Tata Motors’ entry into the fiercely competitive sub-compact SUV space marks a significant milestone both for the company and the buyer in the segment. The HBX concept set the tone and the final product - the Punch - looks set to deliver a ‘left hook’ to the competition. The sub-four-metre vehicle is an anomaly that is uniquely Indian, with weird-looking sedans and gawky SUVs built and bought for the lower tax benefit and the possibility of an affordable price. Most of the current members of the sub-compact SUV club are wannabes - raised hatchbacks masquerading as SUVs, and riding the wave of popularity for this body style. Is the Punch any different? Can it deliver a genuine SUV experience within the cramped footprint of a hatchback?
Tata Motors hasn’t attempted maxing out the Punch’s dimensions to the extent possible within the sub-four-metre length advantage. It is only about 3.8 metres long and its wheelbase of 2,445mm is about the same as a few hatchbacks in the market. But it is tall and that helps liberate quite a lot of headroom in the cabin. The Punch also gets a ground clearance of 190mm and good approach and departure angles, making it actually capable of taking on some level of challenging terrain off-road. Tata engineers also tell me that the air-intakes are high enough to allow the Punch 370mm of water-wading depth. Will elaborate more on these aspects in a bit.
Tata Motors released pictures of the production version Punch just days before the official media test drive. It looked handsome and very much like a compact version of the Harrier. There are lines that can be traced back to other Tata models too, like the Tiago and the Altroz. It is built on the same ALFA architecture platform of the Altroz and it bears a number of signatures of the Impact 2.0 design language which has also been part of the other models from the Tata Portfolio. The humanity line at the front and the layered tailgate are just two of the obvious design traits that’s common. The flat roof line, the raised and straight bonnet slab, split headlamps and the black cladding that runs around the Punch and merges into the fenders give it’s design a very SUV flavour. My test mule’s bright metallic blue body paint and contrast white roof with blacked out A, B and C pillars added to this perception.
The Punch’s bonnet grille is fashioned out of simple, black translucent plastic with a set of the brand signature tri-arrow design motifs punched out in one corner. At a glance this almost looks like it could be something that adorns a EV, on average an electric’s air intake needs are much lower. It is another matter that the Punch has been created to accommodate the possibility of an EV variant in the future. It gets a large airdam in the lower half of its front fender. The main headlamps sit on the upper half promoting the image that the design has been inspired by the Harrier. The DRLs and the chrome garnish running across and creating the humanity line give the Punch a pleasing fascia.
From the side, the new sub-compact SUV from Tata looks high sprung and upright like a SUV should be. The waistline rises gradually towards the rear and culminates in the tail-lamp. The line remains unbroken on the rear doors thanks to the handle being moved to the C-pillar, just like in the Altroz; though it is a feature we first saw in the Chevrolet Beat. The rear design visually enhances the Punch’s width and gives it a stocky look. Sharp angles and layering like in the Tiago and the Altroz remind me of the Punch’s roots. The tri-arrow design has been smartly included in the LED light configuration for the tail-lamps. Overall, fit and finish is really good and the execution of the design elements is excellent. The only bit that felt off was the choice of 16-inch alloys that seemed weak within the large wheel arches.
The Punch’s cabin is more like that of a hatch, because of the compact size and the vertical orientation of the dashboard. But with some interesting trim elements Tata designers have managed to give the interior a bit of premiumness. There is also an air of familiarity because some of the features and cabin parts are shared with the Altroz. The dashboard layout and design is vertical, but layered; with a similar orientation for the centre stack. My test mule was the top variant Punch, and featured body-coloured accents for the rectangular aircon vents and also a dual-tone, granite black and glacier grey dashboard theme. The textured plastic panels fit flush and there is a general air of premiumness in the cabin when benchmarked with the competitors in the segment. Leatherette-wrapped steering wheel and gear knob are a couple features that add to that impression. There are certainly elements that can be improved on like a larger touchscreen for the infotainment would have been better. Though in terms of functionality, the 7-inch screen does the job, it is on occasions like when one is reversing that the size of the screen seemed small.
The Punch shares a few cabin features with the Altroz - the steering wheel, the auto climate control, the analog-cum-digital instrument cluster and the infotainment system. The other benefit to the Punch from the Altroz comes in the form of the 90-degree opening doors. Raised seat positions and wide opening doors means that getting in and out of the Punch will be easy even for older passengers. The amount of space in the cabin is also surprisingly good. Tata officials claim that the hip and shoulder room at the rear are class-leading in the Punch. The seats themselves sport fabric upholstery with the tri-arrow pattern. The boot offers nearly 366-litres of storage space. The Punch is offered with a bunch of comfort and convenience features like auto headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, cruise control, auto-fold door mirrors etc., but it misses a few like a sunroof and wireless charging. Tata’s own iRA connected car tech is an optional addition. Tata has also adopted a smart marketing strategy that should help the company achieve two objectives - pricing power and personal appeal in positioning the Punch. The three customisation packs in - Rhythm, Dazzle and iRA, in addition to four variants - Pure, Adventure, Accomplished and Creative - will help customers both personalise and load additional features to the Punch.
The Punch is being offered with one petrol engine and two gearbox options. The 1.2-litre Revotron petrol engine is the only unit on offer; it delivers 86PS of power and 113Nm of torque. The 3-cylinder engine has been used in all of Tata’s modern cars starting from the Tiago to the Altroz, and has managed to convince with its fairly eager performance. It continues to be naturally aspirated, but some changes to the intake tuning and ratios enable it to feel more refined and deliver a more linear acceleration. The refinement is not at the same level as some of the competitors and their direct injected 3-pots. But, it also helps that the Punch is not a heavy car with a kerb weight just north of a ton. The powertrain performs satisfactorily at city speeds, when throttle inputs are measured, but it does run out of breath in the high rev range and shift ups and patient overtakes will be inevitable. The 5-speed manual gearbox is easy to work with, even though its short throw shifts are a bit notchy. The 5-speed AMT gearbox variant that I drove was unfortunately not as sorted. Tata officials tell me that more than a quarter of their sales are now automatics. The AMT is an affordable solution and will work for Punch's segment positioning. However, even if one looks past the shift shocks, the AMT’s indecisive shifting character will be a niggle. It will be best chosen by buyers who are clear about the need to drive an AMT patiently and with a much lighter right foot. Two drive modes are offered - City and Eco. The AMT also gets a ‘Traction Pro’ mode that uses some of the electronic safety systems to detect wheel-slippage in one of the front wheels to direct traction to the other wheel. It is a simplistic solution, though it may come in handy in that odd challenging weather condition.
Ride quality and handling are a big highlight in the Punch. The suspension soaks up bad roads with confidence, and there is a perceived sense of solidity even when it pummels through potholed roads. The steering wheel setup is light and mostly over-assisted like buyers will expect in this segment. But you will be able to place the Punch exactly where you want to and turn at while cornering.
The Punch brings a significant jump in safety for a vehicle in this segment. Getting the highest adult occupant rating from Global NCAP for any vehicle in India is no mean achievement. It gets a lot of safety kit, including dual airbags, ABS with EBD, fog lamps with cornering function and even a brake sway control function to keep the vehicle steady during hard braking. It punches above its size and weight class in the ride, handling and safety performance parameters. The powertrain performance is the only metric that links it to hatchbacks.
Tata Motors has also scored points in pricing the Punch aggressively. Prices for the base Pure variant starts at ₹5.49 lakh and go upto ₹9.39 lakh for the Creative (iRA Pack). The AMT versiosn of the three top variants will cost ₹60,000 more than the MT version.