• 2021 Tata Punch first drive review

Aimed squarely at hatchback buyers, Tata Motors’ latest SUV could prove to be a game changer!

Back in 2020, just weeks before the onset of the first lockdown, amidst a sea of cars on display at the Auto Expo, was the Tata HBX. A small, SUV-esque concept, it had most of us intrigued, considering it was to sit below the Nexon. But knowing Tata Motors’ penchant for making proper SUVs (it was Tata Motors that pretty much started it all with the Safari back in the 1990s!) it was safe to assume the HBX would be more than just a hatchback on stilts. But is it really an SUV? Only one way to find out! 

The Punch looks like a scaled down Harrier. And that’s a good thing because effectively, you cannot mistake the Punch for anything else given the distinctive design. The grille is a thick slab of gloss black plastic and gets interesting design elements, besides being underlined by a chrome strip that runs from end to end across the face. The bumper uses Tata Motors’ tri-arrow design abundantly and looks nice, besides also allowing better airflow. The bumper also houses round fog lamps that also function as cornering lamps. The headlamp assembly also gets ‘intakes’ to aerodynamics. 

The silhouette from the sides is boxy to look like a traditional SUV, but the window line is angled upwards towards the rear which the design slightly look confusing. The top of the line trim (called ‘Creative’) runs on 16-inch alloy wheels while wheel arches get black plastic cladding to add to the SUV stance. Rear door handles are hidden like on the Altroz and in fact, the execution is better here. The rear end looks relatively simpler. The boot lid bulges outwards to look muscular and only the Punch name etched out in the centre. There’s a set of exit vents on the bumper as well, right behind the wheels on both sides. Tail lights look interesting and add flair to the overall design. I am also impressed with the approach and departure angles which help it off tarmac, but more on that later. 

Interiors are familiar looking given the dash-mounted inch infotainment touchscreen and part-digital instrument cluster. But there are new elements as well, like the rectangular air-conditioning vents that were colour-matched to the exterior shade in the blue car. The dashboard’s central rib is finished in white and also uses the tri-arrow design which looks nice. The driver’s cockpit is spacious, which is impressive given the SUV’s compact size. In fact the short overhangs at both ends have really helped in maximising cabin space. There’s no driver armrest but rear occupants do get a well-positioned one. Rear kneeroom and legroom are good too, despite the overall length of 3.85 metres, but seating three abreast will be a squeeze. 

At up to 366 litres boot volume is impressive too, besides which Tata Motors has also ensured the loading lip is wide. Then there’s the feature list – the Creative trim gets an elaborate list including a cooled glove box, rain sensing wipers, automatic headlamps and more. Tata Motors’ iRA pack offers geo-fencing, ability to lock/unlock, turn headlights on or off, honk and more remotely via the smartphone app, courtesy the eSIM onboard. You can also play games, watch videos or view images on the infotainment display via USB! The Harman-sourced audio system offers crisp notes and you also get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. Overall, the feature list is comprehensive, besides which you also have the option of going in for customisation packs. 

Powering the Punch is Tata Motors’ 1.2-litre, three-cylinder, naturally aspirated petrol engine that offers 86PS and 113Nm. Transmission options include a five-speed manual and AMT. I would have liked to see the more powerful, 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol engine from the Altroz as an option too! That said, the NA engine’s performance is reasonably good, especially in the manual version. The AMT feels relatively slower when accelerating hard. The engine also feels smooth and refined but has the typical thrum of a three-pot motor at idle, besides which engine noise is audible inside at higher revs. Bottom end grunt is impressive, which should help in traffic but more importantly it helped really matters off tarmac. 

Sustaining 100kmph or slightly more is easy too so the Punch will be adept at long highway drives too. The AMT adds to convenience, but the manual affords better control of the 86 horses under the hood and I also like the gear lever’s short throws. There’s more fun to be had in traffic than on open roads, more so in the manual. Tata Motors also set up a special experience zone to allow us to test the Punch’s prowess off tarmac. The engine’s strong lowdown grunt helped and overall engine performance is thus adequate. 

The off-road zone allowed us to climb inclines, test wheel articulation, drive through a water pit and drive over boulders. This is stuff you only expect from an SUV and this is where the Punch truly passed muster as one. The little SUV was able to take it all in its stride and had no trouble, given its water wading height of 370mm and ground clearance is 190 (+/-3mm) besides the excellent approach and departure angles. Most owners will probably never engage in the activity, but the experience did help in cementing the Punch’s SUV status! The AMT version also gets a feature called Traction Pro, which simply put works like a limited slip differential and sends more torque to the other wheel in case one of the front wheels are stuck on a loose surface like slush or snow. 

The Punch is also well-behaved on tarmac. Body roll is controlled as the suspension setup is well-balanced, while the steering feels responsive. The 16-inch wheels aid handling around corners as well, besides ensuring highway stability is good. In city, the smooth throttle response along with the nifty handling ensures progress through traffic is rapid and the Punch will be an able city slicker. The seating position is also tall which offers a good view besides adding to the SUV feel. The Punch also boasts a very impressive ride quality, something that has always been a trait in Tata SUVs. It had no trouble going faster on broken roads and even soaked up bumps, ruts and potholes very well. 

 

Tata Motors says the Punch is a ‘sub-compact SUV’, which is a new sub-segment to say so. And the Punch effectively is the first such SUV, slotting in below every other compact SUV including its own sibling, the Nexon. It is thus an option to traditional hatchbacks like the Maruti Suzuki Swift and Hyundai i10 NIOS. Everyone seems to want an SUV today irrespective of their needs or budget and the Punch is certainly an interesting take as a small, urban SUV. Tata Motors has put in efforts to ensure it feels like an SUV and is more than just a hatchback on stilts, which is what makes it so impressive. I would have liked the option of a more powerful engine but I guess that’s for the future. For now, the Punch does come across as a wholesome product and if priced well – my guess is from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 8 lakh ex-showroom – it has the ability to eat into the sales of hatchbacks, just the way bigger SUVs have eaten into that of sedans!

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