Fancy dress affairs at school used to be comical. My mates and I invariably dressed up as soldiers or truck drivers. I donned the truck driver attire nine out of ten years. The types who emulated doctors or engineers weren't my friends. After all, doctors and engineers don't hang out with truck drivers, do they?
Anyway, that school days snippet suggests that I've been craving to drive a truck before I knew how to spell the word t-r-u-c-k.As luck would have it, my dad runs a transport business which only intensified my go-trucking cravings. My parents remember well my weeping tantrums if my dad did not take me along on his monthly truck maintenance regime. No surprise, I was better acquainted with the workings of heavy vehicles more than I was about my bicycle. By the time I was 20, even my girlfriends had gained insight into what a parabolic leaf-spring suspension was all about and why some trucks needed 12 gears.
My infatuation with heavy duty wheels continues even now. I'd rather put down my money (if I had enough) on a Volvo B9R than an Audi A8. Of course, fellow automotive journalists don't share my burning desire to go trucking. Blame it on my DNA.
So I was all agog with excitement then when I was assigned to drive the Prima, the best truck from the Tata stable, India's first and oldest commercial vehicle maker. At first sight, the Tata Prima is a pure show-stopper. Flaunting the Tata badge on its swanky grille, this is a contemporary, European styled truck with an imposing, even gargantuan presence on the road. Kudos to the Tata designers for creating this stand-out heavy roller. Akin to a Volvo or a MAN truck, the Prima was built by Tata in collaboration with Daewoo Commercial Vehicles (which Tata Motors acquired in 2004). The pre-drive briefing outlined the comprehensive thought and research that this product entailed. You can bet your last dollar that this Tata highway cruiser will glitter and shine like a star amidst the gaudy or bland, ponderous, smoke belching and noisy behemoths that clog the Indian highways. It looked so awesome and inviting, I was like a teen on my first date, anticipating my first lip-lock - all I wanted that moment was to hop into the driver's seat, fire up the Prima engine and disppear across the nearest horizon...
To backtrack a bit, it took almost six months of wrangling over the phone to set up this Prima drive at the Tata Motors test track in Pune. (I had driven the little Nano here in 2008 and here I was now to drive the colossal Prima.)
To fill you in, the Prima evolution took nearly seven years, from conceptualisation to production and many international firms were involved. The engine for example comes from Cummins, the gearbox from ZF, the CFD and aerodynamics were researched in England, and body shell was designed by Bertone in Italy. The best, Volvo, MAN, Scania, Mercedes-Benz and Hino trucks served as benchmarks and inspiration for the Prima.
The Prima's main focus is occupant comfort and profitability for the fleet operators despite its striking appearance and state-of-the-art technology. A study by Tata Motors pinpointed the average Indian truck's daily run at around 300 kilometres, which is miniscule in context of our country's vast expanse. The reason for this low mileage is said to be physical and mechanical fatigue of the driver and the truck respectively. The Prima, in contrast, is capable of covering 800 kilometres in a day, while its well designed and comfortable cabin ensures a minimum of driver fatigue. The Prima has been tested for over a million kilometres and Tata Motors claims its service life to be eight years. (That means eight years of ideal running before finding its way to rural areas where it will be used for another ten years at least before being phased out.) Air-conditioning, power windows, power steering, central locking, electronically adjustable rear-view mirrors and airbags are all standard on the Prima, yes, standard! For truck drivers who spend weeks on end on the road, cabin design is of crucial importance. Tata Motors personnel asked over 10,000 drivers and fleet operators for their views on cabin comfort and the Prima shows ample evidence of Tata Motors paying attention to the long-haul transporters' needs.
The Prima is available as a 4x2 and a 6x4 variant as a tractor and also as a tipper and cargo truck. Tata is also considering the Prima in bus guise. Powertrain options include a 280PS and a 380PS engine with torque ratings of over a 1000Nm for both. The tractor variant that we drove was the 4028S one and there is also a 4038S on offer. There are also a 4942S and a 7548S versions on offer (the first two digits signify the load limit in tonnes and the last two signify the first two digits of the engines horsepower). So, 7548 means a load limit of 75 tonnes and a power output of 480PS.
Now to the best part, driving the Prima. The relatively small steering wheel houses switches for the stereo, HVAC and cruise control. The 9-speed gearbox features four low ratio gears, four high ratio ones, while 'C' specifies a crawl mode. It being unladen, I slotted it directly into fifth, eased off the clutch, and the Prima emitted a muffled grunt as it launched forth somewhat jerkily. A few more grunts and jerks later I managed to get it in motion. Voila, it seemed almost like a car. Having gained momentum and confidence, I gave it more throttle. Well, the acceleration is not what we'd call quick but it is way better than what we'd expected. The ride is bouncy with three layers of suspension (axle, cabin and seat) interacting to cancel out vibration.
The Prima assembly line in Jamshedpur already has over 500 confirmed orders. The Prima 4028S 6x4 tractor range begins at a mouth-watering Rs 15 lakh and goes up to Rs 21 lakh. The Prima is a giant step forward for Tata Motors and CVs being its forte, the Prima is destined for a roaring success.