To a large number of the car crazy population of India, the Tata Safari holds a special place. When it was launched way back in 1998, it was the first sub-Rs.10 lakh sports utility vehicle - a segment that is bursting at its seams today.
There was little to support sales of SUVs then. Consumers did not have too much money, diesel was not quite as attractive, and the highways not as friendly. The Safari was ahead of its time. But as the segment developed, it got lost in the melee.
A decade-and a-half later, the vehicle gets its first proper lifecycle change with the Storme, this year. Does it have the grunt to catch up with the competition?
It would be a stretch to call Safari an icon, but it surely had the looks of one. It has been by far the best looking vehicle that the house of Tatas has produced.
It is not surprising, then, that even now, the company has not effected an awful lot of changes in the Storme. The front facia is new - a thinner, wider grille and chiselled headlamps being the obvious give away - but overall it is unmistakably a Safari; with little to differentiate the old from the new from the side.
The other noticeable change is at the rear: the spare wheel has been moved below the body in an evident attempt to make the vehicle appear more urban - though the old door-mounted wheel did give the Safari a sportier, rugged look.
Like most Tata cars, the older version cried for improvements within. To some extent, the Storme delivers. Though the thrust is on functionality, the cockpit is better put together.
The quality of plastic has improved and so has the fit and finish, though Tata has opted for the safe beige interiors. The wooden panels look forced but try to break the tedium.
Few cars offer the commanding view from the driver's seat. There are some tacky bits: the dull clock in the centre, some inconsistent panel gaps... Generally the Storme is an improvement over the Safari.
The big grouse are jumpseats at the back, which Tatas and Mahindra's just seem to love. Not only are they uncomfortable but also unsafe. And mostly, unusable.
Engine, ride and handling
The Storme gets an "improved" version of the 2.2-litre Dicor diesel engine of the Safari, the improvement largely coming from the variable geometry turbocharger which minimises the dreaded turbo lag and improves engine efficiency.
Compared to a similar-sized engine in the Scorpio for example, Storme develops 20 PS more power and 30 Nm more torque. But it continues to be a hulk, weighing over two-and-a-half tonnes. That alone ensures it will never be a sprinter, even if it had a supercharger.
Ride quality has improved, thanks to the new chassis borrowed from the Aria, but body roll is a constant companion. It gobbles potholes at will.
Braking is effective too and way better than the Mahindras. The gearbox has improved, but the clutch remains tight so driving is not pain free, especially in the city.