The Tata Ace was first introduced in 2005 as an upgrade replacement to the three-wheeled auto-rickshaws common in India as well as other countries in Asia. Since then, its market has grown to over 20 countries, including the Philippines just last year. And it’s here that the Ace chassis was first fitted with those all-metal jeepney-style rear bodies that turn it into a multi-cab contender.

Bigger than it looks

The most striking thing about the Tata Ace Bata micro-truck, particularly its jeepney-style variant, is its size. Photos that show only the vehicle make it appear as if it’s as small as the Daihatsu and Suzuki-based multi-cab renditions that ply the city’s streets.IMG20150531144630It isn’t, it’s perceptibly bigger with dimensions that are between those of kei trucks  and of popular Mitsubishi L300 FB’s with rear passenger bodies. And the Ace’s size is doubly impressive considering it’s powered by the Tata 275 IDI NA engine–a 702cc 2-cylinder diesel, naturally aspirated and with simple indirect injection, that delivers peak torque and power of just 16hp at 3200rpm and 27.6lb-ft at 2000rpm, respectively.

Sixteen horses

Can the Ace that has a maximum laden weight of more than a ton and a half really move with just a 16hp putter? Yes, apparently so, and it gets things done with deep ratios on its GBS G65-4/6.31 4-speed manual transmission with reduction rates from 6 to 45% more than on other, more conventional diesel engine gearboxes.

Gear Ratios (1: x.xxx)
Mitsubishi L300 Tata Ace
1st 4.330 6.310
2nd 2.355 3.150
3rd 1.509 1.600
4th 1.000 1.000
5th 0.827 n.a.
Reverse 4.142 5.080

The engine tops out quickly—you’d have to be patient, investing time instead of throttle—but yes, the Ace can crawl up to its 60km/h top speed in about a minute or so, though only on level ground and not on an uphill slope, not even a slight one. Even with a heavy load on board, you can roll-out with little throttle. Then, bringing it up to 50% throttle (with the gas pedal depressed halfway down) would quickly see you reaching 10km/h and needing to shift into 2nd gear. Things happen fast at low speed, you’d often find yourself needing to shift in mid-turn if you’re rolling out into a u-turn.

IMG20150603145409If you’re on level ground, you’d stay in 2nd gear for just a few shakes, just until you reach 25km/h when the mounting revs would tell you its time to shift to 3rd. Reaching 3rd is when you’d settle in and wait half a minute or more for about 75% throttle (yes, this would be the time for a little more gas) to get you up to just under 50km/h. That’s when you’d finally shift into 4th and settle in again, though having to wait less time for the speedometer to reach 60km/h and, yes, even beyond. Opening up the throttle and pushing the pedal to its stops in 4th won’t make the engine revs sound much different but it can accelerate you enough to reach 70km/h on the speedometer, although that’s with you and just one passenger on board, and on flat ground … though I wouldn’t recommend it, more on this later.

If, while accelerating, an otherwise imperceptible uphill grade makes it difficult to reach 50km/h (which happened to me on several occasions in the city), what do you do? Simply stay in 3rd, of course. In fact, even if it’s a noticeable but still gentle slope, expect to remain or go back down to 2nd.   And, in turn, taking a slope in 2nd gear is likely only if you approach it while you’re already in that gear. So, you’re best friends in hilly terrain are momentum and that 2nd gear.

When going up a slope from a dead stop, plan on staying in 1st gear until you get to the top. Although the Ace can certainly roll out on grades of as much as 22% (around 12 degrees from horizontal), red-lining the engine won’t ever get you fast enough to shift into 2nd.   So, if you have to stop on a climb and go back to 1st, be patient and stay there until you reach the top where you can regain momentum.

Fuel economy of a sub-compact

The 702cc 2-cylinder Tata 275 IDI NA diesel (as seen through the trapdoor under the driver's seat)
The 702cc 2-cylinder Tata 275 IDI NA diesel (as seen through the trapdoor under the driver’s seat)

Why put up with a low powered diesel engine in the first place? Well, because it is a small diesel, and it promises better economy.  The 702cc diesel definitely delivers:  an online customer survey site shows crowd-sourced numbers of 18.4km/l in the city and 20.4km/l on the highway.  The figures are consistent with the 20km/l that the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) certifies as best mileage on the Tata Ace.

On my test drive, fuel consumption for 100km traveled in the city was 17km/l, and this with frequent heavy loads and bumper-to-bumper traffic. And, that 17km/l I measured is predictably lower than previous measurements because of the fact that the Ace variant I drove puts the biggest passenger/cargo carrying body on the chassis, bigger than they’ve done in any other market before coming here.

Ace jeepney

The “jeepney-style” Ace I tested had a utility passenger body fabricated by popular truck-body builder, Centro. Typical Centro construction sees it with heavy gauge steel all around—in fact, it sounded thicker (when I plinked it with my knuckles) than the already thick steel of the India-original cab. Based on published weights for the other vehicles on which Centro constructs this type of body (namely the Mitsubishi L300 PET passenger/cargo body), I estimate that it puts an additional 250kg on top of the 750kg of the Ace’s cab and chassis, bringing its empty weight to 1000kg, a full metric ton.  (In comparison, the drop-side flatbed configuration of the Ace adds just 65kg to the base 750kg for a significantly lighter curb weight of 815kg.)IMG20150531144658

Tata Ace Magic passenger variant
Tata Ace Magic passenger variant

In itself, the weight of the jeepney-style Ace isn’t groundbreaking. The Ace Magic, Tata’s passenger carrying variant which hasn’t been brought here yet, also weighs a whole ton. However, the Ace Magic with its 1000kg curb weight is configured for the global market just as an 8-seater, while the jeepney-style Philippine Ace offers ample seating space for at least 12 in the back and 2 in the cabin—at 14 seats total, that’s 6 more than the seating capacity of the India-spec passenger-focused Magic.  (See our subsequent and related story, A safari truck in the city: Tata’s Ace Magic variant.)

Based on the up-sized wheels on the jeepney-style Ace (155 tires on 13” rims, instead of the 145 on 12” wheels that’s standard in other markets) and the addition of a full-length leaf spring to the three that are standard for each rear-wheel, I’d estimate that this variant has had its maximum loaded weight up-rated by 200kg, bringing the total to 1750kg with 750kg of that as maximum passenger or cargo payload. However, note that Tata hasn’t gotten around to updating the Ace’s official gross vehicle weight (“up-plating” it, in trade jargon) from the standard 1550kg, and that these up-rated numbers are just my own unofficial estimates.

Managing the load

On my test drive, the most I loaded onto the Ace were seven adults, three kids, and the bushels of veggies we purchased at a popular wet market—a load of 600kg, I’d estimate. This put us at 1600kg, a little over but still within the margins of the official, not yet up-rated, 1550kg max loaded rating.

IMG20150603081223Driving around with this load, I could tell that the Ace could’ve taken on two more adults, bringing total load to the full dozen people that would’ve brought us very close to the up-rated 750kg of payload and 1750kg max loaded weight I’ve estimated. Although that ¾ ton payload would’ve meant longer stints at 2nd gear to get us up to cruise while favoring flatter routes, the modified suspension felt beefy enough to take the added weight … in fact, it might’ve even ridden better with a heavier load.

So, although the jeepney-style Ace offers seating for 14 (2 in front and 12 in back), I’d stay close to Tata’s official recommended weights and routinely load 10 people at most, while knowing that I can bring total load up to 12 when needed, and up to the 14 max capacity when absolutely necessary. And, on loading the vehicle, I’d put the heaviest load as close to the front as possible, to keep the vehicle as stable as it can be on its stiff suspension.

If you have a mixed load of passengers and cargo, have the people slide up on the benches, have them fill up the front-most seats first, and relegate the rear vacant seats and legroom to cargo. This way, the folks would be sitting in the middle of the Ace’s long 2100mm wheelbase. They’d be in the most comfortable spot while their weight effectively increases the stability of the vehicle.

Best when heavy

I mentioned earlier that the jeepney-style Ace can reach 70km/h on its speedometer with just 2 people on board, and that I wouldn’t recommend doing it. The Ace’s vehicle dynamics with an empty rear cabin seems to loosen the steering, gives it some play at relatively high speeds.

IMG20150602133926The rudimentary mechanical steering system is positive enough, doesn’t show any slack, but the stiffened rear suspension makes the back end bounce a lot, a bump not having much effect up front but causing these multiple bounces in the rear that artificially make it weightless at repetitive instants. Factor in that jeepney-style body that necessitated the stiffer suspension in the first place and you have a steel box that has a relatively high center of gravity when it is empty (note that the India-spec Ace Magic passenger variant keeps its center of gravity low by using a fabric roof). You can imagine just how unpredictable all that inertia would be at high speed when the empty steel box goes up, becomes momentarily weightless, and then comes back down with the rear tires again biting into the pavement. Any unevenness in the regained traction of the rear wheels could slightly torque the vehicle right or left. It’s like an airplane doing touch-and-go landings all day long.

The jeepney-style Ace is a versatile configuration, offering all-around metal protection for a large passenger and cargo load, and it’s something that makes this new micro-truck from India a little more familiar on Philippine roads. But this particular configuration which deviates from India-spec variants also, ironically and appropriately, commits it to the jeepney stereotype of being a stop-and-go commuter that you’d only see cruising the highway when it has a full load destined for or coming in from other townships.

Rough-road capable

Looking at the Ace chassis itself, the robust steering mechanism and all-around leaf-spring suspension do work as advertised, giving the micro-truck a credible rough-road capability. I took the jeepney Ace through and beyond LITEX Northeast of Manila, out onto gravel roads that degenerated into rutted tracks, and the micro-truck just kept shrugging off the bumps.IMG20150601110241

IMG20150601112645The driver’s position on the truck’s cab-over layout provides an excellent vantage point, the angle of view making it easy to spot potholes and road ruts either in sunlight or in the headlight wash. The short front overhang kept the truck from digging its nose into sudden slopes, like the ones on the far side of big potholes, while its high 175mm ground clearance kept its transmission and differential clear of mid-line obstacles, particularly those high mounds unearthed by deep ruts on either side.

If you plan on routinely bringing the Ace out on the rough, I’d recommend swapping out the stock tires, at least the rear ones, for wider ones with all-terrain threads (say 165s, 175s if possible). The Ace can handle 22% grades and rough roads, sure, but handling both at the same time puts a premium on traction.

These said, I’d much sooner bring the Ace dropside flatbed variant up on rough roads rather than the jeepney. Not fitted with anti-roll bars, the Ace’s suspension seems to barely cope with the high center-of-gravity of the jeepney body.

Deep wader

The Fleetguard air intake stack (easily visible running up the rear of the the cab on the Ace dropside flatbed variant)
The Fleetguard air intake stack (easily visible running up the rear of the cab on the Ace dropside flatbed variant)

The Ace not being a high-riding pickup truck per se, I couldn’t find any official specification for its maximum wading depth. However, with airways kept high and dry by a Fleetguard system complete with a high intake stack, the Ace’s wading depth is sure to be impressive and limited only by the ground clearance of vulnerable engine components.

The lower edge of the engine’s alternator lies flush with the bottom of the ladder frame which stands about 450mm off the ground with the vehicle carrying a medium to heavy load. So, a conservative estimate, giving about 100mm of margin to keep the alternator dry, puts wading depth at 300mm. This means the Ace has a minimum wading depth that’s at par with that of Tata’s high-riding Xenon pickup!

Sidenote: That 300mm wading depth can even be stretched to 400mm if you modify the Ace with a plastic spray shield hanging under the cab on a frame cross-member about 10cm in front of the engine. The spray shield’s function would be to divert waves created by the vehicle’s movement through water. A 400mm depth would leave just about one-fourth of the tires’ height visible above the waterline.

Bottom line

In India, the Ace has joined and now dominates the collection of small vehicles known as “Chota Haathi” or Little Elephants. Now, the Ace’s brand of putting impressive payloads on a diminutive transport has evolved further and undergoes a new round of trials as a jeepney that could seat more people than it ever has in any other market. Here, the Little Elephant is getting bigger, and it’s entering the market in herds.

Because of (and despite) its diminutive diesel, its impressive payload, and its apparent resilience in flood conditions, over a hundred units of the Ace jeepney have already been acquired by Davao to serve as the city’s emergency response fleet. With a sticker price of P420,000 a unit that puts the city’s first responders on twice the number of vehicles than if high-riding pick-up trucks had been acquired, the Davao city government can certainly brandish its Ace jeepney acquisitions as being of smart value, and volume.IMG20150601112656

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