Johannesburg - The Bolt, introduced in 2015, is Tata’s latest attempt at shaking off those cheap and nasty vibes of the original Indica by creating a car that hatchback buyers would actually aspire to own.

That certainly wasn’t the case with the Vista, which, like the Indica, is still on sale, but which (starting from R134 995 versus R118 995 for the Indica) manages to come across as more nasty than cheap, in our opinion.

The Bolt (also available as a short, stubby sedan for a ten grand premium) finds itself in an even higher price bracket, at R157 995 for the XMS and R167 995 for the XT flagship on test here. As its jellybean shape implies, it is essentially a refurbished version of the Vista, but let’s not be too quick to judge. As you’ll find out soon, this has been one heck of a refurbishment, and even includes a brand new 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol engine.

While the shape remains familiar, barring the blacked-out C-pillars, the car has been redesigned at both ends, the rear now looking decidedly generic but inoffensive enough and the front having a cheekiness about it that buyers in this segment are likely to appreciate.

But if you’re looking for surprises, you’ll find those inside, where the design, materials and overall ambience stand head and shoulders above anything that the brand has done before. Tata readily admits that it roped in designers from Jaguar Land Rover, which it owns, to help with this aspect and it really shows.

Sure, the plastics are still hard and the cabin will never delude you into thinking you’re in a Jaguar, but at the price point it really hits a sweet spot, with a stylish and slightly driver-angled dashboard, 12.7cm colour touchscreen and various chrome, light silver and piano black garnishes on the dashboard and inner door panels.

The Harman-designed touchscreen audio system, with USB and SD card inputs, is easy to operate and has Bluetooth connectivity as well as voice command functionality. There are still plenty of buttons and dials surrounding the screen, for selecting menu functions, changing volume and so on. The screen also displays the climate control information, although your temperature, fan speed and airflow are still controlled by traditional rotary dials lower down. Base XMS models also have a 12.7cm screen but with no touch functionality.

Talking spec differences, the XMS trades the XT’s climate control system for conventional air conditioning and also gives up the steering wheel controls and 15” alloy wheels.

Both are powered by the same 1.2-litre ‘Revotron’ engine, which produces 66kW and 140Nm. Although it’s not a lot more powerful than a normally aspirated 1.2 would usually be, the engine has a more linear power delivery than one would expect from this kind of engine and there’s virtually no lag on pull-off. It actually feels more like a normally aspirated engine, except that the turbo is compensating for altitude and putting it at the very sharp end of its segment in performance terms. Our car didn’t prove to be as economical as some rivals we’ve tested, the Tata drinking eight litres per 100km in an urban-heavy driving week.

South African models are tuned for a sportier feel, however, and Tata perhaps took things a bit too far here as the engine and throttle are overly responsive to the point where it can actually get annoyingly jerky in slow-moving traffic.

Besides that relatively minor bugbear, and the fact that the footwell is on the cramped side, the driving experience is peachy all round. The gear shifter, for one, operates smoothly. The ride is comfortable, given that it was set up for harsh Indian roads, and although there is a bit of body roll during hard cornering, this car is still fairly grippy and handles safely.

Get up to highway velocities and it’s mostly plain sailing, with ample power and not too much engine or road noise, although wind noise was quite notable.

Yet is the Bolt as practical as its rivals at the price? Tick yes for legroom, with lots of space to stretch in the back. However, the 210 litre boot, though still big enough for a few tog bags or perhaps a big shopping spree, does fall short of price rivals such as the Toyota Etios (251 litres), VW Polo Vivo (270) and Renault Sandero (292).

VERDICT

Which brings us to the ultimate question of whether the Bolt is worth the R167 995 that Tata is asking for it.

Yes, it is a very likeable car, with a smart interior, nice ride and decent performance. If this is an indication of where Tata is going, then this is certainly a company to watch. On top of that, it comes with a good warranty (five-year/100 000km) as well as a two-year/30 000km service plan and Tata does claim to be putting a lot more effort into its after-sales service these days.

Yet, all considered, I feel Tata has priced the Bolt too close to those aforementioned established players. Then again, if the dealer offers a substantial enough discount, then ‘Tata ma chance’ has perhaps never been this tempting.

FACTS

Tata Bolt hatch 1.2T XT

Engine: 1.2-litre, 4-cylinder turbopetrol
Gearbox: 5-speed manual
Power: 66kW @ 5000rpm
Torque: 140Nm @ 4000-5000rpm
Luggage capacity210 litres
Price: R167 995
Warranty: 5-year/100 000km
Maintenance plan: 2-year/30 000km

ALTERNATIVES

Renault Sandero 0.9T Expression 66kW/135NmR159 900
Honda Brio hatch 1.2 Comfort 65kW/109NmR166 300
Suzuki Swift hatch 1.2 GL 63kW/113NmR167 900
Tata Bolt hatch 1.2T XMS 66kW/140NmR167 995
Toyota Etios hatch 1.5 Sprint 66kW/132NmR172 600
VW Polo Vivo 1.4 Conceptline 55kW/132NmR173 800


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