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Tata converts the Ace into a rural people carrier

Date : Feb 24, 2008

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Think rural transport and rattley, smoking people carriers come instantly to mind. For a city slicker like me, people carriers spell public transport buses and the sardine-packed local trains. To gauge just what rural people carriers are all about and to experience the thrills first hand, I took to the outskirts of Pune, a town which lacks the high volume mass carriers such as the local bus and train facilities in a city such as Mumbai.

The vehicles that serve as people carriers in rural zones are mainly diesel-engined 3-wheelers belching out billows of smoke. The main objective of the transport fleet owner is to stuff as many passengers into a carrier as possible - clean, efficient and comfortable commuting is not his concern as long as it's faster than a bullock cart! So these loaded-to-the-ceiling people carriers at times travel at speeds that a bicycle borne kid can eclipse.

Enter the Ace Magic, Tata's solution for the rural and semi-urban landscape, that renders these smoking, rattling eyesores obsolete. With pleasing looks, spacious seating and an engine already proven on the Ace, the Magic furnishes an ideal formula in context of the needs and challenges of rural transportation.

And what better way to test the Magic's utility by actually ferrying people around. So for a day I tried my hand at driving a 3-wheeled people carrier.

First impressions aren't great. The cramped driver's seat is just about adequate for an average Indian, the steering feels set in concrete, while the engine sounds agricultural. The brakes would work better if all the people jumped out and pushed in the opposite direction. So I was not really looking forward to the 'Magic' experience.

My worries however seemed unfounded when compared to the six-seaters that ply on the route on the old Mumbai-Pune highway we'd chosen. It looked substantially larger than the people carriers I struggled to come to terms with the day before with a higher ground clearance along with 304.8 mm MRF tyres to suit rural terrain. The passenger half of the Magic does not feature any glass windows and comes with foldable grey camper roof and curtains that can be zipped open - but it's far more spacious. The neat paint job is testimony to Tata's lavishing some care on quality front.

My apprehensions were further allayed when, after squeezing my 6'2" frame into the driver's seat, I took in the interiors which turned out to be far more pleasant than I had expected. The speedo console featuring fuel and temperature gauges is well placed and neatly laid out. The dash also sports a digital clock along with a first in the segment, (the Magic actually creates a new segment) cassette/CD receiver slot. Coolant and brake oil canisters in the dash are neatly concealed underneath beige lids, which take some time and effort to pop up. Air vents near the driver's feet, storage spaces on the dash and lockable glove box below the cassette/CD receiver slot enhance the comfort and ambience. The beige finished front seats are adjustable. The beige theme is also carried over to the roof lining. The only glitch in an otherwise pleasant in-cabin experience is the handbrake position, which obstructed my left foot.

A turn of the key and the Magic's 16.1PS 700cc IDI engine, which it shares with the Ace, judders and shudders to life. The Magic has a mid engine rear-wheel drive layout with short throw gear throws. The gear ratios however are aimed to suit the purpose of the Magic which is of a people carrier. The first and second gear ratios are closely matched, with the idea being to get the magic rolling even on steep gradients with a full load. Slot her in third and fourth and the Magic is then in her element, eating up the distance between villages with ease.

The close first and second gear ratio and the long third and fourth give the Magic good driveability both in the congested villages and also on the highway. There is ample torque available at the bottom range. Like a tractor if you may please. It can plough a field and also be used to tow just about anything. Loads of play in the steering takes some time getting used to, especially in urban quick change environs. The twin wipers have innovative (for this segment) water jets attached above the blade.

The passenger area offers adequate head and leg room to seat five passengers in comfort with room for the inevitable extra squeeze-ins. The spare wheel is neatly bolted to the floor below the rear seat allowing good storage space behind the rear seat. So far so good and now on to my main objective, ferrying people around in the Magic. I headed on to the expressway eager to see how fast the Magic could go without being loaded. The top speed however didn't inspire more expressway driving. The rattle gets louder with increase in speeds and she inspired no confidence at higher clicks (anything in the vicinity of 35km/h is serious business) specially when at the back of your mind you know she is running on measly 304.8 mm tyres which are no more wider than that of a scooter. So I decided to drive the Magic where it would make more sense, on village roads. And boy, it turned heads wherever we went.

The Magic design proved surefire cynosure with the rural folk eagerly hopping on for a ride. So, to play 'taxi', I parked the Magic at a local taxi stand. The killer glares from the regular six seater drivers in their mean machines dissuaded me from announcing free rides. Instead I waited for the villagers to approach me - and approach they did, in droves that could have filled up a Magic fleet. The initial suspicions of the passengers I hauled on first-come-first-serve basis faded after I explained to them the point of my free-taxi-ride drill. "Bilkul Maruti jaise chalti hai," commented one. On the 50km drive back I found myself rather enjoying the impromptu pick-up 'n' drop assignment. I'll have to admit that the whole experience wasn't too trying. The noise and vibrations are excessive but not the extent of forcing you to pull your hair.

Remarkably, even when fully loaded and at times overloaded, the Magic did not exhibit significant drop in performance. Even while climbing the steep ghats she never ran out of breath. There is sufficient torque at the low and midrange which allows you to motor along in fourth gear all day long. Agricultural yes, but it fits the bill perfectly.

The suspension layout that features leaf springs with struts at the rear and only struts at the front ensures a bumpy yet sturdy ride. While driving without any load, you're thrown all around the cabin but the moment the Magic is loaded to its capacity the leaf spring and struts layout offers a rather comfortable ride. "Gaadi ki jaissi chalti hai," said one of our passengers.

At Rs 2.9 lakh ex-showroom Pune, the Magic is priced competitively. Having experienced first-hand as temporary cabbie, the verdict of its potential clientele, seems to be the limit for the Magic's prospects.

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