2008 Bangkok International Motor Show : Tata Xenon
Tata Motors used the Bangkok International Motor Show to unveil the Tata Xenon, and showcase several other models with the hope of making an impression. The show ended today, and if you didn't get to visit it and are curious to hear some comments on the Tata offerings, I'll do my best to give you an idea of the impact the Xenon made on me.
Everyone loves an underdog
I love to cheer the underdog in any contest where I would otherwise consider myself to be a neutral. The Tata Xenon is entering the war zone that is the one-ton-pick-up market in Thailand. Toyota and Isuzu are way out ahead in terms of sales and it is very hard to imagine any other manufacturer catching up to the big two.
Ford, Mazda, Nissan, Chevrolet and Mitsubishi all make very capable trucks too, but nothing outstanding enough or cheap enough to take more than a thin slice of the pie-chart representing annual sales in this market. Thailand is the second biggest pick-up truck market in the world, and all the aforementioned manufacturers use Thailand as a production base for local sales, and exports to global markets.
Tata has been making bold claims recently regarding the Xenon, and a recent article I read leading up to the Motor Show suggested that the Xenon wouldn't be much cheaper than the Japanese trucks, and that the Tata truck would be a match for anything else on the market.
So, it was with a hopeful optimism that the underdog would shine, backed up by strong marketing speak by Tata Motors Thailand, that I walked up to the Tata Xenon that was taking centre stage in the Tata exhibit.
I'd spent some time pouring over the specs for the Xenon prior to seeing it in the metal. On paper, it seems that there is some justification for Tata believing that they can take a fight to the big players in the Thai market. It is big enough, and although the 2.2 litre Dicor engine might be smaller than Thais are used to seeing in one-ton trucks, it is not underpowered at 140 hp. The engine should also be reasonable frugal, and boosts modern technology.
Viewing the Xenon from 5 metres away doesn't do anything to detract from this belief that it could be a contender. It looks like a truck. The proportions are reasonably good, and there isn't anything goofy about it. The rear includes some strangely positioned lights, but apart from that the overall impression you get from the exterior look of the truck is pretty good.
At the end of the day it is a truck, so it's unlikely that you're going to be buying a Tata for it's looks, any more than you are going to be buying a Toyota Vigo, or Isuzu D-max for that reason either.
But step closer and start to take a closer look at some of the details of the Tata, and you start to realise that this is in a different league: a lower one. The Xenon is not a match for the VIgo, D-max, Triton, Navara, Ranger, Colorado or the BT-50. Not even close. And I can make this assertion without having driven it, and I probably never will, at least not by choice.
Why don't they just copy the good stuff?
Tata should have done more copying and less innovating. This might sound like a strange thing to say. Surely I should be applauding any fresh ideas. Well if the fresh ideas seem useless gimmicks, and the fresh designs are bad ones, then no, it is not to be applauded.
Let's start with an example of bad design. Either there are a million and one patents in place that restricted Tata in their design of door handle, or the company was too proud to copy an existing design, but whatever reason, the resulting inside door handles in the Tata are the worst I've experienced in any car. That might sound a bit over-the-top, but they are awful. Uncomfortable to use and ugly to look at! Thankfully they do work though, and I was able to get out of the truck.
Everything feels cheap. The steering wheel is height adjustable, but when you move the leaver to allow the adjustment to be made, there is a weighty springing action that shunts the wheel up in a very sudden and vulgar manner. It took some work to get the wheel to a comfortable height, allowing clear viewing of the rather small dials. The hand grip on the hand brake seemed to be loose, and I could turn it in my hand. It felt kind of soft too, and you can imagine it coming off, or looking tatty after some use.
Sitting in the drivers seat of this "X-TEND CAB" model, which represents the current top-of-the-range, I just didn't get the impression that this was a serious threat to the Vigo. The cabin is very sparse, and features lacking include important things like airbags! The glove compartment does lock though, which is a nice and all, but those centrally located controls for the electric windows aren't quite so cool.
Everything feels cheap. I know I said that before, but I can't over state that fact. Bearing in mind that the other trucks also have a cheap and utilitarian feel to them with lo grade plastics, and a general lack of attention to detail, it is saying something to criticise a pickup truck for feeling cheap.
Lights must be cheap in India
The Xenon is named after a gas, and xenon is used in some modern car headlights. While the Xenon doesn't have xenon lamps, it does have a lot of lights you might not expect to see. For example, those lights that are placed low on the rear bumper, seemingly designed to brake a lot. Then there are some strange little rectangular lights on the inside of the rear doors, which might help you avoid stepping in something unpleasant when getting in or out of the truck.
But the light on the underside of the hood is the most interesting one. It bulges out of the insulation, and has a switch to turn it on and off. This actually looks useful, if you need to work on your truck's engine, in the dark, some where you don't have access to better lighting. This is one of those features that you'd hope you don't have to use much, and it's inclusion doesn't inspire confidence.
Not cheap enough
This truck feels cheap, but it isn't. At THB 599,000 it looks like good value in the double cab market, but this is only around THB 128,000 less than the Double Cab Vigo Prerunner. And this is an introductory price, so we'll see it move up by around THB 30,000 after the launch promotion.
But, if you aren't bothered with having a 4x4 apperance and stance to your truck, then you could just opt for a regular double cab 4x2 Vigo for THB 650,000. After Tata bump up prices this will be just THB 20,000 more than the Xenon.
If you fancy the look of the Tata, and you don't believe you'll be as fussy as I am regarding the "cheapness" issues I've described, then maybe the Xenon might be worth taking for a test drive. But you'll be ignoring more than just my opinion on the build quality. You'll be taking a chance on a new truck and a company new to Thailand, yet to build up a reputation for customer support. And that's before you even consider the residuals.
Remember, I wanted the Xenon to do well, but I am confident to say that it will not do well in Thailand. Thai buyers have been spoiled with high quality products. I had to make three attempts to close the rear passenger door of the Xenon before the sales guy stopped me from trying again, and he left it on half-latch just smiling at me hoping that I wouldn't notice. This might be just a early production issue that will be ironed out, but it doesn't bode well for the general quality of the truck.
On the same day I was looking at the Ford Ranger Wildtrak, and by comparison it felt extremely well built. The doors closed with a light push. Of course, you'd hope that Ford could make doors that close properly at this stage, but the point is that they do.
Poor Tata. They've entered a war that they have no hope of winning. Click here for an image gallery of the Tata Xenon, and the Tata display.