Indian automotive consumers have always had a long-running affair with SUVs. And in recent years, the market has seen a remarkable growth in the number of SUVs being launched by all major manufacturers. In less than a decade, the market has started placing disproportionately high value on SUV characteristics. Manufacturers have come up with compact and sub-compact SUV segments, with the promise of rugged looks and greater space without a hefty price tag or true off-road abilities. Building on this, some car makers are going a step further with the introduction of ‘micro SUVs’, and Tata is the latest entrant in this space with their new offering – Tata Punch. The aim is to attract both hatchback and sub-compact SUV buyers with a bridge product in the sub-4 metre. And with 100,000 units sold in just 10 months (a new record for SUVs in India), it certainly seems to be working for them.
We spent over 5 days with Tata’s second best-selling car to find out if it lives up to the hype. After clocking 500+ kms. on the odometer here are the things that stood out for us, and a few things that could be done better.
For starters, the Punch is an undeniably striking car when it comes to its exterior design. Tata first introduced the design as Concept HBX at the 2020 Auto Expo, and thankfully, not much has changed on the design front in the production version. The Punch has smooth contours and a squared off stance that instantly gives it a rugged appeal. By taking a lot of styling cues from its bigger siblings – Nexon and Harrier – Punch does have the SUV vibes. The front fascia is especially striking, with its split headlamp design reminiscent of the Harrier and the new Safari. The slim DRLs housed above the actual headlamps is a nice design choice, and the square bonnet slightly arches at the edges to give the Punch a rather distinct front end. Interestingly, the black grille which houses the Tata logo isn’t a grille at all, and is rather a solid piece of plastic with tri-arrow cutouts in it. The tri-arrow – a signature design element – is prominently integrated into the black cladding of the front bumper as well. The cladding extends all around the car, adding to its SUV-like appeal. From the side, the Punch looks tall with its high roofline and 16” alloy wheels, although we would have loved a bigger set of alloys to fill the large exaggerated arches. Like on the concept HBX, the Punch has its rear door handles built into the C-pillar, which is a unique design element that gives the profile a clean look.
The rear end design of the Punch is a bit subdued compared to the front, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The circular tail lamps with arrow-shaped LED inserts look edgy and futuristic, and overall, the Punch’s exterior design is a fresh and youthful take on Tata’s ongoing signature design philosophy. Tata really seems to have gone to great lengths to make the Punch look like a smaller version of its bigger SUV offerings while making sure that it has a personality of its own, and it seems to have worked wonders. The exterior build quality feels quite solid with an impressive paint job, although panel gaps need some attention (like most Tata vehicles) with room for improvement. Overall, the Punch comes across as a solid little vehicle that is thoughtfully designed and balanced in proportions – one that exudes oomph and confidence in equal measure.
Thanks to its taller stance and 90 degree door opening (for front doors only), ingress and egress is quite effortless. The interiors are well designed, airy, uncluttered and have a minimalist vibe. The body coloured aircon vents are the only noticeable elements that subtly shout, without screaming out. The 3-layer dual tone dashboard is thoughtfully crafted and the lack of unnecessary buttons and elements is a welcome design choice. The climate controls are easy to use on the go, with climate adjustments showing up on the 7” touchscreen. The touchscreen itself is vibrant with a decent resolution, although it’s not the most responsive unit, sometimes taking two or three taps to respond to inputs.
In terms of features, Punch comes with a 6-speaker Harman sound system, which is one of the better ones we have encountered in this segment. There is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity (wired of course, not wireless), cruise control, a reverse parking camera (no 360 degree camera here), automatic headlamps, rain sensing wipers and automatic climate control, to name a few. What it does miss out on, are a driver’s armrest (definitely a must have), auto-dimming IRVM and 60:40 split rear seats.
The Punch also comes with a partly digital instrument cluster, with an analogue speedometer paired with a digital display with the rev counter and additional information such as mileage and fuel range. It is all quite intuitive and easy to use with the steering mounted controls.
Build quality across the cabin is good, and the front seats are comfortable with a high riding position, adding to the commanding feel of driving a bigger SUV. The slim seats with premium cloth upholstery sport the tri-arrow design, and in an unspoken way build aesthetic continuity between the exterior and interior. Seats are ergonomically designed and even the rear bench is surprisingly comfortable, with enough leg room for all but the tallest passengers. The narrow dimensions of the vehicle however, make it difficult for three passengers to be seated comfortably. The cabin otherwise is very roomy, which is a great advantage in this segment. There’s also ample storage across the cabin, with door pockets and bottle slots in the front, cupholders in the central console, and a decent sized cooled glove box. The 366L boot is adequate for the size of the car, and the vertical depth allows better utilisation of space, specially while carting cabin baggage.
Under the hood, Tata Punch comes with a singular engine option, mated to either a 5-speed manual gearbox or a 5-speed AMT. There are as many as 16 manual options and 14 automatic options to choose from, covering the entire INR 5.0L to 10.0L price band. Our test drive was the Creative IRA Pack MT. The engine is a 1.2L naturally aspirated 3-cylinder motor, putting out 86 BHP and 113 Nm of torque. This is the same engine Tata uses in the Tiago and the Altroz, although the unit in the Punch comes with a slightly modified air intake. In comparison to segment rivals that offer 4-cylinder engines, the 3-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol remains the weaker option, and adversely impacts NVH levels.
The Punch is definitely not powered to its full potential. The numbers look weak on paper, and though the lightweight Punch does manage to be a decent city drive, the power delivery feels inadequate beyond a point. Within minutes of getting behind the wheel, you wish it was a turbo petrol. The Punch definitely deserves to have one at least as a top end variant. For that added knock-out punch.
As long as it isn’t pushed too hard, the Punch drives well within the city as a comfortable commute. Manoeuvring around and navigating stop & go traffic is a breeze. The lack of power doesn’t really bother much in the low to mid range. But things do take a slightly unrefined turn when you rev the Punch past 3500 RPM. The engine strain becomes evident and it gets rather noisy at higher revs. The low power numbers become evident while overtaking in the fast lane and on open roads and expressways. With city roads increasingly becoming signal free, the under-powered Punch is clearly at a disadvantage, and struggles to cope with situations that need acceleration beyond 80 km/h. Acceleration past high double-digits is painfully slow, even with the pedal completely floored. One would argue that most city speed limits are within the range but it’s driver’s anxiety that constantly plays on your mind. Of falling short during crunch situations. A punchier engine would surely help Punch live up to its name and add more zing to the drive.
The 5-speed manual gearbox is the same as the one in Tiago, Altroz and Tigor. The stick slots in well without much effort, and gets the job done. While the gearbox doesn’t give any reason to complain, it is the clutch with a really long travel that can be a bit of a bother in stop & go traffic. However, this could have been an issue with our test vehicle, as it had already clocked 10,000+ kms. before we reviewed it.
Punch comes with two drive modes – ‘Eco’ and ‘City’. The engine gets even more sluggish in ‘Eco’ mode for an incremental gain in fuel efficiency. For a better part of our review, we preferred cruising in ‘City’ mode.
Where the Punch really shines is in its ride and handling. The suspension is calibrated to be neither too stiff, nor too soft, giving the driver a sense of surety when driving in less than ideal road conditions. It feels stable in the under 90 km/h range and during hard cornering. Tata has also made some noise about the Punch’s off road capabilities, particularly citing its 190 mm ground clearance and 370 mm wading depth, although we will have to leave that for another test run. In terms of fuel economy, we managed to average about 17.5 km/l in a mix of city and highway driving.
In terms of safety, the Punch comes with two airbags as standard across all models, and ABS and EBD with Brake Sway Control. Front passengers also get a seatbelt reminder. The biggest advantage however, is the 5-star safety rating in the adult protection category by Global NCAP, that gives Tata Punch an edge over its rivals. This alone is perhaps the single most compelling reason that can sway fence sitters in its favour.
Overall, Tata Punch turns out to be a great all-round package if you aren’t too hung up about engine power. It may not have exceptionally stand out features, but covers all the ones that you would need on an everyday basis. For buyers foraying into this extremely price sensitive segment, it is a worthy alternative to hatchbacks and makes a stronger impression than most rivals on the road. It’s a great option for young professionals – both men or women – out in the market to buy their first car. It is also a good value second car for families – for running errands, quick pick & drops, and safe enough to trust your adult children with. Punch is tailor-made for the middle class, upwardly mobile, aspirational young, urban Indian.
Prices for the Punch start at INR 5.99 lacs for the base model, going up to INR 9.54 lacs for the range topping AMT version. This makes the Punch compete with cars like the Maruti Suzuki S-Presso and Ignis at one end of its price range, and with offerings like the Nissan Magnite and Renault Kiger on the other. When compared to its rivals, the Punch offers a unique design philosophy that will surely appeal to many first time car buyers by alluding to bigger and pricier SUV offerings in the market. Paired with a comfortable ride, decent city driving dynamics, spacious cabin and a functional feature list, the Punch packs immense value and is sure to be a continuous success for Tata in the segment. If only the engine had some more punch, it would be the benchmark to beat for others in the segment.
It may not be a knock-out round yet. But in the long run, Tata Punch is perfectly poised and here to stay.