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Does the Prima 4x2 tractor live up to Tata's claims?


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Construction Week / July 15, 2014

Boasting low price tags, high-end build specifications, and generous warranties, Tata is confident that its Prima truck range will put European competitors on the back foot.

In an attempt to find out whether the Indian truck maker’s claims are justified, James Morgan speaks with the manufacturer, its UAE dealer, and the first Prima owner in the Middle East.

On paper, Tata’s Prima range of trucks represents the stuff of nightmares for Europe’s premium-end manufacturers. Firstly, there’s the price. A brand new Prima 4x2 tractor head will cost UAE fleet operators approximately 40% less than an equivalent European model.

Secondly, there’s the build quality, which Tata claims is comparable to that of its Western competitors. Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – is the Prima’s warranty period, which spans either three years or 300,000km; whichever comes first.

Whilst a number of Prima 4x2 tractor heads have already been sold in the UAE market, the full range of Prima trucks isn’t yet available in the Middle East; the Prima 6x4 and 8x4 rigid-frame tippers are scheduled to arrive in the region before the end of 2014.

Eager to find out whether the range lives up to the bold claims of its manufacturer, I visited the showroom of United Diesel, Tata’s authorised dealer for Dubai and the Northern Emirates.

“The Tata Prima 4x2 tractor head forms part of the next generation of trucks from Tata Motors,” explained Rajsinh Kadam, assistant sales manager at United Diesel.

“The first vehicle was delivered to the UAE at the end of December 2013, and began working shortly after in January 2014. We’ve received a very good response from the market already. One of the truck’s major selling points is that it comes with a three-year, 300,000km warranty – a reflection of the confidence that Tata has in the Prima range,” he said.

In truth, the Prima range represents somewhat of a departure for the Indian truck and bus manufacturer. Traditionally, Tata has delivered attractively priced, reliable vehicles for customers willing to forego the occasional mod con. The latest models, however, are being touted by Tata as premium trucks without the premium price tag.

“It is widely known that Tata has the price advantage over its competitors,” said Kadam. “However, with the Prima range, the manufacturer has striven to provide specifications equal to those offered by its European competitors. The 4x2 tractor head, for example, features a Cummins diesel engine and an Eaton gearbox. Moreover, you can see that the truck looks fantastic. The cabin was designed in Italy; it’s awesome.

“Despite the premium nature of this truck, Tata has succeeded in keeping its price approximately 40% lower than the equivalent European models. Depending on the options selected by the customer, a Prima 4x2 tractor will cost approximately AED 220,000 (less than $60,000). To buy the equivalent model from a European manufacturer, you would have to pay upwards of AED 380,000 (more than $100,000),” he explained.

With such a significant price difference, some might be sceptical of Tata’s claims that it has succeeded in matching the build quality offered by premium-end European manufacturers. However, Gurshaman Singh, Tata Motors’ area manager for the UAE and Oman, says that the secret lies in the company’s production strategy.

“Tata has started to think globally in this respect,” he told PMV. “For the Prima range, the company has sourced the best components from across the globe. The trucks are then assembled in India where the cost of production is much lower than it is in European countries.

This helps us to keep the final price low. In addition, Tata has a tie-in with Cummins in India in the form of Tata Cummins. This provides us with the commercial advantage of being able to manufacture the highest quality engines at our own plant.”

The Prima, according to Singh and Kadam, is a global truck put together with Indian knowhow. Moreover, they claim that the range’s high production values are reflected in its performance.

“The efficiency and longevity achieved by Prima trucks are far better than those of their predecessors,” said Kadam.

“This not only equates to a saving on the initial investment, but also in terms of spare parts. Don’t forget that these components are between 30% and 40% cheaper than those required for European trucks. The fuel economy of the range is also impressive. Prima trucks offer value for money across multiple areas.”

Speaking about the models’ suitability for the Middle East, Singh commented: “In this region, fleet owners need powerful vehicles capable of carrying heavy loads over long distances.

With this in mind, the trucks also have to be comfortable. Delivering to the farthest reaches of Saudi Arabia, for example, can take 15 to 20 days from the UAE. Under these circumstances, the truck becomes the home of the driver, so we have done our best to make it more comfortable in order to lower his fatigue levels.”

Before introducing the first Prima 4x2 tractor heads to the UAE market, Tata conducted over 200,000km of tests in Qatar to ensure that the truck was capable of coping with the Middle East’s challenging operating conditions. As with any new range, it’s difficult to comment on reliability, but I was given an opportunity to inspect the Prima 4x2 up close.

Although I cannot whole-heartedly say that the quality of finish is exactly comparable to that offered by the major European manufacturers, I was genuinely – and pleasantly – surprised by the standard to which the Prima 4x2 has been built. With its clean lines and streamlined finish, the exterior of the cab is definitely more stylish than the manufacturer’s previous models.

The interior certainly didn’t disappoint either; the driver’s seat is comfortable, the lines of site are broad, and the controls are both sturdy and easy to access. Neither was the experience claustrophobic; the two-berth cabin seemed perfectly equipped to accommodate a pair of drivers on a long-haul journey.

In January 2014, UAE-headquartered logistics firm Prime Link became the first outfit in the Middle East to start running a cohort of Prima 4x2 tractor heads. With more than six months of action under their collective belt, I spoke to Jaideep Surendra, managing director of Prime Link, to find out about the day-to-day performance of the trucks.

“We have purchased Tata Daewoo models in the past,” he told me. “Those particular vehicles were built in Korea; they were very good trucks. However, the Prima truck has some pretty good technology.

The engine, for example, is Cummins, and the vehicle is built to a very high spec. Tata also outlined the improvements that have been made in terms of fuel efficiency, and of course, the price was good. This model is a lot cheaper than one from Scania or Mercedes, for instance.

“Because of the market, we sometimes buy older trucks. To be honest, we haven’t bought any new trucks from Mercedes or Volvo; we tend to opt for used vehicles that are between 10 and 15 years old. However, a truck of 10 years might come with certain reliability or performance issues,” the Prime Link boss explained.

Opting to buy new from Tata has enabled Surendra to avoid reliability issues associated with second-hand vehicles, whilst keeping his overheads down.

“The Prima trucks are in line with what we were expecting,” he said.

“They are about the same as a Mercedes or a Volvo truck. In terms of fuel efficiency, there are slight improvements over the previous models purchased from Tata Motors. In terms of reliability, it’s hard to say because we’ve only had the Primas for six months. However, Tata vehicles – mechanically – are fine. We had some issues in relation to bodywork, but they have been resolved by Tata.”

To be compared favourably with the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and Scania is high praise indeed for Singh and his colleagues. However, when it comes to a truck’s true value, nothing speaks louder than cold, hard sales.

Fortunately for Tata, Prime Link’s Prima 4x2 tractors have impressed. Surendra, whose fleet already includes 16 of the models, has placed an order for 10 more. Selling 26 trucks to one customer in the space of a year is impressive by anybody’s standards.

“We have tried to source the best components from across the industry, and at a very good price. We think that these are the ingredients for a successful product. The Prima trucks currently working in the Middle East are achieving very good results. This is a strong indication that we have manufactured a product that the market needs,” Singh concluded.

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