If there’s something I truly enjoy about being a motoring writer, it’s the opportunity to drive cars that few others have driven. No, not Porsches, Astons and Ferraris--though those are also quite enjoyable--but obscure cars that you don’t often see in mainstream publications. Chinese three-wheelers. Electric buses. Home-built sports cars. And stuff like this: the Tata Indigo.
I’ve driven this car before, and found myself vastly amused by the dinky little diesel. Of course, there’s a difference between scooting around in an Indian-made taxi for half a day and actually living with one for a month. A month in which we put a few thousand kilometers on the tiny little Tata.
Okay, so it’s not the most impressive-looking of cars. The Indigo was designed way back in 2002, and it shows. The cartoonish proportions are reminiscent of the second-generation Honda City, dubbed the ‘ipis,’ but with a taller greenhouse and a shorter trunk. Tiny wheels and skinny tires are inadequately disguised by silver hubcaps. That said, there’s a charm to the Tata. And you can’t complain if it isn’t much of a looker. This is, after all, the cheapest sedan on the market today. Bar none.
Despite the low price, you do get ABS and airbags. And a dash-top shelf, too, that’s good for loose change and cellphones. Remote locking, a basic radio, power windows, front and rear fogs, and strong air-conditioning complete the spec package. The biggest bonus with the Indigo, however, is the 1.4-liter diesel under the hood.
The engine comes with an odd externally mounted injection-pump assembly and a gonzo top-mounted intercooler ram-fed air via an enormous underhood duct. The single-scroll turbo doesn’t really build boost until 2,500rpm, but when the turbo kicks in and the car surges forward, you find yourself reaching for second gear in a hurry, before the clattery little diesel starts pinging off the 5,000rpm rev limiter. Once at speed, with air flowing over the intercooler, the car seems to catch a second wind.
Lift off to cruise and the engine quiets down somewhat. Despite the low gearing, with 100kph occurring at a relatively high (for a diesel) 2,750rpm, the Indigo proves frugal. Over a month, the 1.4-liter diesel netted a consistent 15-16km/L in mixed traffic and running conditions. That’s not quite close to the high bar set by the 1.3-liter Quadrajet in the Tata Manza, but with diesel costing some P10 less than gasoline, the Indigo is considerably cheaper to run than 1.2-liter gasoline competitors. Competitors which it already handily undercuts in price.
Which meant that during its tenure with us, the Indigo served as the go-to choice for a number of long road trips-- including an epic 800km northern excursion, where it dealt with unpaved trails and steep hill climbs with aplomb. The small 42-liter fuel tank required us to fuel up sometimes in far-flung places, but dirty diesel isn’t as scary for the electro-mechanical injection system as it is for high-pressure, common-rail direct-injection systems. The large and deep trunk, on the other hand, swallowed luggage with ease, though the hinges and intrusive wheel wells meant that longer items had to be stuffed in at odd angles.
Another bonus for these long trips is the cabin. The Indigo makes the most of its short 2,450mm wheelbase by pushing the front firewall out between the front tires and squeezing the rear seat firmly against the shock towers. This results in generous legroom for the car’s size, and passengers will have few complaints about it. The ride is another matter, however. A relatively stiff suspension with a short stroke sets the car juddering over deeply rutted roads, setting pocket change and toll cards on the dash-top shelf jingling and jangling uncontrollably.
On the brighter side, the Indigo is reasonably well-behaved on twisty mountain passes, where the MacPherson-strut suspension gives it a more neutral demeanor than the twist-beams on most cheap cars, encouraging you to lean upon the meager grip generated by the skinny tires. The hydraulic steering feels reassuringly firm and natural under your fingertips. It’s not the best in the world, not even close, but it’s a refreshing change from the electrically assisted steering on most new economy cars. Like scarfing down a greasy street-side pork chop after a forced diet of tofu and veggie meat.
But most buyers looking at a diesel will be more interested in how it handles the daily grind. Here, the diesel bonus pays dividends in terms of fuel costs, but you know that already. The trade-off for this, though, is a springy clutch and a rubbery gearshift. And you’ll find yourself using them often, working around that abrupt transition between low and high boost.
On the flip side, the tall greenhouse provides for great visibility, except over the tall trunk. Short overhangs and a narrow beam make the car ridiculously easy to park in very tight spaces.
Not as painless is deciphering the Indigo’s ergonomics and cabin layout. The upright steering wheel has little in the way of adjustment. The front footwell is a bit short, even for a Filipino of average height.
Secondary control knobs are fiddly, with odd foglight and washer controls, and power-window switches are down by your knees on the center console, to free up elbow room by the doors. There are no cupholders in the cabin, save for the two molded in the glovebox lid.
But these are things you get used to over the course of a month. A month in which the little car’s eccentricities fade into the background, much like our new president’s sweary tirades. No, the Indigo still isn’t my dream diesel commuter. The Manza, with its modern cabin, plush ride and superior Fiat Quadrajet diesel is infinitely preferable. But then, these two cars serve vastly different markets.
Unlike the private buyers the Manza services, the Indigo is targeted at service fleets. To be banged around, put away wet, and given just the bare minimum of care--indeed, our 25,000km-old test unit has the dings and dents to attest to that kind of treatment. Fittingly, the lure of cheap diesel has encouraged a number of brave souls to use the Indigo as a taxi service, where the low entry price and running costs make the most sense. We doubt it will threaten the Toyota Vios’s stranglehold on that market. Not for a while yet, at least. But with cars like the Indigo, Tata is carving out a small but growing niche for itself in the Philippines.
SPECS: TATA INDIGO DLE
Engine: 1.4-liter turbodiesel I4
Power: 69hp @ 4,500rpm
Torque: 135Nm @ 2,500rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Note: This article first appeared in Top Gear Philippines' June 2016 issue.