The Swahili word ‘safari’ comes from the Arabic ‘safar,’ which means a journey. For Tata Motors, this journey began in 1998, when the company launched its first full-size SUV. With a couple of facelifts and engine upgrades along the way, the vehicle had a long, reasonably successful run until it was finally phased out at the end of 2019. With its rugged, all-terrain capability, optional 4WD and comfortable ride, the original Tata Safari was an iconic Indian SUV that carved a niche for itself among SUV enthusiasts in the country, who bemoaned its demise. Now, all those older fans of the Safari, as well as a whole new younger generation of SUV buyers, have reason to be happy; Tata Motors is bringing the Safari back to life in an all-new avatar, and the new one looks set to upstage its predecessor in a big way.
The first thing that grabs you, about the new Safari, is its styling; the original Safari had a unique stepped roofline and the new one is sort of reminiscent of the original, but in stylish new way. The new Safari is, of course, based on Tata’s five-seater Harrier and the two share much of their design DNA, with similar lines at the front, though the Safari gets a completely different treatment at the back, including that stepped roofline that looks pretty funky. Like the Harrier, the 7-seater Safari is based on the Land Rover D8 platform and its styling definitely takes some cues from the Land Rover Discovery Sport, which itself is a pretty handsome vehicle.
With its 18-inch alloy wheels, flared and muscular wheel arches, slim headlamps (xenon HID projector-type on the top variant), LED daytime running lights, subtle use of brushed metal highlights and handsome proportions overall, the Safari is quite the looker. It has an undeniable presence on the road, with an understated elegance that most buyers will probably love.
Under the hood, the new Safari is powered by a BS6-compliant four-cylinder 2.0-litre turbodiesel (the same unit that’s also used on the Harrier), which produces 170 horsepower and 350Nm of torque. With its electronically controlled variable geometry turbocharger, this turbodiesel is powerful, responsive and reasonably refined, and is quite capable of hauling the Safari’s 1,825-kilo kerb weight. Six-speed manual and six-speed automatic transmissions are available on the Safari and both options work well, though we suppose the automatic is likely to be the more popular option by far. As elsewhere in the world, luxury SUV buyers in India are rapidly abandoning the stick shift and the manual gearbox seems to be headed for extinction. But more on that later.
Step inside the Safari and you find a nicely spacious cabin, which is available in six- and seven-seater versions; the six-seater gets two separate ‘captain’ chairs in the middle row, while the seven-seater gets a 60:40 split bench. The buttery soft ‘oyster white’ perforated leather upholstery on the seats looks really good and the ash wood trim used on the dashboard is equally classy. Plus, the leather-wrapped steering wheel, soft-touch plastics, powered sunroof and high levels of fit and finish lend a premium look and feel to the Safari’s cabin. The ample front seats (the driver’s seat is power-adjustable) and generously-proportioned seats in the middle row are plush and comfortable, with sufficient legroom and headroom for large-sized adults. The last row will also accommodate two adults but they’d better not be too fond of pizza; a low-carb diet may be best for those who plan to occupy the third row of seats in the Safari. Overall, the whole package is very well put together and we wouldn’t mind spending long hours on the road in the Safari.
For infotainment, the Safari gets a powerful JBL sound system with nine speakers and an external amplifier, full smartphone connectivity (Android Auto and Apple CarPlay), a centrally-mounted 8.8-inch high-resolution colour touchscreen for controlling everything and a 7-inch colour TFT instrument panel with customisable display. It’s an elegant, well-designed system that’s easy and intuitive to use; you can step into the Safari for the first time and get a hang of how everything works in minutes, no instruction manual required.
Tata Motors is one car manufacturer that’s been leading the automotive safety movement in India, its cars and SUVs being some of the first, in their respective segments, to get a high safety rating from global NCAP. The Safari also gets a full suite of safety equipment, including six airbags, anti-lock brakes (ABS), seatbelt reminders, child seat ISOFIX anchor points, a tyre pressure monitoring system and a reverse parking camera. There’s also an advanced electronic stability program (ESP) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), traction control, off-road ABS and hill hold / hill descent control. This is a very comprehensive set of safety features, as befits a modern premium SUV.
Spec sheets aside, what really matters is of course how a vehicle actually feels to drive, and when it’s time to stand and deliver, the Safari doesn’t falter. With this seven-seater family SUV, the focus is on plush ride quality, long-range comfort and a relaxed driving experience. With McPherson strut independent suspension at the front and a semi-independent twist blade setup (designed by the UK’s Lotus Engineering, specifically for Indian road conditions) at the back, the Safari has been optimised for delivering a comfortable ride on all kinds of terrain; while it’s creamy smooth on good roads, it also keeps its occupants isolated from things like speed bumps, potholes and rough, broken tarmac. There’s no 4×4 for now (Tata Motors have not confirmed if and when they’ll do a 4WD variant of the Safari) and this front-wheel-drive SUV, with its monocoque construction, is essentially a city slicker. This is in stark contrast to the original, late-1990s model that featured optional 4WD and body-on-frame construction, which was better suited for off-road use. But no complaints here; it isn’t the 1990s anymore, the world has moved on and the vast majority of SUV buyers want comfort, speed and safety on the road, rather than mud-plugging ability.
The Safari’s 2.0-litre turbodiesel provides ample thrust across the rev range, with strong drivability and very good throttle response. The manual transmission variant seems to have a slight edge over the automatic in terms of acceleration; the six-speed automatic is a slick unit, but in pedal-to-the-metal driving, it blunts the engine’s performance by a notch or two as compared to the manual. That said, we’d still opt for the automatic, for its smooth, unobtrusive performance and the sheer ease of driving in city traffic. The Safari gets eco, city and sport driving modes and sport really does make a noticeable different, with the engine becoming more responsive to throttle inputs. There’s also ESP terrain response modes, including normal, rough and wet. Given that most of our driving was done on an expressway on a bright, sunny day, we did not get a chance to test the rough and wet modes. On another day, perhaps.
Overall, we quite enjoyed driving the Safari; it’s a large, comfortable, family SUV that’s designed for comfort, which it does very well. Start pushing it around hard, and the Safari politely reminds you that it’s not a hot hatch and isn’t meant to be driven like one. Brake hard from high speeds and the vehicle dives and pitches forward on its relatively softly-sprung front suspension. Try a bit of hard cornering action and you get a fair bit of wallow and roll, despite the anti-roll bar fitted at the front. However, these are observations and not complaints. Like we said earlier, the Safari is a family SUV that’s designed for relaxed, long-legged comfort; it’s happiest on long journeys at moderately high speeds, without too many fast corners thrown into the mix.
So, is the new Safari a worthy successor to its iconic predecessor? Yes, it most certainly is, but with a different set of abilities that are much more suited to the requirements of new-age SUV buyers, and much higher levels of sophistication. The new one is a plush, comfortable, spacious family SUV that looks good, is very well built, and offers strong engine performance and great ride quality. The fit and finish is top notch, the interiors are quietly elegant and understated, and the list of safety equipment is quite comprehensive. It isn’t a hot hatch for boy racers and, without 4WD, isn’t meant for serious off-road use. And we think that would be alright with most Safari buyers.
Official prices for the Safari are expected to be announced shortly. In the meanwhile, we expect prices to start at around Rs 15.50 lakh for the entry-level model and stretch to around Rs 22.00 lakh for the top-end variant. A pretty good deal, we believe, for those looking for a premium family SUV.