2021 Tata Punch road test review
After a long wait (and delays due to the pandemic), the Tata Punch micro SUV is finally here and like any SUV worth its ground clearance, it's drummed up a whole lot of interest. As a reminder, we first saw it as the H2X concept at the 2019 Geneva auto show, then as the HBX concept at the 2020 Auto Expo, with countless prototypes spotted on road, back when we thought it would be called the Rhino, or the Hornbill. At launch, the 2021 Tata Punch will be available in petrol only, powered by the 1.2-litre, 3-cyl Revotron motor that also does duty in the Tata Tiago and Tata Altroz, with the option of a 5-speed manual transmission or 5-speed AMT. We expect pricing to sit between the Rs 4.5-7.5 lakh mark (ex-showroom). Should you be interested in the Punch?
What is the Tata Punch, exactly?
In case you were wondering, the Punch is Tata's attempt to bridge the gap between entry-level hatchbacks merely styled like SUVs, and entry-level crossovers that have more space, features and capabilities - to an extent. The former includes the Renault Kwid, Maruti Suzuki S-Presso and Mahindra KUV100, and the latter stretches across one of the hottest segments in India - from the Nissan Magnite, Renault Kiger, Hyundai Venue, Kia Sonet to the Punch's elder brother, the Nexon.
This micro-SUV segment between the two is set to grow - rapidly. The Punch lands the first - blow - and the upcoming Citroen C3 will be another one to look out for, before the Hyundai Casper gets here. And while the Punch is front wheel drive only, it's reasonably light and has impressive ground clearance - most importantly, it's based on the Altroz's ALFARC platform, so it has width on its side. It also uses a clever ram air intake system to increase low-end torque, and the AMT version is equipped with electronics that could potentially help you get out of slippery situations.
Given that its dimensions lie between the two segments, the Punch does look larger than its size would suggest. And on these diamond-cut 16-inch alloys coupled with a very large glasshouse and high bonnet line, it actually looks superbly proportional unlike some crossovers that can appear top heavy. There's a lot of angular, sharp surfacing, and well executed plastic cladding to break up the visual bulk here and it works well with elements like Tata's tri-arrow motifs for an overall cohesive design. The rear door handles hidden in the C-pillar actually do somewhat give the Punch a 3-door look, which works in its favour. There's no denying the Safari/Harrier/Nexon connect. And that'll likely be the Punch's greatest selling point.
Sat in the Punch, it's obvious Tata has made pretty great strides in the interiors department, a point that's reiterated further with every new Tata car that comes out. It's a simple, no-nonsense layout that relies on material quality and fit to make it feel premium, rather than outright flash value. And it works. I had to keep reminding myself that the Punch will sit at the most affordable end of the line-up, alongside the Tiago, and it feels higher quality than that, even surpassing the Nexon on some points.
Touch points feel of very high quality, like the gloss paint on the door pull handles, the 3D-printed insert on the dash, and the texture on the dash panel that fades into the signature tri-arrow motif. The leather wrapped, slightly flat-bottomed steering wheel also feels great in the hand, and Tata has got the driving position spot on, even though the steering adjusts for rake only. Even with the driver's seat set to its lowest position, you still get the typical SUV sightlines down the hood and the edges of the car, though visibility at the rear is slightly hampered by the rear headrests when extended, and the narrow aperture of the rear windscreen. The features list is quite exhaustive too, with auto headlamps and wipers being a unique to the Punch, as well as projector headlamps, LED DRLs, cruise control, powered (and folding) outer rear view mirrors and more.
There's storage in the centre console, two cupholders, a cooled glovebox, and the door pockets, while narrow for a full 1-litre bottle, do have segmentation to keep smaller items in place. The 7-inch infotainment is matched by a 7-inch digital panel in the instrumentation, with Tata's iRA connected tech offered as an optional pack on the top-end variant. Of the four variants, or personas if go by what Tata's calling them, each can be specced up with a few features of the next higher variant with packs that add styling, comfort, or tech features.
Considering its essentially an Altroz with a shorter wheelbase (56mm to be exact), space is also of a very high order, and though it still maybe a little cosy for three adults abreast on the rear bench, seating is comfortable with respectable underthigh support, with adjustable head restraints though headroom may be tight for anyone over six-foot tall. Misses include a lack of a driver's arm rest up front, and multiple USB charge points - there's just the one port up front. Though, the twin 12V sockets could open things up for a USB charging hub. The boot, at 366-litres, is even larger than the Nexon's 350-litres!
There's two airbags, ABS, EBD as standard, with dynamic cornering lamps, and a reversing camera with dynamic guidelines on higher variants. The Altroz is a 5-star GNCAP rated car, so it stands to reason the Punch on the same platform should perform similarly well.
While we're familiar with the 1.2-litre, naturally aspirated 3-cylinder Revotron petrol engine and 5-speed gearbox, in the Punch it's got the added advantage of tweaked final drive and a ram-air-type air intake for improved drivability, and it helps with the feeling that the Punch has enough performance for effortless city driving. The 86PS and 113Nm certainly feel better suited to the Punch's kerb weight between 1,000-1,035kg than the Altroz which is roughly 65kg heavier, though the Tiago is still 35-odd kilos lighter. Under regular driving circumstances, you'll find yourself between 2,000-2,500rpm to keep up with traffic, and it's only under full throttle applications that you may find the Punch wanting. The 0-100kmph performance, at 15.6s for the MT, and over 19s for the AMT, is definitely underwhelming, as are the in-gear acceleration figures. But at least when it comes to in-gear performance, the AMT is quicker considering it starts off in a lower gear than our tests dictate, with the kick down helping things further. That being said, the AMT shows a bit of head knod between shifts even with smooth throttle applications, and can sometimes be hesitant about gear choice at low speeds. For most, they'll find it does a reasonable job, even in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The payoff for the relaxed performance can be found at the petrol pump though, the Punch delivering a commendable 18.8kmpl on our city test route.
That being said, the engine feels very refined, with noise and vibration kept well under control, at least till about the 3,700rpm mark - where you'll rarely find yourself unless you're making an overtake at a higher speed. The engine's anti-stall is quite strong too, and you can tackle speed breakers in second gear with the revs falling to 800rpm or so, and still pull away without grumbles. On occasion, and when particularly hot, we found the powertrain to be a little grumpy pulling away, needing an extra prod of the throttle, but the issue resolved itself soon enough for it to be ignored. The Punch does have auto start/stop functionality on the manual transmission, but it only kicked in once during our drive, and it wasn't at a traffic light.
The steering feels nicely weighted, light at low speeds and reasonably confidence inspiring at higher speeds, where the track width of the Punch (similar to the Altroz) makes it drive like a larger car. The ride quality, however, is a touch firmer at low speeds than what we've experienced from other Tata cars. A little more compliance would be welcome, but in no way is the experience uncomfortable as is. On the flip side, the handling pay-off is welcome, with the Punch displaying little roll and dive, and good roadholding abilities in medium-speed corners. The brakes feel very confidence inspiring too, with the Punch tracking true when coming to a halt from 100kmph, in part thanks the brake sway control that's been added. Though, the test data shows that stopping distances leave room for improvement.
We're not fully convinced of Tata's marketing of the Punch as an SUV, but as far as positioning goes, the Punch does seem to be able to do more than other SUV-styled hatchbacks, and certainly hatchbacks themselves, pretty much down to its ultra-short overhangs. Sure the 190mm ground clearance may match other crossover/SUVs but the overhangs and clear sightlines out the front definitely help. It's also rated for 370mm of water wading, and the AMT is packed with a clever bit of tech called TractionPro, that essentially functions as very basic form of brake torque vectoring to get going on a slippery surface. The system is triggered when the car is at a standstill and the ECU detects slippage, prompting the driver to apply the brake and throttle at the same time, thus stopping the spinning wheel (via the ABS mechanism), while diverting power back to the wheel with traction. For light trail use, we'd still stick with the manual, where you can at least have clutch control on your side.
Sure the micro-SUV segment could seem counterintuitive, but the Tata Punch seems to package all the ingredients exceedingly well with very little to complain about, except for the laid-back outright performance. It's well-specced and well made and ought to sell well if Tata gets the price right. We estimate between Rs 45-7.5 lakh to really land the, well, blow to the competition that Tata will be hoping for.
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