Test driving the Zest F-Tronic

The Zest F-Tronic presents itself as the only compact diesel sedan with an automatic (AMT) transmission. Here’s why it’s a big deal

We reviewed the new Zest compact sedan powered by the all new Revotron petrol engine a couple of weeks ago. The Revotron engine, however, isn’t the only trick Tata Motors have up their sleeve with the new Zest. The new compact sedan from the Indian carmaker is also available in a diesel variant, and with its Automated Manual Transmission, christened F-Tronic, it has become the first and only automatic compact diesel sedan in the country.

Pics/Amit Chhangani

The Zest diesel F-Tronic, thus, will be remembered for pioneering a new segment in the mainstream Indian car industry. An affordable diesel car with an automatic transmission has for long been a void in the Indian car market — it’s good to see the Zest diesel F-Tronic plug the gap.

The engine
The Zest F-Tronic diesel is powered by a 1248cc, 4-cylinder diesel engine with a variable geometry turbo. Peak power is a very healthy 90 PS, available at 4,000 rpm, while peak torque of 200 NM is spread across a wide band of 1,750-3,000 rpm. The power is transmitted to the front wheels via a 5-speed AMT.

The 1.3 litre Quadrajet engine is the familiar Fiat sourced unit with a variable geometry turbo, found in the Manza as well

Some differences over the petrol version are evident as soon as you put this diesel variant in motion. The steering feels slightly heavier and also has a bit more feel to it. The suspension feels firmer, and the ride quality is more European, thanks to a heavier nose and more loaded dampers. City commuters looking for an effortless drive may prefer a light steering, but enthusiasts would appreciate the relatively heavier steering feel of the F-Tronic.

The diesel engine on offer, even with all the power it represents on paper doesn’t quite feel as punchy as we expect.

A fair bit of engine noise filters into the cabin as the revs climbs up. There is performance on offer, but not as addictively as you would expect from a diesel motor with 200 Nm of torque. This car would probably have felt more enjoyable with a fully manual transmission.

F-Tronic AMT explained
An AMT is a quick way to automate the transmission system on a car. The system employs electronically-controlled hydraulic actuators to engage and disengage gears on what essentially is a manual transmission. Unlike a traditional torque converter unit which is known to be relatively more expensive, or the more modern (and even more expensive) twin clutch auto transmissions which offer lightening quick shifts, an AMT’s raison d’etre is to rid the drivers of the hassle of shifting gears cost-effectively. There are advantages associated with AMTs in regards to cost and convenience, and a compromise when it comes to performance.

The XMA variant for the Zest F-Tronic loses fully automatic air conditioning available on the higher spec variants in favour of a manual A/C

While the new F-Tronic AMT transmission works fairly well as long as you are cruising steadily on a highway or sauntering around at a steady city speed, it doesn’t respond accurately to sharp throttle inputs. Part throttle at a constant speed would sometime let the revs build, while on other occasions you would experience the system kicking down two slots to bring into play jerky engine braking.

In the normal Drive (or the ‘A’) mode, you have to be very careful with throttle modulation. Only very light to light throttle inputs are responded to with a linear increase in engine speed. Even a little extra weight on the right pedal witnesses the transmission respond in an inconsistent manner.

There are two workarounds for the inconsistent shifting habits of this AMT. You can put the transmission in manual mode, where you can use it like a tiptronic and shift gears manually, minus the hassles of a clutch. This mode gives you the control to up- or down-shift, as the transmission won’t auto shift until the tacho needle touches the redline at 4,400 rpm.

The central screen on the F-tronic isn’t coloured, nor is it touch-sensitive. Some features have been taken off, though the sound output remains the same

Another way is to press the little ‘S’ button below the drive selector, meant to represent the much marketed Sport mode. What this mode does is prevent early up-shifts, and ensure that the engine speed will increase more predictably upon depression of the accelerator pedal. You can modulate the throttle for being in the desired gear better as the system holds the revs all the way up to 4,000 rpm before upshifting.

Feature differences
The diesel version with F-Tronic transmission is available only in XMA variant. In a bid to keep the price for this variant low, Tata Motors have kept it moderately equipped. To start with, this variant doesn’t have the daytime-running LEDs. The LEDs are replaced by a satin silver insert around the fog lamps. The Harman infotainment system inside the cabin is also a non-touchscreen unit with single colour display. Some functions of the system such as rear parking assist, speech recognition, image viewer and smart phone integration are not available in this basic version. The good news, however, is that the sound output of the system remains the same as the higher spec version, with eight speakers delivering fantastic sound.

The F-Tronic drive selector allows you to choose from Auto, Reverse, Neutral and Manual modes. Sport mode can be applied in Auto for a more spirited drive feel

The F-Tronic AMT diesel also loses out on burglar alarm, rear defogger and airbags as regards safety and security. The 18 spoke alloy wheels on our test diesel car were also a different design as compared to the eight spoke alloys on the petrol Zest.

Our verdict
The Zest F-Tronic AMT may not be an enticing prospect for the performance oriented enthusiast, but it sure as hell is a unique proposition for the everyday city commuter. Priced at R6.99 lakh ex-showroom, the Zest F-Tronic is about R4 lakh cheaper than any other car offering a diesel automatic. The Zest F-tronic isn’t meant for the kicks, but if you are a metro dweller who fights a disheartening battle with the choc-a-bloc city traffic every day, this new compact sedan has great reprieve on offer. With its appealing mix of price, efficiency and convenience, the Zest F-Tronic has pioneered a segment which we are sure will soon draw more products from other manufacturers as well.

Technical specs 
Engine — 1248cc, 4 cylinder, turbo diesel
Transmission — 5-speed, automated manual transmission
Power — 90 PS @ 4,000 RPM
Torque — 200 Nm @ 1750 – 3000 RPM

Price Rs 6.99 lakh

Other diesel automatics

Hyundai Verna

Before the advent of the Zest, this was the cheapest diesel automatic you could buy in India. The 1.6-litre diesel engine-powered car has led the segment for a long time and to date is the only sedan in its segment to offer the convenience of an automatic transmission with a diesel engine. The Zest may have undercut its pricing by about R4 lakh, but for its category, the Verna diesel AT still doesn’t have any competition. Price: R10.5 lakh

Scoda Octavia

This one here is the real deal — a full-sized car with all the bells and whistles, propelled by a powerful diesel engine mated with a transmission featuring cutting edge tech. The Octavia demonstrates what a full-size modern car should look and feel like. In its newest avatar, the legendary Octy may have become a tad too expensive but it’s still absolutely unmatched as regards performance, equipment and engineering for the price.
Price: R18 lakh

Mahindra Scorpio

The 2.2 litre diesel engine-powered Scorpio is one of the most reliable workhorses in the Indian SUV market. It was heartening to see Mahindra offering an automatic transmission variant on this model, even when they knew it wouldn’t sell in great numbers. Though due for a replacement, the Scorpio remains a strong product and offers itself as one of the most affordable automatic SUVs in the country.
Price: R11.5 lakh

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