Great looks, superb ride, tons of features, and impressive off-road ability makes the compact SUV stand out. How the Tatas will price it later this month will be eagerly watched.

Tata made a bold statement with the HBX concept at the 2020 Auto Expo. It was an attempt at transferring the Tata SUV genes to something much smaller. It is now apparent that the HBX concept has transitioned to the Tata Punch, and I am glad to say that the company has managed to retain most of what makes their SUVs stand out. But what is it like on the road, and does it have what it takes to compete in a crowded market full of feature-packed options? While Tata has so far stayed mum on the price, we believe that it will be in the range that will take on the likes of Maruti Suzuki Ignis, the Mahindra KUV100 and more expensive cars like the Nissan Magnite, the Renault Kiger or even the Kia Sonet and the Hyundai Venue. We spent some time with the Punch in Mumbai, and here’s what we think of Tata’s newest offering.

Design

The Tata Punch has stayed true to the design concept. The distinctive design language of modern Tata cars are visible in the split headlamp setup, the contoured bonnet, and the humanity grille, with its black gloss finish and the stylized opening for the horn. There is a large air dam below and vents on the lower half of the bonnet, which the company officials say help channel the air towards the back and reduce drag – something that would be very beneficial for a tall car like the Punch.

The top-spec variant that I was driving featured 16-inch alloys tucked in the squared-off wheel arches. Along with the sculpted sides and the generous amount of cladding, this makes the Punch seem purposeful and muscular. Like in the Altroz, which also uses the ALFA platform, the rear door handle is integrated into the C-pillar. The contoured bodywork, the stylish tail lamps, and the attractive paint finishes add to the car’s visual appeal, making heads turn everywhere. On my drive, I encountered people going out of their way to get another look.

The Punch is as good looking on the inside. It incorporates a multi-level dash design with textured plastics in multiple shades and a neatly arranged display of the infotainment panel and the instrument cluster. Other state-of-art accessories include rain-sensing wipers, auto headlamps and cruise control, many of which are a novelty at the price which the Punch would eventually sell.

The car is also remarkably spacious. The doors open 90-degrees, making getting in and out easy. There is plenty of headroom and enough space for three people to sit comfortably at the back, which will give it an immediate advantage over other compact SUVs like the Kia Sonet and the Hyundai Venue. The large rear-view mirrors, thin A-pillar and SUV-like seating position, provides a commanding view of the road ahead for the driver.  There are many cubby holes and storage spaces scattered across the cabin of the Punch. And add to that, the boot space is almost on par with cars like the Maruti Suzuki Brezza.

The Engine

The Tata Punch is available with a solitary engine with two gearbox options, manual and Automatic Manual Transmission (AMT). The 1.2-litre naturally aspirated petrol also does duty on several other Tata cars, but it has been tweaked for its application here. It produces 86hp of power and 113Nm of torque. Power delivery is linear but leisurely.  0-100kmph takes a long 16 odd seconds – and a bit more with the AMT.

But for what it is meant to do, the Punch’s motor comes across as perfectly capable. The engine, despite being a 3-cylinder unit, doesn’t get too noisy, and the vibrations are well controlled. The 5-speed manual gearbox is easy to use. The throws are accurate, albeit a bit heavy, and it is easy to find the bite-off point on the clutch. Together, it makes for a car that is comfortable to drive even in stop-go traffic.

There is also an auto start-stop feature that should theoretically improve fuel efficiency. The AMT on the Punch is much better than its previous iterations in other Tata cars. Shifts are a little slow, and it nudges you to adopt a laid-back driving style. There is no jerkiness while driving in traffic, and shifts are smooth and uneventful.

The AMT variant comes with a unique feature called Traction Pro mode, where sensors detect front-wheel slippage and prompts the driver to activate the mode via an indication on the touch screen. Once activated, you need to hold the brake with your left foot while gradually increasing throttle input with the right. It causes the engine to stop power delivery to the wheel in trouble and sends the available power to the wheel with traction to help get out of sticky situations.

Ride and Handling

The Punch has what I’d call the best ride in a sub-compact SUV on sale today, much better than many of the more expensive cars in the segment. The suspension is well-tuned for what the car is meant for and has an underlying firmness making it ideal for Indian road conditions. It tackled the bad surfaces with panache while ensuring the wheels stayed firmly planted on the road even at high speed. It is solid enough for you to feel confident to push the limits. It reminds one of the Safari or Harrier that have set the benchmark for Indian made SUVs.

However, Punch is not exactly the car you want to push hard when taking sharp corners. The height and its relatively low weight mean that it generates body roll at high speed, making you want to be careful. At normal speeds, though, the Punch is hard to fault. The steering is light, accurate and easy to position, while the braking power is confidence-inspiring and helps slow the car down with minimal fuss. The bite and the feedback are equally good.

One thing Tata has talked about extensively for the Punch is its off-road ability. I got to experience this firsthand at the company’s specially created track and was pleasantly surprised with how the front-wheel driven car handled the rough terrain. The high 190mm ground clearance, together with the large approach, departure and breakover angles, allowed the Punch to tackle descents, ascents and rocky surfaces with considerable ease. It even waded through the 370mm height water challenge comfortably.  This will make the Punch versatile and spur its adoption in rural areas and cities where waterlogging and potholes are the norm during monsoons.

Verdict

The Tata Punch is a refreshing take on the micro-SUV formula. The Tatas have gone further than other manufacturers that simply raise the suspension, slap on some cladding, and call their car an SUV. The Tata Punch is not a full-fledged SUV, but the company has equipped it with attributes that make it closer to the real one. It is undoubtedly among the most exciting launches this year. It packs everything you’d need and expect from a car in the segment. With the long list of features, oodles of style, lots of room and the Tata commitment to safety, you have a car that is hard to beat as a package. But how the  Tatas price the Punch will dictate the pressure, it will face from rivals. My guess is that Tata will undercut everyone by pricing ṭhe top-spec under Rs 10 lakh ex-showroom. If that happens, it will give the competition a lot to worry about.