This SUV from Tata packs quite a ‘Punch’

The Tata Punch packs in adequate space and practicality, with a sedate driving style

October 15, 2021 07:11 pm | Updated October 20, 2021 12:56 pm IST

Tata’s Punch has been described as a product with ‘the agility of a hatchback and the DNA of an SUV’. The new ‘sub-compact SUV’ plugs the size and segment gap between the Tiago NRG cross-hatchback and Nexon compact SUV.

The Punch is a front-wheel drive-only model but is designed to take on the worst of Indian roads. It has been conceived as an SUV from the ground up and gets the SUV family look, with the flat concave bonnet and split-headlamp layout establishing strong family ties with the larger Harrier and Safari. The gloss black grille is an enclosed panel with a tri-arrow-shaped opening for the horn behind.

The Punch has a purposeful stance, and while the 16-inch diamond-cut alloys are attractive, they do not quite fill out the massive squared-out wheel wells. The thick side cladding, black pillars and roof break the monotone, and like the Altroz, the rear door handles are tucked in the C-pillar.

Some might find the rear design a bit tame in comparison to the aggressive front, but the cool-looking tail-lamps with tri-arrow LED elements help the Punch stand out. Like other Tatas, the Punch also sports some fun Easter eggs for you to discover, like the one-horned rhinoceros’ motif on the rear windscreen and glovebox.

Compared to other compact SUVs, the Punch is smaller in dimension and has the same footprint as something like a Maruti Swift. However, its height is on par with a Tata Nexon and the high roof and upright pillars do help with that SUV-like look.

The fresh and youthful exteriors are complemented by an equally stylish and exuberant interior. The layered dashboard design is pleasing to look at; the contrasting white panels, textured plastics and other materials not only look appealing, but also feel quite upmarket. The free-standing touchscreen, climate control buttons, steering, as well as the part-digital instrument cluster are shared with the Altroz premium hatchback.

Ingress and egress are a breeze with the 90-degree-opening doors and high-set seating. The front seats are nice, although the cushioning is a bit firm and thigh support is limited for taller occupants. What is nice is that these seats can be jacked up to suit your requirements, while the low window line offer good visibility. The reversing camera with adaptive guidelines makes life easier while parking.

Despite its compact size, rear seat space is comparable to the pricier Kia Sonet in terms of knee and shoulder room. There is adequate space for two six-footers to sit one behind the other, and what adds to comfort is the space beneath the front seats to tuck their feet. Rear headroom is in adequate supply for all but the tallest of occupants. A flat floor does add to the comfort of an occasional third passenger, however, the car’s narrow width makes seating three abreast a tight squeeze. There is no rear air-con vent either.

While its 7.0-inch touchscreen is feature-packed with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, a crisp six-speaker Harman system, as well as (optional) connected car features, its touch interface and its responsiveness could have been slicker. Other equipment that the top-spec Punch packs in are automatic projector headlamps, LED DRLs, rain-sensing wipers, cruise control, electric folding mirrors, climate control, cooled glovebox, rear wiper and washer, 16-inch alloys, fog lamps with cornering function, and a security alarm, to name a few.

There are abundant storage spaces, too, with cupholders dotted around the cabin, a massive glovebox and bottle holders in all doors. At 319-litres (366-litres if measured till the roof), the Punch’s boot is almost the same size as that of a Maruti Brezza’s, and owners also get the flexibility to fold down the rear seat.

The Punch uses the same 1.2-litre, three-cylinder, naturally aspirated petrol engine as the Tiago, Tigor and Altroz, but the engine has been modified for this application. Tata has reworked the air intake with a ram-air system, aiming to enhance drivability. The engine makes a modest 86hp and 113Nm of torque, but factor in the Punch’s 1,035kg kerb weight and the output comes across as more than reasonable.

Enhancements to the engine and the switch to BS6 emission standards have resulted in a smoother power delivery, and generally the unit feels nicer than in its older iterations. It is quite smooth, although it still is not as refined or vibe-free as Maruti’s K-series engines. The engine sounds grainy and there is a bit of three-cylinder thrum too, but to be fair, it only gets really vocal over 4,000rpm.

What is nice is that the engine performs its daily duties with relative ease and its short gearing (first and second) makes it quite user-friendly, so it effortlessly closes gaps in traffic. Adopt a sedate driving style and it will perform the occasional highway duties satisfactorily. But demand for brisk performance and the engine feels out of its comfort zone. Quick overtaking manoeuvres will warrant careful planning and working the gearbox to make progress. The 5-speed manual is quite effort-free in its operation, but shifts aren’t butter-smooth as some rivals. Thankfully, its clutch is light and easy to operate.

The manual iteration is equipped with an engine start-stop feature which, in order to save fuel while idling, switches off the engine when the car comes to a halt. This system is slow to respond, hence you will need to depress the clutch and wait for the engine to restart before engaging a gear, else the system gets confused and the engine remains off.

The other transmission option is the Marelli-sourced 5-speed automated manual transmission (AMT), which feels a lot more refined. The gearbox performs with relative smoothness, as far as AMTs go, and pauses between gearshifts are pretty well contained. The creep function is a bit eager but is easy to get accustomed to, and it is particularly useful in stop-go traffic.

The Punch AMT is best driven in an unhurried manner. The gearbox has a tendency to upshift to the highest gear at the earliest (in the interest of fuel economy) and gets caught out by erratic throttle responses, resulting in annoying pauses while the transmission decides whether to shift to a lower gear.

Another peculiarity is that while gradually slowing down from fourth gear, it occasionally continues rolling at the same speed and feels like the car is ‘running away’, thus compelling you to depress the brake pedal even harder to control its deceleration. The tiptronic mode does give more manual control, though even here the gearbox tends to upshift automatically.

The Punch’s ride and handling balance are spot on. There is an underlying toughness to its suspension, which shines while tackling rough and bad sections of road. It flattens the road like a much heavier car and its stability at high speeds is excellent. The steering of the Punch is light, consistent and accurate, but not overtly sharp like the Altroz. Its taut structure, light kerb weight and wonderful steering feel make it quite enjoyable around corners.

While driving enthusiasts will be left longing for stronger engine performance, a majority of owners will be satisfied with its overall packaging. Its brakes feel natural and progressive, and its braking performance inspires confidence.

Unique to the AMT version of the Punch is a Traction Pro mode, which essentially detects front wheel slippage and asks for permission to activate via a prompt on the touchscreen. Once permission is granted, the driver needs to press the brake and accelerator pedal at the same time, and the system will intelligently apply the brake to the wheel that has low or no traction, while the one with traction easily pulls the car out of the sticky situation.

While the Punch is more capable than other hatchbacks at this price, it is still a front-wheel-drive car, and hence, it must not be subjected to conditions meant for four-wheel-drive vehicles.

A hatchback with SUV pretensions is not unusual today, but the Tata Punch differentiates itself from the tribe with some of the attributes you would actually associate with the SUV body style. It has got the elevated seating and ample ground clearance you would expect, but also boasts of a fairly tough build and ability in challenging conditions.

In other areas too, the Tata has a lot going for it — it is stylish on the outside, cheerful on the inside, packs in adequate space and practicality, as well as a reasonable equipment list. Engine performance is not exciting, and its AMT gearbox could have been a bit more intuitive, but these are likely to meet the requirements of a majority of buyers.

And if Tata delivers on the expected price of ₹ 5.5 to 8 lakh, the Punch, as a package, really punches above its weight and serves as a worthy, value for money alternative to hatchbacks such as the Maruti Swift and Hyundai Grand i10 Nios, as well as non-turbo compact SUVs such as Nissan Magnite, Renault Kiger, Hyundai Venue and Kia Sonet.

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