Tata Sumo Grande MK II: An improved car

There was a time when the TATA Sumo was India’s largest selling ‘car’. Favoured by taxi operators and large families alike, the Sumo was refined in comparison to the agricultural UVs on sale in India at the time. Its styling was inspired by the Land Rover Discovery and it looked stylish in comparison to all the jeeps that Indian car buyers had to make do with otherwise.

Time and tide waits for no one and realising that the Sumo was getting on in years, TATA launched the Sumo Grande in 2008. Styled in the UK but based on the same decade old chassis, the Sumo was still one big box of a car. Part tonka toy, part Flintstone, the Sumo Grande caused divided opinion on whether it looked better or worse than its predecessor. If you bought the jazzy orange one, it was as yabba-dabba-doo as anything on four wheels. And now this.

Realising that the Sumo Grande needed some tweaks before it could set the sales charts on fire, TATA has launched the Mk II version. The company has looked at three areas heavily criticised by the motoring press and worked on them. So, we get slightly better put together interiors, a retuned suspension and reworked gearing for better drivability. I’ll start with the interiors. Yes, it’s huge inside, but you’d have to be eight feet tall to use all that headroom. The new steering wheel looks and feels much better than the earlier version’s and thankfully, TATA has ditched the square gear knob in favour of a more conventionally shaped and a far more comfortable item. The control stalks are more comfortably placed too and you no longer need hands the size of Michael Phelps’ feet to operate them. The strange looking faux wood has been binned in favour of glossier, darker tinted faux wood which is kinder to the eyes. A dedicated iPod connector is supplied with the factory fitted Alpine stereo but you don’t get USB connectivity which, in my opinion, is discrimination no matter what TATA, Alpine or Apple have to say. The plastics have been improved, yet the Grande’s levels of fit and finish leave something to be desired.

The seat fabric is new, and the driver’s seat gets lumbar support which is great on long drives. The seats themselves are comfy too, but TATA has worked hard to make the Grande ride better than it did. The spring rates have been changed, the dampers have been recalibrated and there is a thicker rear anti-roll bar. ‘Soft’ mounts have been used to mate the body to the chassis which helps in isolating the cabin from the road. Refinement levels are impressive and apart from some torque rock at start up, the DiCOR diesel in the Grande is quite smooth. Performance is sedate, however, and while the engine pulls cleanly even with a full complement of passengers, it is not brisk. The gear shift quality is still a little vague and finding first when the ’box is cold is a bit hit-and-miss.

The controls are light and the steering effort, clutch and brake modulations are quite comfortable and a pleasant surprise in a car of this size. Of course, don’t bother with ‘feel’ and ‘feedback’, the Grande goes reasonably where you point it, which is saying enough. This is a BIG car, but the flat sides and the high perch make it easy to place on the road.

Most importantly, the way the Grande rides is much improved. The nose doesn’t pitch as much as it used to and the rear of the big UV doesn’t hop and bounce over every speed breaker. TATA may not have gone to Lotus, but for sure the Grande’s ride is more composed than some of its rivals. The final drive ratio has been shortened from 3.73 to 4.1 and this has improved the Grande’s drivability. You can cruise comfortably at just over 30km/h in third with five passengers and the a/c on, yet it will pull cleanly.

Our test car had a little over 1400km on the clock and I expect that its performance will only improve as it gets some more miles on the crank and the engine beds in. We haven’t strapped on the V-Box, but the Grande Mk II should be expectedly quicker with faster in-gear times as well. Top speed in a vehicle this size is academic and in any case, when fully loaded, it is advisable to keep speeds at 100km/h. Any faster and you’ll be asking a lot from the brakes in an emergency. TATA claims the discs have been beefed up and the pads feature a new material, but braking is still not as good as it should be.

Despite all the refinements and improvements to the Grande MkII, an area that TATA needs to address is driver ergonomics. The steering wheel is offset to the left. On long drives, the unnatural seating posture begins to tell and you feel a pull in your right shoulder. To look at, it’s a tad better with a smattering of chrome on the grille and rub strips to break the monotony of the sides. However, the biggest visual improvement is in the wheels with pressed steel rims replacing the earlier wheels which had ghastly drain covers for wheel caps. Turn signals integrated with the rear view mirrors are a neat touch.

So, will the Grande MkII dethrone the Maruti Alto as India’s numero uno? Probably not, but if it can get close to the Mahindra Bolero (which is currently India’s largest selling UV) then TATA could consider it a success. It doesn’t convey the tough as nails rustic simplicity of its Mahindra rivals and neither is it a refined family vehicle like the Innova. Instead, it’s a small town boy in an ill-fitting suit trying to fit in at a high society dinner party.

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carindia

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Car India magazine is part of the UK based CAR magazine, overwhelmingly acknowledged as the world's best car magazine. The India title has its first issue rolling out in 2005. Explosive and vibrant, as well as serious and sensuous, CAR India was launched to satiate the discerning automobile enthusiast who knows his radiators from his air filters. Full to the brim with spectacular international stories, fantastic Indian features and the hows and why about motorsport the world over, CAR India is for the insightful.

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