New cheap utes are nothing new, with the arrival of the Tata Xenon marking the fourth and latest introduction of a new player into a segment that last year recorded 174,000 sales.
According to its manufacturer, though, the difference between the Indian-made Tata Xenon and its Mahindra Pik-Up native rival, and Chinese-built Foton Tunland and Great Wall V200 competitors, is that the Xenon shouldn’t be seen as a ‘cheap’ ute.
The Tata Xenon is certainly more expensive than most of those competitors. Powered singularly by a 2.2-litre direct injection turbo diesel that produces 110kW of power and 320Nm of torque, and linked only to a five-speed manual, the range starts at $22,990 driveaway for the diesel 4x2 cab chassis. It extends to $29,990 driveaway diesel for the 4x4 dual cab tested here, which is also expected to secure the majority of sales (read full price and specifications here).
By comparison, the Pik-Up starts at $18,990 plus on-road costs, and the dual cab 4x4 asks $24,490, both with an 85kW/270Nm diesel of the same capacity. The Tunland, meanwhile, asks an identical $26,990 driveaway for the equivalent 4x2 dual cab and costs a further $3000 over the equivalent 4x4 dual cab, but it delivers a healthier 120kW/360Nm from its 2.8-litre diesel.
The V200, finally, starts its 105kW/310Nm diesel range at an identical $22,990 driveaway to the entry Xenon – but the Great Wall gives buyers a full dual cab, not a cab chassis, effectively saving $4000 over the Xenon 4x2 dual cab. The V200 4x4 dual cab also asks an identical amount less than the Tata equivalent.
The waters get muddier when comparing the Tata Xenon to its mainstream, established Japanese opposition. The Nissan Navara D22, for example, is currently on sale from $28,990 driveaway as a 98kW/304Nm ST-R 4x4 dual cab, $1000 less than the Xenon 4x4 dual cab. The Mitsubishi Triton, as a 131kW/400Nm diesel GLX Plus 4x4 dual cab, is on sale for $31,990 driveaway.
The Triton at least gets side steps, cruise control, side and curtain airbags and stability control, where no Tata Xenon is available with those features (the potentially life-saving latter feature will be added from January production).
The Mitsubishi also offers a five-year/130,000km warranty, where the Tata, despite being of unknown reliability and quality, includes average three-year or 100,000km cover.
Neither Tata’s claim that the Xenon is a cut-above ‘cheap ute’ status, nor for the sake of owner peace of mind, is helped by the appalling build quality of the cars at launch.
On our particular silver 4x4 dual cab test vehicle, the bonnet alignment was out, meaning the shut line on the right side was much larger than that on the left; there was flaky paint around the fog light recess; and there were paint runs on the side of the cab, ironically just below a sticker on the rear window that read ‘paint OK’.
Things are not much better inside. There are the hard and shiny plastics expected of a workhorse but also fit and finish glitches that are unacceptable for a new car at any price. The wiring loom for the driver’s seatbelt warning hung clumsily beside the seat, for example, the silver finish trim was flaky in one part, and a screw securing the centre cupholder was put in at an angle, abruptly and sharply protruding out (below).
The seven-inch Eclipse touchscreen fitted to our test car was the single redeeming feature – complete with sat-nav, reversing camera, and Bluetooth audio connectivity – but it’s a further $2175 option, or $2430 when packaged with rear sensors. It is especially overpriced considering the system has poor integration and cheap graphics.
The three-spoke leather steering wheel feels decent in the hands, although there are no audio controls on it and what it’s connected to is among the most approximate steering of any ute tested. Light and slow, plenty of lock is required to get the Xenon turned in to a slight bend and there’s a lack of directness when trying to hold a constant line through the corner.
Our test car also suffered a wheel alignment problem that required the tiller to be tilted 20 degrees to keep the wheel straight.
The ride quality of the Tata Xenon is certainly the worst of any vehicle experienced in this tester’s memory. On even ostensibly smooth country roads, the Tata bounces and fidgets constantly. Add bigger bumps and divots and the driver’s back gets a serious workout on the hard and unsupportive front seats, as the Xenon heaves both its body and those of its occupants.
Not only are the front seats uncomfortable, but the rear seats are flat and mounted low, with a dangerous lap-only seatbelt fitted to the middle position – which Tata claims it will fix in due time.
Cornering dynamics aren’t typically a priority with utes, but the 215mm-wide, 75-aspect 16-inch Apollo Hawkz tyres fitted should at least help the ride, as they also make turn-in as ponderous and floaty as many vehicles fitted with soft-walled ‘all terrain’ tyres.
More impressive is the Tata-designed engine, which pulls strongly from just 1200rpm, and extends, albeit breathlessly, to a 4700rpm cut-out. It doesn’t feel any quicker than its Triton and Navara mainstream rivals, though, and it is much louder. It is also rated as among the most economical in the class, claiming just 7.4L/100km in combined conditions.
The diesel also mates to a rubbery and long-throw five-speed manual that could do with the addition of a freeway-friendly sixth gear given its ultimate lack of refinement.
Commendably, however, the Xenon body feels quite strong. Despite the appalling ride quality that shakes about the cabin, the body doesn’t feel loose, and despite the finish issues, there were no major rattles and squeaks inside. Nor does the engine vibrate through the cabin at idle.
On a small off-road course, the Tata Xenon also proved a decent farm workhorse, with good clearance and handy wheel articulation from the double wishbone front suspension and leaf-sprung rear. It includes an ‘idle up’ feature to help prevent stalling on hills, gets a limited-slip differential standard on all models, and on the 4x4 models a choice of high and low range gearing, or two-wheel-drive only, all of which can be accessed on the fly.
The engine has plenty of grunt to pull up and down hills and over a rock crawl, and a rear differential lock will soon be made available as an option – among the traditional ute crowd, only the Triton and the much more expensive Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50 get the off-road-enhancing hardware as an option.
Payloads in the rear range from 880kg for the flagship 4x4 dual cab pickup tested, to 1080kg for the entry level 4x2 cab chassis and single cab, while a 2500kg towing capacity is below average for the class – Navara ST-R requests a 2800kg maximum, Triton 3000kg.
Although Tata’s local importer claims that the Xenon deserves better than ‘cheap ute’ status, it simply doesn’t have the ability to justify its pricing. Indian engineers present at launch acknowledged more needs to be done to improve its products, and right now this ute cannot be recommended. The Tata Xenon has major quality issues, below average safety equipment, unacceptable driving flaws, an average warranty and pricing that barely betters opposition that are also generations ahead to drive and have proven to be reliable.