The Philippine car market is a tough one to crack. Harsh local conditions and high expectations have crushed many new automotive start-ups, dragging their dreams of success along the pothole-strewn avenues till nothing but empty showrooms and rusting hulks remain.
Yet, in a bull market buoyed by a strong economy and aggressive financing, even the most unlikely names may find a niche in this market. Tata Motors is hoping to throw its hat into the bullring. And it's leading off with this heavy-hitter, the Xenon, India's first fully homegrown pickup truck. Funnily enough, it feels right at home here in the Philippines. Let's find out why.
The Xenon's styling is reminiscent of '90s Mercs or Mitsubishis, with clean, strong lines, wide radiused fenders, and handsome alloy wheels. Those fenders are ludicrously bulged, and simply crying out for more rubber. While it's a large truck at 5.15m long, newer competitors have grown to over 5.3m, leaving Tata to play catch-up.
Still, a long wheelbase, wide flares, rear bullbar and beefy front skidplate give it a bulldog stance that's quite appealing. Better yet, the body is made of strangely heavy gauge steel, all the better to resist dings and dents in hard use.
The interior is an exotic mix of the mundane and the bizarre. Window switches under the gearshift leave more elbow room at the door for tall drivers. The instrument gauges seem pointed skyward to serve these same drivers.
Big horn buttons sit right under your thumbs, a necessity in Indian traffic. The interior door locks are cartoonishly large, as is the thrusting gear knob that takes pride of place mid-cabin. Overall, fit and finish are respectable, despite the preponderance of dull gray plastic. The seats, on the other hand, sit too low to the floor, and the rear bench is too upright for long trips. Interior storage space is also a bit limited compared to other trucks in this class.
The 2.2-liter DiCor direct-injection motor starts and idles in a gruff manner, but once underway, the 138hp engine impresses. Thanks to a variable geometry turbo, torque builds smoothly from just off idle to over 3,000rpm, then tapers off a bit before the 4,000 power peak.
The clutch is rather stiff and somewhat vague, but the gearshift is good for a pickup. The combination feels more tractable at low rpm than the Ford Ranger 2.2, if that can be believed. Fuel economy in mixed conditions hovers around 10km/L. It must be said, however, that part of that was done in hellish Divisoria traffic.
RIDE AND HANDLING
The Tata's front torsion bar and rear live-axle suspension setup promise exceptional durability, but the trade-off is a pretty stiff ride. The 215/75 R16 Apollo Quantum tires aren't quite as godlike as their namesake, but they've got good grip and stability for commercial rubber, and the narrow footprint and ABS make for safe braking in the wet, even with an unladen bed. While heavy, the Xenon is very stable and neutral, and the big windows make it a doodle to drive and park, even without sensors.
While the Xenon comes standard with a beefy front skidplate, a rear bullbar, an alarm and central locking, the tailgate doesn't lock with the system, and there's little else in the way of interior toys besides the single-DIN stereo unit on the dashboard and the snazzy-looking clock beside it.
An OEM bedliner is available for just P15,000, but you have to remove the stock rollbar to install it. Just because the Xenon isn't a mainstream truck doesn't mean modifications and toys aren't available for it. We've driven a demo unit chock-full of off-road goodies. Check out our upcoming August 2014 issue to see what we think of it.
Despite its eccentricities, the Xenon feels like a properly built truck. One that is uniquely suited to emerging markets like ours. Traditional pickup owners may be put off by the short load bed and the lack of an automatic-transmission option. But the Xenon's drivetrain is impressive, and it feels well-built. And if it's tough enough for India, it should be tough enough for us. Whether tough enough is good enough to make it in this crowded market, only time will tell. Then again, Tata is a big company. They have all the time in the world.
SPECS: TATA XENON 4x2 DLS
Engine: 2.2-liter DiCor variable-geometry turbocharged diesel
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Power: 138hp @ 4,000rpm
Torque: 320Nm @ 1,700-2,700rpm
Drive layout: RWD
Photos by Niky Tamayo