What does the word ‘safari’ mean to you? Originally derived from an African Swahili word, Anglicised to mean a ramble, a safari today is assumed to mean an outdoor excursion, usually within the confines of a game park or wildlife reserve.
Which brings us to the Tata Safari. The original, launched in 1998, well and truly took the market by storm, being the first ‘upmarket’ product in that space. Fourteen years and four (or five?) different engine changes later, here we have it – the new Tata Safari Storme. It intends to give you all the flexibility you’d like to choose where you want to go, with all the luxury and comfort a few lakh rupees can afford.
Here, we drive the new Safari Storme on a brief off-road course and some broken terrain, while also quickly putting it through its paces on the twisty hills around Pune. Does the new Safari have enough in its armoury to take the Indian SUV market by Storme?
Design & Engineering
We all knew what the new Safari Storme was going to look like, given that Tata Motors gave it pride of place at its display at the Auto Expo in January. First question anybody will ask is, is it all new or simply a facelift? It IS all-new, promise. But yes, according to Tata’s design team, they wanted to retain the heritage, hence in profile you will see that the new Safari Storme is very similar to the incumbent SUV; the major change being to the lights and grille. I find the new design fussy, especially the plastic mesh behind the Tata logo on the front grille. The biggest difference is the way the spare wheel has been relocated to under the rear floor, rather than sitting proudly on the tailgate. Here too, Tata claims that this was a design choice based on feedback from customers.
We’ll just have to take their word for it, although I’ve personally always believed that a tail-gate mounted spare tyre imparts a certain ruggedness. One issue which is happily solved though is that there will be less likelihood of the tail gate rattling over time, as the heavy mass has been removed.
Appearances aside, under the skin the new Tata Safari Storme is based on the new Aria platform. While it is still a tried and tested ladder-frame design, the new Safari Storme has certain improvements. The front suspension now utilises double wishbones as before for wheel location, but with coil springs over hydraulic dampers rather than torsion bars as on the Safari DiCOR. Also, the archaic recirculating ball-and-nut steering system has been replaced by a more modern rack-and-pinion unit. These improvements have helped reduce the turning circle of the Safari Storme considerably, from 12 metres to 10.8 metres, according to Tata’s figures.
The Safari Storme is also about 100 kgs lighter than the Safari DiCOR, and this helps in the performance and fuel efficiency stakes too.
Interiors & Comfort
The interiors of the Storme are a familiar place to be in as well. The dashboard layout has been simplified, notably the centre console, with a clean climate control interface and stereo, devoid of any fiddly buttons. I like this minimalistic look, but will most other customers?
Tata has long faced criticism for the quality of the plastics it uses, and this time around the company’s engineers have paid particular attention to this. The new Storme has better-quality, soft-touch plastic mouldings, and the edges and seams all appear to be much better formed, so definite brownie points for Tata here.
The seats retain the armchair like comfort that the Safari has been famous for, and you could drive for really long periods before feeling any fatigue or discomfort. Driver ergonomics are perfect however, and even with the height-adjustable seat in its lowest position and the tilt-adjustable steering column at its highest setting, the ‘wheel is still too close to your lap.
The Safari is sold as a seven-seater, but the two jump seats in the rear are not the happiest place to be, as you can see from the pictures. The middle row is excellent, as always, and the wide cabin means three adults can sit three abreast with ease.
The Safari Storme is sold with air-conditioning on all variants, and other than the base LX variant, the EX and VX come with a roof-mounted rear AC as well.
Performance & Handling
Tata has paid a lot of attention to the refinement of the new Safari Storme, and this is evident from the minute you crank the key. The torque rock at start-up is much better damped, and vibration through the pedals and gear lever are greatly reduced. Surprisingly, for the size and heft of the vehicle, all the controls are very light, including the steering effort, gear-shift action and the pedals.
The Safari Storme accelerates smartly from standstill, with Tata Motors claiming this big SUV gets to 100 km/h in just 15 seconds. We won’t dispute this.
The Storme’s engine, while displacing an identical 2,179 cc as the regular Safari DiCOR, has been worked upon, and is much the better for it. The main difference is to the intake system, with the Storme using a variable geometry turbine for the turbocharger. Slightly different fuelling also makes a difference, and while the Storme produces an identical 140 PS and 320 Nm of torque, the nature of the delivery makes all the difference. Low rpm response is much better in the Storme, with peak torque coming in at just 1,700 rpm. Hence, you don’t feel the lag as much, and neither do you need to downshift as often.
I took the Safari Storme around the single ghat road that leads in to Lavasa, and was pleasantly surprised that even on the tightest of hairpin bends I didn’t need to select first gear, despite having 3 passengers on board and the air conditioner running. The handling can best be described as ‘lively’, but I have to say the Safari manages to hold its own competently, and with some planning can handle most corners. Still you’ll never forget that you’re sitting in anything but a big, tall, softly sprung SUV, and as long as you treat it with some respect, it will refrain from bouncing you into the countryside or off the mountain.
We drove the two-wheel drive VX variant, which although fully loaded with creature comforts, was devoid of the shift-on-the move all-wheel drive system. The Safari Storme 4x4 system allows the driver to move into four-wheel drive while on the move, an electronically controlled limited slip differential ensuring there is a no transmission snatch.
The obstacle course put the Safari Storme's off-road capability in the spotlight. Notice the wheel articulation.
Even the two-wheel drive Safari Storme, with its 200 mm ground clearance and ample low-speed torque, is capable in handling most rough road situations, as we found out.
The brakes on our vehicle felt a bit grabby, but we put this down to the fact that these vehicles had already seen quite a lot of use and abuse.
Tata is making quite a show of the Safari Storme being a ‘real SUV’ and had laid out an obstacle course for us, which allowed us to really test the limits of its capabilities. As you can see, the Storme is quite up to the task of handling some really precarious stuff.
The improvements to the new Tata Safari Storme’s powerplant, notably the variable geometry turbine, which Tata calls ‘VariCOR’ have resulted in an improvement in fue efficiency figures. Of course, the lower kerb weight, which is 100 kgs less than the Safari DiCOR has played a part too, and the new Storme has been ratified to give 14 km/l under ARAI’s standard test conditions. Of course, real-world figures will be lower, but we expect the Storme to manage double digit figures on the highway with ease.
Tata has upped its game with regards to safety on the new Safari Storme. All four variants are available with ABS and EBD as standard equipment. Central locking with child proof locks are also standard fitment, as are an engine immobiliser, crumple zones and impact beams on all the doors. All but the base LX variant get a rear wiper, although all variants do get a rear defogger. Dual airbags for the driver and front passenger are only offered on the range-topping VX however, and Tata should consider offering airbags as an option to other customers as well. But the high stance and solid feeling the Safari Storme imparts does go a long way to making you feel very secure when you’re in it. Not so much if you’re on the outside in the unfortunate event of a crash.
So, how should I sum up the Safari Storme? The engine is a little better, the interiors are markedly improved, the tighter turning radius will make it easier to live with in city traffic, the improved fuel economy is always welcome, and it’s obviously quite capable off-road as well. And with a price that starts shy of the psychological Rs 10 lakh mark, it isn’t bad value either, especially when you consider that even the base LX variant has ABS, power steering, power windows and air conditioning. But is it really the generational leap forward we were expecting after 14 years? Perhaps not, but when you judge the Safari Storme on merit, it appears more than capable of holding its own, especially when you consider that this segment of the traditional SUV market hasn’t really developed. If anything, it faces the biggest challenge from its predecessor, which continues to be sold.