Two impressive Geneva concepts from India’s largest carmaker suggests a growing maturity and ambition. We investigate.
It may surprise you to learn that Tata Motors have been part of the Indian automotive landscape for over 70 years. For most of that time, Ratan Tata’s motor business concentrated on the commercial field, before becoming famous for the Nano, billed as the World’s cheapest car. But they are probably best known for their surprising (and lucrative) 2008 acquisition of what became Jaguar Land Rover.
In its two and a half decades in the passenger car business, Tata have been predominantly a domestic player, but as the Indian car market has grown both in size and relative sophistication, Tata, in conjunction with its design and engineering satellites (not to mention independent partners) in both the UK and Italy, has reshaped its domestic offerings to compete with the big names.
The commercial failure of the entry-level Nano illustrated how difficult it is to produce a truly inexpensive car without patronising the customer. In many ways, the Nano faced a similar issue of credibility to that of the original BMC Mini, but lacked the latter’s fortuitous timing and celebrity endorsement which bolstered its fortunes after a very shaky start.
Tata learned an expensive lesson and it’s little surprise that their current range mostly consists of compact saloons and hatchbacks that wouldn’t appear out of place on Europe’s streets. At this year’s Geneva show, (its 20th by the way), the Indian carmaker showed three concepts which appear to suggest ambitions beyond the South Asian region, all sharing the same scalable Omega-Arch platform, believed to have been developed in-house.
The push now seems inexorably upmarket, with a C-segment hatch (the 45X) and related crossover (H5X). Tata has styling studios in both Turin and Coventry, headed by Cosimo Amadei and Martin Hularik respectively, so while it’s unclear whether they employed some external assistance on the styling front, what is apparent is how far they have come in just a few short years.
While aspects of the 45X’s surfacing might put one in mind of some of Nissan’s better efforts or indeed that of Honda, before the plot was lost entirely at Minami-Aoyama, had any big-name carmaker put their name to the 45X as a near-production concept, the motoring press would most likely be upon their feet as one.
Yes there are some detail design irritations, but put simply, the 45X is just very accomplished. It certainly shows the play-it-safe production designs of notable European (and Korean) makers in the most torpid light. A production version is expected in around 18 months time and according to a Tata spokesman, is set to closely resemble the car shown at Palexpo.
Less certain to see the light of day is the related EVision saloon, which would be something of a pity given that it’s also a strikingly handsome car. Notable for an elegance of line, sobriety of detail and the sort of calm, yet subtly dynamic surfacing, detail and interior design that would put some of JLR’s current upmarket saloon offerings to shame, the EVision, (pitched as an electric vehicle) looks virtually production-ready as a conventional front-drive offering.
Not that Tata are immune from the sweeping plague of designer-speak – Head of Design, Pratap Bose waxing lyrical about the the frontal aspect’s ‘Humanity Line’ which allegedly incorporates the headlamps and grille, or indeed the ‘trademark’ ‘Slingshot Line’ at the rear of the vehicle, which begins at the Tata logo, encompassing the tail lamps before sweeping around the bodyside.
I’m afraid the Stable Genius of Sindelfingen has more to answer for than simple crimes against form and surface. Nevertheless, one can only feel relief when Bose describes the EVision’s design ethos in the following terms; “Never about aggression, always about strength”.
The attractiveness and maturity of these car designs does however raise some questions regarding Tata’s European ambitions and what those might mean for their British upmarket arm. While it’s obvious Tata would need to be very careful not to step upon its West Midland cash-cow’s toes, it’s equally clear that Gaydon has much to gain, not least of which is some modern-era technology, lacking as they do an up-to-date, scalable, and amortized FWD platform.
But while it would on one hand make some sense for Tata to collaborate with JLR to bring versions of these cars to the European market, perhaps using a legacy brand from JLR’s back catalogue should Tata’s ‘Tri-Arrow’ not be deemed suitable, there are several pitfalls to such a plan.
First is Britain’s impending departure from the EU, which unless the deal struck is a very astute one indeed looks likely to do serious damage to UK car manufacturing and equally seems likely to adversely affect JLR’s mid-to long-term investment decisions – from a domestic perspective at least.
Second are forthcoming EU fuel-efficiency rules, due to come into effect in 2021, which will encompass the CO2 emissions of a manufacturer’s entire vehicle fleet. Because if by then JLR has grown their European business beyond 300,000 cars per year, they could be faced with huge fines for non-compliance, whereas if they maintain their current relatively narrow European market remit, under the proposed regulations they would most likely avoid them.
So on one hand, having a second strand of less expensive, more fuel efficient cars to offer would aid their cause in growth terms, doing so could place them in a deleterious position. So in the event that Tata do make a concerted push into Europe, they will in all likelihood do so themselves. And if indeed they do so, on the basis of these concepts, the European players may well have something to fear.