A cross between a SUV, MPV and a car, Tata Aria is a well-proportioned and lightweight vehicle

The Aria is not just another new run-of-the-mill Tata model. This crossover is the first product in 22 years to be built on a brand new ladder-frame chassis.

Tata Motors began work on the X2 platform way back in 2004 and it has taken its time to come to market. The cause for the delay is the new (for Tata) processes and technology incorporated in the X2 platform. In fact, the X2 is the first chassis to use ‘hydroforming', a specialised die-forming process that uses high-pressure hydraulic fluid to shape chassis components. The result is a structurally stiff and lightweight ladder frame, which is a great starting point for the Aria and future models. In fact the Aria, despite being longer and wider than the Safari, is around 200kg lighter thanks mainly to the new and lighter chassis.

The five-link suspension at the rear is similar to the Safari's and the engine and gearbox too are carried over. However, Tata claims that the Safari's G76 gearbox has been updated for the Aria with a new casing and better shift action. The 2.2-litre Dicor engine develops an identical 140bhp but has been considerably refined with optimised rubber mounts, an aluminium cast sump, an improved acoustic package and a dual mass flywheel which, according to Tata engineers, has played a big role in cutting unwanted vibrations.

The Aria uses a full-time four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive (AWD) system developed by Borg Warner. This AWD system is one more on the list of ‘firsts' for a Tata car. Through a set of differentials and coupled with traction control and ESP, the AWD system senses what the right amount of torque is to transmit to a wheel without causing the tyre to slip. AWD systems work brilliantly in slippery conditions and you can expect the Aria to be particularly surefooted. Lotus Engineering was involved in the development of the ride and handling and though the legendary UK-based firm didn't design the suspension, it validated and tuned the set-up before it was signed off.

The Aria comes packed with electronics to control all the various functions and subsystems. Tata has used a Controller-Area-Network (CAN) which links all the electronic systems. Again, CAN-bus hardware is common on international models but a new experience for Tata Motors and another reason for the Aria's lengthy development process. Also, keeping European regulations in mind, Tata engineers had the added challenge of meeting Electromagnetic Compliance (EMC) standards. The generation of unwanted electromagnetic energy (like from your microwave) is a health hazard; there are now strict laws to keep it within safe limits.

The initial work on the Aria's styling was done by I.DE.A of Italy and completed by Tata Motors' in-house design team. Tata elected a crossover as the first body style on the X2 platform and not a conventional SUV or even an MPV. According to Tata Motors' research, the latest trends point to a growing demand for more comfortable SUVs that offer a blend of off-roader toughness and saloon car softness. Looking at the Aria, you can see that it's a cross between an SUV, MPV and a car. The front end has an Indica-like grille, sophisticated lamps and central bonnet crease common on the new Tata cars. The rear tailgate, which lifts like a hatchback, adds to the car-like effect.

The cab-forward front has hints of an MPV while the big wheels wrapped in muscular wheel arches are clearly SUV. On the whole, the Aria has a clean, uncluttered shape and looks well-proportioned. The Aria is nowhere near as tall as the Sumo, Grande or Safari. The lower roof means the Aria doesn't have the same internal volume as the Safari but Tata has traded the massive (and mostly unusable headroom) for better dynamics by lowering the centre of gravity.

The interior styling isn't particularly exciting and the dashboard with its interplay of straight and horizontal lines is a straightforward design. The tall centre console houses an integrated audio system with a large display screen on top for you to scroll through the long list of features that are standard in the top-end Aria. The large glove-box and generous cubbyholes are very practical. There are even eight storage boxes that run down the centre of the entire roof!

The Aria's cabin has a feel-good ambience we've never experienced in a Tata. The dashboard plastics have a nicely textured and soft feel to them and the switchgear feels chunkier and more tactile than before.

You sit much lower in the Aria and don't get the Safari's commanding driving position. The front seats are pretty comfy and it's easy to find the right driving position as both the seats and steering column adjust for height. The Aria's middle row of seats is quite generous with loads of legroom and lots of width to seat three comfortably.

The third row has only two seats that can be individually folded or adjusted. Legroom is tight even with the middle row (which has a slider mechanism) pulled forward. What's impressive is the way the third row folds virtually flat into the floor. It's not quite flat but the seats have a five-degree incline which is good enough to offer a spacious luggage area. To find the underfloor space to fold flat the rear seats was a huge challenge as the stout ladder chassis comes in the way. The middle row folds nearly flat as well to offer an area that's large enough for a double bed. The Aria's massive load-carrying capacity gives it added versatility.

The Aria is expected to go on sale by mid-2010 and retail for approximately Rs. 12 to Rs. 14 lakh. It is cleverly positioned in the huge void that exists in the segment above the Innova and Tata hopes to gain a first-mover advantage. Without testing the Aria it is hard to draw any conclusions but what's clear is that the Aria is the most sophisticated product Tata has ever produced and marks a new era of people-carriers for the company.