If you need an introduction to this car, you’ve probably been hiding under a rock for a long time. The Tata Safari, the first truly Indian SUV, hit the market 14 years ago and became the de facto, and for a long time only choice for anyone who wanted an entry-level SUV. It was cool, it looked good, it had presence and it appealed to everyone from the mantri to the macho. But 14 years is a long time in automobile life cycles, and the safari, despite updates and new engines, has lost out to newer, younger competition.
The car you see here is the new Safari Storme. It looks like a facelifte, but underneath, it is completely different from its predecessor. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, as you will soon see. Built on Tata’s hydroformed body-on-frame X2 platform, the Safari promises to be a whole lot better to drive and a lot more refined too. Prices start at Rs 9.9 lakh for the base 4x2 and go on to Rs. 13.7 lakh for this top-end 4x4 VX. Question is, do the new underpinnings help the safari take the big leap into the present?
DESIGN & ENGINEERING
Unlike the old car, which was based on the 1988 Tata mobile platform, the safari Storme is built on Tata’s relatively modern X2 platform, which also underpins the Aria. The chassis is nearly 50 percent stiffer and about 35kg lighter than the old Safari’s outdated frame. Overall, the Safari is 75kg lighter than before, but a 2095kg for this 4x4, it’s still really heavy. Apart from the frame, another big change is the Safari’s suspension. The earlier car’s front torsion bar layout has made way for wishbones with coil springs to leave space for front drive shafts. The rear suspension is similar to the old car’s five-link design, but the front and rear tracks are now wider to aid stability. To add to safety, the Safari will sell with rear disc brakes as standard.
Given that it’s been so comprehensively updated under the skin, it’s almost like Tata realised, last-minute, that it had forgotten to come up with a new design. Aping the old car’s silhouette and the basic shape, the Storme looks unmistakably a Safari. The original Safari’s large windscreen, stepped roof and tall stance are all there, and the styling changes at the front, side and rear just don’t look substantial enough. That said, the wide mesh grille and the chrome bar that cuts into the headlights do help to give the Storme a slightly different identity. New plastic cladding and larger wheel arches help too, but perhaps it’s the redesigned tail that best distinguishes the new Safari from the earlier model. The big change here is the repositioning of the spare wheel from the tailgate to under the body. This means less weight on the tailgate, and Tata engineers claim this has also served to rectify the rattling issue that was a bugbear on earlier Safaris. However, it’s quite a chore to get the heavy spare wheel out if you have a puncture. The fat chrome strip that runs across the width of the tailgate add some flash here, while the twin chrome exhausts and grey plastic scuff plate look neat too.
Looking at the exteriors, you’d expect the cabin to be a carryover from the old safari. There’s good news here, because the dashboard is totally redesigned and, while not unique, it is pleasing to look at. But more than anything, it’s the Safari’s improved quality that gets your attention. Right from the soft-touch plastics on the dashboard to the chrome detailing on the door handles and gear lever, everything plays a part to make the cabin far more upmarket than before. It also feels far better put together, though it’s still too early to pass judgement on long-term durability. However, the interior is still not perfect. Bits like the power window switches, air-con controls, and the seat height and steering adjusters are still not up to scratch. The utility box on top of the dash doesn’t align properly when shut, the rubber beadings are still wavy, and the leather trim also has an inconsistent finish. Even the aftermarket single-DIN music system looks out of place in this day and age, where integrated two-DIN music system are more or less then norm. But when you compare it to the other home-grown SUVs, the Storme’s cabin is still the best built.
What you will unquestionably like the Safari for is its space. The large windows allow plenty of light to enter the cabin but, surprisingly, the front seats aren’t as comfortable as before. They are rather flat, offer a bit too much thigh support, and there is an excess of lower back support. The seatback is too firm as well. Still, front-seat height and steering rake adjustment help make finding the ideal driving position easy, and general ergonomics are good too. Middle-row passengers will like the seat for its sofa-like comfort. It’s wide enough to seat three and there’s enough support for your thighs as well. In stark contrast, the third row is far from comfortable or practical. The tiny, foldable jump seats are only usable on short journey at best. With them folded, you can make space for luggage, but if you need to travel heavy, you can fold the middle row forward too.
Equipment-wise, the Storme is a bit of a mixed bag. You get all the essential features, but some helpful features like a reversing camera (which was offered on the earlier safari) are missing. In case you’re wondering, the Safari does come with separate audio controls that, unusually, are on a steering-column-mounted stalk rather than on the steering boss.
ENGINE GEARBOX & PERFORMANCE
The Storme gets the same longitudinally mounted 2.2-litre, 138bhp DiCor motor (which Tata has now dubbed ‘VariCor’) as in the old Safari. It gets the G76 Mark II gearbox, with improvements to the gearshift action. The minute you fire up the engine, you know that lots of work has gone into making the powertrain better. It’s significantly smoother than before, courtesy an inertia flywheel that damps vibrations. Good sound deadening also helps maintain relatively low engine noise levels in the cabin. It’s only at idle that you sense a little bit of shake because of the soft engine mounts.
When you get going, you’ll like this 16-valve, variable geometry turbo-equipped engine’s board spread of torque. Unlike most turbo-diesel that are peaky and have a narrow rev band, this VariCor unit has nice and linear power delivery and can rev happily to 4600rpm. It does get quite vocal past 3000rpm, so you’re best off shifting earlier in the rev range. What’s nice is that there’s not much turbo lag to worry about, so you don’t always feel the need to shift down when revs go south of 2000rpm. While that makes the Storme quite easy in traffic, it’s on the highway where the Safari Storme can stretch its legs and come into its own. The punchy mid-range makes overtaking effortless and it can be deceptively quick (by traditional SUV standards) on open roads.
Flat-out acceleration is quite impressive, and 100kph comes up in 14.9 seconds, putting the Stome on par with most of its rivals. It’s pretty good when it comes to in-gear acceleration too. The linear and almost instant power delivery helps here, and it does 20-80kph in third in a very impressive 13.7 seconds and 40-100kph in fourth in 15.29 seconds.
The clutch is quite light and the gearshift has been improved too – it has a nice, short throw, it feels accurate, but isn’t exactly slick, and it still needs an extra bit of a push.
RIDE & HANDLING
The biggest step up over the old car is the way the Safari behaves on the road. It’s genuinely among the best-riding SUVs we’ve driven. The combination of its pliant, tall springs and stiff chassis delivers a ride quality that is so absorbent and silent, it gives you the confidence to drive over ruts and potholes without scaling back the pace much.
If at all, it’s only on horrifically damaged roads that you need to slow down, and the Safari’s strong brakes help to this end.
If you benchmark the Storme against the old Safari, you’ll find the handling is also much improved. But that’s not to say the Storme scores high on the dynamics front. The slow steering offers very little feedback, the body rolls quite a bit, and it simply doesn’t feel agile. Even in the city, the Storme isn’t the most nimble SUV to drive. You always feel its girth and the slow steering, combined with the large turning circle, is not the most ideal for tackling heavy traffic. What does help, though, is that the traditional Safari strengths of a low window line, the big windscreen and the high seats give you a bird’s eye view out.
Off the road, the Storme gets all the four-wheel-drive hardware (low ratios, limited-slip differential) you need to tackle the toughest of terrain.
The Storme betters the old Safari on fuel efficiency. It gave us 10.1kpl in the city and 13.2kpl on the highway against the old one’s 8.7kpl and 13.1kpl, respectively. We put these improvements down to the Storme’s 35kg lighter kerb weight. That said, the highway figure should have been better as the Storme’s gearing is taller than the old car’s. But remember, its aerodynamic properties are still similar to the old car’s.
TATA SAFARI STORME
Doesn’t look all new but is a huge step forward
There’s no doubt that the storme is a huge step up from the old Safari. The brilliant ride, improved handling, better build and refinement point to how much engineering effort has gone into modernising the Safari. And the Storme comes with all the original car’s traditional strengths – a spacious cabin, fantastically comfy middle seats and a decent equipment list. Tata Motors still hasn’t managed to tighten the quality screw to global standards and the Storme does have a few rough edges, but none glaring enough to be a serious deterrent.
With no entry-level variants available, the Storme is priced on the higher side, but that’s not hard to justify when you factor in all that’s gone into the new car. If there is a turn-off, it’s the ageing shape, which undermines the huge improvements that have come with the Storme’s new and capable chassis.
Plenty of space and middle-row comfort is excellent.
More than adequate power on tap despite the two tonne-plus weight.
Engine is mostly quiet but gets noisy when worked hard.
Top-end variants expensive and no entry-level variant yet.
Two airbags and ABS are standard on the top VX variant.
Very absorbent and takes the worst of our roads with ease.
Still feels top-heavy but much more precise than before.
Build & Quality 7/10
Tough build quality, but still has a few rough edges.
Source: Autocar Dec 2012