Tata Motors launched India’s first SUV in 1998 and sat back to allow other makers of big and small SUVs, including ‘crossovers’, to prosper in this rapidly growing market segment that so appealed to younger buyers. Now, after a lapse of 19 years, they are launching their new Nexon which will be a small but spacious SUV loaded with style and many features never seen before.

I was lucky enough to be invited for a test drive from Kochi to the hills further east in the monsoons, when the roads are wet and often broken, to demonstrate how well it could handle mud, slush and potholes. I first drove the 1200cc petrol powered model and was pleasantly surprised that the little 3-cylinder engine could deliver as much as 110 HP with a capable torque of 170 Nm. The first leg was uphill and the little engine pulled the 1300 kg car with great confidence. The engine accelerated from a low speed of 1500 rpm and did not stall even at 1200 rpm. On the return journey I drove a diesel powered car with a 1500cc plant also delivering 110 HP with a huge 260 Nm of torque.

These two brand new engines were mated to a new 6-speed gearbox which made the driving effortless. A 6-speed AMT (Automated Manual Transmission) variant can also be expected in the near future. The electric steering has a power assist to considerably reduce the effort put into steering. The big 16-inch wheels and high ground clearance made the Nexon look as though its wheelbase was small but the car’s composure on the mountain roads remained impeccable even when pushed hard.

I could appreciate the performance and the ride and handling on the twisty mountain roads, but it was its looks that first caught my eye. The projector headlamps marking the ends of the distinctive grille come with attractive daytime running lights. The brilliant white imitation ceramic ‘eye shadow’ under the fog lamps contrasts sharply with the bright body colour. This white streak also runs along the length of the ‘waist line’ to separate the body color from the contrasting darkness of the glasshouse and roof. This white highlight is also splashed on the rear to make it look very distinctive. The flared wheel arches make the car look very masculine. Unlike most SUVs’, the roofline slopes back in a sporty way while allowing a surprising amount of head room for the rear seats. Testimonies for its looks came from many bystanders who asked us about the Nexon whenever we stopped.

If the external looks were good, so was its interior. The seats draped in a classy black fabric were very comfortable with good thigh and lumbar support. The black dashboard was also very well designed with a digital multi-information display between the odometer and rpm gauge. There is an easy-to-use floating dashboard on top of the touchscreen that controls navigation, music, communication and reversing and it is at the same height as the instrument panel allowing the driver to see all the data without having to look down. Sound quality in a car is always a big challenge for acoustic engineers so the Nexon has eight speakers to give a clear sound and good musical experience.

Tata Motors have come a long way since the competent but unrefined Indica, and the Nexon joins Tigor, Hexa and Tiago in trying to prove that Tata cars can also be as refined as any competitor.

— The author is the region’s most celebrated automobile columnist