If I’m honest, I’ve always wanted to like the products that Tata Motors’ passenger car division has been producing thus far — but I’ve never quite gotten around to wholeheartedly doing so. It’s a great company, and the fact that it’s an Indian firm has always made me feel a sense of pride, but the cars themselves have usually been let downs in various ways, usually to do with long-term reliability and refinement.

The first Tata Indica, for example, was cheap to buy, spacious, comfortable and reasonably good looking for its time, but it never managed to smack the competition across the face; the Vista, its successor, saw several improvements incorporated, but it too failed to be as complete a product as the rest. When I lined the all-new Tata Bolt up for a drive, therefore, I kept my expectations low, by force of habit — but I came away very surprised indeed.

It’s not as if Tata Motors isn’t aware of the problems its cars have had, and it went back to the drawing board with the Zest, the compact sedan that it launched last year. By all accounts, the Zest was a big step up from the firm, and the Bolt is the hatchback version of the Zest, built on the same platform. It’s the second product in a new line of cars that Tata Motors has in the pipeline, and thus it has a lot of spadework to do, in order to restore consumer confidence — and if the time I spent with it is anything to go by, it should be able to accomplish that with some ease.

Visually, the Bolt looks a more cohesive design than the Zest, whose boot looks a bit of an afterthought (this is a common problem with compact sedans, to be fair). All its lines flow into each other quite well, and this is by far the best looking hatchback that Tata Motors has ever made — all credit to Pratap Bose, head of design. There’s enough visual heft without the car ever looking ungainly, and this isn’t something that could have been said of earlier Tatas.

IMG_4949On the inside, the Bolt is so much of an improvement over its predecessors that it’s almost a shock when you first set foot in the cabin. The driving position is spot on, the seats are well made and offer support in the right places and the overall level of quality, and fit and finish have gone up considerably. You get a touchscreen entertainment system with a mobile-phone based SatNav, a more than passable audio system, excellent space all round (a traditional Tata strength) and an interior that is, if anything, better than its immediate rival and segment leader, the Maruti Swift.

In terms of powertrains, the Bolt will come a 1.2-litre, 89 bhp petrol engine and a 1.3-litre, 74 bhp diesel engine, both of which also go into the Zest. I drove the petrol-powered Bolt, and it was quite an engaging hatchback to hustle around. The engine has clearly been tuned for ease of use and driveability, but there isn’t too much of a performance compromise either. The Bolt has a nice, linear power delivery, and the Revotron engine sounds decent enough when you flog it hard; the 5-speed gearbox keeps up with the game well enough, with crisp throws and a smooth action.

Another revelation is the way the Bolt handles — the chassis feels altogether more mature, with much more grip on offer, and although you’re not going to win too many F1 races in this car, the fact that I enjoyed throwing it around corners means that a lot of work has gone into tuning the suspension. Ride quality hasn’t been neglected, either — the Bolt smooths out bad roads impressively, and should be very comfortable both as a daily runner and as a highway car. All in, the Bolt is a product that I can finally recommend to anyone in the market for a family hatchback, and it’s a car that Tata Motors can be proud of. Well done!