We drive the Indian company’s B-segment sedan
Cars nowadays are getting more and more complex.
Certainly, advances in vehicle performance, economy, handling, refinement, build quality and crash safety are most welcome. But many new cars, even the smallest ones, are filled to the headlining with all sorts of gidgets and doo-dads that are not only unnecessary, but also drive up the price. For instance, I’ve always wondered why on Earth anyone would need parking sensors in a Mitsubishi Mirage hatchback, a car that’s small enough to fit into an overnight bag, and pay at least P630,000 for it.
For that money, you can seat yourself into an entry-level but larger B-segment sedan. You may not get alloy wheels, a touchscreen infotainment system or a push-start button, but you do get a more powerful engine, a roomier interior and a much larger trunk. Indeed, my fascination with bottom-rung car variants is why I was looking forward to driving my first long-term test unit for Fast Times: the Tata Manza sedan.
Lest we forget, Tata is the same company that engineered the Nano, which is the 21st century equivalent of the original Mini and Fiat 500. Costing $1,500 when it was launched in 2008, the Nano was designed to bring India’s lower-middle class into a safer mode of personal transportation, rather than them trying to balance six people on a motorcycle. To find out if Tata’s expertise in small cars is good enough for the Philippines, Fast Times was loaned a Manza Ini for four days.
When it was delivered to our house, I was surprised not with how it looked, but at how old it was. You see, most press demonstrators are brand-new units that are so meticulously preened, these could get a ribbon at a Concours d’Elegance. However, the Manza I got was two years old and had already covered some 17,400 kilometers, which I found delightful because I would not only be able to test the car after it had been broken in, but also because I would be able to see how well it wore its miles.
The next thing that grabbed me was the Manza’s largeness. Parked next to a Vios in the garage, the Indian sedan towered with its higher roofline, higher beltline and higher ground clearance. Indeed, the entire car’s profile reminds me of an enlarged second-generation Honda City because of the sloping, egg-shaped nose and the large, squared-off back end.
Style-wise, the Manza is reminiscent of a first-generation Citroen C5. Up front, there are huge boomerang-like headlights that flank a prominent front grill, with a conventional design for the lower bumper. Apart for the quirky turn-signal repeaters in front of the mirrors, I certainly wish Tata livened up the side of the car, which looks all the more slab-sided with the narrow 15-inch wheels.
At the back, equally huge taillights start from the top of the rear fenders and extend all the way down to the bottom of the trunk. A long chrome trunk garnish above the license plate accentuates the Manza’s width, while the lower rear bumper is nicely pert. On the whole, the Manza isn’t dull to look at, but it could do with more jazzing up.
One notable thing I did notice was some poor panel fit. The shutlines along the bottom of the hood, some of the doors and the trunklid weren’t consistent and the rubber seal at the bottom of the left-side rear window was already coming off. These made me ponder on the Manza’s build quality, especially on how well it would hold up as the years go by.
Speaking of the trunklid, opening it reveals an absolutely cavernous 490-liter space with a rectangular opening that makes it easy to put things in, although the high trunk sill will make getting things out a bit more challenging. If you need to carry more items, the entire rear seat folds down for more space. However, I wish it were a split-folding arrangement for more flexibility and wish it folded flat and had a larger portal to the interior for more practicality.
Entering and exiting the Manza, though, is very easy because of that high roof and floor. Once inside, there is easily enough space for five adults with superb legroom and so much headroom that it could be measured with an altimeter. In addition, the Manza has many storage spaces like the box under the passenger seat, the large glove compartment, the front and rear door pockets and the four cupholders around the cabin.
The Manza also comes with a 2-DIN audio system with eight speakers, a CD player, auxiliary input, USB and Bluetooth. It was easy to use and had decent sound, although the Bluetooth couldn’t pair with either my or my sister’s cell phones. And even though the air-con was strong, the fan was much too loud. Anyway, the air-con was enough to keep the heat away.
As with the outside, I didn’t like the fit of the interior materials, which included seat fabrics that are too rough and plastics that are too hard. Make no mistake, it’s good for a Tata (especially compared to the dreadful Indigo, which I wrote about in a separate review), but it’s not quite up to scratch with its competition. Another downside was the centrally mounted gauges that don’t face the driver, which makes it difficult to read the car’s speed.
Limited enjoyment on the road
However, it’s easy to get a good driving position with the height-adjustable seat and the tilting steering wheel, but it all went downhill the moment I turned the key. By far the Manza’s glaring weak point is its power train, which is a 1.4-liter, single-cam, eight-valve Safire inline-four producing 89 horsepower and 116 Newton-meters of torque, mated to a five-speed manual gearbox (an 89-horsepower 1.3-liter turbodiesel is available in the higher-end Manza Aura). On cold start, the engine is coarse with a hint of diesel-like clatter and once it’s warmed up, it still isn’t very refined.
I did around 250 kilometers in the Manza – including a 180-kilometer trip to Clark International Speedway for a Jaguar event (fitting since Tata owns Jaguar now) – and the enjoyment was limited. Despite excellent all-around visibility from the large windows and mirrors, the car’s sticky clutch that had a high bite point and the very recalcitrant gear change made it a real challenge to drive it in the city. The firm ride would have been a good addition but the seat cushion was unsupportive. The brakes are strong but the pedal had a spongy feel.
On the expressway, things were marginally better. Being an eight-valve engine, there isn’t much torque in the lower rpm range, but from 3,500 revolutions per minute, the inline-four pulled strongly to the redline for reasonable overtaking power. What wasn’t reasonable was the fifth gear, which is geared too low to be in overdrive with 100 kilometers per hour at a raucous 3,800 rpm. My trip to Clark did achieve 11.2 kilometers per liter in fuel consumption, which could have gone up to 13-14 kpl were it not for the Saturday gridlock along the North Luzon Expressway.
Through the corners, the firm suspension didn’t translate to well-suppressed body roll, but the Manza does hold on when you push it (tires squealing in protest). I did like the quick and responsive steering, although it didn’t offer enough feel and was heavy at low speeds.
Another issue is the glaring lack of vital safety features like child-seat anchors, airbags and anti-lock brakes (the last two are only available in the Aura model). In addition, although the front and outer-rear seats get three-point seatbelts and full head restraints, the rear middle passenger only gets a lapbelt and no head restraint.
Is it worth it?
In summary, the Tata Manza Ini is a capacious subcompact sedan that can carry five people and their things to places without getting wet, cold or (because it’s summer) roasted. In other words, the Manza would work well as a taxi or a GrabCar. But for private buyers like first-time car owners or families who need a second car, it needs more refinement and improvement in the comfort department.
And at P600,000, it isn’t that much cheaper than smaller but far more capable rivals, such as the Toyota Vios J, the Hyundai Accent E and the Nissan Almera Base.