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Swimming among Sharks

The Tata Xenon aims to woo buyers in an already cutthroat pickup market

Swimming among Sharks

The Xenon is not spectacular to look at but the attractive wheel arches give the pickup a macho appeal.

Remora is a type of marine fish that sticks close to sharks and eats whatever bits of food are left over by the sharks. The sharks do not mind the remoras feeding on their leftovers. There is, after all,  enough food out there to keep everyone happy, although some may have to struggle a bit to get their portion, especially if they are newbies to the hunting grounds.

This is sort of like the situation of Indian auto-maker, Tata Motors, in Thailand. The company has recently launched its first product in the country, a pickup called the Xenon. Although it is a courageous move, it may not be the most intelligent one. The Thai auto market already has the Toyota Vigo, Isuzu D-Max, Nissan Navara, Mitsubishi Triton, Mazda BT-50, Ford Ranger and the Chevrolet Colorado in the pickup segment. While majority of the prey (read market) belongs to these models, Tata has the task of carving its own niche.

The Xenon's design is nothing spectacular. There is a rising waistline and the rear window gets smaller. From the front, the design is simple. The wheel arches which are part of the metal body lend it a macho appeal. From the rear, the Xenon is as simple as things can get with a straight design. Currently, only two-wheel drive and manual-transmission versions of the pickup are available.

If the exterior fails to inspire, then the interior takes you further down the rabbit hole. While the build quality is impressive, the feel of the materials is cheap and many of the plastics seem to jut out.

The Xenon comes with a 2.2-litre diesel engine, unlike other makes in Thailand that come with either a 2.5- or-3.0-litre engine. The problem with the Xenon is that it is like a butcher's knife among Samurai swords. The Xenon feels a generation behind when compared with the current pickups in Thailand. Even the newly developed Dicor engine feels unrefined and vibrates excessively at high speeds.

However, this is not to say that the Xenon is not good on the move. The 320Nm of torque feels adequate and acceleration is impressive up until 150kph but slows down before maxing out at 170kph. Fuel economy is also good, with the Xenon offering 15 kilometres per litre to 17kpl even after driving at speeds of 100kph.

The suspension, which handles well even with 500 kilograms of weight in the rear, feels stable at 150kph. Unload the Xenon of luggage and things get a bit jittery with bumpy roads tending to upset the vehicle.

What really makes things frustrating is the driving position. While trying to adjust the steering which can only move up or down, a spring pushes the steering all the way making it difficult to find a correct position. The gear lever, too,  is short and hard to engage.

It is no surprise that the Xenon has so many shortcomings when competing in the second-fiercest pickup market in the world. Japanese and American brands have spent years perfecting and improving the quality of their pickups.

What could have possibly led customers to overlook the Xenon's shortcomings is the price. But at Bt 629,000 for the fou- door version and Bt 564,000 for the extended-cab version, the Xenon is no bargain.

Tata's options are to either up the ante by improving its product or lower its price to attract customers. Hunt or be hunted.

      At a glance

Engine: 2.2-litre VTT Dicor

Displacement: 2,179cc

Maximum power: 140hp @ 4,000rpm

Maximum torque: 320Nm @ 1,700 to 2,700 rpm

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Suspension (f/r): Independent wishbone / leaf spring

Steering: Ball and nut

Brakes (f/r): Ventilated discs/drums

Dimensions (mm):

Length: 5,125

Width: 1,860

Height: 1,765

Wheels (front/rear):

16-inch alloy

Tyres: 205/75 R16

Price: Bt629,000

Distributor: Tata Motors Thailand

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