Tata and Great Wall Motors are respectively India’s and China’s biggest motor manufacturers, and the Xenon and Steed represent their second-generation double cab offerings. They do road test battle
Once was a time – not all that long ago – when all double cabs were sourced from Japan. Which is odd in a way, because we tend to think of them as a uniquely South African “invention”.
They’re the perfect multi -purpose vehicle for Africa and their popularity remains huge as a result, with four-wheel-drive and turbodiesel power being the combination of choice. Yet despite their fundamentally low-tech underpinnings they’ve become unacceptably expensive – which is where these offerings from elsewhere in Asia come in.
Although the introduction of the Tata Xenon and GWM Steed heralded a move up-market, with both pitching into the leisure rather than the workhorse market, their pricing sti ll makes them attractive alternatives to the Japanese double cabs.
Tata’s Xenon is its own design and has an aggressive demeanour. Flared wheel arches contribute to this purposefulness, as does the chromed tubular bull bar, roll-hoop and step rear bumper. It cashes in on the trend for bakkies to be positioned as wannabe “trucks” and it succeeds in that regard – apart from skinny tyres and ugly alloys, that is.
The Steed is somewhat different. It has unusual frontal styling, with a low-slung valance and small, almost piggy eyes set wide apart and separated by what is almost a parody of Audi’s single frame grille. But the overall treatment gives it a rounded, aerodynamic look which certainly had people stopping and staring – and oft en admiring, as it turned out. However, that wasn’t reflected by a straw poll of Leisure Wheels staffers.
The actual cab is pure Isuzu KB, with identical doors to the previous generation of the Japanese bakkie. It also shares that vehicle’s wheelbase, and like it, has a short but deep bak, while the Xenon’s is wider and longer but shallower. Both vehicles confirm their leisure market aspirations with a single, centrally positioned tailgate release and upright tail light clusters. The Tata’s high-level brake light is incorporated in the tailgate; the Steed’s mounted higher at the back of the cab. Common to both are non-opening backlights, with a demist function.
Features and equipment
Tata ★ ★ ★
GWM ★ ★ ★ ★
The Tata is powered by its own 3,0-litre common rail, direct-injection turbodiesel and is remarkable only for its low-revving nature. Peak power is at just 3000 r/min. Torque, however, is a useful 300 Nm at 1800 r/min.
Instead of a secondary shift lever to select the four-wheel-drive modes, there’s an unobtrusive rotary switch on the dash to perform this function. A limited slip differential is fitted and as on the Steed, front hubs lock automatically.
Underpinnings are otherwise old school, which means worm and roller steering, torsion bar front suspension and a live rear axle with leaf springs.
As with its key dimensions and some of its sheet metal, the Steed takes its mechanical cues from the old Isuzu KB. Under the bonnet is a 2,8-litre turbodiesel, with the same bore and stroke measures as the old Isuzu unit. Trouble is, from the GWM factory it makes a rather flaccid 70 kW and 225 Nm, necessitating a local upgrade which includes an intercooler. Exactly R4999 later the result is 82 kW and 280 Nm, smoothly and progressively delivered to the rear wheels and on to the front ones via push buttons on the dashboard.
Chassis underpinnings are identical to its Indian rival, with two notable exceptions: an open rear differential is fitted (GWM says it’s looking at the possibility of offering a diff lock), and the steering is – significantly – via rack and pinion.
Both are quite lean on safety equipment and there isn’t an airbag or anti -lock brake in sight, but then at around R200 000, what were you expecting?
The Steed does appear to be slightly better in terms of safety kit though, and has height-adjustable seatbelts both front and rear. It also costs R199 389 “as tested” compared to the Xenon’s R194 995.
Tata ★ ★ ★
GWM ★ ★ ★ ★
Get into the Steed and you can’t help but be impressed. It looks modern and well-designed and while the faux aluminium paint has a coarse texture to it, the rest isn’t bad at all. In fact, squint ever so slightly and you could be at the wheel of any current generation Japanese offering.
No such chance in the Tata. It looks and feels dated, with an ugly, oversized steering wheel set at a peculiar angle (no matter what position you adjust it to) and a tennis ball-sized gear knob finished in alloy paint.
The driving position is a little odd, too, and the driver’s knees are too bent, resulting in extra effort in operating the widely spaced pedals. Despite this there isn’t room for a clutch footrest.
There are other ergonomic foibles. The analogue clock (on which only the 12 o’clock point is marked) is too far to the left and the aft er-market tuner/CD is fiddly to use and has to be switched back on manually each ti me the car is restarted.
The overall ambience is agricultural, with exposed screw heads shouting “workhorse bakkie” rather than “suave SUV”.
The Steed, as it turns out, has substance to match its modern look. While fit and finish isn’t perfect, it is far better than the Xenon and the materials are also obviously superior, whether we’re discussing the door trims or the headlining.
The ergonomics work, too: the electronic push butt on controls for the 4×4 drivetrain are easy to find, and the modern instrument cluster is a model of clarity. The sound system is integrated neatly into the facia and the HVAC controls are as user-friendly as they need to be.
The driving position is more car-like, though the leather-clad seat feels a little off centre (pressure is not spread evenly across one’s back) and the hard plastic of the satellite control panel on the driver’s door will eventually result in a dull throb in the right knee of taller drivers.
Making life easier in the GWM is a 12V power outlet. A clip for a garage card is integrated into the rear-view mirror assembly, and the oddment space is good.
So far it is all one-way traffic and it continues that way when it comes to comfort for passengers. While the GWM’s back doors are slightly smaller and the roofline lower than that of the Xenon, it is far more comfortable once you’re inside.
The seat is soft er and the backrest slightly more angled, and legroom is better than the cramped, upright seating position of its rival, which shifts most of the occupants’ weight straight onto the hips. An hour or two of this and most adults will be longing to get out.
Tata ★ ★
GWM ★ ★ ★ ★
First impressions of both are not favourable. They’re slow-witted and noisy when cold, with the GWM’s four-pot taking a number of seconds before the glow-plug light goes out. Once warm it is more refined, while the Tata’s four big pistons settle into a fairly quiet rhythm, too. Problem is, there’s a lot of vibration with it – enough to set the steering column and the gear lever thrumming in harmony.
The next problem is its narrow rev range: The Tata’s peak power is at 3000 and it is all over bar the shouting as the needle crawls towards the 3250 mark. With torque of 300 Nm at 1800 revs/min it does move away from standstill briskly but in the low gears the throttle is too sensitive, which can make for jerky progress.
Tata claims 85 kW, which is a little more than what GWM says its power unit pumps out, yet the performance differences are significant and the power of the GWM unit seems more broadly distributed. That translates into far superior driveability.
Based on looks alone, it’s obvious which one is more aerodynamic, so that might explain the GWM’s massive top speed advantage. The rest of the answer comes on the scales.
The Tata weighs in at a hefty 2150 kilos, making it one of the heaviest double cabs we’ve tested. As a result it takes a snail-like 30-odd seconds to reach 120 km/h, and overtaking manoeuvres are best planned very carefully. Preferably the week before.
The narrow rev range also translates into fewer opportunities when it comes to down changes: at a true 120 there’s 2250 r/min on the clock in fifth and the gap to fourth is large enough to send the engine past the power peak and into the dead zone beyond.
If you’re losing the acceleration battle due to excess flab then you’re generally in the same boat when it comes to slowing down. So yes, the Tata trails here by some margin in terms of outright stopping ability and it is also harder to be consistent, because the front wheels lock too easily. We didn’t do emergency stops in the wet, but we suspect we know what the outcome would be.
The good news is that the Tata is more economical when cruising at a true 120, though it is a lot harder to maintain that speed due to its poor power to weight ratio and unsuitable gear ratios. Around town the GWM handles traffic with a lot less huffing and puffing and faster responses, so we’d expect economy in the urban environment to be similar.
Ride and handling
Tata ★ ★
GWM ★ ★ ★
At the risk of turning this into a whitewash, the Tata doesn’t get to take home many trophies in the ride, handling and roadholding arena, either. With bucket loads of understeer and vague steering, there is no way that it could win here and the wider, lower profile rubber and the better steering system of the Steed make it feel in a different class.
Of course, you’d expect the Xenon’s retort to come in the form of a plusher ride, and generally this is the case at lower speed. But the tail kicks up awkwardly over bumps encountered at anything much higher than walking pace, sending the occupants lurching forward.
The Steed can get a little jittery too, with the nose tending to move about a bit, but generally the front and rear suspension systems seem to be a little more in tune with one another. It is also easier to position accurately thanks to steering that has excellent feel and feedback.
The Tata saves some face off -road where the ride is in fact pretty good and the limited slip differential flatters poor route choices to help the (by now) red-faced Indian through most obstacles.
The Steed tackled similar off -road challenges but with more banging and crashing from underneath where there are a number of low-slung bits and pieces that make early contact.
The Xenon has slightly better chassis protection, though the transfer case is worryingly vulnerable and the engine skid plate looked as though it had already been put to repeated use.
With its heavyweight construction, the Tata may just stand the test of ti me and hard use better, but inside and out it is poorly and cheaply finished, so we wouldn’t put our own money on it.
Tata ★ ★
GWM ★ ★ ★ ★
The Tata seems to be poorly executed, and this is apparent in areas as varied as the unacceptably large odometer error and the poor quality of the strap to lower the back seat to gain access to the tools (which, incidentally, also revealed some exceptionally poorly finished components).
The engine is too weak for what it must lug around and the dynamics are iffy at best, with the jolting ride making open road cruising ti ring.
It might not be a priceless original, but the Steed does most things more than tolerably well, even if its plastic extremities may soon be left scattered across the length and breadth of the continent unless care is taken.
But it looks like a sizable step forward in terms of quality and execution. It also comes to the market with some surprise-and-delight features that make it not only a comfortable winner here, but also worthy of consideration as a viable low cost alternative to the establishment. Which the Tata definitely isn’t.