Amaan AhmedOct 06, 2021 13:40:05 IST
From mass-market to luxury, there’s no getting away from the fact that SUVs now dominate almost every segment of the passenger vehicle market in India. Towards the budget end of the market, though, hatchbacks continue to rule the roost, with the SUV body style yet to find a footing in a price-sensitive segment. There have been tall-riding, crossover-style hatchbacks before, but they’ve all failed to make a mark, and Tata Motors is out to change with its latest offering, the Tata Punch. With the Punch, Tata is aiming to provide a genuine SUV for hatchback money, and the carmaker is pulling out all stops to establish it as one.
Most car manufacturers harp on the SUV-like design and styling of their compact crossovers, but Tata Motors has gone a step further to talk about the capabilities of the Punch in rough road and even off-road settings. During the unveil on 4 October, Tata covered the approach, departure and ramp-over angles of the Punch (something generally only discussed for SUVs with genuine off-road ability), highlighted its water wading depth of 370 mm as being higher than that of most hatchbacks, as well as its healthy 187 mm of ground clearance.
Tata also revealed the automated manual transmission (AMT) version of its smallest SUV till date will be equipped with a ‘Traction Pro’ mode, developed to help the Punch get going over muddy, low-traction surfaces, as well as altitude-adjusted transmission maps, ostensibly to let potential buyers know they can comfortably drive it up to the Himalayas. And to that effect, the homegrown carmaker also shared a rousing clip of the Punch being driven up to the mountain peak of Sandakphu, a treacherous and hostile route only frequented by vintage Land Rovers with four-wheel-drive ability.
That Tata chose to focus so heavily on the SUV-like capabilities of the Punch came as a bit of a surprise considering the Punch is primarily a small, sub-four-metre, front-wheel drive car that’ll likely spend most of its life within the city, and also considering Tata didn’t nearly go to the same extent with the popular Nexon. Why, then, did Tata go the extra mile to establish the Punch as a proper SUV in the eyes of the audience? It’s all about perception, and the need to ensure the Punch isn’t seen as just another small car in SUV clothes, according to Anand Kulkarni, Vice President, Product Line Head, ALFA Architecture and Passenger Electric Vehicles at Tata Motors.
“It is easy to somehow feel that the Punch is only a slightly different hatchback and we wanted to make it extremely clear that it is not. It is not a hatchback or a tallboy, but is a completely different vehicle; a white-space product. It’s important to highlight the key attributes which differentiate it from hatchbacks. Many people will put it on a comparison table with hatchbacks, which may or may not help them understand what the car’s capabilities are”, says Kulkarni about Tata’s emphasis on the soft-road ability of the Punch, which he believes will also make it a “worthy consideration” for buyers residing in remote areas of the country, where road conditions may not be ideal.
Many SUV buyers still prefer to pick a diesel engine if available, but the Punch is a petrol-only offering. Kulkarni says that while the ALFA architecture – which also underpins the Tata Altroz hatchback – can accommodate a diesel engine, a confluence of factors including changing market preferences and high development costs would make a diesel engine option unfeasible.
“Diesels, in particular segments, are fast disappearing. If buyers were still preferring it over petrol, then diesels would not have lost out. Considering the amount of money that must go in today and in the future to meet all emission norms, things will become unfavourable for diesels. I don’t think the choice of fuel should make a difference to the product’s abilities, because it’s also about being able to offer exceedingly good value at a particular price point, which a petrol powertrain is easily able to provide today”, says Kulkarni.
Several players have tried to bring SUV flavour to everyday hatchbacks before, but the products have mostly failed to take off. The Mahindra KUV100 has been a sales dud, as has the crossover-style Maruti Suzuki Ignis, and beefed-up hatchbacks such as Tata’s own Tiago NRG, the Honda WR-V, Maruti Suzuki Celerio X, and the now-discontinued Ford Freestyle and Toyota Etios Cross witnessed muted market response. The chunky Maruti Suzuki S-Presso has been successful to a certain degree, but strictly remains a city car. Citroen is all set to go mass-market in 2022 with an SUV-styled model named the Citroen C3, but the French carmaker has clearly labelled it a hatchback, and not an SUV like Tata has done with the Punch.
“Today, if you want an SUV, you have to buy one of the bigger options available, but if one can’t afford to do that, then they have to settle for a hatchback. For those wanting to pursue a slightly more versatile and more adventurous lifestyle, there are no options available. With SUVs growing in popularity, it’s logical that people want to do more with their car; they want to experiment more. Even if a hatchback could do 95 percent of what the Punch was able to on the ascent to Sandakphu, it may well end up getting stuck someplace. With the Punch, it’s not just about what it can do when faced with rough road situations, but also how easily it can do those things”, adds Kulkarni.
The purpose behind equipping its latest with off-road focused segment-firsts, having the Punch clamber up to Sandakphu, on a journey overseen by group company (and off-roading specialists) Land Rover’s representatives, and for the plucky mini-SUV to be seen driving between weathered, time-tested Land Rover SUVs, is clear; the link with Land Rover’s legendary off-road prowess being established for a rub-off on the Punch. How much of it translates onto the road and eventually into sales, is something only time will reveal.
Do make sure to catch our full review of the Tata Punch, which goes live on 9 October.