After my recent visit home to Pune, a bustling metropolis in western India where Tesla recently leased an office to kickstart its operations, it became evident that one carmaker has taken EVs far more seriously than others in the Indian auto market: Tata Motors.

India is home to 83 of the world’s 100 most polluted cities. If the world has to decarbonize, India’s participation is indispensable. Indian carmakers realize that increasing the adoption of EVs is crucial for the planet. Tata is doing way more than its rivals in that department.

Tata Motors is a subsidiary of Tata Group, a sprawling business empire with a presence in steel, IT services, aviation and more. And Tata Motors is the parent company of Jaguar Land Rover, acquired from Ford in 2008 for $2.3 billion amidst the global financial crisis. JLR has flourished under Tata Motors and the parent company is now the third-largest car manufacturer in India.

Tata offers several affordable EVs in India, but the Nexon compact SUV has been the overall best seller. It has transformed Tata’s fortunes, helping it achieve a dominant 73% EV market share.

Tata Nexon EV charging

It doesn’t have a jaw-dropping design. Its internals are rudimentary. Its driving range and charging times pale compared to Western models. Yet, at a starting price of $17,000, it’s a massive sales hit in India. This got me thinking: Does the EV transition require mind-bending engineering and revolutionary manufacturing techniques? Or can it also be achieved by keeping things simple? I got behind the wheel of India’s best-selling electric SUV to find out.

[Full Disclosure: While I was on a two-week personal trip to India, Tata Motors handed me a top-of-the-line Nexon EV to review. It arrived at my house with a 30% state of charge and some empty bags of chips in the door pockets. I drove it primarily in the city, took it for a brief highway spin and ran efficiency and charging tests. I returned it clean inside and out and with 95% state of charge.]

EV Basics

The Nexon EV is a Chevy Bolt EV equivalent in India. But features, design and specs vary significantly because they’re commensurate with the local market. Its stubby proportions are a result of regulations that qualify cars under four meters in length for lower taxes. This, coupled with the increasing obsession with SUVs has led to high-riding cars with compressed rear-ends.

As the Nexon EV rides on a tweaked internal combustion engine (ICE) platform, its form factor remains unchanged, which is why it has the length (157.2 inches) of a small hatchback, but the height (63.6 inches) and muscle typical of a crossover. A Chevy Bolt EV is about 163.2 inches long.

Tata Nexon EV rear

Most Indian cities are as congested as mid-town Manhattan. So this form factor is effective locally. I effortlessly weaved it around clustered roads and slipped it into tight parking spaces—helped by the 360-degree cameras and ultrasonic sensors.

Its electric powertrain gives you nothing to brag about … or balk at. The press car had a 40.5 kilowatt-hour battery pack. It delivers a claimed 289 miles of range on an overly optimistic driving cycle, similar to China’s CLTC.

I never saw more than 201 miles of indicated range. The real-world range was far lower. After about 75 miles (120 km) of primarily city driving and some casual highway driving, the calculated efficiency was about 4.1 miles per kilowatt-hour. That translates into a real-world range of about 166 miles. (I left the AC and seat ventilation running as afternoon temperatures reached a scorching 104 degrees Fahrenheit.)

The front-axle mounted permanent magnet synchronous motor is good for 145 horsepower and 158 pound-feet of torque. That’s enough to spur the Nexon EV from a standstill to 62 miles an hour in 8.9 seconds. For Indian conditions, this performance felt more than sufficient. In a country where car sales are outpacing the expansion of local road networks disproportionately, there’s no room to indulge in electron-powered tomfoolery unless you absolutely crave it, in which case you have to head out of the city to find appropriate tarmac.

Tata Nexon EV side profile

In terms of charging, the Nexon EV can go from 10-80% state of charge (SoC) in 56 minutes by plugging into a 50-kilowatt DC fast charger. I could only find 30 kW chargers in my limited time with the EV, where it peaked at 29 kW as the charger dispensed 359 volts and 80 amps. 

Thirty to eighty percent SoC took about 25 minutes and a full charge took a little over an hour. These EVs tend to get driven mainly within the city and are charged overnight at home with Level 2 wall boxes. Unlike the U.S., most apartment buildings in India have dedicated parking spaces on the ground floor, making it convenient to install home and office chargers, unlike in, for example, New York City.

The Drive

On Pune’s tree-lined city roads and narrow streets, the Nexon EV felt sprightly.

Eco mode conserved range and had a subdued throttle response. I found that effective in India’s traffic where tuk-tuks and scooters mercilessly cut you off and bumper-to-bumper traffic tests your patience. It was a much-needed dampener on my perpetual desire to feel the addictive instant torque. City mode exhibited more urgency, while even a gentle tap on the throttle in Sport mode caused it to surge forward, with acceleration markedly sharper as well.

A 0-62 mph acceleration time of 8.9 seconds isn’t extraordinary by electric car standards. But it’s faster than the previous-generation Hyundai Kona Electric (9.7 seconds) that’s still on sale in India and only slightly behind the MG ZS EV (8.5 seconds). Both the Kona Electric and the MG ZS EV are considerably more expensive.

Tata Nexon EV front three quarter

The ride and handling were impressive. It’s stiffly sprung and lateral movement is pronounced at slow speeds, but the ride feels more settled when you go faster. The Nexon absorbs undulations more effectively at higher speeds. That make it a spirited little handler around canyons. Flick it into corners and the body roll is well-contained, while the well-damped suspension keeps it planted even when tackling mid-corner bumps.

The chunky flat-bottomed steering provided a reassuring grip and tactile feel in my palms but returned no feedback from the front wheels. It weighed up nicely as the needle climbed, but the lack of communication was a shame for what is otherwise a dynamically sorted machine.

The Tech

Inside, a 12.3-inch Harman infotainment screen is complemented by a 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster. The interface is clean and the screen is both slick and responsive. While charging, I played Beach Buggy Racing 2 and didn’t notice any frame drops.

Tata Nexon EV interior dashboard

There’s support for wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. It connected to my Android phone seamlessly every time I entered the car. Press materials suggest it also comes with YouTube, ESPN, Disney and Gaana (a Spotify equivalent). On the press car, only YouTube was installed. It seemed to have some issues and didn't work properly.

Ergonomics-wise, the Nexon EV felt sound. Unlike most other automakers that consolidate all functions into a giant screen, Tata offers a good mixture of physical and touch buttons. Physical buttons adjust temperature and fan speed, but notably absent is a volume knob. Although the steering wheel does feature a physical button for volume control.

This top trim also had other goodies like a 360-degree camera with blind spot assistance, a nine-speaker JBL sound system with subwoofer and full-width front and rear digital lights with swanky welcome and goodbye sequences—all of which worked fine.

Tata Nexon EV rear seat space 2

One aspect that could use refinement is the functionality of the drive selector lever. I found that shifting it forward or backward for drive or reverse didn't consistently engage the intended gear. Each time, I had to glance down at the gauge cluster to confirm I was in the correct gear—a matter of safety that Tata Motors must address.

Verdict

The Nexon EV starts at about $17,363 (14.4 lakh rupees, before taxes and fees) and goes up to $23,115 (19.29 lakh rupees). The average car price in India is about $14,000 (11.5 lakh rupees), so that’s a good starting point. It is already cheaper than its rivals, the Hyundai Kona Electric and MG ZS EV. At this price point, I’m not sure what more Tata could have done to make it better.

It doesn’t require gigacasting, a million price cuts, or Full-Self Driving (Supervised) to succeed. A fresh design, quality interior, must-have connected car features and affordability resonate with its audience—tech-savvy middle-class Indians who mostly charge at home and predominantly use their EV in the city, occasionally venturing out for planned intercity trips.

Gallery: Tata Nexon EV Review

Sure, more range and faster charging speeds would have been nice, but a tweaked ICE platform squeezed into a sub-four-meter format has glaring limitations. The Nexon EV proves that simplicity is overlooked these days. It sticks to strong fundamentals and customers seem to love it. For a mass-market brand like Tata, the Nexon EV is the torchbearer of the EV movement.

Tesla, when it begins selling EVs in India, would be a luxury brand, out of reach for the masses. Unless it launches a sub-$20,000 EV, I don’t see it challenging Tata Motors in its home market. Moreover, next-generation Tata EVs built on BEV native platforms are in the pipeline. If Western carmakers want to gain a foothold in the world’s third-largest passenger car market, they better keep a close eye on Tata’s plans. And maybe even learn a trick or two from its playbook.

Contact the author: suvrat.kothari@insideevs.com

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