By: Dave Abrahams
Tata's first venture into the entry-level family sedan segment, the Indigo Manza - released this week in South Africa in two very aggressively priced variants - comes to the market from a different angle than its competitors.
The Toyota Etios, the VW Polo Vivo and the slightly more upmarket Ford Ikon sedan are true base models; each is at the bottom of its maker's price list, whereas the Indigo Manza is Tata's flagship passenger car and thus carries different expectations.
The Manza is built on an entirely new platform, says Tata, with an overall length of 4413mm on a 2520mm wheelbase. Quoted width is 1.707, which includes the side mirrors, because it looks and feels a little narrower - especially when viewed from directly behind, when it becomes obvious that at 1550mm the body is in fact almost as tall as it is wide, rather like an early Fiat Uno.
The styling is distinctive but not outrageous, with a dramatically curved waistline that swoops forward and inward from under the window line across the top of the three-barrelled headlight units and down in a continuous curve to form the outer line of the grille.
There's no firm delineation between bonnet and grille, which simplifies and coalesces the front treatment in a hard-won purity of line that's instantly thrown away by one too many firm horizontal lines in the profile.
The rear deck is high, short and decisively chopped off, a design standard that began with the Alfa Giulietta of the 1970s and still looks right today.
In this case it also encapsulates a generous 460-litre boot, which can be extended by folding the one-piece rear seat back - at which point the Manza becomes a two-seater.
The range-topping Ignis derivative - the only one available to drive at the South African medie launch - runs on neat 15” alloy rims, which draw attention to a design feature that emphasises the car's third-world roots.
It has noticeably more ground clearance than its competitors - which means it will do well on South Africa's less-than-perfect rural back roads, where a large percentage of its target market lives.
The body exudes an aura of rubustness; the doors require a firm push to shut, then do so with a solid 'thunk' rather than a tinny 'clang'; the boot lid, frankly, needs to be slammed before the catch will hold - both of which could be ascribed to over-enthusiastic dust-sealing rubber trims. India, you will recall, is a very dusty place.
Fit and finish inside the car, unfortunately, is not quite up to the same standard.
Soft-touch material for the attractively curved fascia moulding lends a superficial air of opulence, but the fit of the plastic centre-stack insert is poor, the switchgear (including the satellite controls on the steering wheel) is plasticky and low-rent, and the mouldings around the steering column fit where they touch - which isn't very often.
Which is a pity, because the Manza is very well specced, with classically neat analogue speedometer and rev-counter in the driver's binnacle, audio and aircon (with USB port and Bluetooth) in the centre stack and a trip computer display, cleverly installed under an 'eyebrow' in the fascia moulding that keeps it permanently shaded and easily legible.
The rev-counter has no red line; instead, the white needle glows bright red just before the engine hits its power peak at 6000rpm, a stylish and eye-catching alternative.
By making the front seats, which are both adjustable (over a somewhat limited range) for height, rather more upright than Westerners are used to, Tata has gained an astonishing amount of rear legroom. Even with the front seats adjusted as far back as they will go, a 1.78m rear-seat passenger still has 50mm of clearance between is knees and the back of the front seats, and the high roof provides plenty of headroom for turbans, even on six-foot Sikhs.
The one-piece rear seat-back, is considerably more inclined, forcing rear passengers into a slightly awkward slouch until they discover a superbly padded folding rear centre armrest, complete with two neat cup holders, that supports the inside elbow at just the right height for luxurious lolling.
The two-tone upholstery fabric is neat but not fancy; if it retains that neatness over time, however, it will have earned its stripes.
NUTS AND BOLTS
The Manza is available at launch with only one engine option, the familiar 1368cc Safire petrol engine with multiport fuel-injection, built by Fiat in South America and sourced, complete with five-speed manual gearbox, via a Fiat/Tata industrial joint venture in India.
Derived from the proven 1.1-litre Fire engine that powered several million Unos, it's tuned in this application for 66kW at a buzzy 6000rpm and 116Nm at 4750. That mean it needs a footful of revs to go anywhere, putting it rather at odds with the Manza's more conservative persona.
Nevertheless, Tata quotes 0-100km/h in 14 seconds and a top speed of 165km/h, allied to combined-cycle fuel consumption of 6.4 litres per 100km and CO2 emissions of 151g/km. While we weren't able to do any performance testing, we did return an average of 7.2 litres per 100km over the varied launch drive.
A 1248cc common-rail diesel, presumably also sourced from Fiat, is in the pipeline for later release.
With the exception of the of the crisp, positive gearbox, all the controls are overlight and lacking in feel; the steering, in particular, exhibits all the worst characteristics of electromechanically assisted steering, with a distinct dead spot at the centre point and lack of precision at high speeds.
It had us wishing out loud on the launch drive for a return to the good old days of hydraulic power steering, so it's a bit embarrassing to discover via the internet that the Manza in fact has a hydraulic set-up.
MAGIC CARPET RIDE
The Manza's best feature, however, is its superb ride quality. During the launch drive in and around Cape Town, we took the Manza over the bumpy test section we use to evaluate motorcycle suspension.
Even at a steady 80km/h, the ride was serene, with no bumps, knocks, squeaks or rattles from body or suspension, and we were able to converse in normal tones - which is more than can be said of some premium sedans costing six times as much as the Manza.
On the open road, cruising at 120-140km/h, the ride was a little choppier, but still better than expected from a car at this price level, while the cabin remained a quiet and comfortable place to relax and chat.
It must be said that one of the eight launch cars exhibited a nasty wind whistle on the left front door, but that could probably be adjusted out at the dealership by resetting the hinges.
Indigo Manza 1.4 Ini - R119 995
Indigo Manza 1.4 Ignis - R134 995
Tata's flagship sedan doesn't try to be anything it isn't; it's a spacious, comfortable, well-specced (anti-lock braking and dual front airbags are standard) family sedan of modest performance and somewhat variable quality levels, at a very tempting price.