The cabin on the Altroz is thoughtfully designed, it's roomy and it's also got an interesting layout and design terms. The part that bothers me is that some of that design has not been executed too well. The dash is nicely different, complete with some of the recessed surfaces that mimic the exterior design. But it's the execution like I said; and so the plastics could have been better. Just the overall feel that you get from it is not that of a premium hatch. I think darker, richer colours and better plastics would have really done the trick. It all just feels a little bit cheap, and therefore I feel like there's just little bit lacking when it comes to the cabin. The same is true for the touchscreen - the visibility isn't great always in bright. It is an interesting instrument cluster though, where more than half of it is digital screen, but it's interface is also just too busy. Having said that, in terms of features on paper, you really get a lot of equipment. There's cruise control, steering mounted controls, a whole lot of information on that digital screen. A nice touch is the umbrella storage in the doors that is a premium feature, but you do miss out on one-touch front power windows, and even 60:40 split seats for the second row. A nice touch is a cooled glovebox that also come with illumination, which adds to the several storage spaces across the cabin. The boot is big at 345 litres, and quite usable too, if not the largest in the segment. You also get the little wearable activity key band a la JLR. And then there's the Harman sound system. But if only the buttons and surfaces were better finished.
The plastic quality should've been better for the car's premium positioning along with darker, richer colours
But criticism aside the cabin is appealing in terms of the space and also a sense of space you get. The seats are comfortable front and back, and you get rear AC vents on the top the end variant. The touchscreen and digital instrument cluster screen have different colour themes you can opt for as well. The ambient lighting though is only in one shade - sort of aqua or turquoise like. The car's doors open at 90-degree angles - making ingress and egress a breeze. Nice touch - something family buyers will appreciate.
Variants and Trims
There are 4 different trim levels that the Altroz comes in. But that is not all. It's the first time that a manufacturer is also offering different factory fitted customisation packs - and that too across all the variants. So the four packs are called Rhythm, Luxe, Style and Urban. They allow you to add say a 3.5" touchscreen to the base variant, or the 7" to the mid. You can also get the contrast roof on the 3rd variant, or the leather wrapped steering, or even the arm rests and reverse camera. There are many more features the packs will get you, and its all factory fitted, and not accessorised at the dealer end. Yes that will take some detailed understanding and its own review I think. But great move from Tata and one I think buyers will really appreciate. Hope the dealers can explain it to them, is all! Okay now let's get to that petrol as promised!
The petrol engine is a 3-cylinder - the one we know from the Tiago. Like the diesel, this too is now BS6 compliant. The engine is surprisingly energetic, but lacks the feel of ample power. Yet most buyers will find it adequate - especially for city use. And here I mist point out that on day one I drove the petrol briefly and found it to be lacking in power, performance and just plain boring. And I was about to write it off and lament the choice of the 3-pot, when I am now driving a different petrol car on the second day - and it is literally like a whole different car. A lot more zippy, suddenly not seeming inadequate, and overall a lot more fun. So why the inconsistency? I did ask Tata's engineers this and they promised to look at both cars and give me some feedback. They do assure me that car two is the "regular" petrol Altroz - but of course they would say that! I am still awaiting that feedback, in case you are wondering!
The Altroz is offered with a 5-speed manual for now but Tata tells us that an automatic is in the pipeline, and no, it is not an AMT
But I come back to the whole 'premium hatchback' point. It is a segment where you expect a little extra. Not just enough, but more. You expect not just better equipment, not just more space, not just better drivability, but also a little bit more power. And I get it - the whole idea of throwing in this engine tells me that Tata wants to be aggressive on pricing. So why not have two options? If you're giving us the Tiago's 3-cylinder, well also give us the 1.2-litre Turbo from the Nexon as well. You have that engine in your portfolio, and you are going to upgrade it to BS6 for that car. So why not offer it in on the Altroz as an option? It is a car that's in a segment that sits higher than the Nexon's subcompact SUV space!
And what is more - the market is shifting towards petrol again anyway, and it just makes sense to have two petrol offerings as a USP. In many ways cars like the EcoSport, Venue and Seltos have even made it a norm. Okay those are all SUVs - all the more reason Tata could play this as a trump card. This is especially true when it comes to decisions about the automatic Altroz - which frankly should already have been ready to launch. As far as automatic goes, I had a chance to speak with Tata's senior management here and they've shared that there is an automatic coming. It's only on petrol and it will not be an AMT. Thank God! And that makes sense - premium hatchback, remember? So it can't be a basic gearbox and will have to be something sophisticated. So expect a dual-clutch or a CVT - something that helps to match yup the likes of the Baleno CVT or i20 auto.
Okay so there is plenty going on here on the Altroz, but I suspect the biggest strategy from Tata would be to undercut the competition on pricing. All this - the sexy styling, that exhaustive feature list and the decent performance attribute - but at prices that seem like a steal. It's a beat Tata missed with the Harrier I suspect. And seeing that car suffer for lack of an automatic should be a learning to Tata as about 30 per cent of the premium hatch space is now auto. That said, I expect prices to start at about ₹ 5.10 lakh for the petrol and ₹ 6.20 lakh for the diesel. I also expect the top end XZ to be priced at about ₹ 7.35 lakh for the petrol and under ₹ 8 lakh for the diesel. Of course the additional packs and contrast roof options would add to that.
The Tata Altroz is well packaged despite a few chinks in the armour
On the whole, this is a good effort from Tata - one that could have truly hit that gold standard if the cabin appeared more plush. But a lot of the things I have taken issue with are things that can be fixed potentially quite easily. Think future variants, facelifts, etc. And it's not difficult to do (powerful engine, nice gearbox, plusher cabin). But the stuff that you can't really change - not till the new generation cycle i.e. that is where Tata has focussed on keeping the product really solid. We have already talked about ride and handling, then there's high-speed stability and overall composure - all of this really holds the Altroz in good stead. And that tells me that its Alfa architecture is going to hold on to this promise presumably on future products that come on the same platform as well. And that's certainly worth celebrating.