Tata Punch mini-SUV first drive review: Punching above its weight

There really is something to be said about taking a digital detox. Or in my case, a default detox by way of slacking off/ ‘delegating’ most of the auto coverage to our newshound Amaan. I went into the press drive of the Tata Punch ‘micro’ SUV with little more than an idea of what it looked like. No estimates of size, no guesses of positioning or power output. Nothing. And what I received in return was a pleasant surprise – the best kind.

As has become tradition, Tata organised the Mumbai press drive close to home, with easy access to highways and shoot locations. Except this time, it went all-out, with a full off-road demo track built to show off the capabilities of this plucky little SUV. Perspective: it’s 3.8 metres long, smaller than some hatchbacks, only front-wheel drive and uses a par-for-the-course naturally-aspirated petrol engine. What the heck was this off-road track about? Quite a bit, as I discovered.

The Punch is based on the ALFA architecture, and is the smallest SUV Tata Motors has made till date. Image: Tech2/Tushar Burman

What is it?

What is a ‘micro-SUV’ anyway? The way Tata is pitching it, the Punch slots in below the Nexon, which is already a sub-4m vehicle, for that tasty tax break. How much smaller can anyone make an SUV, you ask. About 20 cm, in the case of the Punch. It’s just 3.8 metres long, but still packs in impressive space, a useable boot, light weight and some capability. Engine options are limited to one: a three-cylinder, 86 hp/113 Nm petrol unit that we’ve seen before in the Altroz hatchback. The Punch is lighter, though, and this becomes quickly evident. It’s a tall-riding vehicle based on the same ALFA architecture as the Altroz with all its (likely) safety and ergonomic benefits. You can have it in manual or automated-manual transmission (AMT) flavour, with four variants (Tata wants us to call them ‘personas’) and an option pack available on each.

Despite being a small and tall vehicle, the Punch looks well-proportioned; 16-inch wheels fill the arches nicely. Image: Tech2/Tushar Burman

Design: Minimal, forward-looking

While somewhat bulbous thanks to its short length, the Punch is a well-executed, proportionate design. The pictures speak for themselves; the Punch has an understated sophistication that – to my eye – would be quite appropriate for an EV. And that’s not too far from the truth; the Punch platform was designed to be electrified, and we’ll likely see a Tata Punch EV sometime in the near future. On the range-topping model we tested, 16-inch wheels filled the arches nicely, there’s plastic cladding all around the car and the LED DRLs look purposeful and on-trend.

The Punch's interior has an honest, likeable vibe. Image: Tech2/Tushar Burman

Interior: Honest, surprisingly spacious

I’m not the biggest fan of Tata cars’ interiors. I’ve always thought that in the attempt to come off ‘premium’, they manage the opposite. I include the Nexon, Harrier, Altroz and Safari in this judgement. Not so with the Punch, strangely. It is a departure in design language on the inside. Gone is the weird silver sash across the dashboard, and my pet peeve: ‘piano black’. It’s all grey-and-white textured plastic, but nice and matte, with the white bits looking like fabric from a distance. It’s almost Defender-like in its attempt to be non-fussy and utilitarian. I think it’s honest, and I like it.

Part-digital instrument cluster is a straight lift from the Altroz. Image: Tech2/Tushar Burman

The dash on the range-topping model includes a seven-inch floating island LCD infotainment screen, and a seven-inch TFT in the driver binnacle for various information displays. It’s a bit bland-looking, but gets the job done. Seats are comfortable for my small frame, and there is a dead pedal. Our test vehicle allowed for driver seat height adjustment, and along with the tilt steering adjustment, I was eventually satisfied with my driving position.

The rear seat has a surprising amount of room, even with the front seats adjusted for taller occupants. Image: Tech2/Tushar Burman

The rear seat is where things get really surprising. Sitting at the back with the driver’s seat adjusted for my own driving position, at 5’9”, I was surprised at the legroom and general comfort. The bench isn’t truncated as in some other cars, and there is under-thigh support. Headroom is also generous. The floor pan is almost completely flat, so the unlucky middle passenger may not be so unlucky after all. There are no rear AC vents, however. Like the Altroz, the doors open to 90 degrees. Combined with the 190 mm (unladen) ground clearance, ingress and egress are quite easy, and this should be a good vehicle for senior citizens or those with mobility challenges.

Three bags will easily fit into the 366-litre boot of the Punch, but the high lip will necessitate heaving them over. Image: Tech2/Tushar Burman

Equally surprising is the 366-litre boot, which is certainly useful and should easily swallow a bag or three. There is a loading lip, so you’ll have to heave them over. All in all, a lot of practical room for a vehicle just 3,827 mm long.

A word about tech

The Punch does indeed punch above its weight, or so we imagine, since it will come in below the Nexon in the line-up. The infotainment system follows typical Tata tradition, but it has clearly stabilised over time. There’s no wireless smartphone connectivity, but plugging my iPhone into the USB port immediately brought up Apple CarPlay, and everything worked over subsequent connections, even in the other AMT version we sampled. The UI, however, remains rough and basic, with tiny tell-tale icons where things should be nice and bold.

The UI of the infotainment system remains largely basic, but it works well. Image: Image: Tech2/Tushar Burman

There’s a fair bit of other equipment, though. The AMT model has a ‘Traction Pro’ mode, though I suspect that will do more to iron out the tendency of AMT vehicles to spin their wheels in gravel. There’s also cruise control, ABS with EBD and corner safety control, and a reverse camera. As is now mandatory for all new cars, dual airbags are standard. Tata Motors’ iRA connected car suite is only available as an optional extra on the range-topping model.

On the go: supple ride, off-road chops!

I’ve sampled this engine before in the Altroz, and I wasn’t impressed. Naturally-aspirated engines in this ballpark are almost always boring and tedious to overtake with. The Punch, with its approximately 1,030kg kerb weight, is leaner and feels like it on the road. Starting with the manual version, we were impressed with the pep the engine delivers, and the Punch feels like an easy car to drive as a result. Much of the credit goes to the exemplary suspension setup, which is plush, but doesn’t roll and wallow. The car feels stable at triple-digit speeds, and doesn’t take too long getting there. Road noise is present, and it’s not the quietest car under Rs 10 lakh, but it’s acceptable.

The Tata Punch gets up to triple-digit speeds with relative ease, and the ride quality is exemplary. Image: Tata Motors

There are drive modes offered: ‘Eco’ and ‘City’. Essentially, ‘Eco’ mode dulls the throttle to a degree that you can’t get the engine up to its gruffest. Things stay peppy at part-throttle, but you just can’t go too fast. It’s a decent compromise, and I can’t believe I spent three sentences talking about ‘Eco’ mode. In the default ‘City’ mode, it’s a typical NA engine as you’d expect in a premium hatch. It’s all right, helped along with a fat torque curve peaking at 113Nm. With three occupants in the car, the Punch was able to wind its way around the off-road demo track with ease.

The Punch will surprise many with its rough-road capabilities. Image: Tata Motors

We need to talk about the ‘sport’ in this SUV. I did not expect the off-road demo to be anything more than a gimmick, but it is indeed true: you can take the Tata Punch into much rougher trails than you’d expect. Significant rocky inclines are a breeze, lateral stability at extreme lean angles is excellent, and water wading ability is a healthy 370 mm. This may not win you the Baja 1000, but the Hindmata 1000 is definitely in range (readers outside maximum city, please ask your amphibious friends about that reference). Despite being front-wheel drive only, the Punch was able to glide through some extremely slippery, slush-filled sections with ease. The high 190 mm of ground clearance (unladen) also ensured that nothing scraped anywhere, even over some large rocks. Colour me impressed!

The AMT model may have the added Traction Pro mode, but in practice, it is uninspiring. I was unable to get used to the shift point during our drive day, and always found the AMT to be annoying in a way that most automated manuals are. It’s nice to have the choice, though. My pick is the manual.

Verdict: Out for the competition’s lunch

Tata Motors fully expects the Punch to cannibalise hatchback sales, as well as some from the competition: the Maruti Suzuki Vitara Brezza, Renault Kiger and Nissan Magnite. I drive a Magnite daily, and I quite like it, but the Punch rides even better. I believe the package is quite right, with a compelling bouquet of features and equipment, competitive performance, impressive space, a five-star Global NCAP crash test rating and surprising rough-road ability.

Prices for the Tata Punch are likely to range from Rs 5-8 lakh (ex-showroom). Image: Tech2/Tushar Burman

With prices ranging from Rs 5.49 lakh to Rs 9.09 lakh (introductory, ex-showroom), the Punch slots in comfortably below the Nexon, but is priced higher than the Tata Tiago so as to not make it irrelevant. The option packs (priced between Rs 30,000 to Rs 45,000) add an extra layer of flexibility for those who don’t want the whole nine yards. I’d have liked a bit more go, which will come in the form of the turbo-petrol engine and the EV. I’d recommend the Punch to anyone in the market for a premium hatch, and perhaps as a shortlist member for sub-4m SUVs in general.

Tata Punch in numbers

Length: 3827mm
Height: 1615mm
Wheelbase: 2445mm
Engines: 1.2-litre, 3-cylinder petrol
Power: 86 hp
Torque: 113 Nm
Transmissions: 5-speed manual / 5-speed AMT
Price: Rs 5.49-9.09 lakh (introductory, ex-showroom)

Also read: 'Not a hatchback' - Why Tata Motors is going out of its way to establish the Punch as a true SUV

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