Tech

Tata Nexon Electric: A layman’s review after a test drive

tata-nexon-ev

If you didn’t get here while searching for information about electric cars, it’s quite possible that you’re a layman like me who just didn’t realize electric cars had suddenly become mainstream, or is about to. Till recently, I thought electric cars in India are one of those things that will come some day, but that was before I read there are more than 10 electric cars from different manufacturers releasing this year. Looks like 2020 is going to be as cool and futuristic as it sounds.

I also thought electric cars with the exception of Tesla (another ‘someday’ thing for India) look like a cross between an auto-rikshaw and a Tata Nano. I don’t know if you feel differently but I HATE the look of a Reva. To me a Reva looks like one of those ugly little dogs some women carry in handbags. I acknowledge that they exist and there are people who are into it but wouldn’t be caught dead with one. In fact, I hate the Reva so much that I stopped typing for 5 minutes to try and think of a more insulting analogy. I couldn’t but I’m going to come back and edit that in if I think of something later. Because Reva had reserved the top slot in my brain’s image search for electric cars in India, I didn’t even bother reading up much about the space till I saw the MG EV and the Hyundai Kona and realized there were companies making electric cars that actually looked like cars. The second shock was that these cars now have ranges of 300-400 km on a single charge, which makes it feasible go a week in the city without worrying about range. You’ll need a home charging point which was another hurdle, but all manufacturers are offering free charging point installations even in apartments, provided you get approvals from the society and let them do the wiring. I was finally taking electric cars seriously, and out of curiosity started looking for cheaper ones than the MG and Hyundai, which led me to the Tata Nexon.

The Tata Nexon’s on road price in Bangalore is between 15 lakhs to 17 lakhs, depending on the model. The base price is high but the Karnataka government has waived its normally ridiculous road tax on EV’s meaning you save around 1.5 lakhs, bringing the overall cost down to around the same as the petrol and diesel versions. You’ll also save a lot on fuel costs, as electricity charges will only come up to around ₹ 1 per km (6 for petrol). Ditto on maintenance charges, as there is no complicated engine to service. There are cheaper electric cars available, but they all have low ranges of approximately 150 km on a full charge, compared to the Nexon EV’s claimed 312 km. Keep in mind that these are laboratory tested numbers and not real world ones. Indian roads and drivers will shave off a significant portion of that. Practically, I believe the Nexon should give you around 230 km in the city, based on this review and conversations with the showroom sales folks. 200+ is still a healthy range which will need recharges only every few days but the cars with 150 km claims would basically be unusable if you want to head out even a little outside the city. The Nexon EV’s range is also comparable to MG and Hyundai, although a little lower. Overall, all things considered including price, I think the Nexon EV is the first true blue mainstream electric car in India, and I really wanted to try it out.

I unfortunately did not take pictures but you’ll find plenty of that online and I highly recommend seeing the review I linked to earlier and down below at the end. In the meantime, here’s my visceral review.

Design:

First impressions when I saw it in person – the front and sides look great with the new design but I still don’t like the rear of the car. It looks better than the old Nexon but I’m not a fan of those insect lampslights and think it makes the car look like a cute hatchback instead of a compact SUV. I would honestly call this and all Nexons big hatchback cars rather than compact SUVs. The only reasons to consider this an SUV in any way is the good ground clearance and slightly bigger-than-hatchback boot space. Ground clearance is great for Bangalore’s sorry excuse for a road network but I don’t think boot space should be a big factor for this car because you would primarily use it as a city car because of the limited range and charging stations on highways.

Inside, the dash looks good, simple but functional. The entertainment system comes with the standard Apple Carplay and Android Auto but I didn’t try it out. There’s also a heads up display (if that’s what it’s called) behind the steering wheel where the speedo is, displaying range, a graph that shows regenerative braking and other things.

Instead of a gear lever, there’s a circular dial to select drive, sports, neutral and reverse. It looks good and futuristic but it’s honestly not very functional. It’s hard to know quickly if you’re in drive or reverse. There’s a letter with a backlight on the dial but its impossible to see in sunlight and I think you simply need a bigger visual cue. The salesman said you should just look in the heads up display to see the flashing letter, but again that’s not as easy as a big stick whose position you can immediately see. Also, with the steering wheel setting that worked for my height, line of sight to that portion of the heads up display was partially blocked. Overall, this is not a deal breaker and I guess you’ll get used to it, but there is at least a slight chance that you will accidentally put it in neutral if you’re not careful. Now that I’m saying it out aloud, that IS slightly concerning, although I think neutral comes only if you rotate further out or anti clockwise, so maybe its fine. Long story short, this is a con but probably something you can live with, unless you roll down a hill in neutral and die. Unlikely, don’t worry.

The Drive:

First thing I noticed when the salesman pulled up in the test car was how quiet it was. Maybe that’s because this is the first electric car I’ve tried out but it instantly made me feel this was the future. Once I was inside, the seats felt comfortable and so were the pedals. There’s a dead pedal for your left foot (wonder what lefties do). The steering felt slightly too high and blocked my view of the display a bit, like I explained earlier. I suspect this is something which can be fixed with more seat height adjustments though.

The car was already idling when I got in and after fumbling with the weird dial and ducking to see the display flash ‘D’, I was off and how! The instant torque was something else. The car just zooms when you press the pedal and the lack of a gearbox means you have no lag or changes in pickup as gears shift. Personally, this was always my single biggest complaint against automatic cars. No matter how good the transmission, CVT or DVT or whatever, I never liked that weird change when gears shifted without my choosing. I always feel like someone else changed the gear and I didn’t want it to at that particular instant. Which is why this felt completely different and for me, this automatic transmission finally felt right. Apart from the torque and lack of gears, the steering was pretty smooth and the car felt very familiar as soon as I started. The steering did feel a tad light at times but overall the car was super peppy and seemed more like a 2 stroke bike from yesteryear than a compact SUV.

The other big difference from a normal car is the regenerative braking. When you take your foot off the pedal, the car uses some sort of engine braking to start slowing down the car and generates some electricity from that to recharge batteries a bit and increase range. In practice, when you take your foot off the pedal the car starts braking on its own instead of coasting as you’re used to. I’ve read that some people don’t like it but I loved it. If I want the car to go forward I’ll use the accelerator. In stop and go traffic, this lets me use just one pedal most of the time. Accelerate, then let go, then accelerate again. I didn’t try this out in heavy traffic but I suspect getting through silk board and K.R Puram will be much less stressful. The brakes were fantastic too and worked really fast. Apparently when you brake, some amount of regenerative engine braking kicks in before the actual brakes so you gain some range again. Overall, the regenerative braking system should make driving in traffic much easier and actually improve your mileage, so double thumbs up. However, keep in mind that there is no option to adjust the intensity of regenerative braking. I have never driven a car with that feature so wouldn’t know the difference but it could be a factor if you do not like regenerative braking for some reason, like if you enjoy coasting in neutral which seems a little crazy to me but to each their own.

After taking baby steps in drive mode and testing the brakes, it was time for sports mode! We hit an open stretch of highway and the sales guy switched to sports mode and told me to try it now. I obliged and was thrilled and slightly scared by how the car just burst ahead and wobbled a bit because of the sudden acceleration. If you’ve ever ridden a super peppy 2 stroke bike back in the day, you’ll know that feeling when the vehicle seems to be bursting ahead faster than you can steer it. This wasn’t that bad but was still something completely new in a car. The sales guy advised me to use ‘feather touch’ and not floor it too much like in non-electric fossil fuel age cars. He also said sports mode is not meant for normal city traffic and is more for highways. While that might be true, the car is perfectly drivable in traffic even in sports mode as long as you don’t get over enthusiastic with the pedal. If you use a lighter touch, it behaves exactly like drive mode but with the extra power on demand if you ask for it. This was very different from a normal automatic petrol car and was again something that always felt wrong in a normal car and seems to be right in this. Usually in sports mode, I always feel like I’m accidentally 2 gears lower than I should be, with the car complaining loudly. That might be because I’m too used to driving stick but surprisingly, the transition to automatic is easier in an electric car or at least in the Nexon EV.

Rounding off the drive, the good ground clearance and shock absorbers made bumps a non issue for the most part. Overall, I was more than pleased with how the car drives and I think it will be hard to go back to other cars after this. If the steering was more precise and heavy, I would have rated it 10/10 for driving pleasure, although I’m not a motor-head or petrol-head or whatever.

Range:

This one’s harder, given that it was a short test drive. Actually it was much longer than usual test drives, which might be because of the low running/charging costs for the showroom. The sales guy was happy to let me keep driving.

However, I noticed that the range reading was slightly inconsistent. The display has a battery percentage and a kilometres left reading, which showed 105 soon after we started and 79 when we got back. I’m very sure we didn’t drive 25 km. We did go quite a long way on the highway but I doubt I went more than 8-10 km. The sales guy said the car goes into power saving when battery dips below 30% and range will increase then, but again, that’s inconsistent. This might be me being over-critical because range is probably something which is hard to estimate in real-time, but its important to keep in mind because you really do not have the option of making quick stops to refuel like with a conventional car. The crux of the matter is that you will probably want to charge the car before it gets too low and not depend too much on the numbers displayed.

Another concern I had was range reduction once the lithium-ion battery degrades over time. The car comes with an 8 year or 1,60,000 km warranty for the battery but I’m worried if that will apply only to battery failure or if it covers something like a 25% range reduction as the battery ages and runs through charge cycles. The sales guy assured me that any degradation in range will be covered by the warranty and that they would change some of the cells within the battery system, but I would want to see some terms and conditions around that. I’m sure they wouldn’t change battery cells for a 3% reduction. There has to be a cut off percentage, like how Apple gave the battery replacement program for phones with battery capacity that dipped below 80%. I think this is a very important thing to know for sure before purchasing a car at this price because there is a chance of range reduction 3 years down the line when there are newer cars in the market which will have better battery tech and driving range. This is a variable that can directly influence the buy or wait decision you have to make.

Final thoughts:

Tata definitely has a solid product which is in a relative sweet spot between budget and luxury. The Hyundai Kona is clearly in the luxury range and the MG is close. The budget options suck in terms of range and design (Reva I’m looking at you). Hyundai has already said that they do not expect the Kona to sell a lot and it is meant to show what electric cars can do and prove that it is a feasible option. It is clearly an aspirational car for customers with a lot of money and a propensity to try new tech. Tata should therefore go for the jugular and chase the entire early adopters club with a proposition that is hard to say no to. Although we have come a long way in EV evolution, there are still considerable unknowns which an early adopter must risk while simultaneously paying a lot of money.

The biggest fear I have as a likely early adopter type is of being left behind by rapidly improving battery tech in the next few years. I wouldn’t want to buy a car that is expensive enough to lock me in while I feel bad about everybody else’s car which can actually make inter state trips without range issues. Resale value is a question mark if the car will get too outdated soon after launch. The sales guy had an excellent counter point to that – what about the resale value of your petrol cars if EVs itself are getting outdated because of new EVs? That guy is good!

However, in spite of the good sales pitch, the questionable resale value of EVs and petrol cars both at this point make it likely that many people will simply choose to wait and see. I hope Nirmala Sitharaman won’t use this an excuse for the troubles of the auto industry (that started before EVs).

Tata is introducing a subscription option which might address a lot of these issues if they do it right. I would love to see an option where you pay a monthly subscription but have the option to upgrade to a newer car without all that money going to waste, like for example if it still counts towards reducing your residue value after the lease is over, if you want to pay the balance and own it. A super charged subscription option could reduce the barrier of entry and exit for early adopters and help gain a club of enthusiastic evangelists. The cars they upgraded from should be easy to re-sell because there is no engine. Tata only needs to service moving parts with wear and tear and sell it at a lower price point and flood the market with EV options.

Tata has all the ingredients here to become a disruptive force in the Indian auto industry, especially with 3 other EVs launching soon. However, Tata is also known to screw up their business plans by getting consumer psychology completely wrong. Case in point: Nano.

What should you, as a potential customer do? I would say wait and see what the subscription options are, and take that for a year or 2 if it’s not a loss making enterprise. That way, you get to drive a fantastic car plus insure yourself against being left behind by rapidly improving tech and market forces.

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